By: Greg Mitchell
It was the e-mail read ’round the world. Nearly four years ago in September 2004, Farnaz Fassihi ? an Iranian-American correspondent in Iraq for The Wall Street Journal ? sent a brutally frank, private e-mail to friends that somehow leaked out to fellow journalists and various bloggers, who posted much of its contents on numerous Web sites (including E&P Online). “Iraq remains a disaster,” she wrote, and that was just for starters. It was not widely known until the e-mail, for example, that, as Fassihi revealed, foreign correspondents in Baghdad were “under virtual house arrest.”
She described the hardship of the forgotten Iraqi citizens caught in the middle of “a raging, barbaric guerilla war,” and lamented countless abductions, including that of her friend Georges, “the French journalist snatched on the road to Najaf.”
It caused a sensation. Some readers charged the U.S. media with keeping the true nature of horrid conditions in Iraq from them ? was it suitable only for airing to friends? ? while others charged that Fassihi, based on the e-mail, must be providing the Journal with “biased” reporting.
Fassihi’s editors stuck by her. She remained on assignment in Iraq for another full year ? and, coincidentally or not, the tone of a lot of reporting from Iraq by others did start to focus more on average people as conditions, for many months, went from bad to worse.
Now Fassihi has penned a memoir, Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq, to be published in September by Public Affairs. She is now deputy bureau chief of the Middle East and Africa for the Wall Street Journal and is currently based in Lebanon, she told me in a recent, non-controversial, e-mail. Growing up in Tehran, she experienced the Iran-Iraq war quite directly, when Saddam’s war planes dropped bombs nearby. Her family soon moved to Portland, Ore. After working for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and The Providence (R.I.) Journal, Fassihi joined the WSJ in 2003 and was soon sent to Iraq.
In the forthcoming book, Fassihi revisits that famous e-mail only briefly, in the foreword, recalling that after it was passed around the globe, it even showed up as the subject of a “Doonesbury” cartoon. Because she was writing friends, “I spoke freely, without the restraints of daily journalists that obliged me to be distant and objective,” and this moved readers the way her newspaper pieces rarely did. “The reaction overwhelmed me,” she writes. “From Australia to South Africa, the e-mail was published in local newspapers, and strangers wrote to me asking, ‘Is it really that bad in Iraq? We had no idea.’
“I have written this book in the same spirit as I wrote that e-mail,” she declares. The e-mail is printed in full at the book’s end.
In the foreword, Fassihi promises that the book offers a look at what it was like to be a young, female reporter covering this war. It does all of that and more, chronicling her day-to-day life, friendships, dangerous assignments and disappointments, from her early arrival to her departure in December 2005. The title of one section says a lot: “If They See Me With You, They’ll Kill Me.”
Along the way we meet a large cast of Iraqis ? Jabbar, Haqqi, and others ? some of whom worked for the Journal or Newsweek in translating or transporting jobs. Fassihi later chronicles what happened to many of them, in this way exposing the mass disruptions in all of Iraq. Besides the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died, some four million (about 14% of the population) have had to flee their homes, with half leaving the country altogether. Some of Fassihi’s former friends in Iraq have vanished, leaving no trace of their whereabouts.
In the afterword, written in May 2008, she says that violence has declined after 18 months of the “surge,” but notes: “Five years have passed since the United States led a military invasion into Iraq and George Bush declared a mission accomplished. But America’s proposed goals remain elusive: Iraq’s fragile stability hinges on deals brokered with Sunnis and Shiites. Iraqis caught in the midst of open-ended war struggle to survive.” Her final words: “I keep asking myself: What justifies the enormous costs of this war and the wounds it has inflicted? I am at a loss for an answer. This is the story of war.”
Greg Mitchell’s new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq,” includes a chapter on the 2004 reaction to the Fassihi email.