7 March 2011

Here and There

Six Years in the Middle East

On September 11, 2001 Megan K. Stack, the 25-year-old Houston bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, was in Paris visiting her sister. After the terrorist attacks on that day, the Times asked if she would be willing to go to Afghanistan. For the next six years, before becoming the paper’s Moscow bureau chief, she reported on Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the West Bank. Her new book, Every Man in this Village is a Liar, describes all these places with a unique comparative perspective and moral engagement. n+1 spoke to her over Skype from Moscow.

n+1: What was the poorest place that you went to?

Stack:
That’s a good question: I’ve been to a lot of poor places. Sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest. Gaza is very poor. Yemen is very poor. I’m thinking of poor places . . . Pakistan of course is extremely poor. Oh, Afghanistan. Of everything in the book Afghanistan is the poorest country. I can’t believe I forgot to say that. Afghanistan is a place where, at least the last time that I was there in 2005, and I don’t think that it has changed very much, if anything it’s degenerated—it’s a place where people live in conditions that seem almost out of this world. I’ll never forget driving into Peshawar [from Afghanistan]. It just seemed like Peshawar was so rich, and there was just color everywhere. It was really amazing. If you go to Peshawar from Islamabad, it looks pretty run down and rough, but it looks so striking coming back from Afghanistan. It just looks sumptuous and really fantastic. It was a feast for the eyes.

n+1:
And what’s the city on the Afghan side of the border?

Stack:
Peshawar is not right on the border. Peshawar is kind of at the edge of the tribal area. The tribal area is sort of down the border. So you’re kind of driving through country for a while, and then you cross the border, and then you drive through country for a while longer in Afghanistan, and get eventually to Jalalabad, where I went.

n+1:
Did you have a driver? How were you doing this?

Stack:
In Afghanistan? At the beginning, I was with a warlord who I met in Peshawar and talked into bringing me to Afghanistan. I really wanted to go to Afghanistan [in 2001] because the war was happening already and looked like it was getting ready to end. So there was a great push to try to get reporters into Afghanistan. As it worked out, the place where the border opened up was west of me from Pakistan to Afghanistan. I went with this warlord, and so did some other reporters. He and I had sort of a special relationship, I guess you could say—at least he thought that we had a special relationship—

n+1:
He fell in love with you.

Stack: Well, he said that he did, I don’t know what that really meant to him. It’s very difficult cross-culturally with that, with what you’re dealing with there. Anyway, he took us to his house. We stayed with him for a few days until—and I wrote about this in the book—he tried to get into my bed one morning. After that we left his house. And we ended up finding … I’m trying to remember how we even found someone to drive us around Afghanistan. I have a memory of going with the photographer into public streets in Jalalabad and just sort of casting around and asking people who had a car, who wanted to make money, who spoke a little English. You know, I’ve done that in so many places that the memory is not really specific.

n+1: And is Jalalabad a place that you could go now and walk around?

Stack: I don’t know. For me, I would go there and walk around. I don’t know that it would be the wisest thing to do. But usually I feel comfortable going almost anywhere. I don’t know what the security situation is like just now in Jalalabad. I mean, it’s sort of fluctuated. And Afghanistan in general is a little bit easier because you have a burqa. Burqas are just so all-encompassing physically that it’s just an excellent way to blend in when you’re walking in the streets.

n+1:
Were there places where you were really surprised by how nice it was?

Stack:
Algeria. I was surprised at how nice Algeria was, how beautiful Algiers was, the city of Algiers. It’s just an absolutely gorgeous place. And I wasn’t expecting that. And I think along the same lines I was surprised by Saudi Arabia. I was expecting Saudi Arabia to be somehow less Westernized in terms of its structure, its physical shape. But Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh or Jeddah or some of the oil cities in the east, is very much set up in a way kind of reminiscent of a town or a city that you might see in Texas, with just these great highway systems, easy entrance and exit routes, these sort of sparkling, very Westernized skyscrapers. I don’t know why I think of that as being Westernized. It’s just got that look of being newly built and expensively built and very much inspired by cities almost in the American southwest. And that really surprised me. I didn’t really necessarily internalize before I went there the numbers of Saudis who’d studied in the United States and the cultural imprint that they’d put upon the country when they came back.

n+1: There’s a great chapter in your book on Saudi Arabia where you’re visiting with all the American housewives.

