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From Baghdad, This Is Jamie Tarabay

NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Jamie Tarabay, has been living in and covering Iraq since December 2005. She spoke to Terry Gross in Fresh Air's Philadelphia studios, during a two-week break from her reporting duties. Australian by birth and Lebanese by heritage, Tarabay speaks fluent Arabic and French. She lived for three years as a child in Beirut during the bombings there. Before joining NPR she was a correspondent for the Associated Press, reporting from Southeast Asia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.

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Transcript

DATE August 23, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: NPR Baghdad bureau chief and author of the book "A
Crazy Occupation" Jamie Tarabay on reporting from Iraq and her
Lebanese upbringing
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jamie Tarabay, has been
risking her life to report on what Iraqis are facing in their day-to-day
lives. Tarabay is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. She's been reporting from Iraq
since 2005. She speaks fluent Arabic. Her parents are Lebanese, and she
spent a few years of her childhood in Lebanon but grew up mostly in Australia.
After each six-week period she spends in Iraq, she leaves the country for two
weeks. I spoke with her this morning in the FRESH AIR studio.

Jamie Tarabay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about some of your
experiences reporting from Iraq, I'd like your general overall picture of
what's going on now. A national intelligence estimate is released today.
What are your impressions of how power-sharing is going in the Iraqi
government?

Ms. JAMIE TARABAY: Well, just before I left, I interviewed Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki and he just announced a new alliance, but basically it only
involved the people who he already had on side already, you know, the Kurdish
leadership and his political party and another very powerful Shia political
party. But it didn't include the people who are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the
Shiite cleric, and it didn't include any Sunnis. And this was something that
has always been a problem. He hasn't been able to form a consensus with the
main parties.

Whenever it's been an issue to try and push legislation through, these
benchmarks that the US administration has, you know, the review of the
de-Baathification was one of the things, the laws against people who belonged
to Saddam's old Bath party, the distribution of the oil revenues, the changes
to the constitution. These are all things that have to make it to parliament.
parliament always gets accused of being slow, of being absent, of being
incapable of--even a first reading of the bill hasn't gotten to the floor, but
that's because it's stuck up in the upper echelons in the cabinet with the
presidency council, which involves Maliki, the President Jalal Talibani, who
is a Kurd, and the vice president, you know Sunni Tariq al-Hashimi. And
because they can't agree, there's no movement, and this has been going
on--Nouri al-Maliki's been in the job for more than a year now, and he still
hasn't been able to move anything forward. And that's one of the things that
I think is going to come up in this report.

GROSS: And is this reflective of larger historical distrust between the
ethnic groups that these three men represent?

Ms. TARABAY: Absolutely. I mean, when people ask me to describe what it's
like in Iraq right now and just the manifestation of it on the ground as we
see as the sectarian killings. It's the displacement, you know. But,
ultimately, you have people who weren't allowed to hate each other for more
than 30 years. You weren't allowed to have an opinion about anybody. You had
to do what you were told or you were in trouble, and that's really what's
going on now, is just this eruption of everything that's been festering all of
this time.

The Shiites, who were oppressed under Saddam, now--they've always been the
majority but they've been the oppressed majority, and now they're in charge
and they don't really want to share with the Sunnis, who enjoyed everything
that they didn't get to have while Saddam was in power. And they kind of feel
like, you know, `It's our time now and we need to take care of ourselves, and
if you as the Sunnis want to cooperate with us, but if you don't, well, that's
too bad for you. But we really just want to continue on our path now. It's
our time.'

GROSS: What are your observations of whether the surge in American troops has
diminished the amount of sectarian violence in Iraq?

Ms. TARABAY: Well, in Baghdad in particular, it's been a stopgap of sorts.
I mean, flooding the capital with troops has stopped militias from overrunning
neighborhoods. But they're still there. There haven't--you know, there is
still--we still get daily figures from our people at the morgue. We still get
daily figures from people that we know at the interior ministry who, you
know--the discovery of bodies dumped in different parts of the capital, you
know, the execution-style killings. These are all signatures of sectarian
violence. That is still going on, but not to the extent that it was before
the surge.

But the question now is, what happens when they leave? You know, these troops
in their numbers can't be there forever, and that's what everyone talks about.
There has to be political progress to match the military gain on the ground,
and that isn't happening.

GROSS: I'd like to play our listeners an excerpt of one of the reports that
you did for NPR, a really incredible report about somebody who you work with
at the NPR bureau in Baghdad, and this is somebody whose father was kidnapped,
and you did a story about his father's kidnapping. First, tell us how the
reporter's father was kidnapped.

