Clarissa's Middle East Diary

Thursday, March 8, 8:26 a.m.

Today I woke up early to attend a briefing by General Petraeus in the Green Zone. It's not far from where we live, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and coordination to go there anyway, due to the amount of checkpoints and searches one has to go through.

Every time we go out, we have to wear our flak jackets and something on top to cover them, so we don't immediately stand out as Westerners. On top of that, we ladies are advised to wear a hijab, an Islamic head covering, to make us look less conspicuous. It always makes our local staff laugh when they see me in my hijab; “ya hajeeya” they tease me, referring to the respectful way to call a woman who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Iraq was once a country where women could choose, depending on their family, whether or not they wanted to wear a headscarf. On the street, you used to see many women with their hair down and styled, wearing jeans and high heels, as you did women covered from top to toe in the traditional Shiite abbaya.

In the last few years, all that has changed. Most women now feel safer covering their heads when they are on the streets. Our housekeepers spend the day here at the bureau in jeans and t-shirts and it always saddens me when I see them ready to go home, covered by their hijab and loose fitting black clothes. It saddens me because it is not a love of God, a religious conviction, or even an observation of a cultural tradition that makes them wear it. It is fear.

Thursday, March 1, 6:37 a.m.

The last time I was in Iraq, over Christmas, I noticed a young boy who would eat lunch in our dining room a couple of times a week. He had a sweet, open face and smiled shyly whenever I said hello to him. “Shoo ismak?” I asked him one day — what his name was. “Mohammed,” he replied.

Last week, I saw Mohammed again and gave him a Snickers bar. I asked Karim, one of the Iraqis working for us, who Mohammed is and why he eats lunch with us twice a week. He explained to me that his father is dead and that his family is very poor. His mother works as a clerk at the train station and he has a lot of younger siblings. His uncle brought him here a few months ago to see if we had any extra work for him. So, twice a week he spends the morning doing odd jobs and then he eats lunch with us.

I talked to Mohammed again the other day. He doesn’t speak any English and really has a thick, Iraqi accent but I managed to glean that he is 13-years-old and loves football. He is incredibly polite and has a very gentle manner, and I have heard that he is very clever. I asked Karim if he goes to a good school, and Karim explained that the best schools in Baghdad have been closed down. There are a couple of decent schools remaining, but they are in a dangerous area in the West of Baghdad and most of the students and teachers have fled to neighboring countries.

“If you want your children to have a decent education,” he told me, “you send them abroad.”

“But what if you can’t afford to send them abroad, or you can’t get the visas?”

“Then you send them to a bad school in Baghdad near to your home so it’s less dangerous … Security comes first, science will come later.”

** I have not included a picture in this posting because to put a photo of Mohammed on the Internet might be to put his life in danger.

Friday, February 23, 12:11 p.m.

There’s a rumor going around that the Iraqi government is going to tear down the “Hands of Victory” monument that Saddam Hussein had built after the Iran/Iraq war.

It’s not the world’s prettiest monument by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly a landmark and a piece of Iraqi history. If they do tear it down, it is bound to rile a lot of Sunnis and former Baathists, and further contribute to sectarian tensions, which are already at a high.

I read an article on the possible demolition, from a U.S. soldier's point of view. He had a great response to the situation, quoting George Santayana’s famous line, “those who forget history are destined to repeat it.” I was in the Green Zone this morning and stopped to take some pictures while the swords are still there.

Back at the bureau, we were issued gas masks and told what to do in case of a gas explosion. There have been three attacks in the last month involving the use of chlorine gas. In high concentrations, chlorine mixes with moisture in your eyeballs and respiratory tracts, and forms a pungent acid that then eats away at the tissue. Not a nice way to go. The first thing to do if you see a yellow/green cloud of gas, or if people around you are choking, is to stop breathing immediately and then run to your mask.

The masks are intensely claustrophobic and very fiddly to get on and off. I kept pulling chunks of my hair out and I never managed to hold my breath before the mask was secured. I am hoping that I will get better with some practice.

Monday, February 19, 9:50 a.m.

Last night I slept in the Baghdad Airport. It is not an experience I wish to repeat.

It reminded me of that Tom Hanks movie, “The Terminal,” when he gets stuck living at the airport in New York. But Baghdad International Airport is no JFK, and I was not able to make my situation as comfortable as Hanks did. All in all, I spent 18 hours in the airport. I had no book, no bags, no toilet paper and no food with me. There is one place in the airport that serves food, although one could debate whether the desiccated chicken sandwich they sold me was food. Thankfully they had bananas and mini Mars bars.

I bought four of each.

The departure hall of Baghdad Airport is fluorescent green and filled with these cubic little sofa-chairs that are straight from the seventies and quite comfortable. At night, it is chilly but weirdly, there are mosquitoes. There were about ten other people sleeping at the airport, mostly families, but they were much better equipped than I was with blankets and hand-wipes and fruit.

