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)

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with excess, cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since