TARABAY: Well, Abdulla's father, Arif, was driving his other brother to work,
like he did every day, and they were stopped at a junction, and at least two
cars stopped them, and men got out, grabbed his father, left his brother in
the middle of the street, basically, and then they just took off. And that
happens all the time.

GROSS: Well, in this excerpt of the report, Abdulla's phone keeps ringing
from family who want to know like what's going on, and he's told them, `Don't
call until we get more information,' and we'll pick up the report from there.
This is Jamie Tarabay.

(Soundbite of NPR news report)

Ms. TARABAY: Then his mobile phone rang. The caller ID said it was his
father. Abdulla recorded the call.

(Soundbite of speaking in a foreign language)

ABDULLA: I picked up the phone and there was a man talking and, you know, out
of shock I thought it was my father. And I was calling him, you know,
`Father, is that you?' It turned out to be the guy who was negotiating from
the kidnappers' side.

Ms. TARABAY: The caller asked Abdulla if he was related to the man they were
holding. Abdulla said it was his father, that he was sick, a diabetic, and
old.

ABDULLA: And I started begging them, almost in tears, you know, `Please don't
hurt him. He's my father. He's an old man. He hasn't done anything.'

Ms. TARABAY: The kidnapper responded, `We know.' Then he asked Abdulla if
his father was precious to him. Abdulla said, `Yes.' The kidnapper said, `I
want money.' He asked for 10 notebooks. A notebook, as it's called on the
streets, is $10,000 American--in other words, $100,000 for Abdulla's father.
The United Nations says kidnappings have become a way for armed groups in Iraq
to finance their activities. Abdulla told the man on the phone he didn't have
that kind of money.

ABDULLA: He said, `Well, you know, you need to decide. It's your father, and
your father told us that `my boys love me; they will do anything.'

Ms. TARABAY: The kidnapper said he would call again later that day and hung
up. Abdulla telephoned his family, relatives and tribe for help raising the
money.

ABDULLA: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. TARABAY: The kidnapper called back at three in the afternoon. He said
he wanted the money that same day. Abdulla told him that was impossible.

ABDULLA: And he started threatening me, you know, that, `If you don't
cooperate with us and do as we told you, you know what would happen to your
father. We will torture him.' He said, `I'll crush his head and I'll send it
to you as a gift.'

Ms. TARABAY: Abdulla pleaded with the kidnapper to let him speak with his
father. After more threats, there was silence and then Arif's voice came over
the line.

ARIF: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. TARABAY: Arif told Abdulla he was being treated well, but he sounded
weak; then his kidnappers were back on the line demanding money. They
negotiated, and the ransom came down a bit. Abdulla felt he needed to be
strong. His whole family was depending on him.

ABDULLA: I had to do it because nobody wanted to do it. My uncle said after
he heard the conversation, you know, `It's my brother, but I would have broken
down. I couldn't deal with these people.'

Ms. TARABAY: Abdulla managed, through his family and loans, to raise enough
money to satisfy the kidnappers. The man called the next day, told Abdulla to
wear a long Arab tunic, wrap a kafia around his head and bring the money to a
drop-off point. Against the objections of his family, Abdulla agreed. He
forbade anyone to follow him. It was raining when the man called Abdulla
again and gave him directions. Abdulla followed his instructions to a large
traffic circle.

ABDULLA: And then I waited there, and he told me to cross the street on the
other side and to put the money between some blocks set up there. There's a
space for two, three inches where you just drop it, and I asked when. He
said, `Now. Drop it and then go home' and then while I was talking to him the
phone just died.

Ms. TARABAY: In all the panic and worry, Abdulla had forgotten to do a
simple thing: recharge his mobile phone. It was the last time Abdulla would
hear from the kidnapper, and he's heard nothing from his father. Abdulla
dials his father's cell every day, and every time he gets the same message:
the cell phone is switched off.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an excerpt of Jamie Tarabay's report about one of her
colleagues in NPR's Baghdad bureau whose father was kidnapped.

So, Jamie, Abdulla gave the kidnappers the money but his father was never
released?

Ms. TARABAY: This was one of the hardest things to accept when Abdulla came
to me and said, `I want you to do this story.' And literally it meant that if
you really want to go public with this then you're acknowledging that you've
given up hope on your father ever coming back. And he said, `Yes.' And it's
just, you know--and you think about--his dad was such a point of reference,
for me especially. In so many things he was very educated, you know...

GROSS: So you knew his father?

Ms. TARABAY: Well, I'd never met him, but every time I had a question of
some historical significance or, you know, a person that I didn't know about,
I would say, you know, `What does your dad say?' You know, `Ask your father
what he knows about this person,' and `What happened at this point in Iraq's
history?' And he was a personal point of reference for me so just, you know,
hearing his voice, and you do, you hear him and he sounds so weak, and you
just think `oh my God.'

