For eight terrifying days in March, while Baghdad was ablaze with bombs, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt McAllester and four other Westerners were imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, the most horrific prison in the Middle East. Crashing from his adrenaline-filled days of reporting the war from the streets of Baghdad and the roof of the Palestine Hotel, McAllester quickly found himself sleeping on a dirty blanket and scrounging cigarettes from guards who had just beaten other prisoners senseless. He ceased being a reporter and became the same as thousands of other innocent Iraqi civilians whose lives had come to an abrupt and violent halt when the Mukhabarat—Saddam's secret police -- came knocking.
But this is not just a book about a private trauma. McAllester also brings his unsurpassed perspective to bear on the stories and struggles of ordinary people in the brutal world of Iraq under Saddam -- the violence, the paranoia, the endless cycle of repression. In vivid and evocative prose, and illustrated with the powerful photographs of his Newsday coworker and prison mate Moises Saman, he examines Iraq before, during, and after the war, often exposing truths previously hidden by the regime's relentless censorship and obfuscation.
From the excavation of the mass graves in Muhawil to the aspirations of Iraq's first English-language boy band, McAllester explores the reality of living a life paralyzed by fear and punctuated by hope. He describes what it is like to be a torturer and also the tortured. And, finally, he writes painfully of his return to Abu Ghraib and his meetings with men who spent years, not days, inside its walls, and of his obsessive quest to find his interrogator and to turn the tables on him.
As the Western world grapples with the daunting task of helping Iraq to repair itself, we are faced most of all by our lack of understanding of what exactly it is we are trying to fix. Blinded by the Sunlight gives a rare and honest insight into Saddam's terrifying kingdom, from one of the few Westerners who know firsthand what lay behind the facade.
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Matthew McAllester won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his coverage of the TWA flight 800 crash. He currently serves as Newsday's United Nations Bureau Chief and as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. McAllester is also the author of Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War Inside Kosovo.From The Washington Post:
In late March 2003, as American bombs blasted away at Iraq, Matthew McAllester, a 33-year-old British citizen reporting for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, was arrested at his hotel in Baghdad by Iraqi security agents and taken to the prison known as Abu Ghraib. They also arrested and imprisoned Moises Saman, a Spanish photographer working with him, and a couple of other journalists whom he scarcely knew. Though no clear explanation was given, "I knew there could be only one reason we had been arrested: the Iraqi authorities suspected us of being spies." The place where they were taken was "the last circle in every Iraqi's hell," its "eerie" name translated as "Father of the Strange." Understandably, McAllester was terrified:
"The prison looked so poorly protected, so easily accessible, for a place with such a horrifying reputation for keeping men inside for decades, for torturing and executing prisoners without recourse to any normal concept of law. Here was a prison where healthy men would beg tuberculosis patients to spit into their mouths so that they could contract the disease and get a comfortable bed in the tuberculosis ward. Inside these walls was a system of spying and paranoia and punitive violence that was a distillation of the society that lay beyond the walls. But like the Iraqi security agencies' nondescript detention centers all over the country, there was very little to indicate that Abu Ghraib was anything particularly remarkable. Even the multicolored portrait of Saddam to the left of the entranceway was relatively modest in comparison to many of the vast murals and statues in Baghdad."
McAllester expected to be interrogated, tortured and killed. As it turned out, only the first of these occurred, and even that was conducted mildly by the standards of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He was not abused physically, and he was fed adequately, if not generously. After barely a week he and his fellow prisoners were released, as inexplicably as they had been arrested. By contrast with those who had spent years in Abu Ghraib, or who had been executed there, he and his fellow detainees got off ridiculously lightly, as McAllester seems to understand.
