The Truth About Iraq: Memory, Trauma and the End of an Era

14 March, 2021

“Grave­yard” by Bagh­dad native Paul Batou (cour­tesy of the artist).

Hadani Ditmars

It was in the sur­re­al after­math of the Anglo-Amer­i­can inva­sion of Iraq in 2003 that I first met Robert Fisk.

This was a time in Bagh­dad, much like post-Oslo accord Jerusalem, when we roamed through a brave new land­scape, slight­ly dazed and gid­dy with pos­si­bil­i­ty, will­ing to tem­porar­i­ly sus­pend dis­be­lief and mag­i­cal­ly wish that old bogey­men would dis­ap­pear, obliv­i­ous to the dan­gers that lay ahead. Deals with dev­ils had been made, but some­how, illog­i­cal­ly, we hoped that the bet­ter angels of our nature would prevail. 

It was an upside-down won­der­land world, but more Kaf­ka than Car­roll, where I was sur­prised to meet our for­mer min­ders from the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion, now employed as fix­ers and trans­la­tors by hap­less Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists, who along with a pletho­ra of return­ing exiles, US Marines and God knows who else, had infil­trat­ed the now-porous bor­ders of Sad­dam’s old police state.

It was an odd feel­ing to have Eng­lish-speak­ing col­leagues, after so many years of being the lone North Amer­i­can cor­re­spon­dent, set­tling for after dead­line drinks with the likes of Miroslav from Ser­bian State Tele­vi­sion. Sud­den­ly fist­fuls of dol­lars were being waved in faces and Amer­i­can accents filled the pala­tial hotel lob­bies that had once housed Baathist officials. 

In 2005, it would all blow up, quite literally.

The Al-Ham­ra Hotel, where Fisk had set up “office” in one of the stan­dard ‘70s era suites along with myself and dozens of oth­ers for­eign jour­nal­ists, would be blown up by a car bomb — as would oth­er hotels in Bagh­dad. A for­mer hon­ey­moon hotel with a shim­mer­ing pool, the Ham­ra was pro­tect­ed then by armed guards and meters of barbed wire

But for a brief moment, there was an odd sense of hope and even lev­i­ty. Like tightrope walk­ers nego­ti­at­ing new ter­rains, we were caught up in the thrill of beck­on­ing hori­zons. We did­n’t dare look below the shiny sur­face, lest we suc­cumb to par­a­lyz­ing vertigo. 

So it was some­what of a relief to find myself at a Coali­tion Pro­vi­sion­al Author­i­ty (CPA) press con­fer­ence one day, sit­ting across from the leg­endary Inde­pen­dent cor­re­spon­dent him­self, his rum­pled shirt and note­book in hand some­how reas­sur­ing of a cer­tain nor­mal­i­ty in the midst of chaos and absur­di­ty. We watched togeth­er as Col­in Pow­ell emerged and spoke from a far­away podi­um say­ing “We came here as lib­er­a­tors. We have expe­ri­ence being lib­er­a­tors.” 

I was 35 years old and had been report­ing from the MENA since 1992 and from Iraq since 1997, often for the Inde­pen­dent. I had returned to Iraq with a pub­lish­ing con­tract in hand to write my first book, Danc­ing in the No-Fly Zone. Still I was slight­ly star struck to be sit­ting next to the Orwell Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist whose work in Lebanon and book Pity the Nation had so inspired me as a young writer work­ing in bat­tle-scarred Beirut.

But any lin­ger­ing sense of awe soon gave way to on the ground prac­ti­cal­i­ties. Fisk need­ed a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and soon enlist­ed me to join his trav­el­ing car­a­van of Shi­ah dri­ver and Sun­ni trans­la­tor for roman­tic tours of pris­ons and morgues.

First up was an invi­ta­tion to vis­it Abu Ghraib prison as part of a PR tour giv­en by Janis Karpin­s­ki, some eight months before the scan­dal broke. I remem­ber show­ing up pool­side at the Ham­ra hotel that morn­ing, dressed in respectable journo clothes — a linen jack­et and skirt — only to have Fisk instruct me to dis­ap­pear into a “local girl” hijabi, bag­gy-clothed iden­ti­ty. “We’ll be dri­ving through ‘tra­di­tion­al’ areas,” he said, “You don’t want to stick out.” His trans­la­tor wise­ly advised me to keep my more West­ern attire so as not to alarm the US Marines at the prison and I agreed. But in the end Fisk’s nar­ra­tive won out.