But, you know, this happens all the time. You've got people who go missing
and they don't know what happens to them. Abdulla went to the morgue every
day for weeks and there he met people who have been going to the morgue for
months just to see if they could find their loved ones. You know, when
someone is kidnapped, it's the cruelest way of torturing not just the person
who has to obviously endure unimaginable hardship, but everybody around them,
you know, their family, their relatives, the people that they work with.
There's such a wider circle that gets affected by something like this.

GROSS: And the thought that the kidnappers aren't playing by the rules even,
I mean, if there are any rules for kidnapping, but the rules for kidnapping
usually are if you do come through with the money, you get the person back.

Ms. TARABAY: Right.

GROSS: But it sounds like it's fairly standard now in Iraq...

Ms. TARABAY: Right.

GROSS: ...that you'll pay the money and your loved one still is not released.

Ms. TARABAY: Right. In one of the last stories that I did before I just
left was how it's literally just turned into a way for people to make money
because they can't get a job, and, you know, one of the interior ministry
officials that I spoke to said, `Really, you just need three to four guys and
a car and you've got a kidnapping ring.' And, you know, a lot of the people
who go missing who are kidnapped and then have people pay for them, they are
killed in the end, most likely because of who they are, whether they're Shiite
or Sunni and they've been kidnapped by someone who is a sectarian--it's a
sectarian group that's taken them. So there's never any hope.

But, you know, one of my colleagues did a story about how today in Iraq, to
die naturally is considered a blessing because there are so many people who
are taken by the violence: in suicide bombing attacks; in, you know, drive-by
shootings; in sectarian killings; in kidnappings that they don't know--people
don't have the opportunity to grieve. They can't mourn. They can't have a
funeral. And so when someone dies naturally, like from old age or sickness or
something, they're right in front of you and you can go through that process.
And this whole entire country's just seized by total PTSD because they haven't
had an opportunity to mourn yet. So, you know, that's just one of the things
about living there at the moment that everyone has to deal with.

GROSS: My guest is Jamie Tarabay, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Jamie Tarabay.

Tell us the kidnapping-related story about what happened when you were
interviewing the Iraqi president, Jalal al-Talibani.

Ms. TARABAY: Oh, with me personally?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell that story.

Ms. TARABAY: Well, I'd gone to President Talibani's house. He was hosting
some political talks--and actually I went with Abdulla--and I'd gotten dressed
as a Shiite woman. I'd worn a long cloak thing and I'd wrapped my head in a
scarf. But when I got inside, I took my scarf off and Talibani saw me and he
started laughing. He was like, `You look half and half. You know, because
you've got half of your head covered.'

And when I went to talk to him, he was just sitting there in the corner, and a
man in a suit just came and whispered in his ear and he started laughing and I
said, `What's so funny?' And he said, `Oh, he reckons you could get $100,000.'
I said, `Oh.' Part of me actually was quiet, it was like, Really? Just
100,000?' You know?

GROSS: He meant kidnappers...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...could demand $100,000 for you.

Ms. TARABAY: Literally. Yeah.

GROSS: That's what you'd be worth?

Ms. TARABAY: Exactly. I mean, that's one of the dangers of being a
foreigner. You do feel a bit like a walking ATM machine. Half the time when
people see, when they recognize that you're a foreigner, they recognize that
you're valuable. You have a street value, you know. And you could be pinched
by someone who could just sell you down the chain to someone who will
eventually put you on television in an orange jumpsuit. I mean, that's like
you get--literally people get taken by criminal gangs who sell people for a
profit, sell people for a profit, and goes on and on and on and on.

GROSS: So, what do you do to prevent that from happening? You must be like
hyperaware of that when you are reporting in Iraq?

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah. I think hyperaware is definitely the way that I would
describe my state of mind when I'm there. You're just, you're very aware of
everything around you. You're at your most exposed when you're on the street,
when you're in a car, when you're moving because you could come up to a fake
checkpoint, you know, one of these illegal checkpoints that are manned by men
in police uniforms who ostensibly may be police but also are militia. I mean,
right now, they're interchangeable. And they could see that you're a
foreigner. They could stop you. Or they could radio ahead or phone the guy
in the next checkpoint ahead and say, `There's a foreigner in this car. Grab
them.' You could be stopped in a traffic jam.

I mean, I'm very aware, just anyway, just when I'm driving around and having
people look into the car, and you can do anything. You can, you know, wrap
your head in a scarf. You can, you know, wear sunglasses. You can sit in the
back. You can put your head down. And one of the things that you have to
always do, you're not allowed to look around you. You're not allowed to
engage eye contact, you know.

GROSS: Is that because you're a woman?

