Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 222 Pages. $22. From October 2002 until April 2003, Anne Garrels reported from Baghdad for National Public Radio. What follows are excerpts from the book she wrote in diary form about her reporting experiences as one of the few American correspondents to remain in Baghdad during the war in Iraq.
October 22, 2002
Costs of reporting: “Some Western news organizations’ representatives have sat inside the Information Ministry, refraining from covering the [protest march outside], fearing they could jeopardize their Iraqi visas by documenting a so-called ‘unauthorized demonstration.’ They were right. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel that broadcasts across the Arab world, had its videotapes confiscated. A CNN correspondent has been expelled after the network carried the protests live. This is one of the few signs of bravery by CNN, which has curried favor with the Iraqi authorities in order to maintain its substantial presence.
“But is maintaining a presence at the cost of not reporting the whole truth worth it? Tonight there was a raging debate among some journalists at the Al-Rashid [Hotel]. One Italian television correspondent told me, ‘I am here for the big story,’ meaning the war. Reporters have long played a regrettable game, tacitly agreeing not to report on aspects of Iraq for the sake of a visa. Among the issues that are forbidden: the personalities of Saddam and his sons; the fact that he is widely despised and feared; the terror that his regime has instilled.
“CNN and the BBC are seen in real time by Iraqi authorities, who monitor the satellite channels normal Iraqis can’t see. This puts a lot of pressure on them to pull their punches and ‘behave.’ Myself, I don’t see the point in self-censorship. The obvious stories, press conferences, and official statements that are now the fodder for most news organizations can easily be had from outside Iraq. I am here to try to understand how Iraqis see themselves, their government, and the world around them.”
October 23, 2002
Cultural divides among journalists: “There are many cultural divides here, most obviously between reporters and Iraqis who are scared to speak out. But there are also divisions between the various journalists who have come from around the world, each with his or her own national perspective. Though friendships cross national boundaries, journalists tend to hang out with their own. There is, however, another divide, and that’s between print and television. Their demands are different. The way they cover stories is different. And the means at their disposal are distinctly different. Television folk have much more money, relatively large staffs, and big feet, which means they make a lot of noise wherever they go. They seem to live in another realm. As a mere radio correspondent, I fall somewhere in between print and video, and given that I work for National Public Radio, my feet are small.”
November 1, 2002
On being a female reporter interviewing women like Huda al-Neamy: “It’s at moments like this that I revel in being a female reporter, which on balance has been a distinct advantage. Men generally deal with me as a sexless professional, while women open up in ways that they would not with a man. Hard as it was to break into journalism back in the dark ’70’s, and with few role models out there to follow, I have only benefited from my sex, reporting from overseas especially, ironically in societies where women are sequestered. Whether in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, I can walk both sides of the street, talking the talk with male officials while visiting the women’s inner sanctums, which are often off-limits to foreign males. And being an older woman has its advantages, too. I would never have been able to interview a mullah along the Pakistan-Afghan border were he not assured in advance that I was an ‘old woman.’ He tutored the young American muslim John Walker Lindh, who then went to fight for the Taliban until he was captured by U.S. forces. However, I apparently did not look as old as the mullah had anticipated, and on my arrival his aides demanded I wear a burka for the entire interview because ‘he had the natural feelings of a man,’ which he apparently could not control. Enveloped in the burka’s stifling blue nylon pleats and peering through a square of mesh while trying to push buttons on the tape recorder and take notes was not pleasant, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. “As for covering wars, the dangers are basically the same whether you are male or female. Bullets don’t discriminate, and while some of my bosses in the past have expressed concerns about the risk of rape, my response has been that men can be tortured just as badly, if in different ways.”
March 15, 2003
Naked in Baghdad: “Tonight I did what I had to: I broadcast naked in the dark. Rumors swirled again about a late-night sweep for satellite phones. My thinking went this way: if I turn off the light in my room it’s harder to see the antenna on the windowsill and from the corridor there will be no light shining under my door. If someone knocks, I can pretend they have woken me up, beg for a few minutes to get dressed, and then perhaps have enough time to dismantle the phone and hide it. Not a great plan, but the only one I could come up with.
“I laid out a dress that I could slip on in seconds, moved the equipment so it was close to the bed so I could quickly push it under the mattress if I had to, and filed my piece in the buff. Robert Siegel remained in blissful ignorance, and the whole exercise was totally unnecessary as no one came to the door. But they could have, and they still might in the future.”
March 21, 2003
Ambivalence: “I am of many minds about the need and justification for this war. I have seen how brutal Saddam’s regime is, but I am not convinced that he continues to have weapons of mass destruction. The United States has not made a persuasive case, and American diplomatic efforts appear lame. I also worry about the U.S. government’s staying power to do what needs to be done when it is all over. Americans have shown that they have a very short attention span. My ambivalence, however, makes it easier for me to cover the situation, to just listen to what people here say.”
March 22, 2003
Stories that don’t add up: “The command bus tours, announced on short notice, keep us on a very short leash. Late at night the Information Ministry rouses us for another trip. The bus meanders through the city, giving us a glimpse of some of the damage. We pass the smoldering Salam Palace, one of the most fanciful of Saddam’s creations. Surrounding the central dome, which has now been hollowed out, are four huge busts of Saddam dressed as Saladin, the Mesopotamian warrior who took on and defeated the Crusaders.