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski guides journalists through Abu Ghraib, standing by the hanging platform in the old ‘death chamber' (photo Hadani Ditmars, from her book   Dancing in the No-Fly Zone  ).

Brigadier Gen­er­al Janis Karpin­s­ki guides jour­nal­ists through Abu Ghraib, stand­ing by the hang­ing plat­form in the old ‘death cham­ber’ (pho­to Hadani Dit­mars, from her book Danc­ing in the No-Fly Zone).

In a recent doc­u­men­tary about Fisk, called This is Not a Movie, he relates that, as a kid grow­ing up in the sub­urbs of Lon­don, his des­tined career choice was influ­enced by Hitch­cock­’s film For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent, in which Joel McCrea’s char­ac­ter lived a glam­ourous exis­tence. I had grown up inspired not by images from Hitch­cock­’s film, but by Fisk’s pow­er­ful­ly poet­ic pieces about war that both chal­lenged the sta­tus quo and were imbued with a lyri­cal beau­ty. While Fisk was often self-dep­re­cat­ing about his mea­ger Inde­pen­dent bud­get and mod­est digs, he was def­i­nite­ly a larg­er-than-life char­ac­ter. Work­ing with him was cin­e­mat­ic, even if it turned out to be a weird movie. 

As I would lat­er write in the chap­ter of my book called “A Prison and Two Morgues” about our jour­ney to the prison, “Besides their offi­cial duties, they (Fisk’s trans­la­tor and dri­ver) main­ly played the role of ‘straight man’ and ‘rapt audi­ence’ as Robert enter­tained us all with jokes, poet­ic recitals, imper­son­ations and occa­sion­al show tunes. His man­ic jok­er per­son­al­i­ty was an inter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion to his seri­ous Mid­dle East­ern cor­re­spon­dent per­sona. But then again, per­haps after years of cov­er­ing some of the regions blood­i­est con­flicts his irrev­er­ent humor was sim­ply a good psy­cho­log­i­cal cop­ing strategy.”

Odd­ly enough, in light of his lat­er pro-Assad con­tro­ver­sies, I remem­ber Fisk telling the clas­sic Syr­i­an police state joke about the mukhabarat tor­tur­ing a rab­bit into con­fess­ing that he’s a donkey.

I arrived at the prison look­ing like the aveng­ing sis­ter of a pris­on­er and the Marines watched me like a hawk. Luck­i­ly Fisk charmed one of the young guards by let­ting him use his satel­lite phone to call his mum in Ohio. I watched — and filmed — as Fisk asked ques­tions per­fect­ly designed to trip up the Amer­i­cans extolling the virtues of their kinder, gen­tler prison sys­tem. We even spoke to a creepy prison doc­tor with shifty eyes who told us that he had been there dur­ing the bad old days of Sad­dam. The cli­max of the tour was a trip to the old death cham­ber, where Karpin­s­ki cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly low­ered the hang­ing plat­form, where so many had died. 

Three years lat­er, Sad­dam Hus­sein would be exe­cut­ed in the same manner.

The fol­low­ing week was spent at the city morgues, speak­ing to griev­ing fam­i­lies whose loved ones had been caught up in the chaos of post-inva­sion law­less­ness. A man get­ting ready to receive the bod­ies of his two sons, killed in a reawak­ened fam­i­ly feud, allowed me to pho­to­graph him. Two women whose broth­er had been shot by a lodger in an argu­ment over a cig­a­rette, began to cry as they told me their sto­ry, and I instinc­tive­ly leaned toward them for an embrace. As one of the very few women cor­re­spon­dents around at the time, this was a unique honor.

