From Iraq and back - Page 6

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?
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"I tell people I will live to be 94. And I will," he says, believing that all it takes to succeed is to say that you will.

He states his ambitions solidly: to be the charming dictator of his own newspaper, to rise through the ranks of parliamentary politics, to one day rule the country as a prime minister. To stay in this country, to be "nothing" in Berkeley, is just not satisfying enough.

"I'm Iraqi," he says. "I just want to feel that I'm spending my time doing something to benefit my country. If everyone leaves Iraq, we'll not have an Iraq on the map in the future. I don't want that to happen."

The newspaper he hopes to own and manage will be fiercely independent and printed daily in Arabic, Kurdish, and English. It will be called Al Arrasid (The Observer), after the publication his family used to run, which folded in 1991 for lack of subscribers. Beyond bringing the truth to the people of Baghdad and penning editorials from his secular point of view, he's looking forward to being in power once again.

"I can't wait to have my own newspaper," he said. "I can't wait to sit behind my desk and tell people what to do."

Yet he has a strong sense of morality. Fekeiki said his personal mantra is a proverb his father often told him: "Harami latseer min el sultan latkhaf.... Don't be a thief. You will fear no judge."

He says these words have always made his life easy and kept his choices simple. Chavez says she saw the same spirit in him when he passed the bulk of the credit to his cowriter, David Gelles, for a story about jihad videos on YouTube that they contributed to the front page of the New York Times, a near-impossible feat for a first-year journalism student.

"It's so rare to see someone that generous, that honest," said Chavez, who actively worries about him returning to Iraq.

Berkeley's curriculum demands a summer internship in the field, and Fekeiki pressed the Post to put him back at the Baghdad bureau this June. He planned to report without telling his family he'd returned to the country, so they would be safe. However, the hands of American bureaucracy are holding him here. His one-entry visa status means if he leaves the United States, he can't come back without restarting the application process. On top of that, the United States is only accepting the newest Iraqi passports, the G series. They're so new that most Iraqi embassies aren't even making them, and Fekeiki doesn't have one.

"It's frustrating," he says. Besides being unable to report from home this summer, if something were to happen to his family, he wouldn't be able to respond beyond a phone call or an e-mail. "My father is 77 years old. I don't know when he's going to farewell us. And if it happens, I can't go and be with my family. It's not fair," he says. Instead, he'll be spending the summer break in Washington, DC, reporting for the Post's metro desk.

"I'm very glad for the visa problems," Chavez said. "It really scares me. I couldn't convince him to stay at all."

What would keep him in the States? "If going back to Iraq is not going to help me get my newspaper started, I'm not going to do it," he says. What might not make his paper succeed? "People wouldn't buy it. They just bomb the place where it's published. The government turns against me." He knows he could speak his mind outside Iraq, but the whole point is to do it in Iraq, and he feels very strongly that solutions will only come from within, that his country needs people like him.

"The toughest moments I have to deal with," he says, pausing, "are when I think maybe I'm not going back." *