Three Monkeys Online

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A Baghdad Journal – Asne Seierstad

Little by little it becomes possible to get some answers, to get past the programmed responses. As events develop and Seierstad’s bond with her Iraqi co-workers deepens, there are glimpses – and then a torrent – of real emotions. By the end of the book, a picture of a deeply wounded, deeply divided society has emerged. Seierstad comes back several times to what happens to her driver and interpreter:

“When the statue fell, everyone remembers that image, I was with two Iraqis, friends since childhood. They both cry – one from sadness, one from joy. They had never spoken about politics, it was too dangerous, but now they can. Differences in their background and experiences suddenly emerge. They argue, then stop speaking, and today one is working for the Americans and the other supports the insurgents.”

What is her feeling about the situation in Iraq now? “It is like a big fire which will be very hard to put out. The lack of a plan for peace, of any understanding of how Iraqi society operated, of the different experiences of Sunni and Shia for example, means serious mistakes continue to be made. If the Americans had really cared about the Iraqi people they would have gone about things very differently. But then Saddam was their friend for years! When they did invade, so many mistakes were made. They did not secure Baghdad, apart from guarding the Ministry for Oil. Nothing was done to deal with the huge civil service, the police – it seems like they did not want to deal with the old regime, but what they failed to understand is that nearly everyone was part of it! They could even have tried to look as if they cared, provided medicine and blankets“.

Seierstad clearly has strong opinions, but in the book she remains a detached witness to complex realities. The reader is left to do the analysis and make up his or her own mind. She has this time chosen to place herself at the centre of the story, which marks a significant change from her previous books. In The Bookseller, the omnipotent storyteller was never present. This time Seierstad has gone the opposite way. In spite of the fairytale associations of the title, this is a narrative anchored very much in the author’s own consciousness. There is no doubt here about whose thoughts we are privy to, and this is underlined on the very first page of the book. Here Seierstad says ”My reports from Baghdad are my reports. They are written in the light of my own, probably insufficient, experiences … “

This may be seen as a reference to the trouble she encountered after The Bookseller of Kabul was translated into English. The bookseller himself, Shah Mohammed Rais (Sultan Khan in her book) last year arrived on her Norwegian doorstep and threatened to sue for misrepresenting his family and his country. Seierstad acknowledges that Rais’ unusual reaction raises questions around Western interpretations of the Islamic world. But she is not apologetic:

“I had no idea that this was such a dysfunctional family when I moved in. The bookseller really had two faces. He presented himself as a liberal but to his family, he is a tyrant. So, I write what I observe – and he hates it! But I would not be a very good journalist if I only wrote what he told me. He should not have invited me if he felt he had something to hide. He tells his own story, and that is fine, great – but I could not let him rewrite mine!”

She says she has no regrets, but adds that she realises now that “perhaps it is not possible for a Western woman to write an account of an Afghan man that he would like. Our worlds are too far apart“.

The experience may have influenced Seierstad’s decision to put the reporter at the centre of the Baghdad book. It may also simply be an acknowledgment that there are many different ways of solving the war reporter’s dilemma. Even so, the starting point has to be that the journalist can never escape from his or her own senses and experiences, especially when operating in an alien and hostile environment, where access to reliable information is scarce. By acknowledging this, while still focusing on the real drama of war and oppression, Seierstad has written a book that is a testament to the power and potential of investigative journalism.

Chronicling Catastrophes – Asne Seirstad in interview

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