back to the Black Table
               
  DATELINE BAGHDAD, CAPITAL OF CHAOS.  
   
   
 

Charles Crain is a 26-year-old freelance writer living in Baghdad. By choice.

He has a recent Master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Instead of putting in his time churning out

 
 

obits for the Podunk Express, Crain went to Iraq. He writes regularly for the Cox News Service and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., among other publications. Crain returned to Iraq at the end of June after taking some time off back in the States.

Between gathering stories and avoiding danger, Crain keeps the world posted with his Bagh Blog. He also agreed to answer a few questions posed by The Black Table.

BT: What prompted you to go to Iraq? Was that the plan your

   
 

entire time in grad school?

CC: I debated whether to go to journalism school, or to graduate school in history or international relations. I settled on journalism school because I wanted to see and write about other countries and cultures, even if I eventually went into academics. I was hoping to go abroad as quickly as possible after graduating, and Medill has a global journalism program through which I was going to go to Cairo. But in the run-up to the war, I started thinking that if the U.S. was occupying Iraq when I graduated, I'd have to find a way to get over there. As the occupation became more and more problematic, I became even more interested in Iraq and trying to get a first-hand sense of what was going on.

BT: Making a living as a freelancer is difficult outside of a war zone. How do you manage inside of one?

CC: In some ways I have advantages over freelancers in the States. Aside from paying a driver and translator, my monthly expenses are very low; I don't have to sell as many stories to stay afloat. I never freelanced in the U.S., but I'd imagine the keys to success are similar. It was important for me to find stories that interested me, or else I'd start wondering why I wasn't looking for a real job in a safer part of the world.

It's also important to be flexible. With the exception of The News & Observer, with which I've had a great relationship since before I went to Iraq, every client I have I've made contact with, I've made in Iraq.

BT: Freelancing here is competitive. How territorial are the reporters in Iraq. Is there a sense of "We're all in this together?"

CC: I've had a great time getting to know the other reporters here. They've been very friendly and a lot of fun to hang out with. Quite a few have gone out of their way to give me advice and help me get work, for which I owe them a lot. There's not really a Band of Brothers attitude, but there is camaraderie based on the fact that it's a group of people who have all volunteered to be in a somewhat dangerous and uncomfortable place. As one of my colleagues said as we sat around the pool at the Hamra Hotel, "I don't know what normal is, but this ain't it."

There's a community of freelancers here that has been great to be a part of. We have similar dilemmas in terms of money and the rest of it. I've also met a lot of well-known journalists, and since I'm a big nerd, it's like seeing celebrities for me. There are a lot of very experienced and very good journalists covering Iraq for very big newspapers. That breeds competition, but it's mostly good-natured. And I have the advantage of being so insignificant that the competitiveness doesn't really affect me.

BT: Since there's probably no typical day, what kind of decisions do you have to make before leaving your hotel every day? Are there stories you've passed on because getting them is too dangerous?

CC: Last time around, I was taking more risks. I went out to write about the 82nd Airborne in Falluja a couple times, and then I went back out there to work on a story about the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. I [was] there the morning the four contractors were killed and mutilated, and that began a period where it became a lot more dangerous to be a Westerner walking around unprotected. I may change my mind after I get more settled in (I've only been back around three weeks), but right now I'm not itching to go back and hang out with the military. That's an issue of comfort as much as safety; Iraq is hard enough to deal with without sleeping on a cot and having no privacy.

Generally speaking, I still feel safe in Baghdad; I try to stay aware of my surroundings, but I don't get nervous when I'm out doing a run-of-the-mill story. Journalists know which parts of Baghdad and Iraq are safe and which are dicey. I also rely on my driver and translator to recognize dangerous situations and know which neighborhoods I shouldn't go into. A couple days ago I was driving around looking for people to talk to about Saddam's televised hearing, and both my translator and [a colleague] warned me against going into a heavily Sunni neighborhood where insurgents have been very active.

BT: Aside from the career opportunity of a lifetime, what's the best part about living in Iraq?

CC: It's kind of a tough place to live, even putting the violence aside. Particularly since the end of March, it has been difficult to have a real life here, one that involves walking the streets, meeting Iraqis and trying to experience the city in a meaningful way. Since I don't speak Arabic, the separation between me and ordinary Iraqis is even more severe.

I enjoy the social life with other Americans and Westerners, even though it can get a bit claustrophobic. There are a lot of very interesting, very smart, very well-traveled people here, people with a lot of experience doing the kind of work I want to do. It makes for great conversation. And being in Baghdad makes everything seem a bit cooler. Even when things aren't so much fun you can think to yourself, "I'm not just at a mediocre party -- I'm at a mediocre party in Baghdad."

