“We're being followed,” my translator Nadeem said, repeating the message that Mohammad, the driver of our “chase” or second car, had just relayed via walkie-talkie.
Our would-be pursuer, driving a flashy gray Nissan SUV with red rally stripes, had been behind us since we left the hotel. He spoke into either a walkie-talkie or satellite phone as he cut across several lanes of traffic to follow us off an exit ramp and stayed close behind our two-car convoy as we wound our way through the Qadasiya district.
I was almost too frightened to speak or panic. Indeed, I felt strangely calm, vaguely wondering if this would turn out to be another close call or something more ominous. Foreigners are frequently targeted by both insurgents and kidnappers.
But before I had much time to think, Abbas, the driver of the lead car, and Mohammad coordinated a lightning-quick left onto a side street where several security guards stood in front of some Iraqi VIP's home. The Nissan slowed down as if to contemplate following us, but continued down the road.
We all breathed a sigh of relief, and found our way to a friendly teahouse where we decompressed. I added another close call to a list which includes a car bomb that blew out my hotel windows, death threats to my translator and numerous roadside bombs, and I again put to myself a question that becomes more urgent with each visit to this country since the war two years ago: Should I even be here? Certainly, my mother doesn't think so. And she's grown so afraid of my going to Iraq that I no longer even let on that I'm heading there until I'm already in Baghdad.
“What's the endgame?” one old friend asked me via e-mail. “At what point will you decide that it's time to stop going to Iraq?” I asked my longtime translator Shamil whether he thought I should be coming to Iraq. “Well,” he said, with a laugh, “I happen to think all you journalists are crazy.”
Indeed, it seems to me that it requires a certain madness to come to Iraq. The lifestyle of a Baghdad correspondent is awful. We are cloistered in a hotel every night and make death-defying trips into the outside world during the day. I am forbidden from speaking in public lest I give myself away as a foreigner.
In Baghdad, I sacrifice all the little things in life that I truly cherish: an afternoon run through a park, sampling a new restaurant, watching a movie on the big screen.
Recently, I broke down and bought a Chinese-made elliptical cross trainer to keep in my hotel room. I blast my iPod and work out in an attempt to recreate some semblance of the bland North American lifestyle I've given up. ”
I get deeper, I get deeper, I get deeper, into this thing,” raps Fatboy Slim.
In Baghdad, I live on the Internet. I've installed Skype on both my and my wife's laptops, so that we can have long conversations with each other, without paying a cent. I manage my finances online. How's Microsoft stock doing? For holidays, I often head to Dubai, the clean, gleaming facsimile of suburban America on the sand dunes of the Persian Gulf. I used to scornfully take life in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up for granted. In Dubai, I rent a car and drive to a mall and eat at the food court, maybe catch a movie at the multiplex. Sound familiar? But eventually, Baghdad always beckons and I find myself waking up with a start as the latest car bomb explodes and the sirens wail and daily life keeps getting harder and harder.
Once upon a time, my translator and I used to stroll off the hotel compound and grab a cab to our appointments. Now my team includes two armed drivers and a bodyguard named Redha — a onetime bodyguard of Saddam's notorious son Uday — who keeps a Russian-made Mikarov submachine gun with him at all times.
“Why do you have the barrel of the gun sawed off like this?” I asked him once.
“For a silencer,” he responded. ”
Why would you need a silencer?” I asked, astonished. “Wait. Don't answer that. I don't want to know.”
Should I even be here? Certainly there are high-minded reasons to keep returning. I've been covering Iraq now for nearly three years and know intimately the country's topography and demography. I know without looking at a map what parts of the capital and countryside are relatively safe and which are no-go zones. If journalists like me stop coming to Iraq and honestly covering this ongoing war, then who will? But I have to be honest with myself about what draws me back to Baghdad again and again, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a kind of compulsive behavior.
War may be hell for the civilians who bear the brunt of the violence and despair, but for its combatants and chroniclers, it becomes an irresistible adrenaline rush, the ultimate extreme sport.
I could see that in lines worn onto the faces of the Kurdish peshmerga warriors, some of them middle-aged dads who risked everything to take part in one last battle against Saddam when the war began two years ago. I could see it in the sleepless eyes of the Marines who stormed through Iraq during the collapse of former Iraqi government in April 2003. I could hear it in the cries of the Army soldiers who gleefully volunteered for early morning combat missions in the Sunni triangle as well as the videotaped boasts of insurgents who've made violent holy war their lifestyle.
And I can also detect it in the nervous gallows humor of my colleagues and myself, who've come up with little psychological tactics to manage our fear and continue operating here as journalists.
I thought the sacrifices of covering Iraq would eventually get the better of me, and I'd want out. But it turns out that like all countries fighting wars, the sacrifices become investments, and the harder it becomes to pull out, even when it's the wise thing to do.
Should I even be here? Probably not, but for the foreseeable future, I'll continue to return.
This piece originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
……………….. Spam?! Khalaas!