That night, Fisk invit­ed me for din­ner at Nabil’s, a joint run by Ouday Hus­sein’s for­mer tai­lor. It was a strange but nec­es­sary relief from vis­its to pris­ons and morgues. When Fisk, whom by this time I was call­ing “Bob,” sent the wine back, Nabil did­n’t miss a beat, and had a wait­er bring in a new bot­tle. Bob was a reg­u­lar at the restau­rant that would be blown up by a sui­cide bomber a few months lat­er on New Year’s Eve. I remem­ber chat­ting with him about PTSD in jour­nal­ists, a rel­a­tive­ly new top­ic at the time. He sound­ly denounced it as a crock, even as he recount­ed his expe­ri­ence of being beat­en by a mob of Afghan refugees in 2001.

Hadani Ditmars' photos appear in this Independent article by Robert Fisk, dated Sept. 21, 2003, making it difficult to refute the fact that they had worked together in Baghdad.

Hadani Dit­mars’ pho­tos appear in this Inde­pen­dent arti­cle by Robert Fisk, dat­ed Sept. 21, 2003, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to refute the fact that they had worked togeth­er in Baghdad.

After a week of work­ing togeth­er, it was time to say farewell. Bob was off on anoth­er assign­ment, while I had to stay on for a few more weeks to fin­ish my book research. But when I went to say good­bye, he seemed odd­ly absent, blank even. I asked him for the best email to reach him on so we could stay in touch and he replied, “Oh, I don’t real­ly use email much.” So, I just gave him my card and walked away. I stayed in touch with his trans­la­tor, now a jour­nal­ist in his own right and still a friend, as I do with so many oth­er col­leagues I bond­ed with in Iraq. But I would learn that col­le­gial­i­ty was­n’t one of Bob’s strong points.

Two years lat­er, after my book Danc­ing in the No Fly Zone came out, I received a veiled threat from a close friend of Fisk’s while on stage at a joint pan­el. As the pan­el end­ed and as the audi­ence applaud­ed, she turned to me, smil­ing, and hissed, “Bob denies that he ever worked with you in Bagh­dad and he told me to tell you that if you con­tin­ue to spread these lies, he will go out of his way to dis­cred­it you pub­licly.”  In spite of my byline as his pho­tog­ra­ph­er in the Inde­pen­dent and video footage of us dri­ving to Abu Ghraib togeth­er, I won­dered — evi­dence be damned — what strange fic­tion Bob had conjured?

When my book came out, I was tar­get­ed by the likes of Michael Rubin and the neo­cons at the Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute who, for my efforts at doc­u­ment­ing the suf­fer­ing of Iraqis in the wake of a dis­as­trous inva­sion, labelled me an evil “Sad­damist” and, iron­i­cal­ly, damned me for asso­ci­at­ing with Fisk.  But I had for­got­ten that col­leagues can be war zone reporters’ worst ene­mies.  Before the inva­sion, there was a cer­tain reporter with ties to the Cana­di­an mil­i­tary who would rou­tine­ly fax Ara­bic trans­la­tions of fel­low Cana­di­ans’ oblig­a­tory “Sad­dam is evil” sto­ries to the Iraqi embassy in Ottawa, instant­ly black­list­ing them. Plus ça change.

The fol­low­ing year, I was invit­ed to read from my book at Ire­land’s Imm­ra­ma Trav­el Writ­ing Fes­ti­val, found­ed by Dervla Mur­phy, who once cycled across Rwan­da. Oth­er guests includ­ed politi­cian Brid Rodgers — a key play­er in the North­ern Ire­land peace process — and well, Bob Fisk. Bob made him­self con­spic­u­ous­ly absent from the group pan­el, and when I attend­ed his talk, main­ly a tour de force pre­sen­ta­tion based on his 1,300-page opus The Great War for Civ­i­liza­tion, he avoid­ed eye con­tact. He refrained from attend­ing my read­ing, which, along with chap­ters on Iraqi the­atre and the nation­al orches­tra, includ­ed pas­sages from that fate­ful PR tour of Abu Ghraib we had both attended. 

