The Digital Journalist
The Garden Of Mohammed
June 2004

by Dave Marash

By mid-May, the days have grown consistently hot in Baghdad, but the nights, especially when there is a breeze, are pleasantly cool, and in "The Garden of Mohammed," things are extraordinarily cool.

Cameraman Doug Vogt's freshly stuffed iPod pushes a variety of the world's best and worst music through boombox speakers that shred it all into shuddering fragments. His soundman Magnus Macedo, a sprightly Brazilian with the perpetually surprised eyebrows of Zonker Harris and his young cousin Zipper in Doonesbury, inhales an Efes Beer and exhales contentment.

The moon, a gleaming fingernail clutching a charcoal-blue sky, peeks over the canvas and frame penthouse that is the stand-up position at ABC News Baghdad headquarters, a series of tiny, slightly down at the heels hotels in a residential district of the Iraqi capitol. This is where $5 Dollar a Day tourists might stay, or perhaps provincial middle-class Iraqi families visiting the big city, or an Iraqi Willy Loman. "Unbelievable!" we agree, that in the midst of a devastated city surrounded by a viciously chaotic country, there could be such a consistently sweet spot as "The Garden of Mohammed."

Mohammed Barrieh, the major domo of the ABC establishment, labored through the brief Iraqi Spring in February and March to sod a space in front of the hotel that is our broadcast center. His first attempt failed. The sod, rejected by the soil beneath, turned toasty brown, then desert tan, the same color as the dusty space that had preceded this attempt at home improvement.

When TV hunkers down for a long-haul story, it brings a bunch of people, a bunch of gear, a bunch of anxieties and competitive clashes. It also brings western tastes in food and comfort. A brilliant ABC News producer named Jenny Ames set up our establishment in Baghdad, even as the American-led occupation of Iraq was setting up its, in April 2003. She trained the kitchen staff in what to buy at the market and how to cook for American/British/Canadian/French/Brazilian/New Zealand/South African/Egyptian/Palestinian palates. She introduced bread and butter pudding that survived her return to Johannesburg.

Jenny helped move from a medium-sized business district hotel whose surrounding streets could become an instant shooting gallery, to our row of tiny sub-tourist class hostels in much safer obscurity, now reconfigured for workspaces, bedrooms and a dining and a smoking room. She kept most of the staff from our old hotel, and brought them, now old friends as well as servers, to our new location. Then, she turned things over to Mohammed.

Mohammed Barrieh

Photo by Radi Deeb
Mohammed is a patient, even dogged man. He proves this in his dealings with farmers in the market and jobbers in his office. He gets what he wants, and we benefit, as we have with The Garden. Mohammed and his colleagues, Jassim, Haidar and others, rejected defeat. A second time, squares of green grass were laid, soaked, and soaked again. A second time, unwary walkers were hailed and farewelled away from the incipient lawn. Sometimes the soaking hose doubled as artillery to blow intruders off the battlefield of horticulture. In mid-March, I went home to New Jersey, leaving behind the unfinished story of the hotel lawn, and a troubled and dangerous place. Every trip out of town required hours of logistical planning, calling around for daily incident reports indicating which roads were safe and which had to be avoided.

I came back, about 7 weeks later, to a different planet.

Now, the same trepidation and care that used to be required before going to Mosul or Basra, the marshes, or the holy cities of the south, is required for a trip across town to the Green Zone. Now, every highway out of Baghdad, North to Tikrit or Kurdistan, East towards Iran or West towards Jordan, or South, whether southeast to the Marshes or Basra, or southwest to Kerbala and Najaf, is too dangerous to travel.

In fact, the rides from, and back to, Baghdad International Airport (Bee-Ap, as it is known around here) are now, by far, the most dangerous parts, not just of the journeys between America and Baghdad, but of the whole scheduled 4 week stay in Iraq. Virtually every week, someone dies on that road, usually from an IED (improvised explosive device).

While some light-footed and brave still photographers and print reporters move about the city streets, a change in clothing often a sufficient disguise for safe passage for one or a pair of journalists, TV news teams are simply too big, too obvious, and too tempting a target (a TV camera package can cost upwards of $100,000 these days) to work out of doors in Iraq. And the arrival of the unmistakable camera, tripod, light kit and team of 3 to 6 non-Iraqi people at someone's home would be so compromising to their safety as to be unthinkable. So we are limited, very limited, to point-to-point drives (no stopping anywhere for any reason) to official offices or neutral hotel sites to do our interviews. This means we can talk with officials or executives but not with most of Iraqi society. Their streets are unsafe for us, and our presence could make their homes unsafe for them.

