An Iraqi aircraft engineer who owned a travel agency, Naseer Nouri became the Baghdad correspondent for the Washington Post, almost overnight, despite lacking experience. Asharq al Awsat caught up with the journalist during his visit to Beirut to attend a workshop at the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Professional Journalists.
Q: How did you become the correspondent for one of the world’s most renowned publications?
A: After the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters were everywhere. I worried about my travel agency and when I visited, I was shocked to see thieves stealing its contents after forcibly entering the premises. I was screaming loudly to scare them off when the Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid saw me. He was in the area reporting on the looting. We agreed to meet to discuss my experience. When he realized my English was very good, Shadid offered me a job as a translator for the newspaper in Baghdad.
Until then, I had mostly used newspapers to clean windows. After a number of meetings with Shadid, either at my house, where he was welcomed by my family, or at the hotel where he was staying, I became very interested about journalism. With time, I moved from translation to writing.
Q: Did your role evolve because you discovered a hidden talent inside you? Was the lack of security in Iraq a factor in this change?
A: Seventh month after Saddam was toppled, security in Baghdad was deteriorating; foreign correspondents could no longer move freely around. They began relying on locals to cover the latest events. Since I had familiarized myself with
the Washington Post’s writing style by translating articles for the paper, I started contributing to the paper/
This was three years ago, when Rajiv Chandrasekaran was Baghdad bureau chief, a post now held by Ellen Knickmeyer. In total, we were four Iraqis working for the newspaper. The agreement with the Washington Post stated that my byline would not feature in articles I translated. But since I stated writing, a year and a half ago, my name now appears in the paper.
Q: Is it true that you work without a contract and without life insurance unlike other journalists who work in some of the world’s most dangerous places?
A: Yes, I know many people will be stunned to find out I gave up these entitlements. But this is part of the job and I accept that. Perhaps the newspaper is luck that I am eager to write the history of Iraqi during these turbulent times.
The Washington Post appreciates good work and is a better employer than Iraqi newspapers. No one interferes with what I write even if it is opposed to US policies in Iraq .
Q: How can you justify putting your life in danger for the pleasure of writing about the history of Iraq especially as you are a trained aircraft engineer?
A: Perhaps if you were Iraqi you would understand better. Writing for a US publication is a once in a lifetime chance; it allows me to tell people around the world what is happening in Iraq . Of course, being a journalist in Baghdad is perilous, especially in an American news organization, but I chose to cover dangerous areas.
Q: Would you say you caught the journalism bug?
A: Yes and no. Above all, I consider myself luck to have been given this chance and met dedicated individuals whose utmost concern is to report the news truthfully and clearly, even if against their government’s policies. I remember traveling with a journalist to Basra to confirm a minor detail before publishing it. The trip took six hours but everything is worth the pain when your aim is to be objective and honest. How can I not fall in love with journalism when I am working with experts in the field and professionals whose only aim is the truth?
Q: Do you receive a higher salary than your local colleagues?
A: Greed is not a factor but I should say that my pay is much better than that of Iraqi journalists. Working without a contract or life insurance doesn’t mean the company doesn’t care for us. It provides us with medical expenses if we come under attack while working and helps our families if needed.
Q: What will happen to your wife and four children if you are killed on duty? How can the Washington Post justify treating its Iraqi staff differently?
A: Your question reminds me of my supervisor. He has always advised us to be careful s nothing was worth dying for no matter how important or exclusive the news we are covering is. He rejects outright that anyone should risk their lives for a story and keeps reminding us our salaries are fixed no matter how significant the events we cover.
We are driven by our duty as journalists. As Iraqis, we are familiar with danger and my pilot training helped in this respect. Interestingly, I do not tell those close to me where I am going if on a dangerous assignment. When I return, I let them know the mission’s accomplished.
Q: Do the bombings and shootings frighten you?
A: Of course I get scared which is why I always try and protect myself as best I can! I have never relied on the security guards offered by the Washington Post because I feel it will restrain my freedom to cover events and increase my responsibility.
In my time with the newspaper, I was in real danger 4 or 5 times whilst reporting in Najaf. I was waiting for the sniper to shoot and counting the time he needed to reload his gun before running for my life and crossing the road to safety. Another time, I felt that leaving the battle scene was impossible as a US sniper controlled the area around the Imam Ali mosque. Since it was close to sunset, I had no option but to stay in my place and wait. I wrote my report quickly on my Thuraya mobile phone and sent it worried I might get injured and all my efforts would be in vain.
Q: In your opinion, if the violence stopped and the stability returned to Iraq would the Washington Post still require your services or will you move?
A: My coverage of Iraq includes security but also the human aspect of life after Saddam. If the insurgency died out, I will not fear for my post because human suffering does not end all of a sudden. With everything I have achieved so far, I feel I am an asset to the Washington Post. Either way, I do not think about it. I don’t rule out returning to my previous career. Only time will tell.