The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A simple plan (1)

November 24, 2005

The sign as we left airport instructed us to do a number of things. The one that really jumped out at me as we sped by was the order to “lock and load” weapons because we were entering an insecure area—i.e. the rest of the country.

Just boarding the flight in Amman, Jordan for Iraq, it was clear that there was something different about this plane. Most of the passengers were hulking broad shouldered fellows with cold eyes. The grey in their military brush cuts and expanding paunches, were their only concession to age as they go to Iraq to work dangerous security jobs.

The Royal Air Jordan plane in a bit smaller than most and crewed, oddly enough, by South Africans—perhaps because they are particularly good and taking airplanes into a “hostile environment.” There was certainly a special skill to flying that plane as it suddenly twisted into a tight spiral during its approach into Baghdad Airport.

I’d always heard the plane does a hard spiral to avoid groundfire, but it was quite something else to watch the ground slowly spin around me as the flat brown landscape of Iraq came in and out of view.

At the airport we were met by one of those hulking ex-military characters, though this one was French and probably didn’t see action in Vietnam but rather a host of other unpleasant places, mostly in Africa. I haven’t asked him yet.

His smile doesn’t quite touch his blue eyes, which, unsurprisingly, look rather chilly. As we got to the car he wrapped a Palestinian scarf around his neck and then fitted a drum magazine to the Kalashnikov lying in the front seat. I think both elements made him blend in.

He reminded me of the ex-Royal marines who taught a small group of us only a few weeks ago in a leafy estate about an hour outside of London—Jane Austen country, as a sign on the way helpfully informed me. It was part of the Centurion “hostile environment” course meant to teach journalists how to deal with extreme situations. Apparently the company was founded during the unpleasantness in Bosnia when record numbers of journalists got killed rushing into a particularly uncivil war.

So group of us, heading off to countries that had little to do with each other, subjected ourselves to jovial psychopaths that merrily set off explosives around us, put bags over our heads, and held us down to the ground with guns pushed into our necks.

Then we sat in lectures as they outlined a horrific series of worst case scenarios (protruding bones, snakebite, frostbite, severe burns and spurting arterial bleeds, and of course kidnapping) and all I could think the whole time was, “I sure hope THAT doesn’t happen.”

And it had all begun as such a simple plan.

About a hundred years ago, or so, I figured out my entire career. I would head off to Egypt, work for a few years in the local press, before my brilliance would be recognized and I would be hired by a wire service, thus putting me on to the fast track to becoming the “intrepid foreign correspondent.”

Somewhere all the way, I got a bit distracted, ended up spending a lot longer in Egypt than originally planned. I got involved with a heartbreaking little magazine that everyone loved, but treated us most cruelly.

After working for it for years I even edited it for a while, and kept it going for an awful year when no one was getting paid, browbeating, pleading, cajoling people into still working for it—until finally the shame of it all became too much.

I carved out a little niche for myself in a weirdly comfortable city and fell in love, got engaged and even made plans to marry and was living happily on a houseboat on the Nile. Then… years later than expected, I got the call. Suddenly a wire wanted me—the French wire service no less—and they wanted me in Baghdad.

I blame Bush the most, I think. He made this place a gold mine for journalists as he radically upped the misery quotient and suddenly the world needed to know about the pain here.

Leaving Egypt and my fiancée was pretty traumatic, as was the journey across a region transformed by the conflict I was finally setting out to cover.

As I left Egypt, surprisingly competitive elections were raging—competitive because in the new environment brutalizing the voters was considered less acceptable in international circles. The elections in 2005 were a long way from the nasty contests I covered in 2000.

Then there’s the Arab League. Everyone is so desperate for the bloodletting to end in Iraq that even this long ineffectual organization is actually being given a chance to do something, by hosting a reconciliation meeting of Iraqi factions.

I remember spending hours covering pointless Arab League meetings at the behest of international news agencies which were often so dismayed themselves by the lack of results that they declined to take the story.

During the flight to Jordan I began to mentally prepare myself for the rest of the trip, and even here the scars of the war were still raw. A week before I arrived, the violence spilled over and dozens of Jordanians were torn apart by bombs placed in hotels by an extremist working out of Iraq.

I remember one Jordanian businessman telling me years ago when I was there writing some economic articles that Jordan was a nice stable little place caught between Iraq and a hard place.

My hotel was right across the square from the Hyatt, one of the hotels bombed. Le Royale, however, was built only a few years ago by rich Iraqi Sunnis as a way of getting their money out of a increasingly invasion-prone Iraq, so it’s doubtful that this hotel will be targeted by Iraq’s insurgents.

It’s an impossibly opulent place with just a whiff of the vulgar—they didn’t really need the two jacuzzis, one on each side of the indoor pool, but it was nice from a symmetry standpoint. Its strange, sand colored bulk towers above the surrounding low lying buildings of Amman, looking for all the world like scale model set piece from an overly ambitious science fiction film.

Sitting in the hotel, the night before I left for Iraq, I watched CNN and learned about three attacks in a single day that killed dozens more Iraqis, including some at a funeral. Two days early there was a failed double car bomb attack against the Hamra hotel—a chilling follow up to the attack on the Palestine Hotel a few weeks earlier. What makes these attacks so disturbing (to me anyway) is that those hotels are occupied primarily at journalists.

I thought a lot about that as the car drove through the city taking me to my own hotel—El Mansour, my home for the next year.

Driving from the airport, street signs read like the headlines from the stories of the last few years, Ramadi, Abu Ghraib, Faluja, Baquba.

Suddenly, I didn’t really feel like becoming intrepid.

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