Two Important Books on Journalists in Iraq

By: Greg Mitchell

Books about Iraq and the war — even a TV series — have arrived in a torrent lately, but two of the most important are only now emerging. They are both, in a sense, about newspapermen, one well known and widely honored, the other not. The first is an American, Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post; the second, an Iraqi named Ahmad Shawkat, founder of a weekly paper in Mosul. One book has been long awaited; the other comes as a surprise.

Shadid, of course, was one of the few journalists who stayed in Baghdad during the final weeks of the buildup to invasion in 2003, when so many others fled. John F. Burns of The New York Times was another, but publishers complain that this guy just won’t pen a memoir about it. Now Shadid, a Pulitzer winner, has done just that. It’s called “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War” (Henry Holt).

Far from simply examining the current conflict, it covers Shadid’s life in the Middle East starting in 1998 (for The Associated Press), then 2002 (The Boston Globe), and finally 2003 to the present (for the Post).

At the start, Shadid poses this question: “How does one cover war from a professional distance when, as someone reporting from a city under siege, one has no distance?” He answers it this way: “Perhaps we simply surrender to the ambiguities … perhaps we simply tell stories.” And he does so with great feeling, his subjects ranging from ordinary citizens to a shrink and an artist. But the book also has bite, as when Shadid admits, after the euphoria of January’s elections have worn off, feelings “of thwarted ambitions, of the failure of occupation, of a grim future inherited by men with guns and the culture they bring.”

Because it will likely draw less attention, I’d like to focus, however, on the new book by Michael Goldfarb, “Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq” (Carroll & Graf).

For nearly 20 years, Goldfarb has worked in public radio, often from London, but since 2001 mainly in the Middle East. In recent years he has won several top awards, including DuPont and Overseas Press Club honors. His book is a tribute to his translator in Iraq, Ahmad Shawkat, who had been imprisoned and tortured under Saddam Hussein. He was a man of letters and a furniture maker who taught anatomy at the University of Mosul. It’s an interesting back story, which Goldfarb details wonderfully in the first two-thirds of the book.

Then, in post-invasion 2003, Shawkat (while still filing brief items for the Los Angeles Times and the BBC) decided to create a training institute called Freedom House and a weekly newspaper, Bilattijah, which means “without direction,” to make good on America’s promise of a new democracy for Iraq. The name of the paper had a double meaning: His country was at a crossroads, and he was an independent editor.

But soon the trouble started. Shawkat had received some seed money from the United States for his paper, and rumors spread that he was nothing but a puppet of the Americans, perhaps for the CIA. Then he started getting death threats after his uncompromising editorials complained about jihadists, unrepentant Baathists, and anti-democratic Islamists, as well as Americans who killed innocent Iraqis.

On Oct. 28, 2003, he was assassinated, shot in the back, on the rooftop of the building that housed his office. The remainder of the book focuses on the hunt for the killers — despite little police cooperation — by the dead man’s daughter, Roaa, with Goldfarb back in London.

Finally, Goldfarb returns to Mosul and learns that he may have unwittingly caused his friend’s death: He had once written for him an all-purpose letter of recommendation which might have led Ahmad, desperate for money, to chat a bit too intimately with some sort of American official.

The murder is never solved, but Goldfarb comes to believe, with Roaa, that it was a Baathist/radical Islamist collaboration, with both parties seeking to squash any pro-democracy movements.

In the end, Goldfarb — a supporter of the U.S. war and caustic critic of Saddam — concludes that the death of his friend is symbolic of the American failure in Iraq, from not preventing the looting after the invasion to the continued inability to provide security to the freed people.

“The Bush administration had lost the country,” he writes. It had “betrayed” his friend “and the thousands” like him. He condemns “the arrogance and stupidity that led Hajji Bush and his advisers to celebrate before the victory was won.” They were “celebrating” as Ahmad’s murderers were planning his death. “The ways in which the Bush administration bungled the postwar period,” Goldfarb writes, angry at the end, “will occupy historians for a century.”

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