Farnaz Fassihi is the deputy bureau chief of Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Waiting for An Ordinary Day, a memoir of her four years covering the Iraq war and witnessing the unraveling of life for Iraqi citizens. In May 2006, Fassihi was awarded the prestigious Henry Pringle Lecture Award for her Iraq coverage by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her coverage of the EgyptAir flight 990 crash won the New England News Executive Award as well as a finalist nomination for the Livingston Award.
Fassihi: You know, often in Iraq, despite all the terrible things that were happening, you would find people who were really determined to stay and not abandon Iraq and make it work and, you know, do as much as they could to bring some sort of normalcy and, you know, a nice environments for Iraqis. One such person that I’ve got to know is [Amal] [IB] who was an art gallery owner and an art historian. Her gallery was destroyed after the US invasion and after the looting, but she really tried, you know, even after she was displaced to, you know, still preserve the arts, still be in touch with the artists, sell it at her home and stages many events as she possibly could. So, I’m just going to read the passage from that part. “Amal possesses a deep sense of defiance, viewing the war America has leashed on her country as yet another storm to weather. Thus far, her approach has been very matter of fact. She insisted on moving back to her huge villa after it was badly damaged by bombardments after the invasion. When her neighborhood became a bastion for insurgents, she was too fearful to sleep in her own bedroom, so she turned the small studio next to her study into a safe room barricaded with padlocks. If intruders came, she would open a street-facing window and scream for dear life. Two burglaries of her home occurred while she was away, despite the presence of her Shia guards. When kidnapping surged and rumors spread that they are inside jobs, Amal finally decides to move. I visit Amal at her niece and aunt’s house not far from our villa in Mansur. Despite the low walls that allow us to be seen from the street, we sit in the garden because Amal determines that I can pass as a local guest to curious passersby. Speaking in English, we keep our voices down. “Have you thought of living Iraq for awhile until things get better?” I asked. “Everyone is asking me while I’m still here,” she says, looking me in the eye. “But, how can I leave? If you have a sick relative, do you throw them out on the street or do you stay and nurse them back to recovery? Iraq is my sick relative. I cannot abandon it under any circumstances.” “Do you believe things will get better, Amal?” I asked. “I don’t know what will happen anymore, but I know that it’s important to fight it. I want to feel like I’m doing something, that I’m not just sitting and letting Americans ruin my country. How much longer can this situation continue?” At 71, Amal is one of the rare Iraqis I’ve met with the ability to harbor deep anger and at the same time take positive measures toward improving situations. She has recently formed two nongovernmental organizations to restore Iraqi art and archeology, Friends of Antiquity and Heritage and Friends of the Iraqi Museums. Enlisting the help of many of her old acquaintances from the art world, she has formed a board of directors, orchestrated meetings and written to embassies and foreign organizations for funding. She has even managed to organize a modern dance performance at the National Theatre about the Abu Ghraib tortures, performed by an Iraqi performer who returns to Baghdad from Europe at Amal’s invitation. At the performance, which is held in the morning rather than the customary evening theatre hours, I sit next to Amal. The choreography makes dramatic use of light, sound and video clips of the American military operating through Iraq. Throughout the performance, the dancer’s hands are changed. His head is wrapped with a hood and his body is locked in a cage. The theatre comes to life with an outpouring of emotions as people cry, clap and call out praise. I notice Amal wiping tears off her face. Beside me, my driver [Monaf] holds his hand over his mouth as if to withhold his surprise. In a question and answer session after the show, the dancer lashes out against the Americans’ handling of Iraq. Amal looks more content than at anytime I’ve seen her since the war. “It feels like the old days,” she whispers to me. “I feel alive again.”