Stack:
These were the wives of men who worked in the Saudi-Arabian oil company, Saudi Aramco. They had this compound that was totally cut off from the rest of Saudi Arabia. And once you got inside the compound itself it was very remarkable, because the grass was rich and watered, and it had these bicycle paths, swimming pools, this public library that was full of American books. There was almost no noticeable hint that you were anywhere near the Persian Gulf. And that was really interesting, the way that these women lived and had sort of created this idealized version of America in the middle of Saudi Arabia on the back of Saudi oil, and literally sitting on top of Saudi oil. At the same time, there was a lot of violence going on in Saudi Arabia. There were a lot of attacks on foreigners, and the US embassy had asked foreigners to leave the country. That’s the risk that they were accepting, that was the calculation. Things like going on vacations to Morocco and South Africa, against the reality that people were being killed around them. People’s heads were cut off, and people were kidnapped and shot dead and dragged through the streets of some of these cities during this time.

n+1:
So you’re driving down the highway and it feels like you’re in Dallas—and then when do you realize that you’re not?

Stack: Well, very quickly. As soon as you start talking to people. As a woman, as soon as you start trying to work. It was very hard to work there. Just logistically. I couldn’t rent a car or drive somewhere because it’s illegal for women to drive. I couldn’t sit in a café and have an interview because it is illegal for a woman to sit with a man who is not her immediate relative. To check into hotels, I had to get letters from the Los Angeles Times vouching that I was working for them to prove that I wasn’t a prostitute. It was just really hard to travel. It was very hard to do things. I remember one time getting stuck there overtime because of a story and I ran out of clothes and had to pick up something to wear. So I went to, again, a very Western-looking shopping mall and realized that I couldn’t buy anything because they don’t have any dressing rooms, because it’s illegal for women to try on clothes in stores, it would be considered indecent. Another time I got kicked out of Starbucks because I strayed into the men’s section without realizing it. That provoked a lot of concern from the baristas.

n+1: The baristas enforced it in Starbucks? I mean, who enforced all this stuff?

Stack: There’s a system. In Starbucks of course the baristas enforced it. In other places, security guards. The religious police in Saudi Arabia, they sort of walk around, you don’t really know where they’re going to be. They’re a pack of these religious-looking guys with huge beards. They have canes that they use to beat people or to swat at their ankles to warn them that they’re doing something bad. And they can arrest you, they can take you down to the police station and make your life very difficult. In most public places, even when the religious police aren’t there, if you’re a shop owner or you work at Starbucks, you don’t want to become known as a place where the laws are being flouted. There’s a lot of censorship and imposition of the law among ordinary people just to sort of stay under the radar and keep the religious police off their backs.

n+1: And how many of them … are there more of these guys than there are uniformed police?

Stack:
No, in fact you don’t see them very often. Their shadow is much longer than their selves. The entire time that I was in Saudi Arabia I can only remember seeing them one time. But what was really striking was that people were so afraid of them. And the one time that I saw them I was with an official from the interior ministry, who was not a powerless man, this was a guy that had connections, who had a pretty prominent position. He had what’s called wasta, which is this sort of untranslatable concept which basically means you can do stuff, you have pull, you have influence.

Anyway, I was with him and we were supposed to have an interview, and he was waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. I came out of the elevator and I saw him standing there and as soon as he saw me he came rushing toward me and said, “We can’t sit. We can’t sit in the lobby.” And I said, “Why?” He was sort of trying to block my view and I looked over his shoulder and saw the religious police there. I knew immediately who they were, they were totally … they just had this air of sinister power. They were looking around and everybody was looking at them. And I said, “Oh, it’s the religious police,” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Let’s go to the coffee shop, there’s a Starbucks where there’s a family section.” I’d done this before, I sat in the family section with people who weren’t my family but we pretended that we were related and no one challenged us. So I said, “There’s a coffee shop over the way, why don’t we go there?” And he said no, we can’t do that.

But the tone of his voice and the look on his face of absolute panic was really interesting to me because I would have thought that this guy could have just told the religious police to fuck off. Obviously he couldn’t, and he knew it. What we ended up doing was, we took the elevator up to my floor. He was saying, “Let’s just go to your room, we can do it in your room.” And I was saying, “Well, I don’t really want to sit in my hotel room.” It’s just so crazy, in order to follow this incredibly rigorous public moral code you end up doing things that people don’t usually do, like sitting with a middle-aged Saudi man in a hotel room. The compromise we came up with was to sit in the hallway on my floor where there were armchairs. We did the interview. They were vacuuming the floors around us.

n+1: His strict religious views would not allow him to sit with you in the lobby and your strict religious views would not allow you to sit with him in your hotel room.

