[ Saalouk #1: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ] 'You don't get extra credit for being an Iraqi'

During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, as do many journalists today, there were others who refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were called the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles Arab journalists who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #1' is writer/photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, probably the most successful journalist to have come out of Iraq.
Listen to the interview: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

Bagdad, Iraq. Local Sunni militia interrogate a Qaida suspect. © Gaith Abdul-Ahad
Baghdad, Iraq. Local Sunni militia interrogate an Al-Qa'eda suspect. © Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

By Jackson Allers in Beirut

He is one of the few Iraqis to have benefited from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Under Saddam, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was a draft dodger. Unable to get a job or to finish his architecture studies, unsuccessful in smuggling himself out of the country, he was pretty much a non-person in those days. "Under Saddam", he said in a 2004 interview, "I felt as if I was unable to control my own fate. We Iraqis had no options except to stay put and vegetate."

The war changed all that, although the architecture option was quickly abandoned. In the chaotic days of post-invasion Baghdad, Abdul-Ahad got a job as a translator with The New York Times, where he discovered what had probably always been his true calling: journalism.

The world seemed to think so too. In a very short period of time, Abdul-Ahad moved up from a mere translator to a writer and photographer, working for The Guardian, The New York Times, Getty Images, and Reuters. He became one of the first - and still one of the very few Iraqis - to get recognition as a journalist in his own name (and not just an anonymous Iraqi 'fixer' who takes all the risks but gets none of the glory).

Today, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, 32, is based in Beirut but he still travels to Iraq on a regular basis. Among his colleagues, he is sometimes referred to as "the perforated Iraqi" because of the numerous times he has been wounded in action in Iraq, and more recently during the fighting at the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.

For his work, he has been twice shortlisted for the British Press Awards Foreign Correspondent of the Year. In 2007, he was given the Martha Gellhorn Award for what the jury described as his "vivid, humane, independent and brave" reporting from Iraq.

There was also recognition of another kind when the London Review of Books recently asked him to travel to Iran. For Abdul-Ahad, it meant he had come full-circle: he was being recognized as a journalist, and not just as an Iraqi journalist.

MENASSAT.COM caught up with Abdul-Ahad in Beirut.

MENASSAT.COM: How should we introduce you?

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD:  "Just say: A Guardian photographer/writer based in Lebanon and covering the Middle East."

One of the main questions we want to ask is with regard to your being an Iraqi who is covering things in Iraq for international media. Is there a difference in perspective that you bring to the table when you're competing in the international arena as an Iraqi journalist?

"I hope not. I think there is one kind of journalist. I don't believe in this whole division between local journalists and foreigners. In theory, we should all have the  same understanding of the stories. I always give the example of my two biggest heroes: Ryszard Kapuscinski who was Polish and covered Africa and Latin America, and Martha Gellhorn, who was American and who covered all sorts of wars in different places.

"Now, I think it all depends on access, and the way you understand the story. Yes, I am privileged because I speak the language. I understand the way people talk. I understand what they mean. I can, let's say, decipher the cultural codes. So that really helps me in covering the story, and that gives me great access for getting into the depth of the story. 

"That doesn't mean that I am the only one who does these things. There are a lot of journalists doing these things. Again it all depends on your access and understanding, and I can give you many examples of great Western journalists who go to the Middle East and do fantastic work.

"Then you see the other example of journalists who go to various parts of the world – could be the Middle East or Africa –, and they bring with them their own cultural baggage and their own cultural codes and they try to analyze a story based on these things. And I think that's the biggest mistake. 

"I think rule number one is that you go to a place and you try to learn. 

["In any case,] the concept of being local, especially now in the Middle East, is so tiny. It has become so fragmented. So it's not enough to be Iraqi to cover Iraq properly. At the moment in Iraq, it's fragmenting. There's a civil war. It's not enough just to be from Baghdad. You have to be from a specific neighborhood or belong to a specific sect to get into that story. That's if you want to talk about the concept of local. 

"From Baghdad, you cannot go to Basra and be considered an Iraqi and then do the story because it's a different place/thing. Again, coming from Iraq and going to Syria, you will always be considered a foreigner or a stranger almost to the same extent than if you are American or British.

"The way i see it, you don't get extra credit because you understand the people, or because you understand the language. It's not necessarily a positive thing to be coming from a certain region if you're covering that region. [...] And I don't think that the best people covering the Middle East are [necessarily] from the Middle East."

Of course, sectarianism has become much more pronounced in Iraq as occupation has dragged on. Do you feel like there was ever a point where it was less of an issue in Iraq whether someone was Sunni or Shia or whatever?

