Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: ‘No one consulted us Iraqis about a war’

The journalist tells Roxanne Escobales about how the 2003 invasion failed his country, the importance of the BBC World Service and flourishing Iraqi fiction.

The World Today Updated 22 November 2023 Published 31 March 2023 4 minute READ

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Journalist and Author

In his latest book, ‘A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War’, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad revisits 20 years of his reports from Iraq and the Middle East. Scattered throughout are his pen-and-ink drawings depicting street and battle scenes. With a background as an architect, his move into journalism was accidental as he made his way through Baghdad in the days following the United States’ invasion and hitched a ride with a journalist who hired him as a translator. His reports for the Guardian brought the reader into the heart of the war.

What was it like reviewing 20 years of reporting on Iraq for your book?

When I started reading the articles I wrote in 2004 and 2005 I was shocked by how I had subscribed to a binary sectarian identity of Iraq. This whole Sunni versus Shia idea was a fake narrative used by the occupation, brought by exiled political parties and imposed on the Iraqis. That is not to say that Iraqis don’t have sectarian identity, but this binary conflict was imposed and not real.

Why did I subscribe to that at the time? Because when I started, I was a translator to foreign journalists who brought this notion with them, and I took it without questioning it. 

If the US invasion had been a so-called success, would it have been justified?

Regular Iraqis, even some from Saddam’s home town, were happy to see the back of Saddam because he was mad. He was leading us from one war to another, and society was being destroyed by him. Did we want to see that happen through a war? I don’t think so.

Plus, no one came and consulted us. And why would our options only be an illegal 
invasion and occupation or a mad dictator?

Photo portrait of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Photo: Rena Effendi

I personally used to subscribe to the perspective that if only the Americans had done more planning, if they had not disbanded the civil service, had kept the army, if they had done their homework, maybe the outcome would have been different. Now, I believe nothing could have turned an illegal war and occupation into a democracy. You can’t bomb a nation, put it under sanctions, bomb it again and then tell it, ‘Come on, do a democracy’.

This semi-colonialist notion is that: ‘Well, they didn’t know what democracy is, so this is why the Iraq experiment failed.’ In fact, it failed, not because people don’t know democracy, it failed because it is a traumatized society, and the people that contributed to that trauma come again and add more trauma. It is impossible. I don’t believe any planning could have reached a different outcome. 

You say that you were able to mimic the accent of British journalists after listening to the BBC World Service, which helped you get past checkpoints. What role did the World Service play for you?

I still find it the main source of news and information, and the most trusted source of information. Radio specifically is very important for people, more than TV, more than the written word. If you want to know what is happening today, you go to the World Service first.

The oldest radio station in the Arabic language was the BBC Arabic. It played such an important role in the history and development of Arabic press, radio and language, although not always a positive one. It was shut down in January.

Shutting down BBC Arabic radio after nearly 100 years is just bewildering

The BBC Arabic radio not only helped shape political views but the Arabic language we use today was, in a way, coined by BBC Arabic. They wanted an Arabic language that could be understood from Mauritania to Kuwait, from Iraq to Yemen, which allows the regional varieties of accent but maintains a structure and a simplified Arabic. So, they came up with something called the ‘white Arabic’ – it’s a very trimmed Arabic. That was the creation of BBC Arabic. To see them shutting this down nearly 100 years later is just bewildering.

More than British military might, more than its economy, more than anything else, it is the outreach of the BBC World Service that makes people look at Britain as a power. And now the government is cutting these sources of influence. 

War reporting is a dangerous occupation. How many times have you been imprisoned?

Three times, kind of. I was kidnapped in Afghanistan a couple of times. Kidnapped once, detained the second time because they were suspicious of us. The third time in Libya, I was put in jail. I wasn’t kidnapped. I had crossed the border illegally during the uprising, so I was arrested. 

And you went back and met your jailer?

It was a funny story. I forgot his name, but he gave me three clues about himself, and I knew that he worked for the intelligence service. It turns out that there is a neighbourhood where the tribe of the head of the intelligence service lives, and most of the men there worked in the intelligence service. I found him, we had fish, it was a nice afternoon.

Drawing by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of bomb damage in Iraq

Drawing by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of bomb damage in Iraq

He was decent. In prison, he would come at night and accuse me of being a journalist participating in this big plot against the Libyan regime. I tried to explain to him: ‘Look, we journalists are here for the war in Libya, not because we want to destroy Libya because there isn’t any point in that. This is what we do, that is our job, to witness history and to tell the story.’ Of course, he wasn’t convinced, but he would still come every night and chat. 

What drives you to go into conflict zones?

To tell the story. It is very important to witness history. Look at covering the battle of Mosul. I went there many times, not always working on the front line, sometimes just sitting in a house hanging out with a group of soldiers. Once you are so close to them, part of this tour, part of this structure, then you start seeing things that you wouldn’t see if you were just there for a day or two.

Time is the most important thing in journalism, spending time on a story or with a group of people. What I really hate is parachute journalism. You go for three days, write a story and come back. You can’t understand a story in three days. 

Who is your favourite war reporter?

Ryszard Kapuscinski is my hero. I love his work. I don’t care if the fish in Lake Victoria ate the people or not and became bigger, but his perspective and the way he tells the story really inspired me. Who else? Anthony Shadid is another example of mixing beautiful writing, an artistic way of covering the story, with hard fact on the ground. 

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Are you optimistic about the future of Iraq and the Middle East?

I am optimistic about the people, the creativity that has been coming out of it. If you ask what is the one positive thing that has come out of the whole Iraq war of the past 20 years, I’ll tell you: Art. We have a number of Iraqi novelists who have emerged in the past 20 years, writing about the traumas of Iraq and in their fiction, they manage to give us a more accurate image of the changes in society than journalists. 

Who should I read?

Everyone from Sinan Antoon, of course, to Inaam Kachachi, Ahmed Saadawi, Hassan Blasim. They are all amazing.