Stack:
That’s right. I didn’t want my chastity questioned.

That’s the thing, Western women, in a lot of these countries, there’s just this air around you. They think that you’re easy and they think that they can do things that they wouldn’t be able to do with women from their own countries. And it makes you uncomfortable about things like sitting with someone. You feel strange about it. They might see it as a turn-on. You just don’t know how they see it. I always try to stay out of things like that.

n+1: The religious police guys, how old were they? Were they big guys, were they physically intimidating?

Stack: Yeah, that’s one of the first things I really noticed, that they were very burly and big and scary-looking. They were probably about 30 I would guess, late 20s. And they just looked really hardcore. I was very freaked out by them.

n+1: So they’re like a secret, they’re like the KGB of—

Stack: They’re not a secret. They have a lot of power. The extent of their power is a constant source of debate among academics who study Saudi Arabia. But I remember during a time when I was covering Saudi Arabia that the US Consul, in Jeddah, who was a woman, was apprehended by the religious police for not wearing her headscarf in the streets of Jeddah. If you’re able to take the US Consul and arrest her, you’re talking about a significant amount of power.

n+1: Does anybody else have something like the religious police? I guess they had them in Afghanistan with the Taliban?

Stack: Well, the Taliban had their own religious police, yeah. It’s not the same sort of thing. I think in Saudi Arabia it’s more official and it’s more monitored. In Afghanistan what you have is sort of roving gangs of guys who can do different things under different auspices. Most Muslim countries are relatively relaxed, especially compared to Saudi Arabia. Muslim countries if anything would have the opposite problem, which is you have a lot of men sexually harassing you if you’re a woman showing too much skin. And I think in some cases even women who are wearing hijab and look like they’re very religious Muslims get sexually harassed in places like Egypt.


n+1: I was very struck by your description of the Egyptian elections. You made it sound like politically it’s an extremely repressive state.

Stack: Oh, Egypt is an incredibly repressive state. I think that’s something that gets lost a lot in sort of popular understanding of places like Egypt and Jordan in particular. Egypt gets a tremendous amount of US aid every year. Most people think of Egypt as being one of the more open, progressive countries in the Arab world. It’s not. Egypt is an incredibly repressive place that does really horrible things to people who express dissent against the government, people who blog or go to demonstrations. It’s a place that tortures people regularly for the most petty things in the most horrible ways.

n+1: And yet Egypt has always been the intellectual center of the Arab world. Is that not the case anymore?

Stack: I don’t know. This is a big discussion again. Certainly in the imagination of many Arabs it is, and that has a lot to do with the fact that so much Arab cinema was made in Egypt. That was what used to be on TV throughout the Arab countries. People really loved to watch them, they were all made in Egypt. It’s just got this special place for Arabs.

I think that now Saudi Arabia is in a place to become the godfather of the Arab countries. There’s the Saudi peace plan with Israel, there’s an attempt to kind of insert Saudi Arabia more and more into the peace process. Egypt will always be relevant and in many ways illustrates the trials that you find around the region: authoritarian governments, an Islamist opposition… and then basically remnants of the old Nasserist left. What came out of Egypt has been repeated and echoed in other Arab countries. But to some extent diplomatically it’s seen as being very weak. It’s not been able to do anything about the Israeli-Palestinian fighting. It’s not been able to convince anyone that it’s a government that is chosen by its people. The elections that I wrote about [where the Muslim Brotherhood was kept from sweeping the vote only through police forces at polling stations physically keeping voters from the polls] were kind of the end of that. It’s a place with a government that does not have a great deal of legitimacy, but there’s no fantastic alternative. The alternative that you’re looking at if you’re the US government is Saudi Arabia.

n+1: The fact that they’re oppressing their bloggers and newspapers means that they have bloggers and newspapers, right? Does Saudi Arabia?

