In preparation for my trip to Iraq in May, I have now met with two war correspondents. One of them is an American. We met in a bar in Brooklyn. The other is a Dutch war correspondent with whom I had dinner in Amsterdam.
The American correspondent was a man who is more or less my age. As is often the case between all kinds of authors, there is a fair amount of competition going on between war correspondents. But with war correspondents it is not so much about agents, publishers and sales; it's about where you have been, what you have endured.
In that world a close escape from death is as good as a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It's not that I think of myself as a war correspondent, but as soon as you plan to go to a place like Iraq and you start making inquiries among seasoned travelers, you are treated like a newcomer who should know his place.
Which is not to say that the meeting in Brooklyn was not helpful, quite the opposite; one of the more practical bits of advice I got was to bring chewing tobacco for the American soldiers.
The war correspondent I met in Amsterdam was a lady in her fifties, and maybe for that reason she was behaving more like a mother than a competitor.
She has been to Iraq many times, she has written a book about an Iraqi family in Baghdad and she never travels embedded with the troops. In Baghdad, she dresses as a devout Muslim woman.
Her friend, who is my editor at the Dutch newspaper I write for, looked at me and said: íYou will never be able to look like an Iraqi man, but maybe you can dress up like a woman.ë
The female correspondent replied: íEven if I dress up, as soon I start walking I'm identified as a westerner. It's my gait. Maybe you could cut your hair short and dye it black.ë
This was an investment I had not thought of making. Cutting your hair is one thing, but dyeing it....
íAnd make a kidnap-map,ë she said.
íWhat's a kidnap-map?ë I inquired.
íIt's a small map that I always carry with me. It consists of my passport and a few of my articles. It's important that you establish right away when you are kidnapped that you are who you say you are, that you are not a spy. And I put in a few pictures of me with my nieces and nephews. You have to establish a personal relationship with your kidnappers.
"Probably you are going to survive the kidnapping but your driver and translator is not going to survive. That's the nasty thing. And when you are kidnapped in a group, don't stand out; be as invisible as possible.ë
Again I nodded.
Published Apr 7, 2008 Copyright 2008 Arnon Grunberg