There in the enchant­i­ng Irish town of Lis­more, as the worst of the sec­tar­i­an wars flared in Iraq, I flashed back to the Ham­ra Hotel in Bagh­dad. I remem­bered Bob scold­ing me one evening for chat­ting with an Armen­ian “secu­ri­ty” man, whom he claimed was a CIA agent. But apart from that one inci­dent, I was baf­fled by what might be moti­vat­ing his behav­ior. The absurd exer­cise of try­ing to fig­ure out what I’d done to earn the ire of the great Fisky, was odd­ly akin to try­ing to deter­mine why I’d been black­list­ed by the regime while report­ing in Sad­dam-era Iraq. “You know what you did!” the Iraqi ambas­sador pro­claimed before hang­ing up on me one cold after­noon in Ottawa when he refused to give me anoth­er visa. Now there was anoth­er mys­tery I’d nev­er solve.

Bob came to speak once in Van­cou­ver, sev­er­al years lat­er, to lec­ture on the rapid­ly dis­in­te­grat­ing nation that had once been Iraq. Dur­ing a Q & A, he refused to acknowl­edge my ques­tion, and scowled in my direction. 

In 2015, he gave anoth­er talk at a Van­cou­ver church, this time on ISIS, who were by now firm­ly entrenched in Mosul. Like the pub­li­ca­tion date of the Bagh­dad morgue arti­cle, the talk took place on Sep­tem­ber 21st, the UN’s Inter­na­tion­al Day of Peace. By then, Fisk had been dis­cred­it­ed by some as an Assad apol­o­gist and in 2018 he would infa­mous­ly claim that there had been no chem­i­cal attack on Douma, Syr­ia. Soon he would be main­ly writ­ing op-eds for the Inde­pen­dent, which had gone dig­i­tal. He seemed changed some­how, per­haps less edgy. 

The world had changed too. There was a new kind of cyn­i­cism in jour­nal­ism now, per­haps brought on by a del­uge of dig­i­tal dis­in­for­ma­tion that made every­one sus­pect and every­one an expert. Bob’s door-step­ping, Fleet Street-trained ori­gins seemed almost quaint by comparison. 

I stood with a group of admir­ers and stu­dents out­side the church, while a local Jew­ish woman ques­tioned him relent­less­ly about “the future of the peace process.” I wait­ed qui­et­ly, hop­ing to have one last chance to make my own peace with Fisk — or per­haps with my mem­o­ry of him as a for­mer jour­nal­is­tic hero. I said hel­lo and thanked him for his talk, and he smiled at me, back to his old charm­ing self. Then I real­ized, he had no idea who I was.

“We worked togeth­er in Bagh­dad in 2003,” I said. “We did that tour of Abu Ghraib togeth­er and I took pho­tos for your sto­ry on the morgues.”

“Ah yes,” he said, still smil­ing, still not real­ly rec­og­niz­ing me. “Well, this is a beau­ti­ful city you live in,” he beamed. “Per­haps I’ll retire here.”  And then he was off with the entourage of the white activist dudes who had invit­ed him. 

Tonight, as I wrote this, I dug out an old copy of that sto­ry on the Bagh­dad morgues we’d worked on togeth­er and pored over it. In the back­ground, the blue light of my old tele­vi­sion flick­ered with images of Joe Biden, who had once so enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly cham­pi­oned the inva­sion of Iraq, and Don­ald Trump, recent­ly endorsed by the Tal­iban. The next news item was about ongo­ing protests in Bagh­dad and the resur­gence of ISIS.

Per­haps, I thought, I had real­ly come to Bob’s talk that night in 2015 to make peace with mem­o­ry itself. To hon­or the way that nos­tal­gia and trau­ma can cloud judge­ment and make truth into a slip­pery thing; the way that old news­pa­per eras die lone­ly dig­i­tal deaths and the for­eign cor­re­spon­dent gets fetishized in online archives, old note­books and yel­lowed copies of ancient arti­cles. The way that war and con­flict get tem­porar­i­ly erased by delu­sion­al, shim­mer­ing moments of hope, before some­one sends the wine back, and it starts up all over again.

Rest in Peace dear Bob.  We’ll always have Abu Ghraib.

BaghdadGulf WarIraqRobert FiskSaddam Hussein

Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics since the '90s. She is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq and a former editor at New Internationalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Sight and Sound, the San Francisco Chronicle, Haaretz, Wallpaper, Vogue, and Ms. Magazine, and broadcast on CBC, BBC, NPR, and RTE. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of ancient and sacred sites in Iraq.


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