Stack: Saudi Arabia does have newspapers, it does have bloggers. I think Egypt has more. Saudi Arabia is really different. It’s a center of thought for Muslim scholars; you have a lot of people in Saudi Arabia who are very powerful, who are very influential in thought. In Saudi Arabia you have a lot of people who have been educated overseas. I don’t know the numbers on this, but you probably have more university and post-graduate educated people per capita in Saudi Arabia than you have in Egypt. On the other hand, Egypt does have a surviving tradition. During the time when Egypt was a country with an international populace, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a real flourishing of culture in Egypt. Then many things happened, Nasser came to power, they threw out a lot of foreigners. But during the time that Egypt was already engaged in these debates and these discussions, Saudi Arabia was a backwater that didn’t have much going on. In many ways Saudi Arabia is just a brand new country, whereas Egypt is this ancient country. And I do think that carries some weight. People have a collective memory of an intellectual tradition. It does manifest itself in ways in universities and a lot of the intellectual life. There somehow still is this sort of prestige of Arab thought.

n+1: How would you compare it to Russia in terms of political oppression?

Stack: I would say that Egypt is along the same spectrum that Russia is on. I would say that as far as current considerations in Russia go, there are things that you could measure, like demonstrations and whether they’re cracked down upon. Russia is definitely more liberal than Egypt is. That’s just one of the things that Egypt does, Russia not as much or as blatantly. But Egypt is a really serious country in terms of repression. If the Egyptian state is going to repress something, it doesn’t fool around. Maybe it’s less subtle than in Russia.

n+1: And yet Egypt has a real opposition where Russia does not.

Stack: That’s true. But even if the Brotherhood somehow turns out to be so strong in the rank and file of the military and perhaps even military leadership—imagine if they were able to pull off some kind of coup or some kind of overthrow. If that happened, you have a lot of questions that are going to come up very quickly, especially as far as the Copts go, as far as women go, what kind of government would they really be installing? What would happen with foreign ties? It is a much more powerful opposition on its face than Russia’s. It’s being perpetuated through the mosques, people are coming to it in their villages and through their scholars and their preachers. It’s a little difficult to compare Egypt to Russia because I don’t see anything similar in Russia at all.

n+1: I guess the only sort of opposition party that size in Russia are the Communists, right? But they’re dying, whereas the Brotherhood is rising.

Stack: Yes, in Egypt it’s a very powerful movement, it’s very very popular and as far as I know in Russia there is nothing popular like that that’s not the government.


n+1: Did you go to Damascus? I got the impression that a lot of Palestinians who had to leave the West Bank would go to Damascus—were there a lot of exiled intellectuals there?

Stack: That’s true, there are a lot of Palestinians. There are a lot of Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. Of course Jordan gave Palestinians citizenship and full rights. In the other Arab countries they’ve been kept in refugee camps for the most part. Which is a political decision, because of the right of return.

n+1: When you say refugee camps, really it’s more like a city neighborhood, right?

Stack: Right. Technically that’s what they are. People aren’t living in tents. They’re living in often very old and decrepit apartment blocks that were built for them decades ago. People are living on paved streets. There’s running water and toilets and apartment buildings, but Palestinians are still refugees, they’re not Lebanese citizens or Syrian citizens.

n+1: I remember in Jenin [in the West Bank], they were like, “Here’s Jenin, and over there is the refugee camp.” But it was just part of Jenin, just slightly more crowded. The UN truck would go there. Is that what it’s like in other countries?

Stack:
Yeah. During the war in 2006 in Lebanon, the Palestinian refugee camps were mostly not being attacked by Israel. So there were a lot of Lebanese in the east and south going to take refuge there because it was safer from bombs. It was this very bizarre thing, Lebanese citizens hiding among the Palestinian refugees. It was really bizarre.

n+1: Why were the Israelis not…

Stack: Because it wasn’t really a Palestinian war. That wasn’t what they were going after, they were going after Hezbollah. They were bombing a mix of things including a milk factory and roads and bridges that weren’t really in Hezbollah areas. But for the most part they were attacking parts of the country that were Hezbollah strongholds. Villages along the south Lebanese border where Hezbollah had been very strong, in Dahiyeh, which is where Hezbollah had their headquarters for decades. Those were the heaviest attacked areas. There wasn’t really a beef with the Palestinians during that war.

n+1: What was Damascus like?

Stack: Damascus is a beautiful city that if you ever have a chance to visit you should check out. It’s amazing, a great place. The old city is spectacular. As far as the political atmosphere, it’s very very strange. Damascus is one of the places that you, as a journalist, are most spied upon, most heavily monitored. Of all the Arab countries except for Libya—Libya is the only place where I felt more…actually Tunisia, Tunisia is a very repressive country as well. Aside from those two, Syria really tops all the Arab countries as far as public fear, repression, the sense that you can’t speak freely, that you’re being watched all the time. It is a very difficult place to work.