"Of course. It was a totally different [situation.] Most of Baghdad – except for a few old neighborhoods – was built in the 60's and 70's, and these new neighborhoods had no specific [sectarian] character. So Iskahn was not much different from Monsour was not much different from the east of Baghdad.

"At this moment, Baghdad has been cantonized into 25 or 30 different neighborhoods – each with its own [sectarian] character – and they are ruled by specific groups of gunmen, militias. Fighting against Americans, working with Americans, funded by the Americans, funded by the government. To travel from one side of Baghdad to another is like traveling from one country to another. The last time I was there..."

Which was when?

"In September and October 2007. I was moving from west Baghdad to east Baghdad, it was such a trip.  You know, you have to change [even] the way you dress, your accent, the words that you use. [For instance,] in Sunni West Baghdad, you say 'ya ukhi' for 'my brother', whereas  in the eastern side you would say 'mulai.' It's a different story. It's a different country."

Is there a moment in time that you can point to when conditions fundamentally changed? Where perhaps the advantage you had as an Iraqi in terms of freedom of movement was lost?

"I think 2004 was the changing point for the insurgency. Until 2004, everyone was able to move around, foreigners and Iraqi's alike. Being a journalist in Iraq was no big thing then. 

"The point is that it doesn't give you fantastic protection to be an Iraqi in Iraq. Because the moment you're identified as a journalist – whether you're Chinese, American or Iraqi - you will be dead. Or, you'll be kidnapped.

"There are differences, of course. If you are an Iraqi journalist, you will be killed because no one will pay for you. If you are a foreign journalist, you'll be kidnapped because [you are worth] two to four million euros, depending on which country you com from.

"So again, you are not immune to danger because you're Iraqi or you have a beard. If you're a journalist, it doesn't matter where you are from or whether you're Sunni or Shia, American or Iraqi. No one likes journalists these days."

We can peg this to the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2007 report: the highest number of journalists killed since 1994, sixty-four in all, and roughly half of those were Iraqi. How do you deal with you own safety issues?

"First, journalists are getting killed in Iraq because there is nothing like a free press in Iraq. There is no freedom of movement for journalists. There is no respect for journalists. Not from the militias, not from the insurgents, not from the government, not from the Americans. No one respects the journalists.

"It's almost like it was under Saddam. Why would you let free journalists roam around and expose government corruption?

"So it's a typical situation of corruption. Add to that the violence or that you can always blame any killing on 'the terrorists.' So this is why you have such a high number of Iraqi journalists killed. 

"Also, whereas foreigners in Iraq stay in protected hotels or compounds, the Iraqi journalists at the end of the day have to go home to their neighborhoods, and this is how they are killed. 

"Of course when I'm working in Iraq, the security consideration takes up at least 80-90 percent of my time, energy and effort. It's the most important thing when you work in Iraq."

Expand that to the idea that you're also working in war zones in other areas.

"It's different in Iraq. When you cover a war, that's the risk you take: fighting, bullets, explosions, bombs... You try to keep your distance from that. Sometimes you miscalculate, you get to close to it and you and get injured. But that's the risk of being – whatever they're calling it now – a war journalist.

"But when you're in Iraq, the risk is different. The risk is not only from bombs and explosions and bullets and fights in the streets. The risk is mainly from somewhere unseen, at the end of the next street. At the next checkpoint. You can't trust anyone. That's the main difference between, say, the war in south Lebanon and covering any normal story in the streets of Baghdad these days.

"Who will come and kidnap you? What is the next checkpoint? How to you identify that? How do you protect yourself and hide your identity?"

Do you find it a relief then to cover events in Lebanon between stints in Iraq?

"Lebanon is very different. Although sometimes this disappears, like in Nahr Al-Bared, there was this HUGE anti-journalist sentiment! Real anger towards the press in general."

Coming from whom?

"From different sides of the story, but mainly from the villages around Nahr al Bared. We've seen many Al-Arabiya or Al-Jazeera journalists being beaten up, even from the security forces in the streets. 

"I think it was Robert Fisk who said that you realize when someone or a government is losing a battle because they don't tolerate journalists any more.

"But, in general, Lebanon is different. There is a general understanding and respect for journalists. [Of course,] there is this whole sectarian thing. So if you are a journalist working for a particular outlet that belongs with one party, you can't function in the other areas, which also happened during the war with Israel in South Lebanon in July 2006. 

"But people in Lebanon tolerate journalists more than in any other place in the region. Because here you have newspapers that have been publishing or the last 150 years. Half of them are sort of semi-independent and others are not.

