Baghdad Bureau Chief Gains Acclaim at Tender Age

By: Joe Strupp Less than two years ago, Hannah Allam was a 25-year-old suburban reporter covering cops and courts for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, her stories often focusing on IRS scofflaws and street-sign vandals. But she had dreams of delving into Middle East reporting, far off in the future. "I thought it would take 10 or 15 years before I would get overseas and do the kind of things that I wanted to do," she admits.

Today, just five years out of college, Allam is not only covering the chaotic Iraq war, she is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder, which demands both dangerous duty and managerial leadership. Overseeing a 16-person staff in the chain's largest non-Washington bureau, she juggles responsibilities that some journalists twice her age might have trouble handling.

But in her short stint at the helm, Allam, who speaks English, Arabic, and French, has earned a reputation for taking the heat, organizing coverage, and offering a human touch to a variety of war-related stories. "She has personal courage, tremendous empathy and just plain good judgment," says John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder, who plucked Allam from Minnesota just over a year ago to head the Baghdad operation. "She is absolutely the most phenomenal young reporter I have met in more than 30 years of this business."

She's had her share of growing pains, however, telling E&P that her biggest regret is not acting on the rumors about Abu Ghraib prison abuse that were swirling months before the story broke. "I did not take some of those claims more seriously," she says. "But you hear a lot of things over here."

In the 18 months since her first Iraq assignment, Allam has been dragged from her room in the middle of the night by Najaf police, spent a night under attack in a shrine, and scored the first Western interview with a major insurgent leader. Three of her closest Iraqi friends have been killed in the past year, and she had to help her translator escape Iraq after three members of the woman's family were executed. One of her journalist colleagues recently sent her an "inspirational" message tinged with "gallows humor," as Allam put it. It read: "Keep your head up ? and on."

But to this rising star, whose family background mixes Oklahoma grit with Middle East traditions, her war assignment is more than a chance to cover one of the top stories in the world. It is also paying homage to her roots and to a culture that she has grown up honoring and investigating. "It is a region that is very dear to my heart ? the customs, the people, the ways," she says. "What amazes me is the resilience of Iraqis."

Her own resilience has drawn praise since taking over the bureau in December 2003, including the 2004 Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. "She allows people space to develop stories and still work together," says Steve Butler, Knight Ridder foreign editor, noting Allam's knack for news management. "She can chew them out when she has to, but also gives them little gifts."

Allam has little time to think about personal relationships other than the litany of new friends, from Jordan to Eqypt, she has made. She was engaged during her first stint in Iraq in mid-2003 to a Moroccan writer she had met in the Twin Cities, but that didn't last. "That was the first casualty of my war assignment," Allam recalls during a cell phone interview from Baghdad in late November. "He didn't like having a wife in a war zone, which I can respect."

For now, her home is the suite she occupies on the top floor of a Baghdad hotel, one of seven rooms that make up the bureau where two KR reporters and 14 other Iraqi staffers, from drivers to stringers, assemble to cover the war. The daily grind begins as early as 7 a.m., with stories often being filed after midnight to meet the Washington, D.C., deadlines ? and the eight-hour time difference. "We tried to have the bureau in my own room for a while," Allam says. "But that did not work with everyone" entering and leaving. "It was like a big 'Melrose Place' in here."

Tales and trials of war

Allam's approach mixes serious hard- news coverage with colorful people pieces that she believes best paint a picture of today's Iraq. Those include her stories on life inside an Iraqi video arcade and on the wave of American soldiers marrying Iraqi women. "I want to show people that most Iraqis are not out attacking Americans," Allam explains.

During one phone interview with E&P, a sudden burst of explosions outside her window draws a bit of nervous laughter but no panic. "That is strange to hear after curfew," she remarks, with a chuckle. "It must just be a mortar."

While refusing to discuss her personal opinion of the war, Allam says seeing so much death and destruction during the past year and a half has made her both sympathetic to the Iraqi peoples' distress and also at times immune to it. "You cannot go to the scene of a grisly car bombing or assassination and not feel something about it," says Allam, whose twin brothers are former Marines who recently served in Iraq. "It has become extraordinarily difficult to make sense of it."

She also longs for home on occasion, especially "when I am sitting somewhere and they are dropping bombs outside the building, I think, 'I could be at a farmer's market somewhere.'"

In an emotional first-person column that received wide distribution and praise in November, Allam offered a detailed assessment of Iraq as being much more dangerous, brutal, and hard to cover since she began her managerial role a year ago. "After one bombing, a young boy shoved a severed hand in my face," she wrote. "Another time, I used a tissue to pick shreds of human flesh off my shoes after covering a car bombing." Gagging, she removed the shoes and shoved them deep into a trash bin.

