From Iraq and back - Page 5

Omar Fekeiki's work with the Washington Post in his native country brought him death threats and a rare ticket to UC Berkeley. So why does he want to return?

Here, I wake up, go to school, reply to e-mails on my blog, go to dinner, go to sleep. That's not a life. That's retirement."

He feels guilty that his life is now so easy when his family and friends are still threatened back home.

"Being safe terrifies me. I can't get used to it."


For Fekeiki, staying abreast of the violence is like keeping in touch with reality, though here in the States he has to turn to fiction to find his fix.

The Situation, a film about an American journalist covering the war in Iraq, recently screened at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco. One of the first dramas about the war, it opens with a scene of two young Iraqis being thrown off a bridge in Samarra by US troops. One of them drowns, causing a stir in the province.

"That actually happened," Fekeiki says. Throughout the film, his eyes rarely left the screen, except for fleeting moments to scribble a few notes on a pad and near the end to wipe away a couple tears. Though the characters are fictional, the plot is very real, centering on misguided US intelligence, the schism between Iraqis and Americans, and the overall futility of war.

"Wow," he said, getting up from his seat as the last credit rolled and the screen went completely black. "I could identify with every aspect of that movie."

The violence doesn't bother him as much as it reminds him of where he's come from, where his family is, and what his friends are doing. "I want to still feel connected," he says.

In Berkeley he doesn't. The first semester of basic reporting, de rigueur for all journalism students, was difficult for Fekeiki. He found the Bay Area beat more terrifying than Baghdad. "Some people think reporting in a war zone is difficult, but I did it, and I know how to do it," he says.

"In Iraq everything you think about is a story. Here you have to squeeze your mind to find a story that interests the readers. That's really challenging. I don't know the place. It's not my culture. I don't know the background. I need a fixer," he says, laughing.

He was as lost working on a story about Merrill Lynch as an American reporter might have been covering the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. "At 7 a.m. I get an assignment to go write about Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. What's Merrill Lynch?"

Lydia Chavez, Fekeiki's professor for basic reporting, said she usually pushes her students to cover stories they wouldn't normally choose. But she told us, "Someone like Omar, I was trying to find something that would be comfortable because everything is so foreign."

His turning point came when he covered a psychic fair in Berkeley. "He came back with something I never would have expected," she said.

"They didn't want me to write anything," Fekeiki said of the psychics he encountered at the fair. "They wouldn't let me interview the people there who came to heal their aura. So I was, like, 'OK, can I heal my aura and take notes?' They said, 'Yes, why not?' So I did it, and it turned into a personal piece."

The amazing part of the story is what the healer saw about him even though he hadn't told her his name, let alone that he was from Baghdad. "The woman just shocked me with her information about me. She started to talk about how my family is in danger and how I am terrified about being in a place I don't think I belong to and have to compete with other people. It was amazing," he says, still somewhat aghast.

"She couldn't heal my aura, though. She said I have conflicting thoughts: 'You're very protective of your thoughts, and you're confused, and it's messed up.' Which is true."


Fekeiki has the cockiness of youth and the undaunted faith of a survivor but also a certain attitude toward life he doesn't always see in his fellow Iraqis.