Thursday, September 4, 2008

Farnaz Fassihi's "Waiting for An Ordinary Day"

Farnaz Fassihi is the deputy bureau chief for Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, now based in Beirut, Lebanon. She joined the Journal in January 2003 and was immediately sent to Iraq. Her family is Iranian-American; she has degrees in English from Tehran University and in journalism from Columbia University.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Waiting for An Ordinary Day: The Unraveling of Life in Iraq, and reported the following:
At first I was skeptical about the page 99 test and reluctantly opened up my book and began reading page 99. I was surprised to discover that it accurately conveyed a flavor for the narrative and the theme of the book. Page 99 is about Samarra’s soccer team practicing at the city’s only Youth Club, caught in the crossfire between the Sunni insurgency and the American military. It also spoke of how ordinary Iraqis, in this case athletes, were desperately trying to cling to normal life.

From page 99:

When I ask him what is making the residents here so angry at the Americans, his reply is brisk: “The way they treat us.” I ask him for an example.

“There are many examples but I will give you one. We have only one soccer field in this province and it’s a place for young people to play sports and have fun. But Americans don’t let them. They are bombing the soccer field every night and warn people not to go to the youth club. They say the resistance is there. It’s a sports club, not a military base; why are they attacking it? I tell you why, because they are evil.”

What if the insurgents are really using the sports club as a shield, I wonder. The frontlines of this war are undefined and insurgents often do use civilian enclaves. Hassan’s breathing gets heavy and his eyes dart about. When he finally speaks, he first corrects me by saying, “Stop calling them insurgents, they are resistance,” and then settles the argument, as Iraqis often do, by launching a counter-blame strategy. He shoots off a list of mistakes by the American military, concluding that they are as bad as any insurgent group.

The Samarra Youth Club, less than half a mile away from Hassan’s shop, is a shabby structure that looks more like a Soviet gymnasium than a place for youngsters to have fun. The pastel paint is peeling off the walls and the flimsy wooden doors are punctured with holes. The entrance leads into an empty hallway with small rooms used for body building and martial arts. Equipment is limited to a few basic weights and jump ropes. We climb a set of steep steps to get to the bleachers overlooking the soccer field behind the building. Samarra’s soccer team is playing against a visiting team this afternoon. Players clad in shorts and numbered jerseys spread out across the field but they are not warming up as you’d expect. Instead, their backs are hunched, some are on their knees, and they are inspecting the grass closely, sifting through it with their fingers.

When I ask Jamal Jassem, the club’s gregarious director, what the men are doing, he announces matter-of-factly that they are collecting bullets and shrapnel left from an early morning attack by American Apache helicopters. For the past month, the helicopters have opened fire on the field. The stadium light is blown out and the goalposts are riddled with bullets.
Read an excerpt from Waiting for An Ordinary Day, and learn more about the book at the PublicAffairs website.

--Marshal Zeringue