Her adventure started just two days in-country, in July 2003, when she was thrown in to one of the war's biggest stories with the killing of Saddam Hussein's two sons.

After hearing that a press conference on the slayings was called for 10:30 p.m., just past the strict 10 p.m. curfew, she headed out the door to grab a taxi. Several blocks from the hotel, an Army tank stopped the car and a U.S. soldier dragged her out. "I got an M-16 in my face and kept saying, 'I'm an American, I'm an American'," she says. "It turned out he was from Texas, so we started talking about [University of] Oklahoma and [University of] Texas football. He let us go."

When Allam finally got there, she discovered she'd missed the press conference. Worse yet, she found out it had been covered on television. "I learned to always check CNN or the BBC before heading out," she quips.

A typical day at the bureau

Now, Allam's day begins with a 7 a.m. wake-up, coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast in the hotel's cafeteria. At 9 a.m. the first morning meeting convenes with all bureau staffers in a suite/conference room down the hall, in which Iraqi maps and photos of top Iraqi leaders and insurgents cover the walls. With two televisions on constantly ? one tuned to CNN or the BBC and another on Al Jazeera ? the group encircles a coffee table, with a few sitting on the floor. "It is a real planning huddle," Allam says. "We check on what people are hearing, what are the rumors, the word on the street."

Citing the input of every bureau employee including the drivers, Allam stresses the need to dig for information from any source. "We have gotten a lot of good stories that way," she says. "We find out about new leaflets on the street, power outages in places, and who is being killed." Allam believes many of her Iraqi staffers, who began as "fledgling" helpers, have blossomed into excellent reporters and will remain active after the Western media has moved on.

Immediately following comes a daily safety briefing, in which a security advisor goes over that day's assessment of danger zones, latest battle activity, and potential hazards. Then a safety lesson follows, which Allam instituted to give her people the most up-to-date training on how to avoid or handle close calls and injuries. "Some days it's burns, many days it's bullets," she explains. "There's also evasive driving and learning to check under your car for a bomb without thinking about it." Staffers have also learned how to treat someone else's punctured lung: pierce their chest with a ball point pen.

After morning meetings, the group heads out to cover stories or hit the phones. Allam returns to her room and starts dialing, with daily calls to the police chief, Iraq's interior ministry, the prime minister's office, and U.S. military contacts, among others. "It's like making cop calls on a police beat," she says, adding that several power outages throughout the day are routine along with explosions and gunfire outside.

The bureau's windows are covered with blast film to prevent shattering during a bombing, while a security gate nicknamed "The Cage" has been installed by a British security advisor to wall off the floor from the rest of the hotel. The security expert is known for closing his briefings by declaring, "The threat level just can't get any higher." Those restricted from heading outside run up and down the hotel stairs, in body armor, for exercise.

"We can't get out like we used to, because it is not as safe. When we are rewriting wire copy it doesn't feel like journalism," Allam laments. When the bureau receives word of a car bombing that kills five people, they practically have to sit on their hands: "In the old days, we could hop in the car, head out and get color from the scene."

The first contact with editors in Washington does not occur until 4 p.m. local time when Allam sends the day's story budget. Most are not filed until 10 p.m., and often after midnight. "D.C. may want a different approach to the story, and that can make it even later," she observes. Bureau life is not all deadlines and war dangers, as the group makes time for the occasional celebration dinner or nighttime movie showing ? via black- market DVDs.

Events still draw Allam and others beyond Baghdad when needed. Two of her most harrowing experiences since taking the top post there occurred in August during one week in Najaf. One night she was trapped with several other reporters under fire in the Imam Ali shrine, during which she called her mother by cell phone to say she might soon die. Two nights later, she was awakened in her hotel room by Iraqi police. Along with other journalists in the hotel, she was dragged out and ordered to cover a police chief's press conference where he blamed the group of journalists for the deaths of many of his men. "They handed out pads and pens and ordered us to take notes," Allam says.

No stranger to the culture

Although Allam was only 13 when the first Persian Gulf War occurred, she was better versed in Arab culture than most of the soldiers sent to Iraq.

While she was born in Oklahoma, memories of trips to her father's native Egypt are strong. At 9, she got a full Middle East immersion after the family moved to Saudi Arabia so her father, Awad, who was in the petroleum industry and once worked for Halliburton, could get better job opportunities during the slumping oil economy.

Suddenly she was "in a country where I was covered from head to toe," Allam recalls, adding that she attended an all-girls school that was strictly fundamentalist: "If a girl showed her ankles, they had sticks to hit you with."

That experience lasted until she was 17 and included moves to several other Saudi Arabian schools, as well as a home-schooling stint in the United Arab Emirates. "I had a kind of childhood oblivion," Allam says about her Arab-American mixed family. "We had Christmas and Ramadan." Her parents divorced seven years ago, with her father settling in Egypt. Her mother, Beverly, remained in Oklahoma.

