Journalist Ditmars records intermittent journeys into Iraq between 1997 and 2003, from a time of sanctions to a time of war.
The great-granddaughter of Lebanese refugees who fled to Canada a century ago, the author is not quick to allow that her “pidgin Arabic and vaguely foreign look” might have been impediments in traveling through Iraq and communicating with its people. Still, we learn, she had other credentials: Iraqis love to dance, and she proudly owns up to having a knack for “moving my hips and hands in the serpentine way I’d honed after years in the Middle East,” which, along with tottering heels and cleavage, opened at least a few doors. Once these dangerous moments of self-regard pass, Ditmars turns her gaze beyond the mirror to find a nation of interesting, accomplished and quite alienated people who once had to deal with Saddam, and after the American invasion, had many little Saddams to contend with. She depicts a broad range of Iraqis, from an affecting big-sister type named Umm Marwan and Baathist functionaries to cab drivers and intellectuals, all of them, in September 2003, living with a pandemic fear that unknown enemies were afoot and on the watch as before, save that “at least in the old days, you knew it was someone from the regime.” Her observations on the invaders are smart and to the point, particularly the book’s climax in the hell of Abu Ghraib, her Virgil there none other than former commandant Janis Karpinski. Even then, some readers may wonder at the sniping (“[Paul] Bremer looked like a man who loved to make to-do lists. I could imagine him making them in bed at night”), which doesn’t add much to an already choppy narrative.
Decidedly minor next to such other books of reportage as Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near (Sept. 2005), George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate (Oct. 2005) and Anne Garrels’s more directly comparable Naked in Baghdad (2003).