From Iraq and back

From Iraq and back

Omar Fekeiki’s work with the Washington Post in his native country brought him death threats and a rare ticket to UC Berkeley. So why does he want to return?

By Amanda Witherell

Omar Fekeiki sits alertly at a café table on the terrace of International House, his dorm at UC Berkeley. His straight posture belies his relative ease. It’s the only sign that he may not be entirely at home.

Like any other 28-year-old graduate student, he’s wearing jeans — not the pressed slacks necessary for a meeting with Iraqi officials. His hands are resting on his knees, rather than poised with a pen and a reporter’s notepad, scribbling Arabic words from an informed source. His smooth, tan face, with just a hint of unshorn shadow, is turned up toward a mild afternoon sun, not away from the heat of a Baghdad noon. The dark stubble on his head is no longer covered by a helmet. His slim chest is free to breathe without the pressure of a flak jacket. His heart may or may not be racing, but it’s definitely beating.

It’s difficult to believe that the quiet cell phone on the table in front of him once rang regularly with field reports of car bombings, kidnappings, and execution-style shootings. It’s unsettling to think it could ring now, that something irrevocable could be happening at home, 7,500 miles away, as he sits in this idle sunshine.

What does Fekeiki find unbelievable? That he’s in the United States, that he’s finally on his way toward a real life, studying journalism at one of the best universities in the world.

“It was not even a dream,” he told the Guardian with the careful pronunciation that can sound like a proclamation often heard in the voices of nonnative English speakers. “It’s something beyond a dream. It was such an impossible thing to do. Now I flash back memories of when I spent hours on the phone with my best friend. We would say, ‘Could you imagine if we could go to the States and find work and live there?’ I always think about this and say, ‘Wow, I’m lucky.’ ”

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 3.9 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US invasion. Half are displaced within their country, and the other two million have crossed borders, with 700,000 in nearby Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, and 60,000 finding a sort of solace in Sweden.

By contrast, in four years only 692 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States. Despite the danger at home and a flood of applications, the State Department routinely denies Iraqi visa applications, apparently believing Iraqis need to stay home to rebuild their tattered country. Of the record 591,000 student visas given last year, only 112 went to Iraqis, an increase from 46 in 2005.

“I waited months,” said Fekeiki, who thinks his affiliation as a special correspondent with the Washington Post is what got him the necessary piece of paper in the nick of time.

But his status here is temporary, and even though a civil war rages in the streets of his hometown and no US, UN, or Iraqi politician has yet to forcefully present a viable solution to the quagmire, he has no plans to apply for citizenship.

“Every Iraqi I know in the States now doesn’t want to go back. I don’t blame them,” he said. But staying here is not for him. And that’s the other unbelievable thing about Fekeiki: he can’t wait to return to Baghdad.

“I belong in Iraq.”

FINDING HIS POST

Fekeiki says he’s always been lucky, and April 2003 was no exception. The day after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, Fekeiki was hoping to track down a BBC reporter at the Palestine Hotel who might lend him a phone to make a “we’re alive” call to his uncle in London. He noticed a Washington Post reporter struggling to interview a civilian and stopped to lend a hand. The reporter was impressed with Fekeiki’s translation and suggested he go to the paper’s offices and see about a job.

He did and was temporarily hired by bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but after a week he was let go. The Post had enough translators. “He was pretty young, just out of school,” Chandrasekaran told the Guardian. The Post did, however, make a point of noting the directions to the young man’s house in case it ever needed him. In a matter of days the paper was knocking on his door.

Initially, Fekeiki continued working as a translator but quickly graduated to fixer, a sort of guide to the Post journalists — scouting out stories, digging up contacts, arranging transportation and interviews. Within weeks he was the bureau’s office manager, overseeing a busy newsroom of 42 American and Iraqi journalists who were all older than him and vastly more experienced.

Chandrasekaran says one thing he always told his Post colleagues was to listen to the Iraqi staff. “They have a better sense of when something is going bad. I empowered people like Omar to put their foot down, to say no.”

That empowerment, coupled with the important tasks of monitoring news wires and Iraqi and American television stations, dispatching staff to daily disasters, and maintaining order in the office, suited Fekeiki. He rose to the challenge and fell in love with his job. Pretty soon he was contributing to stories, then writing his own and, to his surprise, really enjoying the work.

Raised by a family of journalists and writers, Fekeiki never thought he’d be one. His father, a former politician and vocal critic of Hussein, had lived the nomadic life of an exile as a punishment for his writing. Fekeiki grew up with wiretapped phones, regular house searches, and a father with his neck in a threatened noose. He was taught that if you wrote what the government approved, you’d be wasting your time. If you didn’t, you’d be killed.