I still really enjoy the opportunities I have to experience life in the city, even in a small way. My favorite stories are ones where I get to hang out with Iraqis and ask them fairly mundane questions -- what they think about Saddam or Allawi, what they do for a living and how their business is going, so on. This is a profoundly different culture than American culture.

BT: Because of the war, or just because?

CC: It may not be fair to judge "Iraqi culture" based on the time I've spent here. Iraqis I speak to about it, and Westerners who were here before the war, say it's incredibly different now than it was. The lack of security probably has something to do with the prevalence and vehemence of certain conservative attitudes; I doubt quite as many people would want thieves put to death if there wasn't so much crime. That said, I think there are certain cultural traits that are more entrenched.

Iraqis place a much higher value on personal relationships than Americans do. One problem with the American attempt to create or reform Iraqi institutions is the difficulty in adjusting to that way of doing things. So, for example, you have American doctors telling Iraqi doctors to have annual elections for the leadership of medical specialty societies, when in the past the most senior and best-respected doctor would simply hold the position as long as he wanted it.

Americans are accustomed to being part of and dealing with big impersonal bureaucracies. Our government is a big, impersonal bureaucracy. Iraqis are much more likely to live with, work with and have loyalty to their families, and then to their tribe or their co-religionists.

There's a much greater acceptance of conspiracy theories here. An American who opposes the occupation might say that continued instability serves America's purposes by providing a pretext for keeping troops here, but Iraqis will go further -- I've spoken to quite a few who think suicide bombings were actually caused by rockets fired from American helicopters.

There are also aspects of the culture that have a big impact on everyday life but don't necessarily have big geo-political implications. The acceptability and necessity of bargaining and the culture of hospitality -- I'm always being offered tea and cigarettes; even when I went into a car dealership to do a ten-minute interview about SUVs, an employee brought me a little glass of Iraq tea.

BT: What kind of facial hair are you sporting these days? Does it help you in your work?

CC: I haven't noticed Iraqis treating me much differently based on my facial hair. It's mostly a psychological thing that makes me feel a bit more comfortable; if I were clean shaven I'd feel like I stood out more, whether or not that's true. I had a full beard most of my first trip here. When it got fairly bushy I would occasionally be mistaken for a Turk, an Iranian or an Arab from the Gulf States. Once a paratrooper at a checkpoint inside the Green Zone mistook me for a special forces guy, because some of them wear long beards, too.

When I got here [in June], I had a full beard. I bumped into a friend who looked as American as apple pie clean-shaven but had grown a moustache that made him look like Tariq Aziz's cousin. I decided to try it out, so I'm seeing how I look with a moustache and an Iraqi haircut (long on top, short on the sides).

BT: Sovereignty was returned to Iraq on June 28. Has there been a noticeable difference in the country since then?

CC: There are a lot more Iraqi cops on the street, and since I've been back I've noticed that the U.S. Army's presence isn't quite as obvious. Iraqis seem to be of two minds about the hand-over; on the one hand they think the U.S. is still pulling the strings from behind the scenes, but on the other they think they now have a genuine opportunity to tackle the violence and improve their economic prospects. It seems like a hopeful moment, but there are still a lot of serious problems to be resolved.

BT: Do you get any sense of impending civil war, no matter what happens? Does it look like the U.S. or NATO or the U.N. or whoever will have to be there for a long time, or are we better off just getting out and saying "Good luck?"

CC: Civil war is possible, but I don't think it's likely. That's just my opinion, and there are a lot of people more qualified to talk about it than me. What's more likely is a situation where, de facto, the central government doesn't wield much power in Kurdish areas. There may be a fight over who controls the oil in Kirkuk, which has a lot of Kurds and a lot of Arabs. Partly to avoid that kind of a flare-up, I don't see the U.S. going anywhere anytime soon. We'll be here to provide the muscle until a lot more Iraqi security can be trained and deployed.

The key is whether elections will be held as planned in January and, if so, whether they'll confer legitimacy on the government. Given the security situation and Iraqis' suspicion of democracy, I'd say both of those propositions are iffy.

BT: What does the future look like for you, job-wise? Is there a chance that every job you have after this one will be, well, boring?

CC: Right now I'm going to try to ride this freelancing thing as far as it'll take me. Part of me wants to keep finding somewhat extreme things to write about, but that doesn't have to mean living in a conflict zone. In any case, there's probably a limit to how long I'll be interested in coming to places like Iraq. There's also a part of me that wants to have a normal life: an apartment in a cool American city, a job with health benefits, and all the rest of it. I'm trying not to look too far ahead; I've been flying by the seat of my pants for a while now and it's been working out okay.