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COLUMN ONE

Layers of truth and life in Iraq

Out of the war zone after 41/2 years, a Times reporter looks back on the disguises of reality it took to get to the story and survive.

April 10, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

In Tehran, a Dutch colleague spoke to me in English as we walked down the street and I turned on him. "Shhhh!" I demanded. Be quiet.

"Dude!" he said. "We can speak English here! We're not in Iraq."

I was moody, despondent and distracted. I surfed the Web, checking for news updates from Baghdad. I saw a group of kids playing soccer, laughing in the streets of Tehran, and I just wanted to cry.

Delphine and I argued, always about the same thing: Even when I was not in Iraq, I was in Iraq.

"Why do you bother even coming home?" she said.

At a dinner party once, I accidentally told the story of one of my close calls. Delphine was outraged. "You didn't tell me about that," she reprimanded me.

"I didn't want you to worry," I said meekly.

Months later, I became enraged when I found out she hadn't told me about a frightening encounter she'd had with authorities in Tehran. We hadn't seen each other in two months, and here we were fighting. I was indignant. "I knew something was wrong. You lied to me."

She was having none of it. "Well, you do the same thing to me," she said.

We were becoming two loners, deceiving each other in pursuit of our addictions.

*

I trembled each time the trucks rumbled past on the road to Najaf. I had seconds to make a decision. Left with little recourse, I decided to tell the man at the checkpoint the truth: I was an American journalist traveling in disguise. He asked for my American passport. I told him I didn't bring it. "Would you bring an American passport on this road?" I asked defensively.

His assistant nodded in understanding, but the older man looked at me and shook his head, his frown hardening.

With my fear came a strange calm, a sense of resignation.

Then the guy's frown melted and he smirked, shaking his head. He believed my story. I was no spy or terrorist. If anything, he thought I was a total moron for driving down this road, just a few months after the bombing of the Samarra shrine. The civil war was raging and every Iraqi who could flee the country was long gone. And here I was playing undercover agent.

He handed back my documents, but not before jotting down my personal details and obtaining the name and address of the hotel we'd be staying at in Najaf. I had survived yet another close call, and would hear Delphine's voice again that night.

*

I am out of Iraq right now, but I keep having to remind myself that there's no countdown anymore before my next trip to Baghdad. Getting ready for the next stint "in country" was always so hard. I could rarely sleep the nights before I left.

It's getting better now. I am learning again to appreciate quiet breakfasts with my wife and boisterous games of soccer with friends. But readjusting to ordinary life is hard. I miss the action.

I still daydream about my last helicopter ride to go north of Baghdad. I stuffed in earplugs and strapped on a flak jacket.

I thrilled as the Black Hawk lifted up, swinging over the Green Zone across the homes of the brawny, good-humored British, South African and American security contractors. We skirted past the mosque of the wily Shiite cleric who venomously ripped into his enemies during Friday prayers, but politely offered visitors tea and sweets.

We passed over a marketplace, where teens in plastic slippers pushed around wooden gurneys while shopkeepers worked their prayer beads. Young women stood in the courtyard of a school, perhaps recounting the woes that befell loved ones. Farmers outside the city limits worked ancient fields of barley and wheat. Boys and girls dressed in colorful robes of pink and purple walking on a dirt road waved up to us.

I imagined reaching my hand out and grasping them, drawing them all into my heart.

All of them.

*

daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi is currently in Cairo and moving to a new assignment in Beirut.

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