I was there in this period of marginalization, when everyone was convinced that Syria was next, that it was going to be invaded. There was this sort of paranoia that was oozing out in all the interviews. It wasn’t this completely crazy thing. There was a lot of evidence that the Syrian government—maybe I shouldn’t say evidence, I should say indicators, the US government would say that there is hard evidence, I would say that there are indicators but I didn’t really know—that the Syrian government was fueling and aiding the insurgency in Iraq. That was kind of the crossing point to get into Iraq for insurgents. That was the fastest route, through Syria. You could get over the border to Iraq through there. There was a lot of ferment.

n+1: Syria, that’s more like a Stalinist state, right, technically they’re Communists?

Stack: Yeah, it’s the one true Nasser-era country left. When I was there it was the last Arab country to still have open borders to all “the Arab brothers.” They were still flying the Arab nationalist flag.


n+1: It sounded like the nicest place you went to was Israel.

Stack: Well, define nice.

n+1: You define nice. Am I wrong?

Stack: It wasn’t the friendliest place that I went to. But in terms of being a functioning country, in terms of having proper infrastructure, educational resources, social resources, Israel in many respects … I mean Israel almost doesn’t belong to the region. It’s so influenced by the immigrants that come from the US, from Europe, from different Arab countries. It’s a whole different kettle of fish. The government system is completely different, people’s quality of life and freedom index is just much higher. It’s a totally different thing.

n+1: In what sense is it part of the region?

Stack: It has the physical characteristics, in terms of the landscape, rolling hills and olive trees, the coast, a lot of the old buildings that are there. In an ancient sense, in a historic sense it’s of course very much part of the region. The problem is now the borders are mostly closed and it’s really…you don’t see a lot of back and forth between Egypt and Israel or Jordan and Israel, certainly not Lebanon and Syria and Israel. It’s not really incorporated, it’s not a place where people are listening back and forth. A lot of people in Israel are very interested in the Arab countries. A lot of people in Israel were studying Arabic. There was a lot more awareness of what was happening in the surrounding countries in Israel than there was in the surrounding countries about what was happening in Israel. I think in some ways Israel would like to be part of the region. But there’s so much fear.

n+1:
I was amazed by the passage where you were trying to get to the West Bank and nobody could tell you which road led there. You compared to being in El Paso, and nobody being to tell you how to get to Mexico. But what one thought when reading that was of course the Israelis are like Americans, right? In fact they don’t know really what’s going on outside, right?

Stack:
There’s a certain amount of comparison, you’re right. But on the other hand, as far as Palestinian territories go, many Israelis were stationed there during military service. It’s difficult to say that the country has no idea what’s happening. Most people kind of know but don’t really want to think about it, don’t really know what to do…I’ve heard all kinds of things from the Israelis, from disgust to moral exhaustion, the sense of we tried but nothing works, so fine, let them be over there. It’s a very hard thing to think through and there’s not a great conclusion to that line of thought.


n+1: Can we talk about Iraq a little? When exactly were you there?

Stack: Off and on. I was there right after the invasion and stayed there for a while, I think about a month and a half, and then was in and out throughout the next three years. The last time I was there, it’s been a while now, I haven’t been back since 2006, when it was pretty much at the low point of the invasion.

n+1: Where did you stay when you were there?

Stack: Different places. I was kind of based out of Baghdad. The LA Times had different houses. We had a house right after the invasion that we eventually lost. It was very chaotic and sort of crazy in the beginning. We ended up renting this house, I don’t know who it belonged to. It was some upper middle class Iraqi family. It was just a very ordinary house with a bunch of bedrooms and bathrooms. We could have lived anywhere at that time because the whole city was insecure insofar as that went but there wasn’t the violent, anti-foreigner anger, the sense of being hunted that came up through the years. In the first year and a half there weren’t the sectarian attacks, so you didn’t have to think so much about, “Were you in a Sunni neighborhood or were you in a Shi’ite neighborhood or were you in a mixed neighborhood?” You were in Baghdad and if you were close to the center that was fine. Later on it became a big issue. Different neighborhoods became very difficult for us to go in and work there. It would have been suicidal. But not in the beginning, in the beginning it was very open.

n+1: When that did happen, where did you end up living?