“Suddenly air raid sirens signal another attack. Being out late at night, at bombing hour, right next to Saddam’s palaces is about as dumb as it gets. I just hope our minders wish to live as much as I do. I swear off any more midnight tours.
“We are taken to four houses that have allegedly been hit by American bombs. Iraqi officials set up generators to illuminate the site. They talk of numerous deaths. But once again the stories don’t quite add up. The officials say the bombs landed at one time; residents say they landed at another. The officials say several were killed and wounded. Residents say the houses were unoccupied. At a second location, it’s the same confusion.
“I gratefully happen into conversation with an Iraqi Russian speaker; translators are nowhere to be found. He provided an elaborate picture of a happy family sitting down to dinner when an American bomb lands, killing them all. Others, who claim to be relatives of the victims, say no one was killed but some were injured. Once again the damage to the house itself is not consistent with a missile or an American bomb. I retrieve a piece of a shell and later show it to Amer [Garrel’s guide]. He says it is from an Iraqi antiaircraft gun.”
March 23, 2003
The few left: “Press conferences are now impromptu affairs held in the lobby of the Information Ministry, the better to flee the building should it be hit, perhaps. Looking around at the reporters who are left in Baghdad I am struck by how few Americans there are. Who would ever have thought it would be pared down to 16, including photographers, with NPR, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books among them? The absence of CNN, Fox and the other large American networks has created an intimacy and a lack of hysteria in the coverage. The perception that television is most important, their money, their sharp elbows, their need for pictures, and their shorthand coverage all tilt the way a story is reported. I have to confess that this is a precious time that will undoubtedly never be repeated. Given what little access I have to outside news (at eight dollars a minute on the satellite phone, I don’t log on for long), I really have no idea what the comparatively large numbers of Spaniards, Greeks, French, British and Italians are producing. I feel as if I am in a cocoon, documenting the small world that I can see.”
April 8, 2003
Palestine Hotel hit by U.S. forces: “While waiting to do a two-way for Morning Edition, my editor, Doug Roberts, keeps me up to date. He tells me that a correspondent from Al Jazeera has just been wounded. Then he tells me the man has died. He was caught in the morning’s battle while broadcasting from the roof of their office building. As I get off the phone, there’s a huge blast that literally throws me from my chair. The hotel shudders. I think another bomb has landed close by and continue typing. The hotel phone rings. It’s Amer. I assume he wants to tell me about an upcoming press conference and I start to mutter that I’m about to go on the air when he interrupts with the words ‘Get out now. Hotel hit.’ … “Most of us immediately assumed an Iraqi irregular, angered by Iraqi setbacks in the war and knowing the hotel housed foreign journalists, had taken a potshot at the building with a shoulder-launched, rocket-propelled grenade. However, a television camera had recorded the turn of a U.S. tank turret, its aim at the hotel, and the subsequent blast. News comes from the hospital: two cameramen have died. Three others remain in the hospital with wounds. …
“At an early briefing at Central Command HQ in Qatar, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks initially says the hotel was targeted after soldiers were fired on from the lobby, which would have been a physical impossibility. Later he tells reporters, ‘I may have misspoken.’ U.S. military officials then say a tank from the 3rd Infantry had fired on the hotel, after reporting that ‘significant’ enemy fire had come from a position in front of the 18-story hotel. The Commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade, which deployed the tank, eventually reports that the crew aimed at the Palestine after seeing enemy ‘binoculars.’ This was the dozens of lenses of TV and still cameras that were trained on the battle. I have to go on the air, but first I call Vint [Garrel’s husband] to let him know I am not one of the victims.”
April 9, 2003
What the cameras did not capture: “The street scenes are nothing like as joyous as the cameras make them out to be. There are plenty of people standing around, numb or shocked at the events. Dr. Sa’ad Jawad, an Iraqi political scientist, watches sadly as the Marines help topple Saddam’s statue, calling the scene humiliating. No fan of Saddam, he nonetheless warns of wounded pride. He acknowledges that now the Americans are here, they must be in full control, but he says their control will quickly be resented.
“When I get back upstairs, Amer confesses that he wept as he watched the scene below. Though he too hated Saddam, he says seeing American troops in Baghdad is more than he can bear. He doesn’t want their help.
“Pulling down statues makes for good television, but as I saw in Moscow in 1991, it doesn’t ultimately signify much. It doesn’t begin to answer the deeper questions. Wiping out the past doesn’t mean coming to terms with it. That’s what Amer is struggling with: Who are the Iraqis? How did they get a Saddam? How did they tolerate the fear Saddam created? And where do they go from here?”
May 10, 2003
Conclusion: “The reasons I stayed have been justified and ignored in ways I had not anticipated. It turns out that Iraqis precisely predicted what would happen, and though many of us working in Baghdad had long reported what Iraqis thought and feared, the Bush administration has apparently heeded little of it. So accurate from the air, its initial reaction to events on the ground has been slow and inept. Iraq is a complicated place, rife with contradictions and divisions that the Iraqis are the first to acknowledge. I hope the United States employs the wits, wisdom, and patience to do what it can to ensure that this war doesn’t spawn another. …”
Excerpted from “Naked in Baghdad” by Anne Garrels, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2003 by Anne Garrels. All rights reserved.