In the early spring of 2003, an American daily provided its readers with a map depicting the battle strategy for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The visual was memorable in its simplicity. An arrow, representing the U.S. military ground convoy, swooped upward through Iraq from the southern border of Kuwait and pointed to a big, bold bull’s-eye. At its center: Baghdad. Looking at the map, one could almost forget that the Iraqi capital, identified by flat, gray markings, is home to more than five million complex and distinct human beings.
After reading Asne Seierstad’s mesmerizing war memoir, you won’t forget that important detail. Written from the perspective of a journalist embedded among Iraqis, A Hundred and One Days paints an intimate and vivid portrait of Baghdad under siege.
An award-winning Norwegian correspondent, Seierstad was in the Iraqi capital from January to April 2003 as a freelance writer. During those fateful three months, Iraqis endured the final weeks of a repressive regime, an invasion and its chaotic aftermath. Seierstad reports on all these events, ultimately filing stories for eight European publications and several Scandinavian radio and television stations.
In her more than 10 years as a war correspondent, reporting from places like China, Chechyna, Kosovo and Afghanistan, Seierstad has never worked under more difficult conditions. In prewar Iraq, the problem is elementary: no one says what they think. Then the bombs come and she must reckon with her fears. A compassionate curiosity keeps her going. What do people say after the dam has burst and the government minders have gone?
A Hundred and One Days is a testament to Seierstad’s stamina for seeking out the Iraqi point of view. The book includes the voices of all sorts of peoplestockbrokers, booksellers, a gravedigger, Saddam’s favorite portrait artist, a Shia cleric and children. Lots of children. The truth about the war in Iraq does not exist, she writes. Or rather, there are millions of true accounts and maybe just as many lies. As a journalist, Sierstad knew her task was not to judge, predict, or analyze but to look, ask, and report. Her advantage was that she was there. Her ears were there. Her eyes were there. Seierstad rightly directs her gaze to ordinary Iraqis and in so doing makes real a city that for many of us was just a distant target in a faraway war.
In January 2003, Baghdad appears outwardly calm but beleaguered. On the surface one does not notice the dark cloud of dread that is about to descend, Seierstad writes. Ancient Baghdad was designed to reflect the elevated radiance of the Muslim emperor, Al Mansour. But today the city is like any Middle Eastern metropolis: noisy, pounding and fume-filled.
Seierstad’s biggest trial is negotiating access to ordinary Iraqis. Baghdad is not like Saigon during the Vietnam War where press credentials were easily obtained and the primary requirements for getting the story were stamina and reckless courage. In Iraq, journalists are granted 10-day visas that can be extended or denied at the caprice of bureaucrats working in the Ministry of Information. Government minders must accompany correspondents to monitor and translate interviews and reports. To travel outside the capital or to enter the home of an Iraqi requires a special permit.
In prewar Baghdad, truth is elusive, but Saddam omnipresent. His image looms on public buildings and dominates the highly orchestrated television news. His words are parroted by those the author interviews. Despite the constraints, Seierstad persists in her desire to capture the mood of Iraqis on the eve of a catastrophe. She frequents the local bazaar and teashop, petitions to visit Iraqi workplaces, grovels for visa extensions and strains to catch the confessions furtively given.
I am frightened for my father, who is an army officer, I am frightened of the bombs, I am afraid of the Shias and Kurds, and the secret police, I’m frightened of everything. Sometimes even my own shadow frightens me, whispers the artist Samir, who, despite his anxieties, wants the war.
Unable to extend her visa any longer, Seierstad is exiled to Jordan in late February but in early March returns to Baghdad, now in a full-blown state of panic. As the bombs fall, she finds herself in the excruciating role of war witness forced to report on two market massacres and young Ali, who after a missile attack is left without his family and without his arms. I want my hands back, he says to her. Can I have my hands back? he later asks again.
Seierstad, author of the best-selling book The Bookseller of Kabul, is an exquisite storyteller. This book’s pacing, defined by the impending American invasion, is one of its many strengths. Seierstad writes in present tense and scatters some of her wartime articles throughout her story, enhancing its riveting immediacy.
The war correspondent Ward Just once said of the late Martha Gelhorn’s reporting from Vietnam that there was no sap. Her pieces would go marching down the page, one sentence after another, and at the end of it you realize what a horror we had created. You saw it yourself. You had known it in some abstract way, but for the first you saw it with precision.
The same might be said of Seierstad, who describes what she sees with a dispassionate reverence that causes us to think more specifically about what has happened to the Iraqi people.