Ms. TARABAY: Yes, yes. Because, you know, an Arab woman just doesn't--you
look straight ahead. So you've got to be very--if you're looking out the
window engaging at people, they're like, `What's up with that?'

GROSS: That's a real problem...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...if your job is to observe...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ...which is your job.

Ms. TARABAY: Exactly. So I always feel like I lose 10 years off my life in
the car when I'm driving around in Baghdad. It's a nightmare.

GROSS: Can you drive yourself or do you have to have a driver?

Ms. TARABAY: No, I have a driver. Oh yeah. I did, you know, in 2003, I did
take the wheel a couple of times, and that was a load of fun for me, but it
was also--I just raised so many eyebrows doing it, you know. But there are
still Iraqi women who do drive, but not as many as there used to. I mean,
that last vestige of independence and they've had to give it away.

GROSS: How much do you rely on your Iraqi staff at the NPR bureau to go out
into the streets and bring back information?

Ms. TARABAY: I couldn't do my job without them. I mean, they are our eyes
and ears, and even without any of their own reporting, just the mere fact that
they are Iraqis living in Baghdad, and what happens to them personally is a
reflection on the changes that are happening in the capital and what it's like
to be an Iraqi living in Baghdad. They tell me so much more than I ever need
to know from any official about what it really is like.

Because, you know, I mean, I went on a walk around the market with General
Petraeus once, and you know, he does this thing where he goes and, you know,
he has tea and he buys fruit and he buys things from the different shops and
everything, and, you know, he says hello to everyone. And following in his
wake, people are just like, `We don't have electricity. You know, we haven't
had electricity for six days.' And I talked to the company commander of the
area and he said, `Yeah, but you know they have four hours of electricity.'
It's like, but then they have 20 hours of no electricity. I mean, you've got
to be able to balance that out, and saying four hours of electricity like it's
something fabulous after five years, really, you know, and what you have to do
is if you're supplying the neighborhood with generators because they still
can't have that electricity capacity, I mean, what does that tell you about
the progress that's going on on the ground?

GROSS: I was reading in The New York Times today that some of the electric
grid is controlled by militias...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...in Iraq.

Ms. TARABAY: Well, I mean, this is all part of the political power plays
that are going on right now. You know, I mean, I did a story on the interior
ministry and how it is literally just a battleground for all the political
parties. Everybody wants the ability to control the ministry that used to
have a file on every person in the country. The ability to monitor everyone,
to know where everyone is and who is where and who they are, and just the
whole sense of the lack of security. And the thing that I ended up saying in
my story was that, OK, they all have their militias in the police, so at the
end of the day, when the Americans leave, they're al going to be, you know,
what, 300,000 militia men on the road, on the street, with guns. Not 300,000
policemen. They're not interested in policing the capital or the country to
take care of everyone. They're interested in looking after their own, and
that's really what the situation is like now over there.

GROSS: Is there a particular militia that's controlling the neighborhood
you're living in in Baghdad now?

Ms. TARABAY: No, we have private security.

GROSS: I guess that's the best answer I could hear from you.

Ms. TARABAY: I can't say any more than that.

GROSS: And why can't you say any more than that?

Ms. TARABAY: It would compromise not only safety but the people that I live
with and our situation and our neighbors and, you know; and security really is
the greatest concern for anyone who lives in Baghdad these days.

GROSS: And as journalists, particularly Western journalists, you're really
targets?

Ms. TARABAY: Absolutely, absolutely.

GROSS: Jamie Tarabay is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. She'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with NPR's Baghdad bureau
chief Jamie Tarabay. She's been covering Iraq since 2005. That year, she
also published a memoir about an earlier assignment covering the second
intifada for the Associated Press. The book is called "A Crazy Occupation."
Tarabay is currently on a two-week break from Iraq. When we left off, we were
talking about some of the dangers of living in Iraq.

One of the big problems you face driving is IEDs, the improvised explosive
devices, which seem to be all over the roads, disguised in every kind of way.
You had another incredible report that you did for NPR about encountering a
live IED. I mean, rather than me telling about it, let's hear your report.
But let me just set it up. This report was filed in March of this year. It
was a very close call for you. You were traveling with a convoy of supply
vehicles led by 1st Lieutenant Douglas McGregor, and they just finished
delivering supplies to a newly-built outpost in the village of...

Ms. TARABAY: Shakarat.

GROSS: Shakarat.

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're all on the way back from that base when you heard IEDs
explode around you, and the lieutenant said, you know, that you had to be
really cautious and all that. Your report will pick up the story from here.

