Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Man Who Went to Sea

The Time Magazine article Into the Heart of Najaf is entirely atmospheric. Let the prose speak for itself.

"We are going to the shrine,” one said. “You can follow us." The boy who wanted to show us the way was not older than fourteen. ... We turned the corner, following the kids and found ourselves completely behind al Mahdi lines. The fighters hidden in the windows of a bombed out building recognized our guides and waved to us. Then the shooting started and we ran for cover. We heard the bullets coming in close. Around the corner we hit an open space where the old city joins the new city. I crossed first, with Thorne close behind me, and just as I made it to the opposite curb, the sniper fired again. I found a pillar to hide behind but Thorne was caught in the middle of the street and he curled up in the shadow of a piece of concrete. The bullets made cracking sounds when they hit the wall. ... Long rows of armed young men we passed held their weapons in the air and sang victory songs. They stayed out of the street to avoid U.S. snipers, but they were relaxed and never trained their rifles on us. A few minutes before we reached our destination, the boys disappeared back into the alleys of the city.

After the cheerful irregulars lead their charges past the indiscriminate shooting of US snipers and reach the shrine, they are met by a Yoda-like figure who is "our host and protector". He takes them to a ward where they are shown men with horrifying injuries. 

A friend of the dead man screamed at the doctor to take the pulse, and Dr. Jasim did it to calm him down. He had turned away from the corpse moments before, and simply said, "Shaheed," which means martyr and had gone back to tending a living patient. The fighter then lost his control and started screaming and we had to turn away. ... Blood covered the marble floor and streaked the walls of the makeshift hospital. We saw fighters run down Rasul street to attack U.S. positions. Minutes later, injured men were wheeled through the gates of the shrine on blood-soaked carts. Casualties were brought in every few minutes.

They spend grim, yet exhilarating days with the Fighters and yet "the militiamen never threatened us, and while the population in the mosque went as high as several thousand in the evenings, none of the men carried weapons inside its walls." So it was with heavy heart that the reporters eventually began their return journey.

On Thursday morning we started to think about ways we could get out of the medina and through the American lines without retracing our steps through the sniper field. It was a tough problem. Dr. Walid Jasim, the infirmary doctor said we could leave with the wounded in the ambulance. I liked this approach, but it turned out to be unnecessary ... Thorne and I agreed to leave the shrine an hour later with the convoy, saying hurried goodbyes to men we had met over the past three days. Hundreds of fighters were at the gate as we left. They all knew us.

The author had returned to enemy lines. I had started to parse the account in terms of the five journalistic "W"s before I realized I was looking at a pure specimen of the kind of writing that was once popular in the 1920s and 30s. Something that might have been written by Lincoln Steffens or Mao Tse Tung when he penned "In Memory of Norman Bethune". Philip Robertson's account in Time Magazine may or may not tell the truth, but it is a perfect example of the yawning gap that has opened up between sections of the Mainstream Media and its Internet critics. Although sports and city news seem as much as before, the coverage of the war on terrorism and the Presidential election has become, as much as the space between forces in Najaf, an informational no-man's-land. The conflict has become so polarizing that people are reverting to type, even archetype, so that Lincoln Steffens rides again. The accounts of the siege of the Imam Ali shrine begin to read like a play within a play and the coverage a story in itself. However things turn out, the relationship between the media and its readers will never return to its former nature. When Robertson reentered American lines after a few days of absence, he returned, perhaps unknowingly, to a different world.

I knew a lad who went to sea,
and left the shore behind him.
I knew him well, the lad was me,
and now I cannot find him.
-- Unknown