Monday, September 30, 2013

Book review: "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq"

"Tell Them I Didn't Cry" is a well-done book as long as you accept it for what it is.

Jackie Spinner gives a first-person account of covering Iraq for 10 months as a reporter for the Washington Post, and describes how this experience affected her. She tells the story well, filling it will careful detail, showing compassion for the suffering of the Iraqis and honestly revealing how the experience wrenched her emotionally. Near the end she says, "I had gone to Iraq to find a story. Coming home, I became the story, a battered, beaten half soul of a human."

But while Spinner bemoans the problems in Iraq, she makes no attempt to provide a broader understanding of the situation there. She offers no history, nor does she try to explain the political and structural obstacles to peace. She sticks, rather narrowly, to recounting her own day-to-day experiences. This is not really a complaint, but simply a warning to readers who might be looking for something more.

I enjoyed this book largely because it offered such a detailed look at how American journalists work in a place where few people speak English and many want to kill or kidnap them. She describes how every outing had to be carefully planned, the route chosen to avoid dangerous intersections, sometimes with a second car following along in case of a kidnapping attempt.

She describes how she tried to dress like an Iraqi to blend in. When coming to inspection checkpoints on the road, she hid key documents in her bra, knowing that no matter what no Iraqi would search there. At some checkpoints, she pretended to be asleep, so inquisitors wouldn't know she spoke English.

Spinner spends much of the book describing the Iraqi staff members who were critical to the Post's operation: drivers, guards, cooks, translators. She bonded with them deeply; it was like a family. The Americans were far from home and had no one else; the Iraqis lived semi-secret lives since they couldn't tell their friends that they worked for Americans.

She fills the book with interesting details. When she was nearly kidnapped, she tried to remember how to say "I am a journalist" in Arabic, but in a panic blurted out the phrase meaning "I am a vegetarian!"

In describing the unbearably hot Iraqi summer, she notes, "I discovered something new about myself. I get cranky when the thermometer reaches 130 degrees. Pam and I took turns sleeping in the one cool spot in the office. I took the midnight to 3 a.m. shift and then from 6 a.m to 8 a.m. I found that I could stay somewhat cool by taking a cold shower every thirty minutes or so. I'd take the shower in my clothes and, because it was so hot, they'd be dry in no time."

Spinner had never been a foreign correspondent before and her greenness probably works to the advantage of the reader. As she discovers the difficulties and surprises of this unusual life, she shares them with the reader. She takes us on the journey with her.


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