Stack: We went to a small hotel that was not too far at this point, maybe a mile and a half, from the Green Zone, in a very sleepy residential area. Some of the other reporters stayed in the hotel and we started combining forces to get security around the area, especially in 2006. You couldn’t just drive up to the hotel, you had to go through some security checks. But you know, it was a target. Even though we tried to keep a low profile, people knew that foreigners were living there, therefore it became a good place to bomb. It was bombed so badly recently that—actually I don’t know where we are now because I haven’t been back to Iraq.

n+1: And when you say it was bombed, do you know how? Was it a car bomb?

Stack:
I think all three times it was a car bomb.

n+1:
Were you there for any of this?

Stack:
No, I was never there when it was bombed. Luckily no.

n+1:
When you say you couldn’t go into the various neighborhoods, why was that?

Stack:
Because it got very dangerous, and there was just so much interest in kidnapping foreigners. It just got very difficult. So many groups in the insurgency were willing to pay for foreigners. Even if the person in particular that you were with wasn’t an insurgent, if that person wanted to make money and was unscrupulous, that’s all it really took. And the other problem was that it became the kind of thing where we had to worry about what would happen to families if the neighbors found out that a foreigner was visiting them. You had to think about if you were willing to take that risk on their behalf. They might have their house bombed. The stakes just got higher and higher and it became more and more difficult. We still worked, we still did it, we still went to the neighborhoods, but we went to more and more lengths to try and keep the visits short and try and disguise the fact that we were there at all.

n+1:
Did you feel that there was a logic, looking back on it now, a logic to the insurgency?

Stack: I do. I think there was a lot of chaos, really chaos is the greater overarching theme of what happened to Iraq. But what happened to Iraq overall, yes, there was a logic. In the beginning of the insurgency so many of the targets were Shi’ite. So for one, two years you see Shi’ites getting slaughtered and not really seeing the end of that. Seeing Shi’ites getting angrier and angrier. Pilgrimage sites were attacked, schoolchildren were attacked, and the Shi’ites getting angrier and angrier. And that’s when you saw the Shi’ites beginning to organize into death squads.

If the foreign troops had managed to do something about the Sunni insurgency earlier, if somehow that violence could have been brought under control, if Shi’ites had been made to feel safe during the first year or two, I believe a lot of the violence a year later, between 2005 and 2006, would not have been so bad. A lot of it came down to people giving up on the coalition troops, on the security situation. People really lost hope. And then they began fighting for survival, fighting for honor, fighting for the tribes, fighting for religion, and that’s when it got really out of control.

n+1:
What’s your sense of the situation in Iraq now?

Stack:
I’m concerned and I think I’m more concerned than a lot of Americans are. There is a lot of potential for an extreme surge of violence because I do feel like a lot of fundamental political questions have not been resolved. Right now, Iraq is not a stable seat of government. There are questions about the constitution and the army and questions over the Kurds in the north and what they’re going to do. Questions about Sunni representation. A lot of people argued that the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Iraqi political process is actually positive. I’m not convinced that’s true. I think it could be ominous if things start to fall apart.

n+1:
I guess the sense is that it can’t possibly be any worse than it is.

Stack:
I think it could definitely be worse than what it is right now. This is one of the better times.

n+1:
Is this in spite of the continued US presence or is this because of the continued US presence?

Stack:
That’s a good question, right? I mean we have to find out. That’s what we need to determine. I think it’s safe to say that the surge, in stepping up security, really worked and violence has really dropped down. I don’t know what happens with the US withdrawal.

n+1:
My sense is that a lot of people who were working with Western journalists, supporting the American initiative in some way or another, either something bad happened to them or they’re all gone. Is that true of the people that you worked with—a lot of them got killed and those that didn’t left Iraq?

Stack:
Some of them did, not all of them did. A lot of the guys from our bureau did go, but some of them are still there hanging on. Some of them are in the US and struggling to support their families. I don’t know whether the last holdouts will decide to come, too, it will depend a lot on what happens after the US pulls out. But it’s true, a lot of them are in the US now.

n+1:
Do you know what they’re doing?

Stack: The first few years, there were fellowships and different academic things that some of the Iraqi journalists and Iraqis working with journalists were able to do, but those have mostly run out. Now they’re working menial jobs, working in warehouses, things like that. These are people who have advanced degrees and speak a few languages. But it’s a choice they made and they’re living in a secure country. It’s not an easy thing to move to the United States. It’s a tough process. It’s definitely better than getting shot at every day, but still not easy.

n+1:
Are they in New York, or are they down south, where are they?