The motives have changed, but the risk remains. Life was always dicey. Fekeiki was raised with the fear that he would “disappear” if he weren’t carrying the proper card identifying him as a student, not a soldier. Censorship was part of life.

“If you repeat what we say in this house, you will get killed,” he was told by his parents. “Imagine saying that to a five-year-old?” he asks. “I had to live with fear all the time.”

He could never slip — it would put his family in grave risk. But now, taking up the family tradition and being a journalist in his native country is almost like asking to die.

DEADLY PROFESSION

Targeted violence toward news gatherers is on the rise everywhere, and 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists since 1994, mostly because of Iraq. Though statistics vary depending on the definition of journalist, Reporters Without Borders says 155 journalists and media staff have been killed during the four years of Iraq War coverage. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which investigates every claim and only counts confirmed deaths of credentialed reporters, puts the figure at 97. Both counts already lap the Vietnam War’s 20-year tally of 66, and both organizations say the fallen are overwhelmingly Iraqi.

“I’m hard-pressed to think of a more dangerous profession in the world today than being an Iraqi journalist in Iraq,” said Chandrasekaran, who was bureau chief there for 18 months and has covered past conflicts in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. “By spring of 2004 it was too dangerous for Western reporters out in the street.”

So journalists came to depend even more on the Iraqis, who were about the only ones able to do on-the-ground reporting after anti-American sentiments and violence took hold.

“You cannot stand in a Baghdad street and do a piece for camera,” Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told us. “An Iraqi journalist can blend in with the local population. They’re the only ones that can literally move around…. I think the only good news is we’re getting any news at all.”

Iraqis are the only bridge for any respectable news organization attempting to gain access to what’s going on, but alliances with Americans paint clear targets on their backs. “One of the things that distinguishes this war from others is that most journalists are not being caught in cross fire. They are being murdered,” Mahoney said. Murders account for about two-thirds of the Iraqi journalist deaths, and without those reporters, he said, the American public “doesn’t have all the information it should have at their fingertips to make informed decisions.”

One wonders if the military and the administration do either. Camille Evans, an Army intelligence sergeant, said during a March 20, 2007, panel of Iraq war veterans at the Commonwealth Club, “For most of our intelligence, we did use CNN.”

Though affiliations with Americans put all Iraqi journalists in peril, other risks lie along the sectarian divides. If they work for an independent Iraqi newspaper attempting unbiased journalism, they’re just as bad as Americans. If they spin for one side, they’re targeted by the other. In short, the only agreement between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias could be their shared attitude toward journalists: work for us or you’re dead.

There were many times Fekeiki believed he would die — when he was covering the November 2004 assault in Fallujah as mortars hummed over his tent, or when he was kidnapped by Mahdi Army fighters who told him, “You will disappear behind the sun,” before he managed to escape into a passing ambulance. And then there were the straight-up death threats.

“I was threatened three times,” he told us. “The first time, my bureau chief was Karl Vick, and he said, ‘We’ll fly you out to any place you want. We’ll take care of you,’ and I said no. He said, ‘We have to do something. We can’t risk your life.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll go embed with the Marines in Fallujah, to cover the assault.’ ”

Fekeiki saw this as a way to disappear from his neighborhood for a little while but still be involved at the Post and give the paper something he thought it needed — an Iraqi to cover the Iraqi side of the story. “They didn’t have one. The Iraqis in our office didn’t want to do it.”

Fekeiki didn’t tell a soul about the second death threat, a letter on his doorstep. “I didn’t want them to fly me out of Iraq. I wanted to stay. I knew that if I told the Post, they would ask me to leave, give me another job somewhere else. I didn’t want that.”

He had dreams of using this opportunity at the Post to eventually start a newspaper in Iraq and, if that went well, perhaps a career in politics. First he would need the hard currency of an American education. Reluctant to leave his family, Fekeiki bargained with himself and decided he would only apply to UC Berkeley, where some of his Post friends had attended journalism school. If he didn’t get in, he would stay in Iraq.

The final death threat came June 15, 2006. “A car chased me from the office to my house,” he recalls. Flooring the gas pedal of his Opal, he managed to get away.

By then he’d received his acceptance letter to Berkeley and had a scholarship fund started by Post owner Don Graham and continued by his colleagues at the paper. All he needed was a student visa, but the risks were mounting. “I was supposed to leave early August. I thought, why would I risk two months? Let’s just leave now,” he said. He hid in the Post office for four days until he could catch a flight to Amman, Jordan, where he waited two more weeks for his ticket to the States.