Beverly Allam says her daughter could speak in complete sentences even when she was a 1-year-old. "She could verbalize anything," her mother notes, recalling the time she took the 8-year-old to a woman's group meeting in Saudi Arabia, left briefly, and returned to find the child leading a discussion about China's one-child birth limit.

The family moved permanently back to Oklahoma in 1994, where Hannah graduated from a public high school in Oklahoma City, then attended the University of Oklahoma, majoring in journalism and taking the campus paper by storm. "We had a couple of murders on campus, a minor race riot and took ourselves extremely seriously," recalls Allam, who served as editor her senior year and helped the student publication break the story of Anita Hill's resignation. "I remember skipping a chemistry test to work on [the Hill story]. I did very badly in that class, but my heart was not in it."

Jack Willis, a University of Oklahoma journalism professor and newspaper advisor, remembers Allam penning articles on the sociology of light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks on campus, and on the university's few tenured black professors. "They were real enterprise pieces," he says. "She also broadened the paper's access to many groups on campus as editor." In addition, college marked Allam's first involvement with NABJ as an activist in a student chapter.

After graduating in 1999, the future bureau chief landed an internship at The Washington Post, covering everything from Hurricane Floyd to the local gay pride parade. "Internships are really throwing people into the water, and she was one who could swim," observes Tom Lansworth, the Post's Southern Maryland bureau chief. When John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed, Allam found herself camped outside Sen. Ted Kennedy's D.C. home hoping for a comment, but he never appeared. She joined Knight Ridder's Pioneer Press in early 2000.

Getting her feet wet

Allam got her first taste of Iraq coverage in July 2003 as one of many staffers chosen from among Knight Ridder's daily news ranks for a temporary spin through the postwar mess. During her previous two- and-a-half years in St. Paul, the Muslim reporter had, among many other assignments, covered how locals were gathering at Arab coffee shops and markets to watch war coverage on Al Jazeera. "She really helped our readers tune in to the Middle East," notes Martin Melendy, Pioneer Press deputy metro editor.

Melendy recalls Allam's part in the paper's first anniversary coverage of the September 11 attacks, in which reporters looked at the local ties of Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" who had gone through flight training in Minnesota. It turned out Allam's parents had been members of Moussaoui's former mosque in Oklahoma. "She played a key role in that coverage and that really set the stage for her [to go to Iraq]," Melendy says.

While she missed the initial Knight Ridder call for embedded reporters in January 2003, she made it clear to editors that she was ready to serve. "I said, 'Me, me, send me,'" she says. That opportunity came again six months later when a second wave of Knight Ridder reporters was rotated in, including Allam, who landed in the Middle East in July 2003 and stayed in Baghdad for three months. Her first day was hardly a welcoming event as she traveled with a caravan for 10 hours from Jordan to Baghdad with overturned tanks, bloody clothing, and rumors of bandits highlighting her trip. "I was already terrified," she recalls, but "it was thrilling."

As that first rotation went on, "she really took to it," recalls Ken Dilanian, a Rome correspondent for Knight Ridder's Philadelphia Inquirer, who served in Iraq with Allam in 2003. "She has negated her youth."

Along with daily war-related updates of fighting and casualties, Allam also reached out for other stories off the beaten path. Those included the history of the Iraqi nickname "ulooj" for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi reaction to the blackout of August 2003 that left most of the East Coast in the dark but garnered little sympathy from Baghdad residents who had been without power for months. She admits the dangers faced by her brothers, one of whom had served briefly with Wassef Hassoun ? the U.S. Marine who was kidnapped and threatened with beheading before being released ? have affected her approach. "I saw that it horribly and irreparably changed" her brothers, she says. "It gives me a different perspective on this place. It does inform how I report on the story."

The rookie foreign correspondent's big break came when she landed an interview with leaders of the Iraqi insurgent movement in September 2003. The first such sit-down for a Western reporter since the war began resulted in a 2,600-word story that ran in nearly every Knight Ridder newspaper.

"A [translator] had found a group of rebel leaders and it took several weeks of negotiating with that group," Allam recalls, adding that the negotiators had limited the meeting to include a reporter, a driver, a translator, and a camera, notebook, and pen. "I said, 'no, we would have to have a satellite phone so I could call my bosses right afterward.' They agreed, but said they would have to hold it during the interview." Allam also demanded one hour with the leaders and wanted no information on any pending attacks against American forces. "That would have put us in an ethical dilemma," she says.

With that, Allam and Detroit Free Press photographer Mandy Wright met a low-level insurgent in an abandoned building for a pre-interview. The two journalists then got into a car and, after turning off their satellite phones and giving up the batteries, their driver took them to the insurgents. "We were in the back seat, holding hands and trying to smile," Allam recalls. "We were clearly going to nowhere and kept thinking no one would find us if we were killed."

