MinnPost and "The Burqa Effect"


I've spent a lot of time in Iraq. Most of it before the invasion, some of it after. I was last there on assignment for a small newspaper out of Kansas City just two weeks after Baghdad fell. I flew into Amman, Jordan and stopped in at a hotel that had become a sort of staging ground for journalists heading into Iraq. I dropped by a lobby bookstore--which, in 2003, was filled with a shockingly useful collection of scholarly books on the Middle East. I asked the kind middle-aged woman who staffed the counter which of these books were selling best. They weren't selling, came the reply. The overnight war reporters, it seemed, were in too much of a hurry to be curious. And, with clear and honorable exceptions, it showed in their reporting.

I stopped reading much of the "on-the-ground" reporting from Iraq two years ago (again, with some exceptions) at about the time that much of the reporting reporting became painfully redundant--narrowed as it was to the reporter reporting on the trials of reportage.

Worse than the articles were (are) the endless radio and TV interviews, where reporters are given ample opportunity to reveal their ignorance of the country they were (are) covering, a country that just happened to be among the most misunderstood in the world.

We need all the help we can get to know Iraq and Iraqis better, and we just aren't getting it. I call it "The Burqa Effect"--because of all the American reporters in Iraq who have seen the abayas or hijabs worn by many Iraqi women and called them burqas. The problem? That's Afghanistan, friends, where they speak a different language, have acclimated to a different climate, and were bombed and invaded in a different calendar year.

A few recent examples of the burqa problem: Dina Temple-Raston reporting from Baghdad in March, 2008 speaks of "burqa-clad" Iraqi women. In February 2008, ABC's Chris Cuomo speaks of a female suicide bomber "hiding a bomb under her burqa" in a report aired on Good Morning America.

Let me break it down...


You'll never see this in Iraq:

Photo by BabaSteve

You'll see this:

Photo by James Gordon

Or this:

Photo by James Gordon

And you'll also see this:

Photo by Chris Kutschera

Got me?

Which brings me to MinnPost, whose guiding credo--"a thoughtful approach to news"--I wholeheartedly endorse (first person who says hair metal gets a swift flick to the ear).

I've already explained my allergy to American "on-the-ground" coverage, so it should come as no surprise to you that it took me a few months to get around to MinnPost's Iraq coverage. I finally went for it recently, and hit the brakes at the caption to the lead photo.

The photo is of a really big mosque. Specifically, it is a photo of what was going to be called the Saddam Grand Mosque until Hussein was ousted and all of his megalomaniacal plans thwarted.

What is it about the caption? MinnPost calls the mosque, which is hardly an obscure feature of Baghdad's landscape, a temple.

It's the burqa problem all over again. Buddhist worshipers have temples. Hindu and Jewish worshipers too. But Muslims--they have mosques. This is no small thing. While Iraq is not a Muslim country only, the mosque is central to the infrastructure and the culture of Iraq.

I have all but given up hope for any constructive end to this war, but I am certain that there is some tiny sliver of hope to be had in the media's ability to educate its readers, listeners and viewers on the base nuances of one of the most talked about and misunderstood nations (Iraq) and religions (Islam) of this young century.

MinnPost, you are not the problem. Far from it. But you have stumbled into one, and in doing so have provided a good opportunity to step out of the fog of headlines and deadlines and reassess our point of departure in covering Iraq, its people, and this five-year-old war.


What the MinnPost coverage did extremely well was document the American experience of war. But when Iraq appeared as a character in John Camp's dispatches, it was from a speeding Blackhawk helicopter and he had little more to say about the Iraq found beyond the fortified walls of American military encampments than his observation that the country is quite "tan" from above.

This is a shame. In an interview before heading off to Iraq, Camp told MinnPost that "after reading Iraq war stories for several years, I really, in my mind's eye, don't know what it looks like, or smells like, or sounds like..."

Of course, the challenges and dangers to a reporter hoping to know the sights, smells and sounds of Iraq are many--but it is not impossible. Too often reporters head to Iraq with an authentic ambition to know the place better, but fall back instead on something much less complicated.

And it is with that in mind that I humbly offer my two cents (and I'm not just offering said cents to the good people at MinnPost):

Don't stop trying, but do try harder.