Dancing In the No-Fly Zone
A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq
6" x 9” • 256 pages • b&w photos
ISBN 9781566566346 • paperback • $16.95 •
Selected as one of 2005's 100 best and most influential books by Canada's Globe and Mail
"Ditmar's narrative, combined with interviews and photographs of her subjects, makes for compelling reading, humanizing the events we read about in the newspapers and witness on CNN. She reveals the frightening reality of seeing middle-class life reduced to poverty and the daily terror of life in a war zone. Readers cannot help but come away from this book empathizing with the trials and suffering of the Iraqi people."
-- Quill & Quire
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Here is a unique perspective on Iraq, before and after the recent war.
When Hadani Ditmars first went to Iraq in 1997 for the New York Times, she was shocked at what she saw. Six years of the worst sanctions ever inflicted on a modern nation had brought the people to their knees. Yet there was so much more to the "cradle of civilization" than misery and suffering. In the midst of despair she found art, beauty, architecture, music. She discovered orchestras who played impassioned symphonies on wrecked instruments, playwrights who pushed the limits of censorship, artists who spent their last dinars on paint and canvas, families who still celebrated weddings by dancing to maqam--traditional love songs.
Ditmars travelled to Iraq again and again, reporting on every aspect of life. In September 2003, she returned to Baghdad to find the people she had met over the years and see what had become of them since the U.S. "liberation." Dancing In The No-Fly Zone is the story of that trip, interwoven with tales from her earlier visits and of the people she met along the way: actors and artists, mercenaries and businessmen, street kids and sufis, even the "king in waiting." It includes a visit to Abu Ghraib prison, in which Ditmars is given a tour of the Saddam-era execution chamber by the U.S. general who was later dismissed after the abuse scandal broke.
As the situation worsens and the violence intensifies, Ditmars spends a miraculous evening with a group of Iraqis who sing and dance along to a performance of makam. A people who have suffered so much yet maintain such resilience deserve to have the full depth of their humanity portrayed. Hadani Ditmars captures this spirit in Dancing in the No-Fly Zone.
As Iraq continues to weather violent occupation, theocratic thuggism and civil strife, Ditmars' book serves as an eerily prescient tribute to a culture and a people at the breaking point.
Hadani Ditmars is an international journalist based in Canada whose work has been published in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, and broadcast on the BBC and CBC radio and television. Her Ms. Magazine essay on Iraqi women has been adopted for many university courses. She has been reporting from the Middle East since 1992 and has been on assignment to Iraq six times since 1997. Ditmars, an independent reporter whose mixed European and Middle Eastern ancestry often allowed her to pass as an Iraqi, dared to traverse the distance that separates most Western journalists from their subjects, traveling between two cultural worlds in sometimes dangerous and revealing ways. Unlike her male colleagues, her gender also allowed her a connection with Iraqi women, whose struggle she continues to voice.
Olive Branch Press
"Perceptive and interesting, and casts a needed personal view of Baghdad before and after the war."
-- Peter Arnett, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist
"Not just another batch of war stories, Ditmars' fine reports from Iraq reveal aspects of the country - both pre- and post-invasion - that the battlefield junkies overlook. From the comic actor who adores Mr Bean and the conductor who brings Berlioz to Baghdad to the artists and cabaret stars, she seeks out Iraq's dogged creative spirits, and touches places in the nation's soul that horror- headlines never reach.
-- The Independent (London)
"There is a place where a non-profit agency arranges for homeless people to live in an abandoned swimming pool, where a 12-year-old diabetic boy works in a shoe factory to buy insulin, where a woman who was once an engineer now defends her property with a Kalashnikov, and where a musician continues playing Beethoven's Sonata in G-minor while missile strikes light up the night. Canadian journalist Ditmars toured these and other lesser-known quotidian realms of post-invasion Iraq in 2003, and in this book shuttles back and forth between her pre-and post-invasion reporting trips to create a portrait of a land that is now more dangerous than ever, especially for Iraqi women. Ditmars does not flinch in the face of irony, nor is she shy about her politics and anti-American perspective as she presents a persuasive and sympathetic case for her point of view... A reader who is already familiar with the complexities of contemporary Iraq will reap the greatest benefit. Nonetheless, the world Ditmars reveals to general readers is both fascinating and heart wrenching, adding often overlooked human stories to the war in Iraq."
-- Publishers Weekly
"This book offers vivid stories of interactions with Iraqis... In lively prose, Ditmars presents sharp images of a people bitter over America's failure to fulfill its promises for the invasion..."
-- Library Journal
"Iraqi teenagers have never known a time without war; the present conflict is the third war the country has been subjected to in 20 years. Furthermore, a report to the United Nations reveals the bitter truth: children were better off under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and one-fourth of Iraqi children under age five are now chronically malnourished. As Canadian journalist Ditmars relates her experiences in Iraq then and in 2003, she reminds us of the consequences of years of sanctions and now of war. On an almost regular basis, parents are forced to sell precious art and family heirlooms to buy medicine for their children, some women are forced to prostitute themselves in order to feed their families, and others are abducted and never heard from again. It seems that women, like children, actually fared better under Saddam. Although artists still create and musicians still perform, these are desperate times for the Iraqi people, and Ditmars portrays their plight with great sensitivity and respect."
"Journalist Ditmars records intermittent journeys into Iraq between 1997 and 2003, from a time of sanctions to a time of war. Ditmars turns her gaze beyond the mirror to find a nation of interesting, accomplished and quite alienated people who once had to deal with Saddam, and after the American invasion, had many little Saddams to contend with. She depicts a broad range of Iraqis, from an affecting big-sister type named Umm Marwan and Baathist functionaries to cab drivers and intellectuals, all of them...living with a pandemic fear that unknown enemies were afoot and on the watch as before, save that ‘at least in the old days, you knew it was someone from the regime.' Her observations on the invaders are smart and to the point."
