Friday, July 9, 2010


Above, women lift their hands during Friday prayers at Moqtada al-Sadr headquarters, Sadr City.

I witnessed Sadr's female devotees as they prayed, tucked away behind the walls of his office compound. To see more photographs from this unique experience, visit the post I wrote for The New York Times' At War blog by clicking here.

In Iraq, no one is untouched by the chaos of war. Women have lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, to violence and prison. They've been threatened for not wearing the scarf and the abaya. They've been attacked for being Christian, Sunni or Shia. They have been displaced from their homes and have had to find a way to work, study and take care of their families under the most difficult of circumstances.

Although their daily lives have changed dramatically since the 2003 invasion, women don't seem to have much of a voice in politics or the media. They have been largely sidelined by mainstream Iraqi politics and only seem to make an appearance in a story if they were involved in a bombing or other bloodshed.

Because I am a woman, I was able to get inside the world of Iraqi women and come away with something from their lives. It is an incomplete picture, at best, but I was amazed at the stories these women told me. They keep going despite their grief, despite their fear, despite everything they have seen and experienced.

Another photograph inside Sadr's office headquarters.

I went to Baghdad University to photograph students on the first day of Spring exams. Read the blog post for At War by clicking here.

With the help of Zaid, an Iraqi employee of The New York Times, I started photographing students in the co-ed department of physics as they crammed before their first test. Although we had written permission from the Ministry of Education, within minutes an instructor was demanding that we get additional permission from the dean of the department, who was unavailable. Next we tried the political science department, also a co-ed program.

Nope. Denied.

Discouraged and worried that this seemingly innocuous photo idea would turn into something impossible, we finally tried the Women's College of Education. Bingo. We talked to the assistant dean and he sent someone with us to help inform people what we were doing.

I was surprised that we were granted access to a women's school. My experience in the Middle East has often been the opposite--women's places are harder to access.

Zaid's theory was that co-ed university departments could become targets for Islamists hoping to make a statement. Men and women mixing together, attending the same classes, sitting side-by-side to study--none of this would fly with any number of extremist groups. And indeed, universities in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities have come under attack, so perhaps the co-ed departments were being extremely protective. But who knows.

People in Iraq are afraid.

Above, women crammed minutes before their psychology exam. It was great to see so many women attending classes at Iraq's largest University. The Women's College of Education alone has 4,000 students. If they pass the course of study, these women will go on to become teachers in public schools across Iraq.

Students in Iraq have amazing dedication. Residents of Baghdad can expect 4-6 hours of electricity per day, unless they can afford a private generator. IED's explode on Baghdad streets on a daily basis. Yet the students return to class day after day.

Students check for their names on the classroom door before the start of their history exam.

Women gather every Sunday at Sayyed Idris shrine to pray, talk to each other and lie in the shrine's cool interior. To see more, check out the At War blog post here.

The shrine is a place where women bring their grief and troubles, and their hopes. It's something many of us can relate to: when the world goes crazy, we too often turn to religion, each other or both. They focus on personal issues--family, work, happiness.

A woman quietly reads the Quran inside.

The shrine itself has been a target from rockets, gunfire and numerous nearby bombings. But the women still come every Sunday.

A woman carries a sleeping baby inside the shrine.

At Noon's salon in Karrada neighborhood, owner Nahla George Daniel added extensions to a customer's hair.

In 2007, Daniel, a Christian, fled to the Dohuk in Kurdistan. She was terrified by the many attacks on Christians. She came back to Baghdad last year to pick up life where it left off. And so far, business has been good. Women have flocked back to her tiny two-story shop for manicures, pedicures, hair cuts and color.

Doesn't the desire for that which is "normal" overwhelm all of us at one time or another? Baghdad must surely be the extreme opposite of "normal". How long can one endure it?

It took a lot of courage for Daniel to return to Baghdad, and also to let me photograph her and her salon.

Hanin Ghanim gets purple hair color at the salon while her sister Shams, 17, watches. The stylist is Daniel's daughter Nagwa Amir, 18.

Samaa Al-Sarraf, 24, got her hair colored at the salon.

Electricity wires above a portrait of the Imam Hussein, Sadr City.

The biggest complaint I heard while I was in Iraq was about the lack of basic services, especially electricity. Private generators provide the bulk of power for those who can afford it. When there is no power, it affects everyone's lives--especially in summer when the temperatures can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Customers negotiate for the price of meat in the women's market in Sadr City, where many of the stalls are run by women, and nearly all of the customers are as well.

"Everything we earn here we spend on our stomachs," Naima Abd Al-Saada, a spice seller, told me. She said the Iraqi people are tired. I believe her.

Fabric store owner Makiya Hemeli, left, watches a customer sort through used fabric in Sadr City.

Hanin Thaer, 5, kisses her 5-month-old sister Yasamine Thaer in the tent where they live in Sadr City. Hanin's mother, Iqbal Achoup Shuker, is on the right. The family, led by Shuker's widowed mother-in-law, has no home and has been squatting on a piece of land for the past four years. They survive by collecting cans and other goods to recycle.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The most difficult place

(At the end of my New York Times rotation, I wrote an essay for the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship newsletter about working in Iraq.)

For the past seven weeks, I have been the bureau photographer for the New York Times in Baghdad. This was my first visit to Iraq, and although I have worked in Afghanistan, Gaza and Yemen, I have found Iraq to be the most difficult place to do my job.

For now, much of the violence seems to have subsided and life is slowly improving. Markets, commercial areas and nightlife are blossoming. Occasional explosions and gunfire briefly shatter the calm, but people maneuver around the roadblocks and continue on their way to work or university.

But fear lingers. Seven years of brutal violence have left their mark here. Iraqis are haunted by bombings, kidnappings, murders and gun battles. They don't trust the government, the media or each other.

It's the fear that makes working here difficult. When I talk to people, they often deny my request to use their names. Iraqis of all stripes are extremely wary of cameras and nearly always request proof of formal permission, usually from a ministry or other government entity. Even then, people are not eager to put themselves out in the public eye.

It is nearly impossible to photograph the aftermath of a car bomb or street battle. In most cases, the scene is blocked by police, and cameras are simply not allowed. The government has decided that published photographs of deadly bombings aid the cause of insurgents.

In any conflict zone, personal safety must come first. Finding the balance between being able to work and being secure in Iraq has proven a challenge. When I work, I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I try to make myself small and quiet. I try to blend in. For the first time in my career, armed bodyguards and two cars follow me wherever I go, a fact that has changed the dynamic of my work dramatically. Moving from place to place is complicated by checkpoints, IED's and blast walls. I often work wearing the abaya and a scarf to cover my hair. It took nearly a month for me to figure out how to work under all of the security measures.

Despite all of this, Iraq has grown on me. My rotation here is at an end and I am sad to leave. Iraq's story remains compelling and most Iraqis are warm and hospitable. Iraqis have witnessed unimaginable horrors, but they keep going.

(Photos: An Iraqi National Army soldier guards a neighborhood in Mosul, Iraq; a death announcement hangs outside the bombed former home of poet, painter, translator and novelist Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in Baghdad; a sandstorm colors Baghdad's blast walls yellow.)