Stack: I know some guys who are in Atlanta, I know some guys who are in the Washington area. A lot of the guys who worked for the LA Times are in Southern California. It just kind of depends, they’re all over the country.


n+1: I guess we should wrap this up. You were an LA Times American correspondent, you were stationed in America, right? Before September 11? What was your beat?

Stack:
I was in Houston. I was the Houston correspondent and covered Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

n+1: Politics or social issues or everything?

Stack: A little bit of everything, not too much politics. It was such a great job, a lot of really cool feature writing, profiles. I did some great stories during those years, I mean I don’t know if the stories are great but I had a great time reporting them. I did stories about serial killers, the Seminoles in Oklahoma, Louisiana and jazz musicians. I sometimes wonder why I was in a rush to become a foreign correspondent.

n+1: You were in Paris when 9/11 happened?

Stack: I was visiting my sister. She was in grad school there and I was on vacation. It was my first vacation since I had gone to work for the LA Times. I had been working there less than a year. I was very excited, it was one of those things when you’re out of college, and then you can finally go on vacation. It was a big exciting time for me that turned into this completely life-altering journey to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But I had no idea that was going to happen when I left Houston. I was supposed to be gone for two weeks.

n+1:
And it’s been nine years.

Stack: It’s been nine years, that’s true.

n+1: Do you see yourself coming back?

Stack: I’m about to leave for Beijing. I miss America. I can’t believe I’ve managed to stay away for as long as I have. Every job that I’ve done overseas I’ve told my family, it’s just this one job and then I’ll be back. And I do want to write about the US again. I’m an American, it’s what I know best. I could do my best work writing about my own country. As much as I’ve enjoyed the travel and all the experiences, it gets a little bit old sometimes, always trying to bridge the disconnects. You’re constantly cramming yourself with information to try to know as much as you can and try to understand better how things really are. And then to try to turn around and try to cram all that information into your writing when most people in the US probably won’t understand where you are and what you’re talking about. I feel like people start doing work in the US at a higher level because you don’t have to explain what New Orleans is, people know what it is.

n+1: There’s a certain sense in the book when you come back that you get very mad at the US.

Stack: I don’t know if I was mad or just lost. I just felt really lost. I understand now that when you cover a war there is a period of time after you have left the war zone, you feel cut off, you feel strange, you feel uncomfortable, you’re sort of retroactively coping with a lot of things that you’ve seen, things that you experienced that maybe you weren’t totally aware of at the time. When I first got back from Afghanistan I didn’t know what I was experiencing, I didn’t have any frame of reference, I felt so out of sorts and really lost. I had been out of the country for some very crucial months. I didn’t get back until January [of 2002]. The country had gone through a shift in public discourse, of the way we were thinking about politics and our lives. People got through this whole experience that was traumatic, and I had gone through a completely different experience that was also very traumatic. So I don’t think I was angry, I just felt like I didn’t fit there when I got home. I had left a place that I fit into and I came back and I didn’t find my place again. I had to figure out how to live there and how to interact with people. But it would have worked out, if I’d stayed long enough and readjusted. Of course I would have been incorporated and it would have been fine, but at the time I didn’t realize it.

n+1: You would have been resocialized.

Stack: Yes, resocialized.


n+1: Have you been in touch with the warlord? Do you know what happened to him?

Stack: He’s dead. He died just a few months ago. It was a suicide bombing in Jalalabad.

n+1: By the Taliban.

Stack: I don’t know, I would have to look it up. [Looks up on laptop.] When I read about it it was unclear. It was strange. Oh it was, it was the Taliban. It was a suicide bomber. So strange. It was strange that he was killed because I had this feeling that he was this indestructible person. There was a sense that he would survive anything. I wouldn’t have expected him to get killed.

n+1:
He’d gone back to Pakistan?

Stack:
Last I heard when I was finishing up fact checking he was back in France. He lived in Dijon throughout the entire Taliban era and then went back to Pakistan after September 11. There were a lot of these warlords, and just all this unbelievable, multilayered scheming. A lot of narcotics trafficking and drug production and export. [After he’d returned to Afghanistan and collaborated with American forces during the invasion,] he had fallen out of favor with the local government. There was a warrant for his arrest and he left the country again. So I was kind of surprised that he had gotten back into Afghanistan at all.

n+1: And then they got him.

Stack: Yes. It’s Afghanistan.

Image: Starbucks at Corniche, Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Image from Mollygram.

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