(Soundbite of NPR news report)

Ms. TARABAY: The soldiers say it's hard to know what to look for. Anything
could be a weapon or a trigger. The crinkled up mess of metal discarded by
the side of the road, the plastic bag fluttering on the trash heap.
Everything and everyone looks suspicious, even children. McGregor got news on
his radio and turned to the gunner to warn him.

1st Lieutenant DOUGLAS McGREGOR: OK, so we got rock throwers in an alleyway
on the left.

Unidentified Man #1: Say what?

1st Lt. McGREGOR: Just stay down. Just stay down and watch your head.

Man #1: Sorry, sir?

1st Lt. McGREGOR: Just stay down and watch your head. There's rock throwers
on the left.

Man #1: Oh.

1st Lt. McGREGOR: The little kids are waving, but they probably hate you.

Oh, yeah. Hey. Actually, hey, grab some candy for the rock throwers. There.
Throw some peanuts at them. Just wait for it.

Ms. TARABAY: The convoy then rolled into a deserted part of the village.
The shops looked like mechanic garages, but were all shuttered. It was eerily
vacant, so close to the place where, moments earlier, children had played.
McGregor pointed out a curious yellow trash can.

1st Lt. McGREGOR: OK, yellow trash cans on the right side of the road.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: Oh...(word censored by station).

Ms. TARABAY: The explosion showered metal and sand into the humvee, leaving
those inside coughing. But the vehicle kept going. McGregor's tone didn't
change. He ordered the convoy to continue. Contact with an IED, he called
it. The soldiers tried to inject some humor into the moment by counting how
many IEDs they'd each encountered.

Unidentified Man #2: That's the trifecta. We've got three in a row. Three
days in a row.

1st Lt. McGREGOR: Hey, throw some peanuts at these kids. Maybe they'll stop
setting up IEDs.

Unidentified Man #3: Don't blow us up, please.

Ms. TARABAY: By the end of the journey, all vehicles in the convoy were
still intact. The gunner wondered out loud in jest if he'd been hit in the
head. Reminding him that things could have been much worse, McGregor told him
to quit whining.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an excerpt of a report filed by my guest Jamie Tarabay. She
was filed from the Diyala province in Iraq. Jamie is NPR's Baghdad bureau
chief.

Jamie, it must have taken incredible presence of mind and focus to keep your
recording machine on and keep reporting as the explosion went off.

Ms. TARABAY: Actually, it's still difficult for me to hear that. The...

GROSS: Like a whole flashback thing?

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah, that whole, you know, I was just bracing. I remember
that, just watching this thing go off in front of me, and just the
reverberation, you know, like inside your insides, like your diaphragm, just
kind of as boom, boom, you know, just reverberation inside your body, and you
just feel the force of it. And I just remember bracing myself, waiting to be
lacerated, you know, just waiting for the shrapnel to hit my face, to just
kind of start shredding me. And then, you know, I just, coughing up dust and
just feeling, `OK, OK, OK, I'm still in one piece. I can feel my fingers, and
OK, OK.' And then I looked down and I saw my recorder, you know, I always
record in a humvee. I always--I never turn that off. That's just one of the
things that I do because, apart from the fact that you might get things like
that, you also get the soldiers talking And it's so important to, you know,
open a window into their everyday thought. And you miss--you know, there's a
lot of stuff that goes on inside a humvee that is always worth, as you know,
for journalists to report.

But, you know, just the immediate aftermath of that is, `OK. That was an IED.
Wow. OK.' You know, and just feeling like you've gone through it, you've
passed it, and, you know, I think I was in shock afterwards. I know I had a
huge migraine. But considering what's happened to other people who've been in
the same situation, I was incredibly lucky.

GROSS: How close was the explosion to the humvee?

Ms. TARABAY: It was right in front of it. I mean, we were the lead vehicle,
and it was just in front of the hood, the bonnet as I call it in Australia.
So it happened right in front of us.

GROSS: OK, so you realized that you still had all your body parts. You were
alive. And your cassette machine was on.

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: Or whatever.

Ms. TARABAY: My...(unintelligible)...digital recorder.

GROSS: Your digital recorder.

Ms. TARABAY: Right.

GROSS: Thank you. And then what? Just in terms of like the recording of the
piece, then what? Did you start immediately talking to the men in the humvee
with you?

Ms. TARABAY: Well, I think because it was such a tense day, it was a very
tense morning. We'd already had two IEDs that--one was diffused, one was
spotted, and then this was the third one that went off. And we were all just
very anxious to get back to base. And I actually had to file a piece for
morning edition, so I was just concentrating on meeting my deadline. And...

GROSS: And this wasn't the piece, or...

