By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
BASRA, IRAQ — Garbage lies in burning curbside piles outside the governor’s office, and streets are flooded with sewage. The more than 1 million residents of the country’s second-largest city fan out in a textbook example of urban sprawl, into the barren desert and the Rumaila oil fields, where refineries light the sky 24 hours a day.
The city seems much as it did when Iraq was invaded more than two years ago. Local residents look to the government to provide better services, but a mixture of alleged corruption and complaints of a lack of support from the central government have left efforts largely stymied. Near the Marbed Hotel, the most expensive in the city and the one where most of the parachute-in–parachute-out foreign press corps stays, the garbage also lies piled up. Walk a block from the hotel through an unpaved alley, and you’re at the exchange shop where Steven Vincent, a 49-year-old freelance investigative journalist from New York, was abducted before being killed. His 31-year-old colleague Nouriya Itais Wadi, also known as Nour Al-Khal and often referred to as “Leyla” in Vincent’s writings, was left for dead next to him, shot four times. She has been moved to a hospital in Kuwait and is expected to survive.
Vincent had been living in the Marbed for three months, researching for a book on the city and rarely leaving the hotel except to work. At a time when freelancers, especially, are few and far between in Iraq, he had spent an almost insane amount of time in the same place. For the Christian Science Monitor he had been writing critically of the local government and its ties to Islamic militias that offered more corruption; for Harper’s magazine he did a piece on the iconography of Shiite religious posters. His final piece was an op-ed published July 31 in The New York Times on the sorry state of the Basran police. Whether or not this piece and the others were his undoing, they provide the background against which he died, a city seemingly calm in comparison to other parts of the country, liberated by foreign troops from a repressive dictatorship only to be run by criminals, many operating under the guise of political Islam.
A supporter of the invasion, Vincent had come to Basra, and Iraq, because he wanted to see firsthand what the invasion of Iraq had wrought.
“Steve always wanted to be a writer,” said Lisa Ramaci, who was married to Vincent for 13 years. “When I met him, he was a cab driver, then he was an art journalist for 10 years, but wanted to get into political journalism. Our place had a great view of the World Trade Center, and September 11 set him on this course.”
Parts of Manhattan then might not have looked too much different from Basra now. The destroyed World Trade Center was not dissimilar to the bombed intelligence buildings in Basra’s city center, some parts of the foundation still standing upright but holding aloft nothing but vacant space.
In 2004, Vincent traveled to Iraq and wrote a book called In the Red Zone. He was present in Najaf during the U.S. siege of that city to remove Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militia from a holy shrine. Ramaci last spoke to Vincent three days before he was killed, and said he told her he was planning to leave Basra in two weeks because of increasing concerns for his and Al-Khal’s safety.
“He was getting into some bad stuff, and he said he was starting to get a lot of phone calls from numbers he didn’t recognize and when he picked up, there wouldn’t be anyone there. About a month ago, he said a man came up behind Nour on the street and said, ‘Why are you working with that American journalist who’s asking all the questions?’ ” Ramaci said, adding that in their last conversation, he hadn’t mentioned any specific threats.
The posts on Vincent’s blog, addressed to Ramaci, provide a nuanced, clever, often funny, but above all humane, account of his travels and thoughts. He was constantly having to rethink his preconceptions and was often pained and appalled by what he saw. He was particularly sensitive to women’s rights, collecting firsthand anecdotes while working with Al-Khal and other female colleagues.
“The person he seemed to fear the most was Muqtada Al-Sadr,” Ramaci said. “He was most frightened when he interviewed people at his office.”It never ceases to astonish me, the ways in which Iraqi men subjugate and control their women with their obsessions on “reputation,” “honor” and that all-purpose cudgel, “proper Muslim behavior.”
The point is, polygamy and “temporary marriages” are legal here, meaning that any single woman is subject to the advances of any man, married or not. Even if they aren’t bold enough to confess their ardor in conversation, the hope, or fantasy, burns in their minds and fills the eyes with a queasy leer. Women back home who complain about the “male gaze” have no idea how bad it can get.