As a child, I never thought about becoming a journalist. I never really felt pulled toward any particular field. I just loved to feel free and try new things, especially when it came to hard work.
I had just finished my final examinations in July 2007 and was preparing
to get a bachelor's degree in English Literature from
But I liked the idea of being a journalist because it meant that I could practice my English with native speakers again after working for the U.S Army for nearly two and a half years, from 2004 until 2006.
On a hot day in mid-July 2007, I met one of The New York Times' correspondents along with my friend, who knew him through her work as a journalist. Stephen Farrell is an enigmatic character full of energy--he drinks Red Bull more than water. Mr. Farrell helped me and guided me, but sometimes my stubborn mind wouldn't comply. I think it was the cultural gap between us; it takes a long time to understand somebody's culture.
The meeting that day was in what was supposed to be one of the safest
I started work a couple weeks after that interview. As I walked to the front gate of the bureau, I noticed a black banner that marked the death of an Iraqi journalist for the Times who had been shot by gunmen near his home while heading to work. Khalid Hassan was 23, only three years older than me. I had to wonder what fate seemed to be telling me as I walked into the bureau. "I'm here to replace a dead journalist nearly my age. Am I next on the list?" I was thinking as I inspected the new place and the pale faces around me.
Over the next few days, I found myself watching Arabic television news
that and translating reports for the Western staff at the bureau. I was
learning and, most important, trying to control myself when
I was angry because a journalist needs forbearance, especially in
I felt that I should do more than sit in the bureau watching and translating the news behind a computer screen. I thought I might learn more as a journalist and as an Iraqi if I could go out more and report from the street. I started to track the deaths in my city--there were too many explosions. I was trying to convey the truth to the whole world and find the answers to my questions about who was behind those explosions; I never found a clear answer.
One day, an explosion ripped through Sadoon Street in central
Iraqi police forces and American soldiers were all over the place. We parked 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the explosion site and walked the rest of the way. No civilians or pedestrians were allowed to wander around; we as journalists would face many difficulties in getting such permission as well. Mike found his way to the Americans while I talked to Iraqi eyewitnesses.
After I finished with the witnesses, I tried to make my way to Mike, but the Iraqi police blocked me even though I told them I was a journalist. I tried to go through anyway, but a police officer punched me in the face. I punched him back. I found myself in the middle of the other Iraqi police officers who were trying to beat me without knowing who I was and what I was doing there. It stopped only when Mike told the Americans that I was with him. One of the soldiers grabbed my shirt and pushed me away from the Iraqi police officers. The Iraqis couldn't do anything more once the Americans intervened.
At the Times building in
As an Iraqi journalist working with foreigners, I felt a big burden--I was responsible for the whole crew of drivers, local guards, and journalists. In my job, I would deal with militants or even insurgents. I had to be very careful. I had to learn what I should say, how I should say it, and what I shouldn't say.
People on the streets were another obstacle. One day I visited a mosque just a few feet from our bureau with Johan Spanner, a Danish photographer for the Times. I could sense that the sheikh of the mosque wasn't comfortable with our being there. "Why aren't you pleased with our presence?" I asked.
He replied: "I know who you are and I know what you want. You are here with some Jews looking for trouble." I got very angry at the sheikh and kept explaining who we were and what we wanted. We just wanted to photograph children being taught the Quran at the mosque. Johan admonished me later for being angry at the sheikh; he was right, because in some places that anger would cost you your life.
I lived this double life for almost two years. I couldn't stand it anymore because it's not only dangerous but a lot of people don't appreciate what you do or don't understand it. Yet I learned many things about teamwork and responsibility. The worst part was witnessing the death of many of my own people. I saw death in so many ways that I wasn't afraid of it at all; in fact, I was tempting death through my job.
Coming to America is another chapter of my life. Here I am in
Mudhafar al-Husseini worked at The
New York Times in