Ahmed Fadaam, an Iraqi artist and professor, began his award-winning journalism career in 2003 translating for Dick Gordon's The Story on WUNC. He soon began translating, reporting and producing videos for Agence France-Presse, and reporting for The New York Times out of its Baghdad bureau. In 2006, he started recording firsthand recollections of the war in "Ahmed's Diary," an audio blog regularly featured on The Story. The recipient of a fellowship at UNC, he is taking classes in medical journalism and working on his art, for the first time since the war, in Chapel Hill. The Indy caught up with Fadaam in his single apartment (his wife and two children now live in Syria), where he was finishing a pencil sketch of himself and his family escaping a mortar-shell explosion in Baghdad.
He describes an Iraq where children don't remember anything but the U.S. military occupation and ensuing sectarian violence.
"We're going to have an anti-American generation being built, and prepared, to hate all the Americans," he says, recalling difficult conversations with his young son. "The Iraqis right now know that all Americans are the people wearing uniforms, helmets and sunglasses, and carrying fatal weapons. They don't know that there are people who are family people just like them, people who are trying to live their days, raise their kids and go to their jobs."
You've talked about how Iraq is worse off now than before, and that, if you could have anything, you would want Iraq back with Saddam Hussein in power.
Back in the days of Saddam, we used to say the situation is bad, and we have to do something to get rid of Saddam. After the [American] invasion, even the things we used to see as bad, we started to feel that somehow they were good, because we didn't get anything better than before. Unless you show me something better, the bad I used to have with Saddam can be very good for me. ... Our level of hope is dropping in a scary way.
How important is it for a country to feel hopeful? Can an election change that?
When I said [that things were better], I was talking about the political process that was created by the Americans, which caused people who are disloyal to Iraq to come to the country. The destruction that happened in Iraq, I can say that 30 percent was created by the Americans, and 70 percent was created by [these people]. They have an agenda, and they will execute it no matter what, and fill their pockets with money and leave.
Can you explain why democracy might not appeal to everyone in Iraq?
To tell you the truth, until the American invasion happened, the word "democracy" was mysterious to us. ... The way Iraqis understood freedom, when it was first brought to them, was that they can do whatever they want—even if you break the law.
I was working with AFP on a feature about the elections, and stopped an old woman in Baghdad and asked her, 'Ma'am, what do you think about democracy?' And she said, 'Son, what is democracy?' I said, 'You have the right to vote for a new government every four years.' And she said, 'Oh, good. We'll have looting every four years.' Whenever there's a change in government, there's going to be looting—a great chance. Imagine how people understand democracy.
[Another time] I was translating for an American journalist working for AFP, and we were interviewing a cleric [who] said, 'Democracy's a great thing, and every country should have democracy, but ... it will take some time for people to learn it and to accept it, and we are doing our best to educate people about democracy.' In the end, after I told him this was the last question, he said to me, 'What democracy? These people need a stick to lead them, like sheep.' Even the people who are supposed to educate people about democracy don't believe it. It's just a tool for them to gain whatever benefits they want to make.
We hear about atrocities under Saddam Hussein, but do you feel they are happening on a more regular basis now?
Since the sectarian violence started in 2006, we used to get daily reports [at The New York Times and AFP bureaus] about finding at least 100 unidentified bodies, tortured and shot, in the streets, found by the police. These numbers are part of the numbers of the daily attacks, explosions and assassinations. These are people who are getting kidnapped, tortured and killed. If you imagine that, daily, there's 100 bodies being found in Baghdad—meaning, there's 100 widows, there's 100 orphans—many of these people know what happened, and what it used to be like before 2003, and they are comparing.
We heard about merchants who were executed by Saddam, in public. So we started asking why. It turned out these people raised the prices of rice, and maybe made people starve. So we said, OK, he's right. In our cultural standards, we have an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. If they are making people die of hunger, then they deserve to be dead. ... Saddam committed lots of crimes. He took Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran. He invaded Kuwait. And, he was the cause of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. Just like [George W.] Bush—you have 4,000-some American soldiers killed, but was it Bush who squeezed the trigger? He was the one sending them to Iraq, and having them killed.
I'm not talking as a politician, just as a simple human who thinks that he has the right to live, his family has a right to live, and all the others have a right to live. And there's no reason for them to die unnaturally. I want to age, and then die—I don't want to be killed by a gunshot.
Were you afraid of that, living in Iraq?
Believe me, my friend, in Iraq, every day is a challenge. Once, I was driving from my house to work, and I was following an Iraqi Army patrol. I made sure to stay 60-70 feet away from them. I was just getting out of my neighborhood, when an IED exploded, and the shrapnel almost killed me. It destroyed half my car, and I was just going to work. ...
Sometimes when you introduced yourself as a journalist working for the American media, or any other Western media, some people would say, 'You're a spy,' and they would become tense. ... There were several times when I was this close to being killed, just because I'm a journalist. I had to find a way to get myself out. Some people would say that you are trading with our blood. An explosion means business for you.
As someone whose currency is your words, your creativity and expression, how does that make you value [your profession]—when it's almost gotten you killed before?
Back in 2003, I told a friend I was working for the media, and he said, 'Shame on you. How can you work for them?' I explained to him, 'What's happening here in Iraq, nobody knows about it—unless we tell people.' I think telling people the truth of what happened in Iraq is a sacred duty. If you tell people the facts, you may be able to change the way they think about your country, and about you.