Five-minute memoir: Justin Huggler recalls trouble at the market in Baghdad

 

It was the summer of 2003, and it was my first day in Iraq. I was exhausted, I'd been up all night during the long, dangerous drive across the desert from the Jordanian border. My senses were reeling from the assault of experiences: a new city, tanks on the streets, gunfire in the distance, palm trees, constant danger, and the sulphurous smell that hung over Baghdad – like the fumes of hell, I remember thinking.

And it wasn't just any new city, it was the place I'd been watching on television for the past four months, along with pretty much everyone else. I was a reporter, based in the Middle East, but I'd had to sit out the invasion, watching in a hotel room in Jordan as the tanks advanced on Baghdad. Now, finally, I was in Iraq.

I'd just met the translator and driver I'd be working with for the next four weeks, and I wasn't sure what to make of them yet. Haider, the translator, was tall, quiet, softly spoken. Mohammed, the driver, was more impetuous. Though his English was limited, he would break into the conversation, offering opinions on everything.

I knew in the coming weeks my life might depend on them. I'd already seen a bus full of passengers being held up at gunpoint by bandits on the road that morning, and an American tank firing across the motorway while panicked traffic swerved out of the way. I was in a very dangerous place, I didn't know my way around, and I didn't speak the language. Haider and Mohammed were all I had.

But I wasn't ready to trust them yet – and I could see they were unsure about me. My head was pounding, it was hotter than I'd ever imagined the world could be, over 50C, and if you stood in the sun for more than a couple of minutes you felt dizzy and sick. Right at that moment, all I wanted to do was send them both away, arrange to meet later, and sink into the bed in the air-conditioned hotel room.

But I had an editor on the phone demanding a story and, young and ambitious as I was, I wanted to make an impression. So I told Haider I wanted to go and interview people in the sprawling Shia slum of Sadr City.

On the drive in, an American journalist had told me the Shia, long oppressed under Saddam, were friendly to the Americans and prepared to give them a chance. I wanted to see for myself. Haider was unsure: the area wasn't altogether safe, he said, but we could go if we were careful.

As we neared Sadr City in Mohammed's ancient Mercedes, the modern sprawl of Baghdad gave way to half-finished buildings and desolate, open spaces. We stopped on the outskirts. Haider didn't want to go in. I wondered if it was because of his own prejudice – I had assumed with his excellent English he was a member of the Sunni elite. But I was wrong.

"Why do you want to go there?" he said. "If you want a Shia opinion you can ask me. I'm Shia."

I was a little unnerved by that – if even he was afraid to venture in, maybe it was dangerous. But I'd told my editor I was going to Sadr City, and stupidly I was more afraid of being seen to lose my nerve than I was for my own safety. I persuaded Haider to come with me into a crowded market street.

A small crowd quickly gathered when they saw a foreigner – all men. I felt their eyes on me, but they didn't seem hostile, just curious. Haider explained who I was, and a couple of older men agreed to answer my questions. It all seemed very friendly. Someone even produced a plastic chair for me to sit on.

As Haider translated my questions and I looked over the crowd, I wondered what he had been worried about. The next four weeks were going to be difficult if he was always this nervous, I thought. As he translated the answers, I could hear a couple of younger men behind me, talking and laughing.

Then, without varying his tone of voice, as if he was still translating, Haider said: "We have to leave immediately".

"What?" I said, confused, but he was already getting up, thanking them and making our farewells. I wanted to tell Haider to wait, that I had more questions, but something in his eyes stopped me and I followed him back to the car. I was furious: we'd lost a good interview. When we were back inside, and driving away, I asked him why we had left so abruptly.

"Because those young guys behind you were discussing whether to stone you to death," he said.

After that, I learnt to trust Haider.

'Burden of the Desert' by Justin Huggler is available on Amazon (£12.99) or e-book (99p)

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