Most of the accounts of the Iraq War so far have been, to use the term the war made famous, embedded in one way or another: many officially so with American troops, most others limited--by mobility, interest, or understanding--to the American experience of the conflict. In Night Draws Near
, Washington Post
reporter Anthony Shadid writes about a side of the war that Americans have heard little about. His beat, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, is the territory outside the barricaded, air-conditioned Green Zone: the Iraqi streets and, more often, the apartments and houses, darkened by blackouts and shaken by explosions, where most Iraqis wait out Saddam, the invasion, and three nearly unbroken decades of war.
Shadid is Lebanese American, born in Oklahoma, and he has a fluency in Arabic and an understanding of Arab culture that give him a rare access to and a great empathy for the people whose stories he tells. Beginning in the days leading up to the American invasion and closing with an epilogue on the January 2005 elections, he talks with Iraqis from a wide range of stations, from educated Baghdad professionals who look back on the country's golden days in the 1970s to a sullen, terrified group of Iraqi policemen in the Sunni Triangle, shunned as collaborators for taking jobs with the Americans to feed their families. (Perhaps his most telling and characteristic moment is when he trails behind an American patrol, recording the often hostile Iraqi comments that the soldiers themselves can't understand.) He takes the ground view and gives his witnesses the particularity they deserve, but the various voices share an exhaustion with a country that has seen nothing but war for 30 years and a frustration with a liberator that has not fulfilled its promises of prosperity and order. It's a despairing but eye-opening account, told with an understanding of the Iraqi people--hospitable, proud, and often desperate--that, were it more common, might have led to a different outcome than the one he describes. --Tom Nissley
Questions for Anthony Shadid
Anthony Shadid won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis during wartime. His new book, Night Draws Near, tells the story of the runup to the war, the invasion, and its uncertain aftermath through the Iraqi eyes. He took a few moments from a busy week reporting on the Sharm el-Sheik bombings to answer some questions about his book.
Amazon.com: Where are you now? What sort of mobility do you have when you are in Baghdad? Have you been able to get back in contact with the people you follow in the book?
Anthony Shadid: I'm in Cairo right now and heading for Beirut, where The Washington Post has its Middle East bureau. From there, I'll head back to Baghdad. Getting around that city has become the most difficult aspect of reporting there. In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, reporters had almost unlimited access. We traveled to the Syrian border, Falluja, Samarra, Mosul, all places that are extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to visit now. I do still visit the people that I wrote about in Night Draws Near. At this point, many of them have become friends. I'm reluctant to visit too often, for fear of bringing unwanted attention. But I manage to keep up with their lives and how they're doing, particularly Karima's family.
Amazon.com: You are a Lebanese American, born in Oklahoma, fluent in Arabic, and well-versed in Arab culture. What has that background allowed you to see and understand? To what extent do Iraqis whom you meet see you as American or as Arab?
Shadid: In Iraq, I think I was seen as a little of both. I was always a foreigner, but maybe a foreigner who shared a sense of history, a common background. When references to history were made, to culture and traditions, it was expected that I would understand what was being said. Sometimes it was subtle, but I think my background probably helped foster a degree of trust that's so important to reporting.
Amazon.com: What have Americans, both in Iraq and back home in the U.S., most misunderstood about Iraqis and the situation in their country?
Shadid: My sense is that the biggest misunderstanding was perhaps a lack of appreciation for what preceded the invasion. I think some in the United States saw Iraq as a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which a new country would be built, a democracy that would serve as an example to a region mired in stagnation and authoritarianism. But a lot of what we saw after Saddam's fall was the consequence of what Iraq had already gone though. Not only Saddam, either. There was the war with Iran, one of the longest of the 20th century. There was a decade of sanctions, whose impact I think has always been underappreciated. There was a militarization of the society that made the culture of the gun and the logic of violence dominant in many regions of Iraq. The country that the United States inherited was brutalized, and the aftermath of that decades-long experience will probably define it far more than Saddam's fall, the insurgency, and the hardship that has followed. I guess I'm struck over the past years at how much Iraqis simply yearn for an ordinary life. Little has been ordinary in that country for the past 30 years. I always had the sense in conversations, especially in Baghdad, that people felt they were spectators to a play. They watched as actors read their lines, as the drama unfolded. There's still a sense of being in the audience today.
Amazon.com: What do Iraqis most misunderstand about Americans?
Shadid: I think it's less misunderstanding and more perspective. The sense of distrust of the United States is often powerful, and it colors much of what the Americans do in Iraq. As in much of the Arab world, the United States has inherited a reputation from past decades. Support for Israel, for authoritarian Arab regimes, for Saddam himself during the war with Iran in the 1980s has made many in Iraq and elsewhere suspicious of U.S. intentions. The refrain you hear so often is that the Americans are in Iraq for their own interests, and those interests include domination of the region, Iraq's oil, furthering Israel's interests, and so on. At another level, there's the very question of the U.S. presence. To some, the United States was a liberator. To others, it was an occupier. But to nearly all, it was the strongest actor in the country. That strength automatically creates a relationship of more powerful to less powerful. With a history of colonialism and repression, there was an acute sensitivity to that. American slights were seen as disrespectful, misunderstandings were seen as arrogance, and often, they both were read as the indignity of living under a power that is both alien and foreign.
Amazon.com: Your book closes with an epilogue on the January 2005 elections. What did that moment represent from the Iraqi point of view? Have the hopes of that time persisted at all through the violence that has followed?
Shadid: What struck me most during the election was the sense people in Baghdad had of staking a claim to their own destiny. On that day, Iraqis--not their overlords, not foreigners--were the agents of change; they themselves were deciding their fate. Watching those streets that day, I realized that it was the first time since I had been in Iraq, through dictatorship, war, and occupation, that Iraqis themselves were claiming the right to make their voices heard. It spoke to the trait that I think perhaps best defines Iraq: a stubborn, sometimes breathtaking resilience that drives life forward. To be honest, I think the moment was somewhat short-lived. Since the fall of Saddam, Iraq has been locked in a cycle of moments of optimism, followed by long, depressing months of brutality and dejection. There have been turning points, and Iraqis have often greeted them with hope and optimism. Disillusionment has typically followed. Resilience persists, but not always hope, and it goes back to the idea I mentioned earlier: a sense of watching a play unfold, in which most Iraqis find themselves spectators to forces beyond their control.