"In Iraq, the media has always been perceived as a mouthpiece for Saddam Hussein's regime. [in 2003], there was the feeling that there is a free press and a foreign press presence. Then there was the huge scandal about the Americans paying local newspapers to put out positive news stories. And suddenly, the feeling that the press is a mouthpiece for the government is back. So there is less respect, appreciation and tolerance towards journalists."

There is a proliferation going on in the Arab media world with so many satellite channels going up. Without going into the quality of it, do you see that the rise of new Arab media gives some sense of hope for there to be at least plurality, that there can be more of a western-style concept of what constitutes news?

"First, I object to the use of 'western style' media because it presumes one side is better than another. 

"The second thing is that it doesn't matter how many TV outlets there are. It doesn't matter how many channels. The objective is to have proper media outlets, independent ones that are not funded by one group or another, one country or the other, that are not perceived as propaganda outlets for one side or another.

"The most important thing is to have the values of independent free journalism."

That's what I'm referring to.

"Yeah, but look at how many TV channels you have in the Middle East at the moment, and how many of them can you trust as that one independent, free voice that you can listen to and trust whatever they're saying. I think very, very few fall into that category.

"The important thing is to have the values of free speech in the Arab world. Which is ten times more important than funding TV channels in each country, for each political party, each group to have their own network.

"Do I have hope? I don't know. It's a long process. The process didn't start with having these TV networks. It happened almost two hundred years ago with the founding of the first Arab newspaper.

There is very little communication going on about perceptions of media in the Arab world and reporting and perceptions of media and reporting in the West. That dialogue doesn't really happen.

"I think it does."

Well, I think the west has an incredible misperception of whether or not there is non-partisan good journalism occurring in the Arab world.

"I disagree. I'm an Iraqi journalist writing for The Guardian. I've been writing for them for the last four years. I've written for The Washington Post. I've contributed to many other publications."

You think there is a dialogue going on then?

"What's a dialogue? Like a conference or something?"

Let's say the media in the West don't have to defend themselves in the same way as Arab media.

"But they do! Look at Fox News. They have to defend themselves 24 hours a day. The western media has attacked them more than they have the Arab media or the Muslim media or whatever you want to call it. They do have to justify their journalistic attitude. Look at The Guardian; the right for so long has attacked it. So this attack and counter-attack is very important, and it does exist in the West as it does here in the Arab world.

"Of course, it's more difficult to convince a western audience that this or that Arab news channel is an independent news channel, except that they're reporting from the other side. And yes, they get attacked and called a 'mouthpiece for the terrorists.' But that's your job! And the western media have been labeled similarly [in the Arab world.]

"So I kind of disagree with you. Look at what Al Jazeera has achieved in the last ten years. It has become a name in the media market. Whether you like it or dislike it, it's there."

The penetration of what you're talking about is where there might be disagreement. What you 're describing is known to only a select group of people that are having this discussion at a level that doesn't penetrate to the general populace.

"Well, I don't see this supposed total lack of communication between the west and the Arab world. Look at Salam Pax! [Salam Pax is an Iraqi blogger who rose to fame in 2003. He is also a friend of Abdul-Ahad's, Ed.] He was a nobody. No one knew what or who was Salam Pax. He could have been an Iraqi intelligence agent. He could have been a CIA officer sitting there writing a blog. But look at the audience. The audience accepted him. Why? Because they felt he was honest. Because they felt he was an honest human being. [The same goes for] Riverbend and all the other Iraqi bloggers and journalists. 

"But, I mean, of course there is a huge gap! Of course there is, for God's sake. I mean look at how people look at Iraq or Iran or Palestine, like everybody there is a terrorist, like anyone with a beard is labeled as a terrorist at the moment.

"So there is this huge cultural misunderstanding, yes. But, I don't think there is in general an attitude towards 'you' because you come from that part of the world. And, I don't think that if you can convince your audience – be it through film, pictures or text – that what you're doing is good, that people will have some sort of prejudice about you just because you come from that part of the world.

"I know I'm sounding a bit idealistic. And I know I'm being a bit optimistic. I know the reality is much different. That lots of people are getting oppressed. It is of course ten times more difficult for you when you come from the Middle East when you want to write for a western media outlet, because you don't have the cultural education. You definitely have linguistic gaps, and you have to re-educate yourself to write in a foreign language.

"But what I'm trying to say is that, in general, things are not that gloomy."

How do you feel about press freedom in the Arab world in general?

"I think one of the most amazing places I have traveled to was Yemen. In Sana'a, journalists are lacking everything - resources, funding... -, but despite all this still gather around to have these vibrant discussions, and they have fantastic newspapers. That is one place that I really loved , and where I felt true journalism, the one we've read about in books, truly exists."