Still and, again, understandably, it was a traumatic experience that seems to have left a permanent mark on him. During his period of captivity, he had plenty of time to think about what was happening to him. "It's pretty easy to see the misery of refugees from Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Palestine," he writes, "but it's another thing to have experienced what they have experienced. I've never had a parent blown up on a bus. I've never had a sister killed because she was from the wrong religion or ethnic group. But I realized that I was now experiencing powerlessness, the prospect of violent death, and the deprivation of freedom. And I decided that should I get out of this place alive, I would not forget those feelings when I went back to work."
Blinded by the Sunlight is McAllester's attempt to get those experiences and feelings down on paper. Some may feel that eight days in prison don't add up to enough raw material for a book, and indeed there are times when one gets the feeling that McAllester is going a bit overboard with padding. But as memories start to fade a year after the American invasion of Iraq, it is useful to be reminded that Saddam Hussein's regime was every bit as heinous as apologists for that invasion insisted.
When large men with threatening manners came to his hotel room in the middle of the night, McAllester told them that "this is a terrible, stupid war," but in truth he "believed that this was a necessary war, a war fought on false pretexts but one that would finally rid Iraq of the kind of men who knocked on doors at one in the morning and gave no answers." After his ordeal was over and he returned to Baghdad to observe "clueless" American soldiers bungling the occupation, he reflected further. He had "wanted the war so that more than 23 million people would not have to live in the fear that I first scented in 2001 and tasted more strongly inside Abu Ghraib," but not a war based on the "lie" that the United States "was afraid of Saddam's military capabilities or his alleged links to terrorism." He continues:
"If the war had been fought on the grounds of human rights and moral obligation, Iraq and the United States would be less likely to be facing the potential catastrophe of suspicion and violence that threatened post-Saddam Iraq. First of all, the message to the Iraqi people would have been clear and consistent: We are coming to save you. Second, the invading powers might have made an effort not only to plan a highly flexible war strategy but to plan a highly flexible peace strategy. They had months to do so and simply messed it up. It was not a priority. The Bush administration planned a brilliant war and neglected to prepare properly for what came next."
Though certain particulars of this argument are debatable -- waging a war on purely moral grounds is a tricky business, and selling such a war at home and abroad is even trickier -- McAllester has earned both his loathing for Saddam's regime and his skepticism about American motives and planning. Along with a few other Western journalists, he stayed in Baghdad after the fighting began, because he thought it important to understand what it was like for "Iraqis on the receiving end of the American-led attack." As he told his interrogator at Abu Ghraib: "We felt a strong moral duty to be in Baghdad to cover the war from here, from inside Iraq. We pushed the limits and broke some rules. And I am very sorry that we did. But we did it so that our newspaper could offer its hundreds of thousands of readers an accurate perspective of the war and of the Iraqi people."
McAllester had been in Iraq off and on for a couple of years before the bombing began. "I've been to a few oppressive countries," he writes, "including the horrifying Burma, but nothing I have ever experienced touched the total control and fear exerted by Saddam's regime." Americans who have doubts about that -- and, incredibly, there are still Americans who do -- would do well to read his detailed accounts of the fear that pervaded every corner of that unhappy nation for some three decades. There are moments in Blinded by the Sunlight when one can almost literally feel that fear, which is a handy corrective to the argument that things really weren't that bad after all.
As one example there is the story of Saad Jassim, who had gone to the United States two decades earlier, married an American woman, taken American citizenship, and become known as Sam Jason. He visited Iraq in 1990, setting off a chain of unhappy events that included a divorce from his wife, to whom he was devoted, and arrest, and "four and a half months of torture and dehumanization" before being incarcerated at Abu Ghraib. The torture, which McAllester describes with unsparing detail, could have broken him yet somehow did not, but McAllester's account is evidence enough of the pointless cruelty that was daily reality in Saddam's absurd government.
Blinded by the Sunlight is in this and other ways a powerful book, yet it's also an oddly constructed one. If it has any narrative cohesion, I was unable to detect it. McAllester wanders this way and that, paying almost no attention to chronology, backing and filling to no apparent purpose. This makes at times for maddening reading, but overall it's worth the effort.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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