Instead, we rely on our local staff and some Arabic-speaking, darker-complected camera crews to do all our shooting on the Iraqi street. They are good, but reporting means feet on the ground, space in your face, the smell, the light, the way things move or don't, and all that is now beyond my reach. Do the best you can, is the motto, and we do, like experienced fans watching ice hockey on television. No one can see the puck, but if you know the game from many trips to the arena, you know where it is, and by and large, you can read from body movement and language how hard a hit, how swift a stride. It ain't quite the real thing.

But at night, after we've walked the line of steaming trays and picked up our dinner, always 2 salads, always 3 or more starches, or as one colleague ticked it off one night, "One potato, two potato, pasta, rice, and rice," and our main course, after we've plucked our beer or soda pop or sensible and virtuous water from the ice-filled garbage can at the head of the line, we slump back in our flexible white plastic lawn chairs, we balance more music against worse sound, as the blown-out speakers gargle Ben Andrews blues, Wayne Shorter jazz or Bruce Springsteen rock, and marvel.

Out of chaos, peace. Out of violence, calm (or calm plus loud music). Out of Iraq, we dissolve, like sugar cubes in coffee, into the spell of The Garden of Mohammed.

Press barracks usually are rough and ready places, reflective of the rough times around them. One winter in Bosnia, the Hotel Bosna in the Serb city of Banja Luka achieved the near-impossible. Minus 2 degrees outside; minus 20 degrees inside. Cameraman Jeb Bergh set up his lights, dedicated one battery pack, and warmed himself to sleep. Just beyond the room door, the halls reeked of slivovitz-fueled gunmen looking for, not so much a fight, as an excuse to kill.

Then there was the justly famous Holiday Inn of Sarajevo, that through a siege in which no one had heat or water (other than the 2 winebottles worth you were allowed each day to take upstairs to your room, half for bathing, half for flushing) mirrored the miracle of Sarajevo's survival. Hospitality was as warm and particular as the temperature was cold and the chances of being hit by a sniper random and generic (rooms were rented on only 2 of the 4 sides of the hotel, those facing away from the Serb sniper nests in the mountains ringing town).

But Mohammed's Garden is the anti-Iraq, or at least an oasis of good feeling in a desert of rage and fear.

Mohammed muscled up security as times grew worse, and marketed T-shirts commemorating our stay. He decreed: anyone flying in from Amman will bring (purchased that morning, NOT the day before), 3 boxes of Dunkin Donuts. Mohammed makes sure laundry delivered to the desk by noon will be returned, from somewhere across town, without fail the next day. Omelettes are cooked to order every morning. Lunch and dinner are never fancy, but are universally considered, "the best meals in Baghdad," assuring us of a constant stream of off-the-record and background information. The best sources in town regularly deliver info over our once-a-week special treat of fresh roast lamb, or chef's night off, Pizza Night. People stranded in Baghdad are thrilled to be, for part of a night, in such a nice place.

And when dinner's done: The Garden, the moon, the stars, dimmed by dust clouds which hover over or settle on Baghdad day and night, their light as gentle and welcome as the dimples in your darling's cheeks.

There are many pleasures in the television news business, companionship, chief among them. Marash's Iron law of TV goes: "No One Ever Does Anything by Himself." At ABC News Baghdad, the cast keeps changing, or rotating, since only a minority of the possible players will take this field, but the quality stays high. Doug, who won his spurs as The Calamari Cowboy laying waste to crustaceans along the Dalmatian coast, will be followed by Bartley Price, another Balkan vet, who recently got lucky in love. He and Magnus will go home after an amazing 3 months in, to be replaced by The Kiwi and his Crowing Cockney, Phil Dayton. In the bureau chief's chair, silent, steady, caring Ray Homer is replaced by blaring, ready, caring Leo Meidlinger. Someone always has your back, a wonderful, hardly assumable situation in the TV News business.

Young people like Mark Stone, Sarah (Ro) Rosenberg and Aditya (Adi) Raval win their spurs, and older folks like me, Bill Redeker and the middling young Jeffrey Kofman spur each other to more ingenious ways to cover news without actually touching it. Days are long. Because of the time zone jump, 8 hours to New York, Good Morning America comes up in mid-afternoon, while World News Tonight is on at 2:30 in the morning. Nightline breaks the dawn line here, 7:30AM, and since no respectable producer or editor will finalize his piece till minutes before deadline, one day can end deep into the next one.

But that night will almost certainly end, happily, in The Garden of Mohammed.

Thanks, Mo.

© Dave Marash

Dave Marash is a correspondent for Nightline, ABC News.