An Interview with Josh Hammer, Author of "Return to the Marsh" | Travel | Smithsonian
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An Interview with Josh Hammer, Author of "Return to the Marsh"

Ben Block spoke with Josh about Iraq and reporting in dangerous regions of the world.

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What drew you to the Middle East and to reporting on the Arab world?

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I wasn't really drawn to it until I became Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief in 2001. I was based in Berlin, and I was there for barely a year before Newsweek asked me to move there because I had written about Israel in my first book, almost as an aside. It hadn't really been at the top of my list of places to go. But I got there at the beginning of the second Intifada, and I very quickly found myself caught in the conflict. I spent a lot of time in the West bank and Gaza and learned to speak some Arabic—in fact I ended up speaking far more Arabic than Hebrew, because it was more useful, since nearly everyone in Israel speaks English. It was an incredibly dramatic time to be living there, with this on-going conflict between Arabs and Jews that had reached a new level of intensity. The issue of land, the tortuous history between the two sides, it just sucks you up. I started traveling around the Arab world. I traveled to Lebanon, and I spent some time with Hezbollah and saw some things that prefigure what's going on now. And then the war in Iraq began and I started spending a lot of time in Iraq early on after the war when one could travel around the country with relative freedom. I watched over the course of the year and a half how that all changed so much for the worse. I was in the Arab world for four very intense years, and it definitely shaped my career and it's a place I will always be drawn to.

Are you still interested in war reporting?

I'm definitely interested in conflict reporting, but I have a couple of kids now and I'm less drawn to it than I used to be. In my younger days I'd be running off to Lebanon at a moment's notice, and I'm not doing that now. I don't particularly relish going back to Iraq for the moment or being embedded with American troops—I just don't feel the same passion about it that I once did. I guess that's a reflection of having kids and a family and getting older and putting my life on the line too many times. I've been in gunfire and I've seen horror. The same stuff that's going on in Lebanon I saw in Jenin and Ramallah and Bethlehem in 2002 and 2003, and I think I have less of a hunger now.

Why didn't you hesitate to go into Basra for this story?

There's a big difference between Baghdad and Anbar Province and Basra. There's definitely violence everywhere in Iraq, but southern Iraq is relatively quiet. Yes, we did have an occasional attack by the Shiite militia and the Mahdi Army. I toyed with the idea of going in by myself, but I was rapidly given the score and told that was insane. When I did go into the marshes it was very closely supervised, very safe. I was with the British troops the whole way and it wasn't a high fear factor. It wasn't like going into Ramadi.

Did you ever feel like you were in danger?

You always feel like you're in danger. It starts just driving from the airport into the Green Zone. It's half an hour and you're under very tight security, but everybody's nervous and you just don't know what will happen on the road. It's a very hazardous journey. Once you're inside the Green Zone you feel a lot less exposed. I left Newsweek, but my swansong for Newsweek was that Baghdad trip. It's restricted to working in the Green Zone or being embedded with the military, almost no Newsweek reporter goes driving in the streets of Baghdad anymore. It's just not done. And the Green Zone is a weird little world unto itself, it's totally cutoff from the rest of the city. So there's very little danger there.

How did your recent trip to the marshes compare to the trip you took in 2004? Did you feel less secure?

I didn't feel less secure because this time I was with the British, but I felt more frustrated because I was always surrounded by the military. I was rushed along and couldn't really talk to people for very long, and there was always the sense that if you lingered something bad would happen. The first time I went in I was with a former rebel, and we were on our own schedule, went anywhere we wanted to, hung out. It was a completely different experience being there with the military, surrounded by dozens of heavily armed troops.

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