When Asne Seierstad wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, she wanted to do something few war reporters do – get personal. Hence she abandoned the front lines to move in with an Afghan family and write a book about their troubled lives. In doing so she provided a poignant insight to the drudgery of the “old slaves, young slaves” in a traditional Afghan household.
While Seierstad remained invisible in The Bookseller, she throws off the burkha and becomes part of the story in her latest book, A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. She spent several months in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein, and was the only Scandinavian journalist who remained when the Americans invaded.
What did she know about Iraq before she went?
“Not that much – I was just back from Kabul and I did not have that much time to prepare. I read books about Saddam, and I went back to the Thousand and One Nights, to stories in the Bible. There is a big gap; of course there is – but the main thing for me as a reporter was to have wide open eyes and wide open ears, and try to grasp what is happening”
A Hundred and One Days is definitely a book that stays on the ground and avoids big picture analysis – “there are plenty of others who do that better, anyway”. Many of the stories now in the book have previously appeared in Scandinavian papers. While most news reports speculated about what Bush and Blair were thinking, Seierstad spoke of the daily lives of Iraqis. From her we get to know what seven-year-old Hamza is afraid of. Hamza has nightmares of being buried alive with her eyes full of sand, and never seeing her parents again. Seierstad’s skill as a reporter really shines through in her Baghdad stories. There are no attempts to impose her own opinions. She observes, asks questions and narrates. Through her carefully pieced together accounts, the reader is able to gain a small insight in to the lives of ordinary Iraqis before, during and after the American invasion.
Seierstad says she very nearly did not write this book –“I did not want to at first, I just did not think I had a story”. The decision to do so came as a response to her own growing sense that there was so much left to be said about Iraq, things that cannot be communicated through the instant news report.
“In the months after I came home, I kept returning to my experiences in Baghdad. I realised I wanted to explain how it was to work under such extreme conditions, and how the stories actually came about. More importantly, there was a lot more to say about Iraqi people, and now I could write their stories properly. There was my interpreter, Aliya, a Sunni Muslim who grew up with Saddam, had his picture in all her schoolbooks, and only knew him as in idol. Then there were others, whose brothers and husbands had disappeared, who had seen the other face of Saddam. One man told me that Iraq was like an open cesspit, and needs help to throw in a big stone so fresh water can come up. “
The book first introduces us to Saddam’s Baghdad. Here the Great Father is on every wall, always watching you. “Every teahouse in Baghdad had its own spy”, writes Seierstad. What can a journalist write when everyone is afraid of talking to her? When everything she does is observed and censored? “In war there are always lies. But all stories are important, and I think the book shows why. Like when we visit the newspaper, and I ask the editor for the newspaper’s opinion. He responds that he is waiting for the ministry to fax it to him. That also tells you something. And when people say we are not afraid because we are Iraqi, and our children are not afraid because they are made of steel and iron: you hear that same line over and over again, and realise it is too much, they cannot really mean it; so why do they say it? ”