Ms. TARABAY: I filed this for "All Things Considered" the same day in the
end because, you know, I went back, I'd listened to it. I realized that I had
the explosion, you know, the sound was good enough. And I just filed a little
reporters notebook. But, you know, I just remembered running back to the base
when we got back and ringing my editor, and just thinking, `OK, OK, OK, you
know, I can still make the deadline. I just got hit by an IED, but I can
still do it.' And they said, `What's wrong with you? You know, it's OK. Calm
down.'

But, you know, you try to not think about the fact that you nearly died, and
just focus on what you do know and focus on your work, and you just carry on.
And afterwards, I met with the lieutenant again who wanted to check up on me
and make sure that everything was OK. And he told me that he went back to the
place and found literally the guy's nest, as he called it, you know, there's
an abandoned building with, you know, a pile of bricks where he said the guy
had obviously just sat there waiting for the convoy to come and set it off and
ran out the back.

GROSS: Oh, the remote control?

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: Got it.

Ms. TARABAY: So he actually went back to do an--he said, normally what they
would do is like they would stop, they would do an incidence report, you know,
they would kind of survey the area, see if there was someone to go after, but
because, you know, we were in such a rush to get back to base, they didn't do
it. But then he went back afterwards and came back and told me about it. So
just the idea that there was someone sitting there waiting for you to come
past and, you know, wanted to blow you up. And that's what they deal with
every single day, you know, several times a day.

GROSS: Now, we've just been describing what it was like for you when you were
in a military convoy and an IED went off right in front of your humvee. So
what's it like to get back on the road after that to continue your reporting?

Ms. TARABAY: I didn't want to go back to Diyala after that. My last
rotation in--actually that was in March. My last time in there--I try to do
an embed, at least one embed every time to just--apart from just to break up
the time that I'm there but also to, you know, get that perspective. I didn't
do an embed when I went back in after Diyala. But I did one the last time I
went to Amariya in west Baghdad. And, you know, you are in more danger when
you are in an embed, when you go off in a convoy when you are with military
because they're targeted. So, by default, you're also targeted.

You know, you have to psych yourself up to go and do it every time--I'm very
apprehensive every time I do an embed--and you have to trust the guys that
you're with. You know, you really have to just accept that they're going to
take care of you, and just being in Amariya and being on a foot patrol, and
you're carrying all of your equipment, and you're wearing a bullet-proof vest,
which is like 12 kilos, 24 pounds or so. You know, you're wearing a helmet
that's turned into hot metal because of the sun. It's like 100 degrees in the
shade. And suddenly you have to run 100 meters because the soldiers have
spotted a sniper. And you're like running, running, running, running,
running, running, and you're thinking, `Why am I doing this?' You know.

But I have to psych myself up to do it, but then when I do it, it's like, `OK,
this is where I have to go.' And it's very, you know, you're not very
ambitious in what you want to achieve, that, you know, at the end of the day,
you just want to get back to base. You know, you want to do your job, you
want to see if you've managed to record anything that's worth putting together
for a story. But, you know, the first and ultimate objective is to come out
of there in one piece.

GROSS: My guest is Jamie Tarabay, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Jamie Tarabay. When we left
off--well, let's just get right back to the interview.

My guest is Jamie Tarabay, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, and she's on a brief
visit to the United States before returning to Baghdad.

You were talking about how there's sometimes like four hours of electricity a
day. What about water, what about food?

Ms. TARABAY: Water gets trucked in, water tankers, you know. People have to
wait for a truck to bring in, you know, water into the neighborhood. And they
have to pay for it, you know, and if you don't have the means to pay, then,
you know, right now, especially in the summer, it gets so hot in Baghdad, so
if you don't have electricity, you can't work your air conditioner, you can't
work your fridge. You've got so many kids, especially, who get sick. You
know, there's cholera, there's all sorts of illnesses that come from, you
know, water.

GROSS: Dysentery, maybe.

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah, absolutely. But there's so much of that going on that
the way that the water shortages show themselves is how sick the children get.
I mean, just in my area, you know, a man who lives a couple houses down from
me came up to me and asked me if I would see his baby. He's got a
one-year-old who has some sort of heart failure. And he can't get treatment
for him at the hospital that he goes to in Baghdad because they simply don't
have the doctors to do it because there's been such a brain drain in Iraq.
All of the doctors who have been threatened or have seen their colleagues
killed have left. And the hospitals themselves are in a really bad state, you
know, dirty sheets, like, you know, dirty floors.

For some people, they just choose to die at home rather than go to a hospital
because it's so bad. And then, you know, OK, and then there's other things,
you know. If he's a Shia, he doesn't want to go to a hospital in his area
that's, you know, in a Sunni area. Or, you know, it's from a Sunni group.
And if he's a Sunni, he doesn't want to go to an area that's run by the Shia
militia. So, you know, where do you go?

GROSS: So hospitals are run by militias now?

