Posted on October 16, 2008 by Alexandra Avakian

An Iraqi minder standing on the street, with a portrait of Saddam Hussein behind him

Though based in Moscow, I traveled widely in Iraq after the first Gulf War and returned in 1999 to cover Iraq’s problem with looted archaeology. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a difficult, miserable, fear-soaked universe crawling with informants. People could not even trust family members, much less neighbors. A child might even unwittingly betray its parents if politics were spoken of openly in the home. The parallels to Stalinism were no mistake. Saddam used Stalin’s tried and true methods to great effect.

I wrote a story for Time magazine in February 1992 about how a Baghdad family had to turn up music and shut windows before they would discuss politics with me, about the young girl who had to be hustled out of danger by an older relative simply because she talked to me. I have never forgotten her. She asked me for a book to read in English and I was not able to give her one. During that trip I visited a Basra nightclub with the writer, also a woman, and our government minder. We spent the evening talking with two prostitutes who told us of their woeful lives, one of them in tears. Then the lights were turned on and army troops marched in, led by an officer. They rounded up all the young men in the club and took them away. I had slipped my camera below the table, and my finger was on the shutter. I was tempted to shoot a picture quietly—just lay the camera on the table. With just one click I would have something. The minder begged me as if he had read my mind: “Don’t do it—please. I will be punished.” How could I?

Silhouette of an Iraqi boy crossing a river of sewage

When we were taken to Karbala to see how “normal” things were after the Shiia uprising we saw the holy mosque riddled with bullet holes and tense worship in the shrine of Imam Hussein surveyed by informants.

When I returned to cover the loss of archaeology to looters in 1999 for Natural History magazine I found it telling that my Sunni minder and driver were terrified to be on the roads in the Shiia southern part of the country after dark. In a country such as Saddam’s Iraq, as an American woman alone, I could not go anywhere without the minder. The police state was such that if I stepped away from him at any time to take pictures, Muhabarat, the secret police, would materialize out of nowhere to question me and stop me from working. There was a personal feeling of being trapped, of needing to get the job done and get out safely, and of paralyzing fear and paranoia in the hearts of people I attempted to photograph.

Even the minder was afraid of walking in the Shiia markets. He was afraid of the military governors we had to check in with along the way. In order to visit the as-yet-unexcavated southern archaeological site of Oma, which was in the process of being looted by a nearby tribe at night, we had to be escorted by a truckload of Iraqi police. I’m afraid there was no hope for that place.

Filed Under: BooksIranPhotographyTravel

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