x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Everyday people

Books Farnaz Fassihi's new book favours a focus on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis. Bill Spindle applauds her sensitive reporting.

An Iraqi soldier participates in a joint patrol with US Marines through a marketplace in Baghdad's Hayaniyah neighbourhood in July 2008.
An Iraqi soldier participates in a joint patrol with US Marines through a marketplace in Baghdad's Hayaniyah neighbourhood in July 2008.

Farnaz Fassihi's new book eschews broad geopolitical analysis in favour of a focus on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis. Bill Spindle applauds her sensitive reporting.
Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unravelling of Life in Iraq Farnaz Fassihi PublicAffairs Dh108
In one scene in her important new book, Farnaz Fassihi, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, recounts a huge explosion that rocked her house in Baghdad one day in late 2004. It was a time of many bombings in Iraq's capital, but this one hit, literally, too close to home. Fassihi and two other reporters scrambled into their flak jackets and helmets, preparing for the worst: an invasion of their compound by insurgents.

That's when I make my cameo appearance in Fassihi's harrowing account of her three-year stay in Iraq: I'm the editor who calls from New York at precisely this moment with a few questions about a story running that day. I remember her voice wavering only slightly as she answered one or two queries on her satellite phone before interrupting rather politely to inform me I'd called in the middle of bombing; she had to go now.

For four years, I worked closely with Fassihi, who fortunately was not harmed that day. She was one of more than a dozen correspondents I managed in the battlegrounds of the post-September 11 world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and a host of other hot spots. So I'm hardly an unbiased reviewer of her tale, Waiting for An Ordinary Day. But I will say this: even to someone who has painstakingly followed events in Iraq, even to someone who has been there to assess the place first-hand, Fassihi's intimate portrayal of what it was like to be there, especially for Iraqis, manages to be an eye-opener. 

Fassihi largely steers clear of the Washington political machinations and US military blunders that have been the focus of most books on the Iraq war. Her interest lies with Iraqis themselves - the tribal sheikh tugged reluctantly toward the insurgency, the young bride obsessing over security precautions for her wedding, the boy too frightened to attend school lest his parents be kidnapped and killed in his absence, as his uncle was.

Everyday Iraqis are hardly absent from existing accounts of the war, but their stories have (to a remarkable degree) been lost in political and ideological arguments over the invasion and the subsequent battles between the insurgency and US forces. These are the ultimate victims in the war, mostly innocents whose lives have been affected by the invasion and its aftermath as much as by the brutal rein of Saddam Hussein. Thanks to Fassihi's singular focus on their stories, the grand geopolitical context of the war fades into the background; lives take centre stage, revealing a side of the invasion that has until now remain oddly veiled.

Fassihi and her subjects attempt to cope with a country sliding into chaos and threatening to take them all down with it, during an extraordinarily important but largely unexplored period after the invasion but before the recent improvements in security. Though Fassihi doesn't state this explicitly, her book makes it utterly clear that whatever Iraq's future holds - whether the current fragile state of security blossoms into stability or unravels into renewed sectarian slaughter - the nightmare period that followed Saddam's fall left scars on Iraq's collective psyche that will shape the country for years to come.

One of Fassihi's great advantages as a correspondent is her background. Born in Iran and partly raised in the US, she started her reporting with one foot in the Middle East and the other in the west. As a secular-minded Shiite Muslim who has lived for extended periods in Iran's religious hothouse, she has straddled some of the same religious and ethnic divides that torment Iraqi society. Before coming to the Journal, Fassihi worked at Newark's Star-Ledger - close enough to New York that the falling World Trade Center towers could be seen from her office.

After the attacks, her life and career changed course permanently. She was quickly dispatched to Afghanistan, where she covered the first leg of the US government's response to the attacks. She remained in the Middle East as the Bush administration shifted its sights to Iraq, which she visited on a reporting trip prior to the invasion. There she met several Iraqis whose misfortunes she would follow beyond the invasion and into the abyss that Iraq became when she returned after the war. I hired Fassihi in 2003; weeks later she slipped over the Iranian border and into Iraqi Kurdistan a short time before the bombs began falling on Baghdad. 

She showed a penetrating eye for the plight of Iraqis even before the invasion, writing a moving piece on the efforts of a Kurdish emergency response official preparing for the fearful possibility of massive poison gas attacks from Saddam Hussein's military. She covered the US military's sprint to Baghdad as well. But Fassihi came into her own as the Iraq story ripened from what combat correspondents call "the bang-bang" into a human tale of grinding, everyday survival.

Even now, after security has been partially restored, it is difficult to grasp the terrifying sense of free-fall that overcame Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, once the initial wave of shock and euphoria wore off. The downwards swirl of daily affairs, abductions and bombings, arrests and detentions and searing sectarian strife seemed to have no bottom. For a journalist with Fassihi's sensitivities it was at first energising - the story of a lifetime - then agonising and finally simply numbing. She wrote a private e-mail to family and friends during the worst of it that became something of a cause célèbre when, unbeknown to her, it was thrust into the vortex of the internet and circulated around the world. It's blunt assessment shocked many: "The Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities; there are several car bombs going off each day around the country, killing and injuring scores of innocent people; the country's roads are becoming impassable, littered by hundred of land mines and explosive devices designed to kill American soldiers; there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation, basically, means a raging, barbaric guerrilla war."

One of the great virtues of Fassihi's book is the way that she follows the lives of several Iraqis, tracing their paths from before the invasion - or the weeks that followed - through to the present. They vacillate between the new hopes awakened as the crushing weight of Saddam Hussein is lifted and the new fear, anger and despair that filled the vacuum left in the absence of his regime. Iraqis were quick to fall back on their ethnic, religious and tribal identities. At a religious academy in a re-emergent Najaf, the centre of Iraq's Shiite power-structure, a cleric confides to Fassihi that, while the Shia vociferously criticise the US invasion, "among ourselves we say God sent Bush to save us from an oppressor." Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims cannot easily reconcile themselves to their declining fortunes, and their bitterness feeds what soon becomes a relentless insurgency that undermines the traditional structure of society. "My tribe is turning against me," one tribal sheikh in Fallujah, the heart of the growing insurgency, tells her. 

Beneath these extraordinary currents rending the fabric of Iraqi society, Fassihi is always attentive to the pull of the normal, the plight of everyday Iraqis attempting simply to go about their lives amid nearly constant turmoil. We follow the daily routine of a couple who find themselves trapped through no fault of their own inside the high-security Green Zone, stuck in an existence of prolonged bureaucratic wrangling punctuated by terrifying danger whenever a mortar hits or an improvised explosive device batters a checkpoint. We watch an art gallery owner struggle heroically, but in the end unsuccessfully, to rebuild her dream before finally leaving the country.

By the end of Fassihi's stay, any regular daily routine has become impossible. "Iraq has become cruel and unforgivable," she writes. "The stench of death surrounds Baghdad... Iraqis ask themselves every day: Will we survive this trip to the vegetable market? Will my child make it home from school or university? Will my spouse return from work? Or will they die and disappear?" Fassihi goes about her reporting, dodging shootings, bombings and abduction attempts, struggling to maintain a shred of journalistic and emotional distance while recording the unravelling lives of Iraqi acquaintances, many of whom become friends. In the passage that provides the title of her book, she wonders of her subjects: "What are they waiting for?" 

"Perhaps," she concludes, "just for an ordinary day."
Bill Spindle is the Business Editor of The National. bspindle@thenational.ae