A dear friend’s visit


My friend Robin came to visit me for a couple of days. She lives in San Diego and was on her way to the North Carolina mountains to spend time with family. I am so glad she decided to make a pit stop at my house.

Robin and I have known each other since the time we were fresh college graduates in Tallahassee. We were young and crazy then, both just divorced from husbands we probably should have never married. We made each other laugh. We called each other Dink, wore each other’s clothes and read each other’s thoughts.

I moved to Atlanta in 1990; Robin left for California shortly thereafter. And long stretches of time passed between our meetings. But still, when I see her, it feels as though time stood still. We own more wrinkles on our skin, more aches in our bodies. We are wiser for the wear, our vastly varied life experiences known and not known to each other.

But we still make each other laugh. And laugh.

In the dressing room of Squash Blossom in Decatur, we giggled our heads off so much that the sales lady remembered us from our last visit there together.

And in the evening, we dressed as two middle-class Indian women off for a sumptuous dinner at one of my favorite Indian restaurants: Bhojanic. I even stuck a bindi on Robin’s head.

She left a few minutes ago and my world seems so suddenly still. So quiet.

I am returning to my reality, thinking about how to rectify my lack of sleep before I head in for another overnight shift. The afternoon sun is playing hide and seek with the clouds, shards of light dancing on the hardwood floors of my front room.

But today, I feel a little richer for feeling tired.

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A sheik and his desert pets

Some people have asked me about the photograph of me with the camels.

It was taken in Ramadi, Iraq, in April 2007 by my friend and former colleague Louie Favorite. We had spent two months in northern Iraq before arriving in al-Anbar province. Ramadi, the provincial capital was known as the world’s most dangerous city. It had just started to turn around because several Sunni sheiks started the Anbar Salvation Council. Enough was enough, they said. They helped quell the violence. Sunni insurgents who once aimed at U.S. soldiers and indiscriminately killed Iraqi civilians decided to keep the peace.

Behind it all was a sheik named Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi. He was young for a tribal leader — only 37. Regal in his flowing muslin robes trimmed with gold, white headdress and a neatly groomed goatee.

We are tired of the bombings, beheadings and mortar attacks, al-Rishawi said. Tired of seeing the blood of our people flow like the Euphrates through our city.

His name was uttered in all circles. From the moment I landed in Ramadi, Iraq, I heard al-Rishawi mentioned in almost every conversation — by American soldiers and Marines, Iraqi army and police and the people on the street. One resident hailed him as the closest thing to God.

No other man, perhaps, was as vital to keeping the peace in Iraq’s lawless Anbar province. Certainly, the U.S. soldiers who worked with him in Ramadi knew it. And apparently, so did the terrorists he helped defeat.

Louie and I visited his compound with U.S. soldiers. We were embedded then with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. We sipped hot syrupy tea and chatted with al-Rishawi’s brother about the future of Anbar, the future of strife-torn Iraq.

Months later, al-Rishawi was dead.

A bomb planted near his Ramadi home killed al-Rishawi just 10 days after President Bush lunched with him during a quick visit to Iraq and two days after Ramadi residents marked the first anniversary of the “Anbar Awakening.”

I can imagine his compound now — date palms swinging in the light breeze, the whir of air-conditioning units working overtime to keep the large house cool. I doubt the U.S. tank is still standing by the front gate. But I would venture to guess that the camels are still there, their faces locked in a permanent smile. Welcoming the outsider to a troubled land.

Wine unwind

I relished a glass of Oregon pinot noir at 8 a.m.

Good wine is, well, good wine. Though, the sun, already blistering in the sky, took away from the elegance of it all. Sort of like drinking red wine from a plastic glass. Same stuff, not as tasty.

But what to do? Everyone needs to unwind after work, right?

A co-worker told me a funny tale about working the overnight shift. He likes to have a beer for breakfast but one day walked his school-age daughter to the bus stop with beer in hand.

At least I won’t have to worry about that one.

Vampires of news

I started working overnights this week at CNN.

I haven’t worked into the wee hours of the morning in about 17 years. Then, I was more eager. Now, I am middle-aged.

I thought it might be like all those crazy hours in Iraq. But it’s different when bombs are falling around you.

I feel like a vampire now, spending my awake hours in darkness at home, in even more darkness in the cavernous newsroom.

I burst into tears after returning home one morning. Drinking red wine at 7 a.m. is not my idea of fun. Like a vampire’s last kill before entering slumber.