LOOKING BACK

Just three months after he left Iraq for Berkeley, he received a phone call from his aunt, telling him that a recent raid of an insurgent house had turned up a “to kill” list for assassins. Fekeiki’s name was near the top.

It’s incomprehensible to many that he’d want to be back in Baghdad, but to a seasoned war correspondent, it’s not entirely unbelievable. Chris Hedges spent 15 years as a foreign bureau chief for the New York Times covering conflicts around the world and is the author of the 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He describes the typical war reporter as an “adrenaline junkie,” hooked on a certain kind of bravado. “They’re people who don’t have a good capacity to remember their own fear,” he told the Guardian.

“The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living,” Hedges wrote in the introduction to his book.

“I never felt safe, but I always felt productive,” Fekeiki said. “If I wanted productive or safe, I chose productive. I never thought about being safe or not. That’s why I was the only Iraqi in the Washington Post to embed with the military and Marines, because the others feared for their lives. I did fear for my life. I just didn’t let it stop me. If I fear for my life, I shouldn’t be a journalist in Iraq.”

In one sense the war was a blessing for Fekeiki. Before the war began in 2003, he says, “I didn’t have a future.”

Although he had a college degree in English language and literature from Al-Turath University College, he was denied admission to grad school at Baghdad University. “He doesn’t meet the security requirements,” Fekeiki quotes wryly from the code language of the blacklist, for his family doesn’t play nice with Hussein’s.

Fekeiki supported the American invasion, and once the war began he had no intention of leaving. After Hussein’s regime was eradicated, he knew that smart young people with local knowledge and solid English skills would be in high demand from American businesses, reconstruction contractors, and government workers.

“My last thought was to leave Iraq after the invasion, because here’s a country that needs to be rebuilt. We’ll have all the foreign companies working in Iraq. I’ll use the language I studied for four years, English, and I’ll have the best job in Iraq,” he recalled.

And eventually, he did. Offers came in from the New York Times for double his Post salary and from Fox News for triple, but he admired the ethics of the Post, which made a point of encouraging its Iraqi writers and crediting their work, so he stuck with that paper.

Fekeiki found more than money and a ticket out of the crippled country. He found his calling. His enthusiasm for his job at the Post sounds like that of a classic American workaholic.

“I miss my office,” he said, remembering his desk at the center of the newsroom. “I called it the throne. I spent at least 14 hours a day there, for two years, nonstop. Not one single day off. After two years, in theory, I had a chance to take a day off every week. I spent it in the office, not working but in the office with people.”

“My only motivation now is that desk,” he says. He hopes to return to it after school. “I’m going to help journalists in Iraq and the future of Iraq.”

Without this thought, he says, “I don’t think I’d be able to endure what I’m going through now. It’s just dull. The boredom is hard. In Baghdad I had fun not knowing what was going to happen every day. Here, I wake up, go to school, reply to e-mails on my blog, go to dinner, go to sleep. That’s not a life. That’s retirement.”

He feels guilty that his life is now so easy when his family and friends are still threatened back home.

“Being safe terrifies me. I can’t get used to it.”

WAR JUNKIE

For Fekeiki, staying abreast of the violence is like keeping in touch with reality, though here in the States he has to turn to fiction to find his fix.

The Situation, a film about an American journalist covering the war in Iraq, recently screened at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco. One of the first dramas about the war, it opens with a scene of two young Iraqis being thrown off a bridge in Samarra by US troops. One of them drowns, causing a stir in the province.

“That actually happened,” Fekeiki says. Throughout the film, his eyes rarely left the screen, except for fleeting moments to scribble a few notes on a pad and near the end to wipe away a couple tears. Though the characters are fictional, the plot is very real, centering on misguided US intelligence, the schism between Iraqis and Americans, and the overall futility of war.

“Wow,” he said, getting up from his seat as the last credit rolled and the screen went completely black. “I could identify with every aspect of that movie.”

The violence doesn’t bother him as much as it reminds him of where he’s come from, where his family is, and what his friends are doing. “I want to still feel connected,” he says.

In Berkeley he doesn’t. The first semester of basic reporting, de rigueur for all journalism students, was difficult for Fekeiki. He found the Bay Area beat more terrifying than Baghdad. “Some people think reporting in a war zone is difficult, but I did it, and I know how to do it,” he says.

“In Iraq everything you think about is a story. Here you have to squeeze your mind to find a story that interests the readers. That’s really challenging. I don’t know the place. It’s not my culture. I don’t know the background. I need a fixer,” he says, laughing.