Following an hour's ride, the group came upon a farmhouse where they were greeted with gifts of fruit. Allam recalls the leader, a masked Jordanian, refusing to have his hands photographed for fear of offering identifying marks. After all of the preparation, the interview lasted just 20 minutes when the insurgents suddenly had to leave to go on an attack. "I said, 'We came all the way out here for an hour'," Allam says. "They apologized, but said they had to go. We had to stay there while they were gone, and we knew they were out attacking Americans."

Gunfire before grad school

When Allam's initial Iraq tour of duty ended in September 2003, she began lobbying to return. Back on the beat in St. Paul she toyed with the idea of graduate school, but when Knight Ridder's Washington bureau asked her to pack up again, "I just about fell off my chair." She took the bureau chief helm in late 2003 and immediately began organizing staff and extending contacts in the Iraq community and military.

"I never had to deal with management issues and it is a real responsibility that has nothing to do with reporting," she observes. The first time she had to fire someone, Allam says she cried, then later wondered if she waited too long to cut the person loose: "It is a tough choice, especially after you go through so many things every day here with these people."

Running a bureau also becomes more difficult in such a war-torn city, which Allam says is getting more dangerous lately with the kidnappings and threatened beheadings. She finds herself second-guessing some decisions, such as last month's directive for a staffer to interview someone at a mosque in a very dangerous part of Baghdad. "They ran into a gun battle and were almost shot," she recalls. "I hate to think what could have happened. That haunts me."

When her brother was stationed there, it was too dangerous for them to meet, she recalls. "You take an enormous risk whenever you leave the hotel. Will you be near a passing convoy when it is blown up, or in a gun battle on the street?" But, she adds, "you want nothing more than to explore this big, fascinating, extraordinary country."

Although he gives Allam high praise for her work, Knight Ridder's Walcott says she continues to learn the ropes of running a large bureau that only come with time. "There are times when her inexperience and age are evident," he observes. "She is still growing. She is still mastering the big story that pulls a lot of elements together."

Allam's hardest experience in Iraq, in fact, had nothing to do with covering a story. It was when three members of her translator's family, including a 4-year-old girl, were executed.

"We know that it probably had something to do with her working for an American agency," Allam says about the woman, 29-year-old Ban Adil, an Iraqi who had worked for KR since before the bureau opened. "They followed her husband, daughter, and mother-in-law home and opened fire on their car. They riddled it with bullets."

The attack happened in March 2004 when Allam and Adil were on a brief trip to Egypt for a few days following weeks of stressful work. Two days into their girls' week out, a phone call informed Allam of the tragedy. By the time the women returned to Iraq, the burial had already occurred and Adil received threats against herself at home in a letter declaring, "you'll join your husband in hell soon."

When a relative's home was burglarized and documents identifying where Adil lived and worked were stolen, Knight Ridder officials agreed that she should leave the country. Allam used her contacts with the Interior ministry to get the documentation for Adil and her son to go.

The trio fled to a hotel in Amman, Jordan, where they spent a month with Adil trying to reorganize her shattered life and Allam keeping up with news. "We had a crying widow, a screaming baby, and I was playing solitaire on the computer all day," Allam remembers.

By April, Adil received temporary political asylum and, with Allam, headed for New York. Soon after, Adil actually moved in with Allam's mother in Oklahoma and eventually received permanent asylum and her own apartment. "She is in job training and just bought my brother's old car," Allam notes.

Grateful for her life, job

But even with the dangers, stress, and occasional homesickness, Allam remains dedicated ? even grateful ? as she reports the biggest world story for now. "It is still exciting," she says. "I have worked very, very hard to reach this [point], and I do not want to give up now."

Despite her management duties, she still files news stories herself. A dispatch on Dec. 13 revealed that insurgents were targeting would-be candidates in January's nationwide elections. One candidate had already been gunned down.

Her mother still wishes she would return home, once telling her (according to Hannah), "Enough is enough. There is no honor in having your head chopped off." But Beverly Allam says that her daughter often tells her, "Mom, remember, if I die, this is my passion and I wouldn't want to do anything else." Allam admits she has thought on occasion that "at the rate this is going, I'll be surprised to reach 30 if I stay in Iraq."

Not surprising, Allam does not seek to be in Baghdad forever. "I think there are a lot more stories out there that are just as important," she says. "I'm not one of those who wants to be a combat reporter for the rest of my life. But I think the Middle East will be a story for a long time."

She stresses the need to see the job ? and the war ? through to its conclusion before turning to the next chapter in her life. "I feel like I need some kind of bookends for this," she adds. "To leave now would feel unfinished."


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