Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you. Maybe they are Sunni and have limited contacts outside their community. Maybe they are a Christian from east Beirut and know little about the Shia of south Lebanon or the Sunnis of the north. Maybe they’re urban and disdainful of those who are rural. In Iraq, maybe they are a middle class Shia from Baghdad or a former doctor or engineer who looks down upon the poor urban class who make up the Sadrists. And so in May 2003, when I was the first American journalist to interview Muqtada Sadr, my bureau chief at Time magazine was angry at me for wasting my time and sending it on to the editors in New York without asking him, because Muqtada was unimportant, lacking credentials. But in Iraq, social movements, street movements, militias, those with power on the ground, have been much more important than those in the establishment or politicians in the green zone, and it is events in the red zone which have shaped things.
You don’t understand a country by going on preplanned missions; you learn about it when unplanned things happen, when you visit a friend’s neighbourhood for fun and other neighbours come over. You learn about it by driving around in a normal car, not an armoured one with tinted windows. That’s when Iraqi soldiers and police ask you to hitch a ride and take them towards their home. A few months ago, soldiers at a checkpoint outside Ramadi asked me to give one of their colleagues a ride to Baghdad. He was from Basra. In addition to the conversation we struck up, what was most revealing was that a soldier outside Ramadi felt safe enough to ask a stranger for a ride, whereas before he would not have even carried his ID on him, and that a stranger agreed to take a member of the security forces. I’ve since given rides to other Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
And another observation:
One reason for the failure of journalists to leave their green zones may be a combination of laziness and aversion to discomfort. But in Iraq, Afghanistan, other developing countries and areas of conflict in some countries, you have to leave your comfort zone. You might prefer an English-speaking whiskey-drinking politician over six hours of bouncing along dirt roads in the heat and dust in order to sit on the floor and eat dirty food and drink dirty water and know you’re going to get sick tomorrow, but the road to truth involves a certain amount of diarrhoea.
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