by Andie Diemer
Oct. 23, 2008
“Have you ever seen a man die in front of you? Are there bad memories you still have in your mind that you remember just like yesterday?”
Iraqi artist and American public-radio journalist Ahmed Fadaam asked the students in a reporting class at Elon University if they have ever had a bad experience. No student in the 18-person class was able to say, “Yes,” each unable to compare any experience they had ever encountered to the horrific events Fadaam had been describing.
He said just because there are differences in each society doesn’t mean there can’t be a partnership between America and Iraq. But he added that the chances of this happening soon are minimal, as governmental hurdles and ignorant attitudes make it seem impossible to have honest, equal communication. He said because of the conflict in Iraq it is difficult for outside information to trickle into the country, even with more media now proliferating there.
He explained that when Saddam was in power there were just three TV stations and two newspapers, all government-controlled. In the past few years, there has been a surge to around 70 TV stations and more than 150 papers now. But each media outlet is tied to one tiny slice of the political spectrum, making it difficult for the public to decipher which information is correct, and he explained that this has caused confusion for the Iraqi population. “There is no objective, neutral reporting,” he said.
He said most Iraqis’ exposure to Americans is limited to experiences with American soldiers, so they believe all Americans are aggressive and want to be involved in the war. “We need to tell the Iraqis there’s a different between the American administration and the Americans,” he said. “It’s not an easy job to be a journalist in Iraq.”
He told Elon journalism students that American media organizations take a “negative-news” approach, highlighting deaths and destruction to sell stories. They neglect the other side of Iraqi society, which is smart and capable of building. Since the war in Iraq has continued for more than five years now, reporters are no longer paying attention to the details, he said. In early 2003 a story involving a car bomb would be covered thoroughly; now these occurrences have become so routine some editors won’t even publish a story unless at least five deaths have been racked up. “It’s just like yesterday, just like the day before, just like two years ago,” he said.
Fadaam is best known for his award-winning radio stories on “Ahmed’s Diary” (http://thestory.org/special-features/ahmed-s-diary), which depict his experiences in Baghdad on NPR. He credits his background in fine art as giving him the tools to become a successful journalist. He explained that the curiosity and attention to detail he used as a figurative artist, when he worked with clay, marble and stone, carried over to his career in reporting. “The more you work, the more details you create,” he said. “I think it’s relatively the same.”
After receiving a bachelor of arts, master’s of fine arts and doctorate in fine arts, Fadaam was a professor at Baghdad University in Iraq and a sculptor. “Art was my life at that time,” Fadaam said. “I couldn’t imagine chasing stories. I was locked into my own paradise of imagination.” But war changed his circumstances; a bomb destroyed a school where he was teaching. In 2003 he began working as an interpreter and fixer for NPR’s The Connection.
He also worked as a Baghdad reporter for Agence France-Presse and for The Story, with Dick Gordon for WUNC North Carolina Public Radio and American Public Media. But it soon became dangerous.
He was accused by some Iraqis of being a “blood traitor,” or someone who reports on the news to sell it for a profit, literally exchanging blood for a paycheck. But he said he can’t let accusations like these bother him because there is so much at stake and more than just people lost within the conflict. “As long as you’re doing your job then it’s not important,” he said.
His family started receiving death threats because he worked in the media. His wife and two children moved to Syria, where they would be safer, and Fadaam secured a temporary visa to visit the U.S. and work. Fadaam was hired as a newsroom supervisor in the Baghdad Bureau at the New York Times. He worked in New York for a short time after moving to America earlier this year, and is now spending time in North Carolina, working and visiting universities to talk with journalism and art students.
He is spending several weeks at Elon, where he is creating a sculpture to thank the university for hosting him and allowing him to speak in classes. Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology at Elon, arranged Fadaam’s visit and found a nearby space for him to work. The sculpture represents the plight of most women in the Middle East as they struggle to escape the tyranny expressed against them by their culture. Fadaam said he has enjoyed getting his hands into clay and creating again, as he works on this project, but his mind is never far removed from thoughts of his family in Syria and his people in Iraq.
He said the war has “destroyed” Iraq. Access to basic human needs such as power and water are far worse than at the time of Saddam. The Iraqi Museum, which contained important relics reflecting more than 5,000 years of human history, was decimated. “It’s a loss for all humanity,” he said. “Not just Iraq.”
He blames the lack of direct contact between Americans and Iraqis as the reason the wounds that have been created seem impossible to heal. He said while most Iraqis want Americans to leave, they also want it to be accomplished the right way. “[The Americans] started something; they should finish it,” he said. “They broke something, they should fix it.”
Fadaam pushes for an open channel that will establish a forum for each society to talk to each other, away from government interferences, people to people, individual to individual. But this would require the Americans taking the time to get to know Iraqi culture first-hand and the Iraqis taking the time to get to know the true American culture first-hand.
“How can we understand life if we know nothing about each other’s cultures?” he said. “If you don’t understand how they think, how can you deal with them?” He urged the students to learn more about how Iraqis think, live life and face their current problems.
“If you feel the pain you can talk about the wound,” Fadaam said. “Break this bond. We’re all human; we just speak different languages, that’s all.”
Watch below to see Fadaam talk about how he got involved in journalism: