I try hard to find a place to stand amidst thousands of bored, desperate hacks.
I can’t remember being so frustrated as a reporter. I came to Kuwait a week ago because Amman was not happening. There was no way in to Iraq, no news going on. Kuwait seemed ideal. You could go into southern Iraq, there’s lots of briefings and military people and business people. Tons of stories to do. Then I got here. The main thing is there are 2,000 reporters or 2,400 or something. And there’s just not that much happening here. The news is being reported by the embedded journalists who are in with the troops. The stuff here is so boring it drives me crazy. There’s the humanitarian-aid-isn’t-getting-in-yet story which everyone is on. There’s a smattering of Kuwait-specific stories but nobody cares about those. The big thing is to get on the US or British Army trips into Iraq. There’s about one a day and only 40 people get to go. With 2,000 reporters vying for those 40 slots, it’s pretty ugly. The first few days here, I was obsessed with getting on the trips. I did what everyone does, hang around the US military press center at the Hilton and hit up all the officers in charge of the trips. It’s just a regular hotel, and in one corner of the first floor is this big desk and these enlisted people process your credentials. They’re the only ones you see. To talk to one of the officers in charge of the trips, you have to call them. Which is absurd, because you see them just on the other side of the credentialing desk. They’re right there. But if you say, hey, I’m calling from my cell phone in the lobby can we talk face-to-face, they say no. They seem overwhelmed and beleaguered.
I finally got on one of the trips the other day. It was to the oil fields in southern Iraq. We met at Camp Doha, the big US base in Kuwait. We got there at 7ish and waited around a couple hours because the bus that was going to take us didn’t show up. Finally they got some humvees to take us, which meant I sat on the uncovered back of this big humvee for two hours’sitting in the hot sun with 120 kmph wind. It was pretty lame. I kept trying to talk to the soldiers next to me, but I couldn’t get very far. One is a young woman from rural Pennsylvania who was trained to be a photographer and writer. She went to US Army Journalism School. She talked about it like she was trained to clean a weapon. They told us how to take pictures and how to write a news story. It was very helpful. Now I know. The other soldier was so dorky, this guy from Arlington Heights, IL. They’re all so young and they are pretty geeky, at lest the PAO’dPublic Affairs Officers’dgroup. It is weird being surrounded by people all wearing the same outfit’their camouflage chem suits and helmets and all. But it was all but impossible to get a conversation going.
We got to the Iraq border and had to wait for these MPs in serious looking armored cars with machine guns on the roof. They were our security. We drove in to Iraq, but it was just like Kuwait. The same stretch of desert and oil wells. We didn’t see any Iraqi people the whole time. At one point I asked the dorky guy from Illinois if we’re in Iraq and he said, totally bored, yeah. The photographer/writer was excited. Her first time. The burning oil fields were amazing. They sounded like jet engines and were so hot it was unbearable and so high and so beautiful. Red and orange with little waves of black scuttling along the surface. Really amazing. But the trip was so annoying. The army told us where to stand, what to look at. They gave these really boring briefings. It felt like a lame school trip (aside from those gorgeous oil fires). The other reporters were really lame too, the worst group I’ve seen. This field was so completely safe. It had been cleared of Iraqi soldiers more than a week earlier. It was surrounded by and crawling with British troops. There was no risk. And a few reporters were wearing their bullet proof helmets and vests. They looked so stupid. Some of them were wearing them in Camp Doha in Kuwait. Which is crazy, it’s like the safest place on earth. All in all, it was an anti-climax. Months of planning to go to Iraq and then I’m there and it just might as well have been any boring desert anywhere. I did get a story out of it and an Iraq dateline, so that’s cool.
The reporters here in Kuwait spend most of their time trying to get on these trips. Some actually sneak into Iraq and then go driving around. I feel like that’s much more macho and I should probably be doing that. But the reports I get are so lame, too. They get across the border and go driving on some road and then they’re stopped by British troops (the Brits are in charge of the south) and just stay there, on the side of the road, for days. There are these encampments of reporters alongside british troops. The only way to get anything good is to go around the Brits but then you’re at the mercy of the Iraqis. It all sounds terrifying and a bit exciting. But it’s not what I need. I need to just spend time with everyday Iraqis and write about them. And it just doesn’t seem like that’s possible right now. I’m not sure when it will be possible. There’s talk that the borders will open tomorrow and we can cross whenever we like and things’dll start being more interesting. But I’ll believe it when I see it. Right now, I just want to leave and wait ’til everything is totally open and then come back.
I’m completely frustrated and annoyed. I’ve been in a foul mood for days. I’m sort of depressed about everything. Not just me, everyone is. We’dve been building up for this war for so long and we had the same fantasy that Bush & Co. had. That the war would be quick and Americans would be welcomed and we’d sort of swoop in behind the victorious US troops and have open access to giddy, liberated Iraqis. I really thought I’d be in my Baghdad apartment by now. There is such frustration among reporters. We’re not getting stories, we’re not getting what we planned for. The only people I know who have gotten good stuff are either in Baghdad or they truly risked their lives. In the last ten days, I’ve had four friends missing, one declared dead (he’s fine and I’m having dinner with him in half an hour), two kept captive by Iraqi security in a horrible prison, one almost blown up by a suicide bomb in northern Iraq. And I still have several good friends in Baghdad and it’s so fucking scary. It all puts a crimp in my desire to head north before things are sorted out. Especially since it’s not my job. I’m not covering the war as war for anybody. Reporters talk about covering ‘dbang-bang’d and I don’t cover bang-bang. So, I’m cooling my hills. The huge story is just across the border, but for me it feels like it might as well be 10,000 miles away. I just watch it on TV. And I still have to come up with stories to do and there just aren’t that many stories in Kuwait or Amman. I’m sort of desperate some days and think of going to Yemen or going to Iraq anyway or doing some damn thing. But I think I just need to be patient and wait, because eventually I will get in to Iraq and then there will be stories. But it’s just not what I expected. Not what anybody expected. I think we all thought just being anywhere near the war would be this bonanza of great stories. I thought this time of my life would be so exciting and alive and filled with drama. I never thought the biggest drama would be trying to find someone to buy alcohol from in this horribly dry country. And on top of it is just self-recrimination’dI should be able to find something good. It’s all my fault that I can’t. And embarrassment. I feel silly about all the excitement I felt a few weeks ago. I feel embarrassed by every email I get from a friend hoping I’m alright. My god, I’ve never been more alright in my life’dat least physically. Although I am having a hard time deciding if I want Chinese or Italian tonight. I did have Italian yesterday. These air raid sirens go off every day or two, which I actually like, I have to say, because it’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m anywhere near a war. One Iraqi missile hit a part of a shopping mall. I don’t mean to sound super brave, but I went to that very same shopping mall not 48 hours later.
I do feel like I’m getting some sense of Kuwait. My first trip here, it just felt so horrible. And it still kind of does. It’s like Scottsdale Arizona or something. (I’m guessing, I’ve never been to Scotsdale). Very suburban and lots of malls and fast food chains. It’s hot and the only thing Arab about it is that most men wear dish-dash robes and kefiyas. But the other day I was invited to a duwaniyah and that definitely felt more Arab. Almost every male Kuwaiti goes to a duwaniya’dwhich is not a tradition anywhere else in the Arab world. A duwaniya is a room in someone’s house, like a club house, really. And once a week a person will host their duwaniya. So, Abdul’s might be every Thursday and Mohammed’s is every Tuesday. I’ve been to two. One was huge and very fancy and we ate politely in chairs with plates and forks and knives and an Indian servant watching over us. The other was small’dit really felt like a teenager’s playhouse’dand we served ourselves and ate with our hands. It was rice and meat sauce and you just piled it up and grabbed the messy stuff with your hands and ate it up. It was kind of disgusting and kind of cool. At one point, someone grabbed a sheep skull, with plenty of meat left on it and ripped it in two and poured the brains out on a sheet of plastic and offered me some. I ate a tiny bite. Tasted like eggs. Gross, though. Duwaniya’s are where Kuwaitis discuss politics. They’re very open. You can talk about anything: criticize the government, talk sex. Whatever. Mostly though, people play cards and tell jokes that, to me at least, are not at all funny. So far, I’ve only spent time with upper-class Kuwaitis (most are, it seems) with strong government connections. They are so rabidly pro-war, pro-US, pro-Fox TV. It’s hard to imagine they’re Arabs at all. They’re nothing like the almost unanimously anti-war, anti-US Jordanians or Egyptians or Syrians or Lebanese.
I’ve been so tired and so pressured and so overwhelmed that I don’t think I’ve emotionally really engaged this war since it began. I took today off and spent most of the day sort of moping around and finally sleeping a little. I also watched some non-war TV for the first time. I’m finding that the war is beginning to feel like a really bad idea. I don’t know. I’m not making up my mind or anything. But my pro-war stance was entirely based on how Iraqis wanted it. If it’s true that this strong response is genuine (and not just fear of Saddam) than it’s hard for me to continue justifying the war. I still think there’s a chance that when Saddam does fall, the Iraqis will be pro American and reveal they were just scared. But I’m not sure. Most importantly for the world: my summer plans are now completely up in the air. I thought I’d be in Baghdad by now, doing some good reporting, and then get back home by early June. I’m not sure that’dll happen. For the first time in a long time, I don’t want to be here much longer. I want to come home now, to be honest. I was even trying to justify it to myself, so I could pitch to my editors: let me go home for 10 days or so. Rest up. And wait for Baghdad to open up. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, alas. I’m still hoping to come home in June, though. Right now the idea of staying much longer is too exhausting to think about. We’dll see.