Ms. TARABAY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the ministry of health is run by
people who work for Muqtada al-Sadr. And he, in his ways, he's trying to do
what Hezbollah and Hamas have done with taking over the provision of
essentials like health. And, you know, it's actually quite telling that even
the main hospital in Sadr City, which is his big stronghold, doesn't even have
the proper level of service and care that hospitals should have.

GROSS: It sounds like one of the reasons why doctors fled is that doctors had
become targets?

Ms. TARABAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: Why were doctors targeted?

Ms. TARABAY: For any number of reasons. Maybe there were members of the
Baath party, and a lot of people had to be members of the Baath party to get a
job. You know, I can tell you about situations in emergency rooms where a
guy's got a gunshot wound and his friend comes in with him and he puts a gun
to the doctor's head and says, `If he dies, you die.' You know? Or, you know,
emergency rooms are attacked after suicide bombings because they don't want
the bombing victims to survive. Or they live in an area that has been
targeted repeatedly by bombs and by sectarian militias.

I mean, it's the same situation with universities. Professors have gone.
Professors, there's a long list of assassinations of university lecturers just
because, you know, is this Islamic fundamentalism that's killing them or
sectarian, you know, motivated attacks. There's all sorts of things
targeting.

So when people talk about a war in Iraq, it's just a very simplistic way of
kind of tidying it up into a little bundle and saying, `This is one big
monolithic war,' and it is not like that at all. It is so complicated on so
many levels. There are layers and layers that I'm still trying to get my head
around. Every day I learn something new about how confusing it is to be in
Iraq and to understand just the context of so many of these feuds, that you
don't understand why people are arguing and fighting and killing and why
people are cooperating. And, you know, that whole, `My enemy's enemy is my
friend.' And just the traditions in the place that has a civilization as
ancient as Mesopotamia and just trying to get your head around it. It blows
my mind. You know, it's really difficult.

GROSS: My guest is Jamie Tarabay. She's NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, and
she's briefly in the States before going back to Baghdad.

Your father's Lebanese.

Ms. TARABAY: Both my parents are.

GROSS: Both your parents are. You grew up for part of your childhood in
Lebanon. You speak fluent Arabic. And that must really help you.

Ms. TARABAY: It does in, you know--I mean, I don't speak--I mean, sometimes
I don't let on. Sometimes it's better for me just to hear the conversation.

GROSS: Oh, to overhear things that people don't know you can overhear.

Ms. TARABAY: Absolutely, absolutely.

GROSS: What are some of the things you overhear that way?

Ms. TARABAY: Well, you know, just when they're talking about me and, you
know, it's just little things, you know. I'm just trying to think of
something. Being a woman and working in an Arab environment, it's good and
bad. And there are things that I rail against just because of the way that
they treat women.

For example, the counsel of ministers where the cabinet meets, you have to go
through all of these different security checks. They make the women go in the
back of the building. OK. And it doesn't matter who you are. If you're a
woman, you go in the back, you go out the back. And I, you know, for me, this
is something that just, you know, sets me off. And I just remember having
this huge hissy fit because I couldn't go in with my, you know, with my
translator. And they were talking about me. And they're saying, `Oh, what's
wrong with her? She's really uptight. She's really nervous. Are all, you
know, are all your women so emotional?' Sort of things that they try to smack
you down and put you in your place. You're a woman, you're being emotional
now by complaining.

GROSS: You're just being neurotic?

Ms. TARABAY: And, yeah, you know, and you're just like, `I'm sorry. No.'
And, I mean, I wouldn't even allow them to have to translate it. I would just
confront them directly, and I would say, `No, I'm not. I'm actually just a
human being, and you're claiming that this is democracy. So treat people in a
democratic way.' You know.

GROSS: And then you go to the back door after that?

Ms. TARABAY: And then have to go. It's just, I mean, at the end of the day,
it's like, they can always play the security card and go, `No, no, no, no, no.
It's security. You have to go into the back.' So it's things like that.

You know, when people realize that I speak Arabic, they try to put me into, I
guess, into a different role where it's not--if you're interviewing a
politician and you're speaking to him in English, it's more of an equal
standing. But if you start speaking to them in Arabic, you know, it's not
just being female. That's the way that they treat the Arab press, as more of
a mouthpiece rather than, you know, an independent observer. They're like,
`This is what you're going to do,' as opposed to, `This is what we think we
should do.' So it's all about...

GROSS: It sounds almost like a disadvantage to speak Arabic to the
politicians.

Ms. TARABAY: Sometimes it is, yeah. I mean, I use it in ways to break the
ice.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TARABAY: But then I very strictly stick to speaking in English for the
interviews just because they need to know that they're speaking to a foreign
audience.

