The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A statistic (9)

April 6, 2006

He was described to me once as the office’s very own little Saddam Hussein. Salah Jali doesn’t really have a proper title, but he’s one of the mainstays of the AFP Baghdad bureau.
After the all important tech guy, Salah is the only one who has his own private office from where he rules the bureau. Daily there is a line of petitioners at his door who come to sit in the little chairs placed in front of his desk.
When it comes to the bureaucracy of the daily functioning of the office or even the bureaucracy of the outside world, Salah is your man.
A handsome, dapper little man, there’s a certain air of the dodgy about him. He pre-dates the war and managed the bureau under Saddam’s time, suggesting he was probably pretty connected up with the Baathists in their day.

He certainly gets along better with the stringers hailing from the Sunni parts of the country. Generally he gets along well with everyone—except for when he doesn’t and then we have fiery arguments ripping across the office in rapid Iraqi Arabic that always leave me a bit mystified.
Invariably it’s with the bureau chief. I don’t think he actually acknowledges the idea that he’s not totally in charge.
I’ve been warned he’s a bit shifty and to keep an eye on him, he’s certainly kept me waiting in a certain amount of fear and apprehension about whether I’ll get that exit visa or if anyone’s getting around to picking up my plane ticket out of here.
He’ll always have a smile though, even when you are pretty sure he hasn’t done the thing you asked him to do weeks before. We got along okay, it amused him to speak to me in Egyptian Arabic and in the end, my plane ticket was always ready.
At 10pm on Tuesday, his wife called the office and asked if he was coming home tonight. Sometimes, if people work late they just sleep at the hotel because of the 8pm curfew.
Except that Salah had left the office on his little moped at around 6pm.
His bike was later found at a police station and one witness said he’d made it only a few dozen meters from the hotel when he was stopped, and taken, by two white Toyota land cruisers.
And so Salah has now become a statistic. One of the thousands of Iraqis kidnapped.
The first thought was, who would kidnap Salah? He’s too mean to be kidnapped, he knows too many important people, the insurgents wouldn’t touch him.. Except that the cars that took him were not black Opels or BWMs, they were land cruisers, SUVs, which tend to belong to people with connections to the security services. Shiites.
The day before a car bomb went off in a market place in the Shiite suburb of Sadr City, killing ten. The day before that someone drove a car bomb into the entrance of a nearby Shiite mosque as evening prayers were ending. Another ten people were killed.
The next day 18 corpses should up, hands tied, bodies tortured, bullet through the head.
Salah could have been picked up by criminals, he could have been picked up by the death squads, so far we have no idea, but it’s not impossible to think that he might become one more body turning up in the water purification plant in southern Baghdad after being flushed through the system.
He’s holding down a good job, with a decent salary and is known to work with foreigners, which makes him a tempting target.
In one AFP story about the rash of kidnappings here, a businessman from Mosul talked about being kidnapped in front of his office and having to pay a ransom of $40,000. Less than a month later, he was kidnapped a second time and had to pay $30,000 – which does beg the question if there is a ransom depreciation with multiple snatchings.
That businessman said he’d had it and was immigrating to Syria. Iraq’s intelligentsia, business community and anyone worth anything to kidnappers are targets and trying to get out.
The atmosphere in the office the day we found out was like tomb. Most people in the office didn’t really like Salah, he could be vindictive petty tyrant (apparently) but they respected him, he got the job done and in the end everyone was paid.
It meant that the chaos and nastiness roiling outside the high walls and garden of our hotel and had just poked its way through. The two Sunni video journalists were especially frightened. What if this was specific anti-Sunni targeting of the office? They travel all over the city for their stories.
The Iraqi journalists are the eyes and ears of the bureau. Some of the most interesting pieces I’ve written have come from reporting or video footage done by these guys that I’ve then written up (with their names on it) – a kind of virtual feature.
The whole edifice of the bureau could crumble if no one feels safe to go out any more.
Salah’s kidnapping came within days of the euphoria of Jill Carroll’s release and that whole 82-day hostage ordeal. In one of the only brief statements she made in the aftermath, there was a reference to all the Iraqis still being held.
It’s like the way the death of a single, high profile, sympathetic figure is a tragedy, but the deaths of scores just become a numbing statistic, a number with lots of zeros after it that we just can’t conceive.
Yesterday, for me, that statistic gained a face.