Is this thing on? Calling home from Baghdad (with an audience)
Iraq is the reason I’m a journalist. Actually, Iraq and Dan Sinker. He gave me my first byline writing about my first visit to Iraq in 1998. Truth is, he ghost wrote much of that piece. I had no idea how to write what I had seen, but I knew I needed to. He helped me turn it all into words, and in doing so he unlocked something for me (thanks again for that, D). I wrote about Iraq for Punk Planet many times between 1998 and 2003.
My trips to Iraq were wonderful and hard. I was working for an activist organization. Our goal? Ending the economic sanctions against Iraq. We’d take anybody who wanted to come and see the situation firsthand. We had to navigate a dictator’s ham-fisted efforts at propaganda, sure, but there was a story there to be had. Namely, that the 25 million people who were not Saddam Hussein were drowning in a terrible stew of dictatorship and economic suffocation.
I helped to organize delegations of activists, religious leaders, reporters and even congressional staffers. Inside Iraq I was part fixer and part tour guide. We’d spend our days driving around cities or between them. At night I’d call home. Often, I’d call Dan at the Punk Planet offices.
I like to say that back then I was something of a novelty in that country: An American in Iraq.
To my government, I was something more than a novelty. There was interest in our trips, in part because Saddam Hussein’s government was intent on using our visits as propaganda against U.S. policy. And because some American organizations and individuals who travelled to Iraq in those days were dangerously oblivious of the regime’s games, or just plain decided to play along.
It was a line that was hard as hell to walk, even when your heart and intellect were in the right place. It was exhausting. So I’d call home to hear friendly voices. There were few voices more friendly than Dan’s, and he always seemed to be near his office phone no matter the hour.
I’m going to let Dan pick it up here. This is from something he wrote this week after word of the NSA’s data mining came out:
I was working one of those ridiculous long nights we often had during production of Punk Planet, the magazine I ran back then, and I was idly chatting with my girlfriend on the phone about a story we were working on about Iraq. This was back probably in 1999, when the crippling sanctions on Iraq since the first Iraq war had mostly been forgotten and we were one of the few news organizations (if you could even call us that) still trying to keep that story alive. This was thanks mainly to the work of a single guy, Jeff Guntzel, who would send us dispatches from the country when he’d travel there with the activist group he was a part of. He’d also occasionally call us from a business center in Baghdad—his voice a raspy whisper through the amount of static and noise on the line.
I was working on the layouts for one of Jeff’s stories and was excited to tell this girl I was trying to impress more about it. But, as those young love conversations do, we moved off-topic pretty quickly, jumping from one topic to the next. I don’t remember much about those conversations now, but I still remember the distinct click the phone made when we switched from talking about the Iraq story to discussing her misadventures at the local laundromat earlier that evening.
That click became a regular occurrence on our office line—popping up as you’d move towards or away from more politically charged topics—and was followed not long after by intractable problems with our office phone line. Occasionally you’d pick up the phone and, instead of a dial tone, you’d get the digital static of a modem; other times you’d pick up and there’d be a few moments of silence followed by a click and a dial tone. Mid-conversation you’d sometimes find your voice beginning to echo, then snap back into normality. And of course, sometimes the phone would stop working entirely, and a bewildered customer service representative would mutter words about things being “flagged” before putting me on hold. The line would usually start working quickly after those service calls.
Finally, after an extended period of bad dial-tones and calls getting cut off, the line just entirely went dead. A particularly dogged technician came to the office. He spent time in our space, time in his truck, time up on a pole. If I remember right, he even drove to one of the main switches near us. Finally he came back, looking completely bewildered and said, “I really don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost as if your line goes somewhere else before it comes to us.”
I wanted to split-screen this scene and tell you about my end of the line.
The best place to make an international call in Baghdad in those days was the International Businessman’s [sic] Center. In fact, it was the old booking office for Iraqi Airways, which had been grounded by sanctions.
When you walked in, there was a counter staffed by men, all out-of-work pilots from Iraqi Airways. At the front counter you could fax or exchange American dollars for Iraqi dinars. Iraqi currency was so devalued that I had to fill my backpack with 250 dinar notes just to pay my delegation’s hotel bill.
In the back there were phone kiosks staffed by women, all of them with unforgettable skyward bangs and thick eye shadow. On a desk in front of each of them was an ’80s-era push button phone and a stop watch. I’d write the Punk Planet office number on a piece of paper — actually recycled Iraqi Airways catering slips — and they’d dial it. When it was clear I’d made my connection, they’d start the stopwatch.
The connection was terrible, like I was calling back in time. I couldn’t say much and I had codewords that I shared with friends and family before leaving home. I wish I could remember them. I remember Saddam Hussein was “Bob” and his son Uday was “The Kid.” I’ve got them written down somewhere.
If the clicks and other stuff Dan was hearing truly were intercepts, the Iraqis were more overt. A man (another out-of-work pilot?) sat behind the kiosks with a phone and a notepad. He would pick up the phone when a connection was made and start scribbling notes.
When the pone call was over, the women at the kiosk would press the button on her stopwatch and write the time down on the catering slip. I’d take it to the pilots at the front, pay my bill, and walk out the door — headed back to my hotel on the Tigris.
Punk Planet is gone and Americans in Iraq are no longer novel, but Iraqi Airways is flying again — they’ve even got their own Facebook page. Somewhere, in one of those green and white planes, I like to think there’s a pilot cruising through the clouds thinking to himself: “I wonder how that Jeff guy and his friend Dan are doing?”