GROSS: What about people who aren't in politics? People in neighborhoods?

Ms. TARABAY: Then it's very easy. I mean, it's great. I will...

GROSS: To speak Arabic?

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. TARABAY: I mean, it's just--when I was in Amariya, I walked into this
house full of women, and it was hilarious because the soldiers are standing
outside sweating in the sun. They're like, `Get in, get in, get in. Come on.
Have coffee.' And we'd sit and we'd talk and I'm like, `So, how's it going?'
And, they're like, `You know, yeah, it's good, but I wish that they would, you
know, give us some electricity or give us some water.' And, of course, they
giggle when they see the American soldier. There was one girl who was just
obsessed with the American soldiers. It was hilarious. But, you know, and
then they find out that obviously I speak Arabic with a Lebanese accent. So
they recognize that immediately.

You can tell when someone's got an Egyptian accent, when someone's got a
Lebanese accent, someone's got a Gulfee accent, the way that they speak. And
I remember once, someone, like a guard for a compound, I was, you know, saying
hello to them, and they said, `You're from Lebanon.' And I say, `Yeah.' And
he's like, `Well, what part of Lebanon?' Because he wanted to know if I was
from the south, if I was Shiite. And I said, `Well, you know, it's all
Lebanon, isn't it?' And he went, `Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.' So, you
know, it can be really tricky trying to figure out what you're going to say,
what you're going to give, what you're going to tell people about yourself,
and what you're going to keep for yourself.

GROSS: My guest is Jamie Tarabay, NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Jamie Tarabay. She speaks
fluent Arabic. Her parents are Lebanese. She grew up mostly in Australia,
but spent a few years of her childhood in Lebanon.

What years did you grow up--what years of your childhood did you spend in
Lebanon?

Ms. TARABAY: The main kind of chunk of time, the biggest chunk of time was
when I was 12 to when I was 15. That was three years. But we'd gone there
previously on visits when I was nine and when I was two. Yeah.

GROSS: So what years?

Ms. TARABAY: So that was '87 to '90 was when we lived there for three years.

GROSS: And Syria was bombing during this period of time.

Ms. TARABAY: Syria was bombing, and then the Lebanese army started fighting
with Phalange and that was--yeah, we spent 10 months in a bomb shelter. Which
was crazy.

GROSS: OK, so you were 12 to 15...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...during that period when you're spending a lot of nights in the bomb
shelter and you didn't know nearly what you do now about Middle East history
and about politics in that region. What was it like for you to be a child in
the bomb shelter while Syria was bombing, not really understanding...

Ms. TARABAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...what was going on. Compare that to being in war now, understanding
a lot of what's going on because you're there only to report about it.

Ms. TARABAY: It's so weird, just the way that that experience has affected
me and my sisters and how it manifested itself in the ways that we all live
now. My oldest sister was, I guess, so scarred by it, that she's almost
obsessed with keeping the family together. You know? So like she got
married, but she lives 10 minutes away. So there's thinking, whatever we do,
we all have to do it all together, so she's very aware of having us all in one
place. Whereas I'm just gone, poff, poff, you know, taking off to the other
side of the world.

I guess, for me, I never really got it out of my system. I just didn't. I
mean, I had no control when I was, you know, a 14-year-old in a bomb shelter,
being told to go downstairs and sit there and wait for the bombing to stop so
I can go back upstairs again. I had...(unintelligible)...I like lost 10
months of school and 10 months of life, really, just kind of doing the same
thing, day in, day out. And just going absolutely mental. And I didn't
understand it.

You only get a snapshot of what's going on then because you are in a Christian
village and in the part of Lebanon that is Christian. You get one view of the
story. And even now--I went back there last year to do five weeks in the
aftermath of the war with Israel. And I felt like the entire time, I was
playing catch-up with what was going on because I deliberately shut it out. I
didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want to deal with it, I didn't want to
confront it, because it was too personal. For me, it really just--I didn't
want to think about memories that were so difficult for me. I didn't want to
go back to that time when I was really helpless and I didn't know what was
going on. You know, I have done other things since then where I've kind of
been in somewhat the same situation, but going back to Lebanon last year to do
that story was really difficult for me. But I did it, I guess, because I
wanted to face it. I'm all about not living in a comfort zone.

GROSS: Apparently.

Well, Jamie, I really feel like I can speak for all of your listeners when I
say thank you for doing what you do, thank you for bringing us what you have.
Be well, be safe, and you have our gratitude. Thank you.

Ms. TARABAY: Thank you. Thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Jamie Tarabay is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief. She's currently on a
two-week break from Iraq. In 2005, she published a memoir about covering the
second intifada. It's called "A Crazy Occupation."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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