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Farnaz Fassihi on “Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq”

StorySeptember 22, 2008
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It was the email read around the world. Four years ago in September 2004, Farnaz Fassihi, an Iranian American correspondent in Iraq for the Wall Street Journal, sent a private email to family and friends that described the situation in Iraq more sincerely than her published newspaper articles ever could. She wrote, “One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it’s hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral.” She is author of the new book Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It was the email read around the world. Four years ago, in September 2004, Farnaz Fassihi, an Iranian American correspondent in Iraq for the Wall Street Journal, sent a private email to family and friends that described the situation in Iraq more sincerely than her published newspaper articles ever could.

She wrote, “One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it’s hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can’t be put back into a bottle.”

The email somehow leaked out to fellow journalists and various bloggers, who posted it on numerous websites, where it eventually gained a mass audience.

AMY GOODMAN: The email also revealed the perils of reporting from Iraq and how foreign correspondents in Baghdad were “under virtual house arrest.” Fassihi wrote, “I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t.”

That was Farnaz Fassihi writing in 2004. Well, she has just published a book about what life was like in those years following the invasion. It’s called Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq.

Farnaz Fassihi, welcome to Democracy Now!

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you got there before Saddam Hussein fell.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Yes. The first time I went to Iraq was October 2002, when Saddam was still in power, and then, subsequently, in January of 2003, about three-and-a-half months before the US invasion. So, I got to see the before and after of Iraq, basically, before and after the war.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the spiral downward.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: The spiral downward, in some sense, started right after the invasion, and it was partly because the Americans really didn’t have a good post-invasion plan in place, a good political plan in place, to bring all the different factions together — the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds. And, you know, almost immediately, I remember right when Tikrit even fell, a few days after Baghdad fell, there was talks of insurgency, there was talks of jihad and of resisting the American occupiers, and slowly this turned into an organized movement.

And by early 2004, which was the first anniversary of the US-led invasion, we just saw things just slipping down and security falling apart, car bombs everywhere, attacking international organizations like the UN, like the Red Cross, hotels where journalists were staying, kidnappings, random violence and car bombs. And it was just impossible to contain. And that eventually led to civil war by 2006, because the cycle of violence just went on and on and on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the ability of you, as a Western reporter, obviously, to do your job, and as you describe so eloquently in those emails, to what degree were you able to actually even give a picture of what was happening?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: You know, it really depended on the situation. Our security ebbed and flowed with the situation of Iraq. There were times where we just couldn’t go anywhere, and we got creative with reporting, asking our Iraqi staff to go and bring Iraqis to the office or do the reporting for us. And, you know, there were times where I wouldn’t be able to leave the office or the hotel for a few weeks at a time. And there were times where I could go out, but it was always very security-oriented. Everywhere we went, we had to stay for twenty minutes and then rush back and have, you know, travel in an armored car and have bodyguards with you. So it definitely wasn’t an ideal way of reporting, by any means.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe to us ordinary life right after the invasion, which is what your power was.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Ordinary life was turned upside-down immediately after the invasion. For starters, there was the fallout of security, a security vacuum created by the toppling of the regime. There were no police officers, there were no — there was no army, no Iraqi Security Forces, and a lot of looting and mayhem. It was almost as if just crazy people had taken over the streets. So, people were terrified. They didn’t know where to go if their car got stolen or if their house items got looted. There was power outage. There was sewage problems, clean water problems. People were getting killed randomly. So, by no means of the imagination was anything normal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who’s also spent a lot of time in Iraq —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- wrote a piece in this Sunday’s Times, actually, where he describes the enormous changes that have occurred in Iraq, that he was just shocked at how so much has returned to, quote, “normalcy” in the country. And obviously he was tying it to the surge —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and the effect of the surge on everyday life of Iraqis. What’s your sense then, with this more time has passed, of the American role in this occupation and its impact on the Iraqi people?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: The American role has really evolved in this war. You know, it was first that they went in to topple the regime and bring — you know, nation build, build a new nation and bring democracy and emplace a government. And slowly it evolved into what is now, you know, the Americans basically acting as a buffer zone between the Sunnis and the Shias to prevent a civil war from happening. So the goals of this war and the responsibility of the troops really changed as security changed on the ground.

