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  Field Notes From
Shiites of Iraq

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Shiites of Iraq On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Janine Di Giovanni

Shiites of Iraq On Assignment

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From Photographer

Matt Moyer

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Frédérique Veysset (top) and courtesy Matt Moyer


Shiites of Iraq On Assignment Shiites of Iraq On Assignment
Shiites of Iraq

Field Notes From Author
Janine Di Giovanni

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I felt a small sense of happiness when an injured young boy named Ali was able to leave Iraq for medical treatment in the U.K. I first met Ali in the hospital. His arms were blown off and his body burned when a U.S. rocket hit his home and killed most of his family. The chief of the hospital said Ali would die if he didn't get better treatment in Kuwait or Europe.
    When I entered his room, he began to cry. He was in terrible pain and wanted his mother and his brothers. He asked me how he could ever play football again. I felt terrible guilt and helplessness.
    I did what I could to help him, including asking an American surgeon at my hotel to evacuate him. Fortunately Ali was eventually flown to England. Recently I saw his photograph with a famous European footballer and read that he was being fitted with prosthetics for his arms at a renowned British hospital.
    There is no joy in knowing he lost his arms in a senseless war, but there is some relief in knowing he got out of that hospital.

    Before Saddam's collapse I had an office in the Iraqi Ministry of Information and was carefully followed and monitored by ministry officials. My telephone at the Hotel al-Rasheed was bugged, and I was constantly trailed. Worse, my minder daily reported on my activities to some shadowy figure on the floor above us. I was forbidden to go many places and to meet ordinary Iraqis, who were too frightened to speak anyway. I was constantly threatened with expulsion.
    Once—after days of begging—I convinced my facilitator to take me to a local newspaper. There I saw terrified "journalists" churning out stories about the glory of Saddam. All of them said the same thing: "He is our great leader." On the bottom floor I met layout designers working on their ancient computers. For one glorious moment when my minder left the room, one of them reached out to me and, in a desperate voice, said in perfect English, "We want our freedom." For several moments, he dropped the mantle of oppression. Then my facilitator returned, and the man turned back into a terrified shadow. It showed me a microcosm of the pain and suffering the Iraqi people endured for so long.

    During the Saddam days, we reporters tried to fool our minders and figure ways to communicate in our bugged hotel rooms. If we had important meetings, we would gather in a room and blast the TV (which only showed cheesy Arabic soap operas). If someone phoned on the landline, I would warn, "Someone else is listening." Then I would add, "Are you there, Ahmed? I'm going to have a conversation with London now, so I hope you're listening."
    Once I interviewed actor Sean Penn, who was visiting Baghdad before the war, in my hotel room. We had an Arab TV show blaring in the background the whole time. Bizarre.  
    We also couldn't mention Saddam's name. This stemmed from the paranoid behavior of our facilitators, who would motion upwards when they were talking about him. The British reporters got around this by using the code name Brian for Saddam. I have no idea why. But I later found out the French reporters referred to him as Maurice.


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