Defiance in Iran

A friend of mine e-mailed me a few days ago saying: “Aren’t you glad now you work for CNN instead of the AJC?”
He was referring to the events unfolding in Iran, and of course, I was thrilled to be in the nerve center of the Cable News Network, where we’ve had a rather busy week.
It was amazing to be involved in the story because the story itself is so amazing.
Is this the first step towards change in Iran?
I can’t but help think so. In the very least, things can never be the same again, even if there is a crackdown. The world has seen the real desires and wishes of the Iranian people. More importantly, Iran’s regime has seen that it cannot squash the hopes and dreams of a vibrant population.
Keep watching, everyone.

My latest newspaper stories

Check out the AJC:

On a Muslim woman barred from entering a Douglasville courtroom.

http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/stories/2008/12/21/muslim_veil_court.html

And a story that explores a widow’s search for justice as Atlanta’s most notorious murder case comes to a close.

http://www.ajc.com/search/content/metro/atlanta/stories/2008/12/14/Claudia_Barnes_widow.html

Victor



I have friends here in Georgia who crave acres and acres of land. They like living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lush grass and tall pines. They savor silence and go to sleep at night with the sound of crickets chirping outside the window. Most of all, they want to live where they don’t ever have to see other people.
I grew up in a mass of humanity known as Calcutta — the opposite of everything in the paragraph above. I feel uncomfortable when I can’t see walls of people, when I don’t hear the cacophony of street noise.
So I felt quite at home last week in Mexico City, otherwise known as D.F. or Distrito Federal where 21 million people fight for space every day.
“What? You went where for vacation?” was the reaction here in Atlanta. Aren’t there better places to go? Cancun? Baja California? Acapulco?
Not for me.
D.F. was perfect.
Spectacular weather. Delicious food. Great people watching. History. Art. So much art everywhere.
From Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to the ruins of Tenochtitlan and Teotihuacan.
A tourbook for curious travelers suggested a visit to a handicrafts shop called Victor on Francisco Madero in the historic district. I walked in through a perfume store, up three flights of stairs in the back of a drab office building and into two small rooms where two elderly sisters greeted me with their treasures. Their artist father, Victor, had owned the shop until his death. Now the two women were happy to spend lazy days tending shop. I doubted that business was anywhere near brisk. But that wasn’t the point. So I acquired a pair of traditional silver earrings, lovingly gift-wrapped by the sisters. I could have lingered and asked question after question. But I wasn’t there as a journalist. I didn’t want to be intrusive.
So I left with my little box. And wondered about the lives of two women. How did they pass their evenings? How did they get to work? By subway? Or bus? Or did they drive an old family car? Had they ever married? Were their children, heirs to the store? Were they lonely or were they consumed by their beloved city? Would they enjoy living out in the Georgia countryside?
I walked back down the stairs and out onto the street. And quickly got lost in the crowd.

Disquieting statements

Thursday, I sat in the Atlanta Municipal Court room where Brian Nichols, the Fulton County Courthouse shooter, is being sentenced for the murders of four people. The jury must decide whether to sentence Nichols to death by lethal injection. They listened to statements read out loud by 13 victims.
I listened to them talk about the void in their lives after the murder of their loved one. Of missed birthdays and anniversaries, graduations and weddings or just the ordinary. A quiet dinner at home. Watching a movie. Snuggling together. The comfort of love and understanding.
All of it was robbed on a blustery March day in 2005 when Nichols escaped from custody during his rape trial and went on his killing spree.
The statements once again reminded me of the loss that families of soldiers feel. Sudden, violent loss. It’s not something most of us experience in our lifetimes. So we take things — and people — for granted.
We shouldn’t.
Life has more meaning when we live every day to its fullest and take the time to appreciate the people who make our lives richer. Brian Nichols victims have realized that in the most painful of ways.

The Journalism of Trauma

So, I didn’t write for many months after I created this blog. I went off to Iraq and when I returned, I could not navigate through some technical difficulties, and I abandoned this.
But I just returned from an invigorating week in Chicago — yes, the windy city is still celebrating the historical electoral victory of one of its own, but that’s not what I mean.
I just attended a week-long fellowship sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I sat with eight other journalists chosen as 2008 Ochberg fellows and learned that I was hardly alone. I had felt somewhat isolated from society after my returns from Iraq and I discovered that THAT was perfectly normal.
We heard from specialists in the field working with depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems that plague victims of violence.
Not many Americans realize how traumatic events can affect the journalists who cover them. Everyone is always getting down on the media, but how else would everyone get news if the media decided to skip the awful fires, shootouts, murders, terrorist attacks and wars?
Think about it.
Would you be willing, if you had a choice, to leave the comforts of your home to throw yourself in harm’s way? Very few of us do that for a living. Firefighters, paramedics, police officers and members of the military are a special breed. I think journalists are too.