I have to say I felt pretty lonely and vulnerable and exhausted watching them get ready for bed, as I stuffed the fourth Mars bar in my mouth. I had spent all afternoon arguing with Iraqi immigration police to avoid being deported. They would only speak to me in Arabic, and insisted I get on the flight going back to Amman. I tried hard to follow their thick Iraqi accents and kept pleading with them to give me five minutes until the visa issue was resolved.

I also kept running away from them when they tried to get me back on the plane, and at one point I actually dropped to my knees and begged them to take my cell phone and speak to my Iraqi colleagues who were better able to explain the situation. They thought I was completely nuts and told me I should have been an actress.

This morning, as I was getting ready to leave, one of the officers asked me, "You are pretty, nice girl. Why you are coming to Iraq?"

Sometimes, especially on nights like last night, I ask myself the same question.

Wednesday, February 14, 11:30 a.m.

Lebanese people love a good rally. It doesn’t whether you are a man or a woman, young or old, the Lebanese love massing together, waving flags and chanting political slogans.

Journalists tend not to enjoy rallies as much. While the pictures are often great, you have to shout to be heard and there is the persistent fear that you are going to be crushed and your equipment will be ruined. As a woman, there is also the added nuisance of groping, which occurs regularly in large crowds. When you combine these factors with the probability that there will be no food, water or bathrooms, covering demonstrations is not something I normally look forward to.

Today I forgot to bring a banana. As a general rule I always bring bananas and water for sustenance. But today, wedged into Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut with tens of thousands of people, I forgot. When I first realized that I had broken my cardinal rule, I had a moment of panic. Then the speeches started and more and more people continued to stream into the square, carrying pictures of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated two years ago today. They held banners that read, “Seriously, we miss you.”

At 12:55, the moment when Hariri was killed, they held a moment of silence … the only sounds were the Muslim calls of prayer, mingled with ringing church bells. After the silence, people were cheering and praying, and a mass of blue balloons was released into the air. It gave me goosebumps ... and I realized that I didn’t feel hungry at all.

Thursday, February 1, 12:45 p.m.

With all the wars, fighting, riots and assassinations that we report on in Beirut, many forget that Lebanon is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

If you ask anyone in the Middle East about Lebanon, their eyes will light up and they will take pleasure in telling you happy anecdotes about the country. In Lebanon, they say, you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the sea in the afternoon. It’s true — the mountains of Lebanon literally go down into the Mediterranean, so that from Beirut (which is directly on the water), you can drive 45 minutes and be up in the mountains, surrounded by snow.

I often have trouble understanding how people with such a beautiful country and such fantastic weather have any inclination to fight. With all the vineyards and olive trees, banana and orange groves … with such fresh, delicious food, astonishing sunsets and beautiful people … with a rich and ancient history and such a fun, cosmopolitan capital … how is it that Lebanon cannot escape the violent ghosts of its past?

I don’t have any answer to that question, but I sense it might have something to do with inherited behavior. My Arabic teacher told me a story today. She was handing out a short story to her 4 grade students by a Lebanese writer, Emily Nasrallah.

Beyond sharing the same last name as the Hezbollah leader, the author has nothing to do with politics and is, in fact, a Christian. But when the children saw her name, chaos broke out. A Sunni girl began shouting that she wouldn’t read garbage written by anyone called Nasrallah. And then Shiite boys in the class began shouting at the Sunni girl. My teacher was deeply upset by the incident. She remembered how 20 years ago, she had asked her students to write down what their dream in life was. One girl had written, "My dream is that all Christians will be killed and there will be none left in the whole of Lebanon."

Ten-year-olds don’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia. Ten-year-olds don’t understand or care about politics. Ten-year-olds don’t even really understand the concepts of death and murder. Ninety percent of what 10-year-olds say, comes from what they hear at home. And as children continue to be brought up listening to political feuding and sectarian hatred, they will not be able to look beyond and see how beautiful their country is.

Monday, January 29, 8:19 a.m.

The other day I was walking through the center of Beirut, where members of the Hezbollah-led opposition are camped out in tents. I saw a group of young men taking large slabs of stone and throwing them on to the ground to break the stone into smaller rocks. They then collected the rocks in large baskets. Stock-piling.
Lebanese people gathering rocks to throw at other Lebanese people. What a frightening concept.

During my first year living in Beirut, I had no idea which of my friends were Sunni or Shiite and which were Maronite or Greek Orthodox or Catholic. Gradually, I came to make small observations. I noticed that certain names were typically Shiite or Sunni, or that certain Christians were more likely to speak French at home than Arabic. But there was a general level of religious tolerance, however superficial, that allowed this country to flourish.

As tensions mount here, I see those religious divisions becoming more pronounced and more political. I see people beginning to define themselves and others by their religion. Last Tuesday, a good friend of mine drove a woman home across Beirut during a massive strike that had sparked rioting and shut down many roads. The next day, she called to thank him.

“By the way,” she said towards the end of the conversation, “I forgot to ask you who you are with.”

Clarissa Ward is a reporter based out of Beirut, Lebanon. She has reported for the FOX News Channel from Beirut and Baghdad, covering stories such as Saddam's execution and the current unrest in Lebanon.