A Small Town in the Middle East

baghdadnight A Small Town in the Middle East"I had a big birthday the other day, a birthday with a zero in it," said Jim Muir, the Baghdad bureau chief for the BBC. "Unbeknownst to me they organized a surprise party. They put out an invitation to our street, which we share with the New York Times, and Reuters, and the AP, and various other news outlets. Only two people came."

The life of a foreign correspondent can be an isolating job; but that is nowhere as true as it is for the reporters covering Baghdad.

It’s rare that you ever leave your bureau at all. When you do, you’re taking one giant risk. So is it really worth it to grab your buddies in the bureau, corral security detail and some translators all so you can share a glass of wine with another reporter?

And if you did … where would you go?

"This is the single worst war I’ve ever had to cover in terms of after hours," said Terry McCarthy, bureau chief for ABC. "There are no bars here. We can’t really go out at night. You really only socialize with the people in your own compound. It’s not fun."

"Once you are in Iraq you have to live it 24 hours a day," said Michael Ware of CNN. "It’s not as if you can stroll down to a restaurant. It’s not as if there is anything of an ilk of a great Saigon bar."

"It’s the most confining story I’ve ever covered," said Bob Reid, the AP’s bureau chief, and 31-year veteran of foreign assignments. "I find actually it’s quite limiting. When you talk to other reporters, it’s good to bounce off ideas and some perspective. It helps you round your opinion of what’s going on and that’s very difficult in an environment like this."

There are stories of occasional mingling. The Times hosts dinner parties at its house, and can seat up to 15 people along their old, long wooden dinner table.

But if you go out for dinner, the threats are many: there’s the random suicide bomber; a kidnapping; an errant rocket falls at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Even though security has improved for Iraqis, there is still a significant kidnap threat for foreigners," said Mr. McCarthy. "We’re worth a lot of money to them. I see that as something that’s going to last, frankly, for some time."

"I told you about risk and reward, right?" said Jim Glanz, the Times’ bureau chief. "I used to go shopping in Baghdad, and I used to go to restaurants. Then at a certain point we started asking ourselves ‘OK, if I’m out with my friend Dexter [Filkins] and a bomb goes off—as it did one night with The Washington Post when they were out for a party out in Baghdad a few years ago—and let’s say Dexter gets killed. So I’m going to go back to Dexter’s parents let’s say I say, ‘In the line of duty, Dexter was killed.’ And they’ll say ‘what was he doing?’ And I’ll say we were out having kebab at a restaurant. And they’ll say ‘My son died while you’re bureau chief because you were at a restaurant?’

"I’m the one who has to call the wife, the brother, the sister, the father, the mother and say, you know, ‘Your son or daughter is dead,’" he continued. "I’m the one who will have to explain what was going on at the time. And so, what I have to keep in mind, as we go over there is with the understanding to carry out a certain mission to tell this enormously important story, is that we all take risks. If I let someone go into harm’s way for no journalistic reason, I’ll never be able to justify it."

"It’s tempting to say, ‘It’s really nice so lets go buy ice cream!’" said Tina Susman, the bureau chief for the L.A. Times. "But then you have to say, wait a second, it’s not just me going. It’s my translator, a couple security guards come with me, my driver, and you’re putting them all at risk. And you always have to remind yourself that maybe it’s not worth it even if it seems really nice and calm right now. Is it really worth it to push the envelope?"

It’s a calculated decision, of course. By all measures, things are getting better, however incrementally. But it’s all just so unpredictable.

"We do takeout," said NBC’s Richard Engel, who said a new Chinese restaurant opened around the corner. "It’s good. I go. But I wouldn’t go and order dumplings and sit there for an hour."

Once upon a time, before the invasion, Baghdad was a glorious Middle East paradise! There were restaurants, there were parties! Right?

"The first time I came here was in October 1982," said Mr. Reid. "I have some perspective and trust me this was never Damascus or Cairo and certainly never Beirut or the mega-money cities. It’s always been a shabby, rundown place that lacked a lot of comforts and diversions. I suppose what I’m trying to say is even if you went out there were a limited number of places where you’d want to go out. There’s a lot of mythology here—there’s a line of fish restaurants along the Tigris! Sure they were there, but let’s not go too far in saying how many and how lively they were."

Instead: "You could go wherever you wanted if you were in Lebanon and Syria," said Mr. Reid. "Baghdad was a dump."

Certainly it hasn’t gotten any better and if there isn’t much reason for socializing outside of their Baghdad newsrooms today, for better or for worse, there’s plenty of it going on in the inside—with the people they see all day, every day, several weeks and months over and over.

"Our hotel has a swimming pool," said Mr. Engel. "We socialize with the others who are in our compound. That’s about it. We occasionally watch DVDs."

"We have a little yard in the front, we can have a barbecue from time to time," said Bobby Ghosh, the former Time bureau chief.

"We’re all on the same floor," said said Ms. Susman. "It’s something of an adult university dorm."

"I’m lucky that I went to boarding school and I was in the army!" said Mr. Reid. "If you don’t adapt to that kind of communal living, it creates stress on you and everyone around you."

The complaints in the AP bureau, especially, are extensive: "So and so spent too much time in the shower! So and so left his toothpaste on the table in a communal shower. Turn down your TV at night, I can’t sleep! Why did you leave your plate here, the ants are gonna come!"

Sounds lovely.

"What are you doing on a day off when you’re living and working the same building!" he continued. "There are no diversions! People come here, they work long hours and they work seven days a week. You can do that for six or seven weeks before your brain completely fries and then you take some time off."

And, mostly, never come back.