Mike Tharp: Glamor and glory of a war correspondent

June 20, 2009 

Mike Tharp

"Journalists who take themselves too seriously can look forward to funerals paid for either by donation or by the city council."

-- Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist

The Glamor and glory of a war correspondent.

Five straight days in the same clothes. Five hours on plastic chairs between planes at London's Heathrow Airport, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Four hours on metal chairs at Istanbul's airport, 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. No luggage after landing at Baghdad International Airport at 6 a.m. It stayed in Turkey. Washing your hair with hotel hand soap.

Wednesday, a biblical sandstorm blew into Baghdad. Visibility that night was one meter. Sahar, a McClatchy bureau reporter, braved the reddish-brown fog to pick up her son up at an Internet cafe. He walked in looking like a gray ghost. No planes in the air, so no bag.

Earlier, Nasif, the bureau manager, kindly dispatched a driver. He returned with shampoo, two pair of pants, two shirts, disposable razors, shaving cream, two undershirts (called "wife beaters" in trailer parks) and two pair of underwear -- briefs, colored in green, blue and orange triangles with "Dream Man" stenciled around the waistband. We always wondered what the Scots wore under their kilts. Now we know what some Iraqi men wear under their dishdashas, the gray or white neck-to-ankle robes.

Jet lag, despite Melatonin and sleeping pills prescribed by Dr. Christian Gallery; a two-month supply of them and high-blood pressure medicine filled hassle-free by Travis at the Save Mart pharmacy.

But they don't work. Awake 2 to 6 a.m. Tuesday. Up at 3 a.m. Wednesday. 2:40 a.m. Thursday.

Somehow, through closed doors, windows and curtains, the sand seeps in, hanging a smoke-like haze throughout the office, a film of desert dust on every flat surface. It smells like bad breath. Dr. Gallery also prescribed Cipro, good for the sore throat now starting to scratch and the runny nose.

Departing rotator Jack Dolan, an ace investigative reporter from The Miami Herald, types away on a final story. He's due to fly out on a 9 a.m. flight next day to Istanbul, then onward to Spain to meet his wife. But the muck in the air casts doubt on whether he'll get out Thursday.

Still, there's a chocolate cake and soda pop party for him thrown by the staff. Hussein, a steadfast and thoughtful English teacher-turned-journalist, makes an appearance. He's on his way to live, under a State Department program, in Dallas.

Other stalwarts from the bureau last year already have taken advantage of that exit strategy: Omar, the office manager, now lives in Massachusetts. Hussein, a driver, calls Atlanta home with his wife and 6-year-old and 4-month-old daughters. Scott Parrish, a basketball teammate in Tokyo 20 years ago, is trying to help him find a job. Suhaib, another driver, already was living there. His dad, Nasif, may join him in July.

McClatchy no longer employs Centurion bodyguards, and last year's armored Mercedes sits gathering grit on a side street. Paul Davies, a former British Royal Marine commando who shepherded dozens of rotators through the scary old days, landed on his rugger's boots with the AP.

Death and destruction are way down in the capital, but three IEDs have blown up within hearing distance of the bureau wthin the last month. Jenan, Sahar and Laith take turns compiling the Daily Violence Report, now only a half-dozen entries each evening from around the country, down from double and triple that number a year ago.

This spring, Corinne Reilly sent back photos of her and bureau folks eating in a restaurant. Nobody did that a year ago. Jack enjoyed ice cream at a shop a few blocks away that was car-bombed last June. A lemon smoothie at an Old Baghdad walk-in hit the spot Tuesday.

The hall pass, a biometric hologram ID that all foreign journalists must wear, remains tangled in red tape. Until it hangs from a lanyard around your neck, no embeds with troops, no access to the International Zone, no nothing -- you're a nonperson. Maybe tomorrow. Inshallah.

Breakfast downstairs consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, a thumb-sized object resembling a cold hot dog, soft white cheese in foil wedges, jam, bread and a square scrambled egg. Lunches and suppers in the bureau kitchen include yogurt, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, beef, lamb or chicken, fresh-baked pita-like bread and soda pop with lift-off tabs not seen in America since Coors cans in the '60s.

The bed is calf-high, a meter wide, two meters long -- just right. Cell phone service proves dicier than in Yosemite, thanks to American military jamming of frequencies to keep them from being used to set off homemade bombs.

American combat troops are pulling out of the major cities -- wait one -- the lights just went out ... Now they're back on. Deadline for withdrawal is June 30.

What happens then?

Stay tuned.

Your correspondent in the rainbow "Dream Man" undies will be on the job.

Hopefully, also wearing the steel-toed boots lodged in a bag somewhere in Istanbul.

Glamor and glory.

Wouldn't trade places with anybody.

After he returns from Iraq, Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com His work from Iraq can also be viewed at www.mcclatchydc.com

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