He was as lost working on a story about Merrill Lynch as an American reporter might have been covering the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. “At 7 a.m. I get an assignment to go write about Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. What’s Merrill Lynch?”

Lydia Chavez, Fekeiki’s professor for basic reporting, said she usually pushes her students to cover stories they wouldn’t normally choose. But she told us, “Someone like Omar, I was trying to find something that would be comfortable because everything is so foreign.”

His turning point came when he covered a psychic fair in Berkeley. “He came back with something I never would have expected,” she said.

“They didn’t want me to write anything,” Fekeiki said of the psychics he encountered at the fair. “They wouldn’t let me interview the people there who came to heal their aura. So I was, like, ‘OK, can I heal my aura and take notes?’ They said, ‘Yes, why not?’ So I did it, and it turned into a personal piece.”

The amazing part of the story is what the healer saw about him even though he hadn’t told her his name, let alone that he was from Baghdad. “The woman just shocked me with her information about me. She started to talk about how my family is in danger and how I am terrified about being in a place I don’t think I belong to and have to compete with other people. It was amazing,” he says, still somewhat aghast.

“She couldn’t heal my aura, though. She said I have conflicting thoughts: ‘You’re very protective of your thoughts, and you’re confused, and it’s messed up.’ Which is true.”

IRAQ’S FUTURE

Fekeiki has the cockiness of youth and the undaunted faith of a survivor but also a certain attitude toward life he doesn’t always see in his fellow Iraqis. “I tell people I will live to be 94. And I will,” he says, believing that all it takes to succeed is to say that you will.

He states his ambitions solidly: to be the charming dictator of his own newspaper, to rise through the ranks of parliamentary politics, to one day rule the country as a prime minister. To stay in this country, to be “nothing” in Berkeley, is just not satisfying enough.

“I’m Iraqi,” he says. “I just want to feel that I’m spending my time doing something to benefit my country. If everyone leaves Iraq, we’ll not have an Iraq on the map in the future. I don’t want that to happen.”

The newspaper he hopes to own and manage will be fiercely independent and printed daily in Arabic, Kurdish, and English. It will be called Al Arrasid (The Observer), after the publication his family used to run, which folded in 1991 for lack of subscribers. Beyond bringing the truth to the people of Baghdad and penning editorials from his secular point of view, he’s looking forward to being in power once again.

“I can’t wait to have my own newspaper,” he said. “I can’t wait to sit behind my desk and tell people what to do.”

Yet he has a strong sense of morality. Fekeiki said his personal mantra is a proverb his father often told him: “Harami latseer min el sultan latkhaf…. Don’t be a thief. You will fear no judge.”

He says these words have always made his life easy and kept his choices simple. Chavez says she saw the same spirit in him when he passed the bulk of the credit to his cowriter, David Gelles, for a story about jihad videos on YouTube that they contributed to the front page of the New York Times, a near-impossible feat for a first-year journalism student.

“It’s so rare to see someone that generous, that honest,” said Chavez, who actively worries about him returning to Iraq.

Berkeley’s curriculum demands a summer internship in the field, and Fekeiki pressed the Post to put him back at the Baghdad bureau this June. He planned to report without telling his family he’d returned to the country, so they would be safe. However, the hands of American bureaucracy are holding him here. His one-entry visa status means if he leaves the United States, he can’t come back without restarting the application process. On top of that, the United States is only accepting the newest Iraqi passports, the G series. They’re so new that most Iraqi embassies aren’t even making them, and Fekeiki doesn’t have one.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. Besides being unable to report from home this summer, if something were to happen to his family, he wouldn’t be able to respond beyond a phone call or an e-mail. “My father is 77 years old. I don’t know when he’s going to farewell us. And if it happens, I can’t go and be with my family. It’s not fair,” he says. Instead, he’ll be spending the summer break in Washington, DC, reporting for the Post‘s metro desk.

“I’m very glad for the visa problems,” Chavez said. “It really scares me. I couldn’t convince him to stay at all.”

What would keep him in the States? “If going back to Iraq is not going to help me get my newspaper started, I’m not going to do it,” he says. What might not make his paper succeed? “People wouldn’t buy it. They just bomb the place where it’s published. The government turns against me.” He knows he could speak his mind outside Iraq, but the whole point is to do it in Iraq, and he feels very strongly that solutions will only come from within, that his country needs people like him.

“The toughest moments I have to deal with,” he says, pausing, “are when I think maybe I’m not going back.”

Originally published April 4, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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