You know, about whether life has returned, it’s definitely gotten better. But what we have to realize is that extreme measures have been taken for life to somewhat return to normal. There are blast wall barriers around neighborhoods in Baghdad separating the Sunnis and the Shias. There’s been natural population movements, where the city is ethnically divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

AMY GOODMAN: The report that just came out of UCLA, saying that the fact that there — that things have somewhat calmed down is not because of the surge, but because of ethnic cleansing.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I think that the fact that the violence came down is because of three reasons. It’s because of the surge, one reason. It’s also because of the Americans putting the Sunni insurgents on the payroll. They’re paying about $300 a month to former insurgents who were killing the troops a few years ago, because they’re now trying to get onboard with the American plan, and also because of the Shia ceasefire. But these things are very fragile. I mean, you could — one of you take one out of the question, and things could fall apart again. I think there was a report yesterday that assassination cells have returned to Baghdad, killing people, so…

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think your email was such a shock to people? There were reporters who were there. You were there yourself, writing for a mainstream paper, for the Wall Street Journal.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: That’s a good question, Amy. I’ve often thought about that. And I think it’s probably because the email was personal, and it didn’t just pile facts on top of each other the way that we do when we’re writing for the paper or for any media organizations. I think the fact that it had some emotion in it, that it kind of wasn’t distant — you know, war is a very emotional, very traumatizing experience to both witness and go through. And I think I had sort of set aside those objective, you know, standards of writing a piece and had really spoken from my heart, and I think that kind of grabbed people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One group that’s rarely talked about much in the war in Iraq are the children of Iraq.


JUAN GONZALEZ: What is your sense, in terms of the everyday life of children in Iraq, has been both the immediate and obviously the long-term consequences to the Iraqi population of children exposed to so much trauma?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I mean, you know, I can give you an example and anecdotes of my book. There’s a chapter that I talk to this family whose mother is Shia and father is Sunni, and they were having a really hard time with their children, who were in elementary school. Their first-grader refused to go to school the first week, because he was afraid that if he goes to school, something bad would happen to his mother or that he would die. When they asked him, “What should we tell the teacher?” he said, “Tell him that the insurgents kidnapped me.”

So this is the mindset of a seven-year-old child, that kidnapping and murder and assassination is just part of the vocabulary. You know, kids were getting teased because they were Sunni or they were Shia. They were dealing with very difficult issues, like, you know, friends’ parents getting killed or getting kidnapped. And I think it has really long-lasting effects. I mean, if you think that the next generation in Iraq lived and grown up in war and mayhem, it’s bound to have some deep psychological scars.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve covered the Intifada. You’ve covered Iraq. You’ve covered Afghanistan. You’re Iranian American. You got your degrees from Tehran University and from Columbia Journalism School. What was it like covering Iraq as an Iranian, Iranian American?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: You know, it was very interesting, because I — you know, my memories of Iraq, my first time that I ever heard the word Iraq was when I was eight years old, and the war started with Iran and Iraq. And I was in Tehran, and they were bombing the city. And everyone said, these are Iraqi warplanes. So, for me to be on the other side of the border was, you know, very personal, but it was also — it gave me some insight, because I knew the culture, I could relate to the people. And they kind of saw me as somebody who could maybe understand them better, because I was from the country next door and could kind of have a better understanding of their traditions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we just have a few seconds, but you’ve also covered Afghanistan.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And as we see the war in Afghanistan spiraling out of control now, your thoughts?

FARNAZ FASSIHI: I think that that’s something that needs to be paid attention to, because that’s where the al-Qaeda cells are located, and it’s unfortunate that, you know, they couldn’t finish what they had started in Afghanistan and bring some sort of a stability before going to Iraq. And I think, as we see now, there may be a redeployment of troops back to Afghanistan. But things are definitely deteriorating very fast there, and it’s very, very dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Farnaz Fassihi has written the book Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq.

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