Sunday, March 28, 2004

Reporting from the rooftop
Shelley Walia

Revolution Day: The Human Story of the Battle for Iraq
by Rageh Omaar. Viking, London. Pages 272. £ 20.

Rageh Omaar reporting from Baghdad
Rageh Omaar reporting from Baghdad

IN a deluge of publications on the Iraq war, comes another book and it is nothing but a disappointment. It stirs no reaction because it is non-contentious unlike John Simpson’s book that has already appeared and is far more readable than Rageh Omaar’s Revolution Day, which has appeared this week. The world of journalism eagerly awaited it, but sadly it brings no answers to the war and why it was fought. Rooftop reporting gives only a narrow perspective when it has the vantage point of expressing a wider and deeper opinion on the war.

It paradoxically turns into a non-controversial and highly professional book, when it should have projected the inherent controversies and debates on the legality of a war that was fought without the Security Council’s consent and with the sole intention of a pre-emptive programme that perilously deceived the people of both the United States and Britain, selling their faith and freedom and giving a rude jolt to the bedrock of democracy.

Omaar is conscious of the BBC’s differences with the Blair Government and has therefore avoided writing a political book that would have questioned the issue of weapons of mass destruction, though he knew that all inspections in Iraq were only a charade; the decision to remove Saddam had been taken long before by George Bush.

The man most visible on the TV screen in the days of the coalition forces entering Baghdad was an Arab-speaking African born in Somalia by the name of Rageh Omaar. He was regarded as the face of the war in Iraq. Anyone watching the BBC news in those awful days for Iraqi public would be familiar with this BBC war correspondent almost turning into a star.

Was a correspondent with such antecedents calculatedly put on the air to lend authenticity to the reportage? He is reminiscent of one of the black American Brigadiers who appeared daily to comment on the progress of the occupation.`A0Such are the media strategies of pushing in black or Arabic speaking correspondents in the forefront or embedding journalists who tow the line even though some belonging to the BBC could have performed more independently and less professionally.

I write on this book by Omaar—from which he made a public reading in Oxford—only because it turns out to be an overall non-descript account of the war.`A0Rarely does he step out of Baghdad and more often than not, he reports from the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel.`A0It is obvious that he stands inhibited by the control and censorship of the Ministry of Information and this is abundantly implicit in the book that he has now written.`A0 The scope of the book reporting on the Iraq war is therefore inadequate and narrow.`A0Nor does it reveal anything about the writer except that he mastered Arabic so as to understand the Iraqi mind by mixing with men at various tea-stalls on Rashid Street in Baghdad.

We all are aware that he, like the other more than one hundred journalists, stayed on in Baghdad to give an eyewitness report of the American entry into the capital.`A0 It was undoubtedly a brave, though foolhardy act to continue staying in Baghdad not knowing if they would be taken as hostages by the retreating Iraqis.

Though his reportage covered almost a blow-by-blow account of what took place inside Baghdad, a hunger for news that almost incapacitates a journalist from making any momentous comments on a war, Omaar has nothing much to say about the ethics of going to war and whether it was necessary to kill civilians, a collateral damage that often finds a rationale with the pro-American lobby.

The book is not about the politics of the Iraq war; but more about his experience as a journalist, especially when he was holed up with other correspondents under fear and insecurity. He looked tired throughout the reportage, and so does his fragmented account of the war that hardly ever departs from the mainstream. The involvement is clear in his description of the killing and wounding of the Reuters journalists, who were located in the same building just above him, but this is as far as it gets; the journalist in him is never allowed to come out.

A promising career is allowed to droop under the limitations of the space in which his bosses in the BBC must have advised him to function. He never gets into the Iraq that endured the battering. He never ventures to grasp the war. Surly reportage is not the only end of such an assignment. Commonplace accounts from a drained and sleepy-eyed reporter cannot take him far. Some of us viewers did approve of his assiduousness and round-the-clock information, but that was all.

The book turns out to be a true account of this inadequacy that gawks at you on each page. No one is disallowing his inherent and much-tested skills as a correspondent, but these skills remained dormant and maybe the news desk in London is to be held responsible for embedding him within the confines of Baghdad and the constraints of restrained reportage that entirely lacks any insights into one of the major wars of our time.

The book could have been a serious commentary of a competent war correspondent. Omaar does know that resentment of western sanctions had completely alienated the Iraqi from British or American administration. Instead, Omaar gives only an outsider’s point of view.`A0We experience no first-hand account of the reality of the suffering as narrated by the Iraqis themselves, though Omaar shows compassion for the people of Iraq, where intellectual life stood stifled and hospitals lacked basic amenities.

Omaar knows Arabic, but there is no evidence of him having overheard the Iraqis’ experience of the war. Though he is articulate and handsome, that is by far all that the book is: handsome to look at and well written, but integral to the genre of the innumerable writings on war that never reached any full-fledged narrative of scholarly insight.`A0Nevertheless, it has a human touch, especially in his decision to stay on and face the "shock and awe" of incessant bombing and the killing of civilians.

With the arrival of American forces in Baghdad and the pulling down of Saddam’s statue on Firdoos Square, the approaching doom for the people turned into a tame affair. Omaar suddenly left Iraq and the country turned into a burning hell.`A0But that is another story, about which Omaar has nothing to say.