-- Kirkus Reviews
"This clear-eyed book transcends war-zone journalism, treating the Iraqis whose stories it recounts with unconditional humanity. Hadani Ditmars, a reporter based in Canada, embraces the ancient and endangered pluralism of Iraqi culture with messy, matter-of-fact pragmatism there is simply too much poetry and humor and music in the lives of the Iraqis she meets to pretend that war and suffering have utterly defeated them. We are vastly richer for it."
-- Rabble Book Lounge Reviews
"Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars traveled to Iraq several times throughout the late 1990s and beyond, and in her book Dancing in the No-Fly zone she does a very interesting comparison between life in the country under Saddam Hussein and after the American invasion. Her book was published before the sectarian violence escalated into civil war, but she provides an excellent snapshot of the years leading up to that catastrophe and shows also how many people were struggling to prevent it, to live their own, normal, lives.
Ditmars is not sure why she is so captivated by Iraq and its people but is clearly in awe of the long cultural history it holds. "Cradle of civilization, birthplace of Abraham, capital of the Islamic world under the great caliph Haroun al-Rashid, and more recently a center of pan-Arabism and artistic and intellectual life, Iraq is not a place to be considered lightly. It is a place to read poetry, a place to study holy books, to ponder the meaning of civilization."
She intends no irony with that last statement, "to ponder the meaning of civilization," but in her last visit, late 2003, she sees glaring examples of the destruction of civilization all around her. Old friends have left their jobs as artists and musicians to find more lucrative work for the Americans, but the price they pay in abandoning their own creativity (not to mention their contribution to Iraqi society) is high. Teachers are drivers, professors are translators, and a cellist is... she's not quite sure what her cellist friend is doing, but it somehow involves one of those ubiquitous NGOs. The American sector of the Baghdad seesm secure and thriving with the best the city has to offer providing assistance, but the rest of the town is struggling on every level. Ditmars is shocked and appalled when she compares the degradation of society against even the darkest days under Hussein and the sanctions. "It seemed rather than liberation, the invasion brought only the chaos of a power vacuum, and an increase in self-censorship for survival's sake." The arts, which were so long the life of Iraqi culture, are dying before their eyes, and Ditmars seems determined to document every last aspect of it she can find.
In western visions of Iraq, there has been very little evidence of artistic life. We hear about politics and violence on nearly an hourly basis, but the idea of an Iraqi theater or symphony seems impossible to believe. But they were there, and they did amazing things. At one point, while talking to her cellist friend Karim, who now works for the NGO, Ditmar recalls the way things used to be:
I remember Karim's brilliant interpretation of Elgar's Cello Concerto, which he performed on the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War in Baghdad. Then he had considered himself an "ambassador for peace" and had told me, "Culture knows no borders. Here I am, an Iraqi who studied in America, playing a concerto written by an Englishman about a war that happened over eighty years ago in Europe." And yet the concerto had been a meaningful and relevant expression of Iraqi life. When I first heard the orchestra perform it, I felt as though the musicians were playing on their own heartstrings.
Now there is oddly a great deal of fear for doing anything that might draw too much attention. While talking to a playwright at the National Theater (which now is only open for daytime rehearsals-"It's dangerous to go to a mosque for Friday prayers," says the playwright, "imagine what it would be like going to the theater at night"), she learns that writing has become far more difficult in the present situation as well. "I'm not writing plays anymore," he tells her, and then,
"Let me tell you," he began, "that before, there was only one Saddam. Now there are at least twenty-five. So when we said something before, the regime may have taken offense, but now with all these different groups, I'm afraid to say anything. It could be dangerous for me."
Ditmars navigates her way all over Baghdad, visiting old friends and making new ones as she goes to churches, mosques, the Friday book market, where she learns that "faith is one of Iraq's few growth industries..." and "security is another," and even a press conference with Paul Bremer. Ditmars notes that she attended many press conferences during her 2003 stay and "as the situation went from bad to disastrous, there would be a progressive worsening case of American denial." One has to wonder what she thinks of our long official refusal to acknowledge a civil war when it is already happening.
In the end Ditmars finds herself visiting an abandoned aquatic center in a suburban Shia neighborhood where about three dozen people have found a home. The center is being run by a local who has established his own NGO and has raised enough funds to rent the pool complex as a "transitional shelter for homeless children and their families." The conditions are appalling, but they are better than the street and the only solution these people can find. One family in particular appeals to Ditmars, especially their twelve-year old daughter, Shada:
Shada was sharp and spoke frankly of her situation. "Life here is very bad, we don't feel comfortable. It's dirty, there's no electricity, no clean water, no safety or security. But it's better than nothing. Before things were better because we had a place to live-it was ours-and we had good security. Now there is kidnapping and thievery everywhere. I'm glad that the regime is gone, but things were better before." The sound of gunfire punctuated her last remark.
"Did you ever to school?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "I would like to study, but my family is too poor and I have to work to help them." Later, she told me that she wanted to be a doctor.
Ditmars leaves Baghdad because it has become too dangerous, and because the story she has to tell is simply being repeated by everyone she meets. On her last night she attends a fund-raising concert for the Garden of Peace project she initiated-a place for women and children to safely go and play and talk in the city. She listens to four children in particular sing "a rousing anthem whose lyrics combined nationalism, hope and a bit of John Lennon." Afterwards she learns the children do not attend school as they must work to help support their families. One little boy in particular, twelve-year old Assem, works twelve-hour shifts in a shoe factory to pay for his insulin. He is a boy with diabetes living in a war zone who must work to get the medicine he needs to stay alive. Ditmars gives him $20 to help pay for insulin, a gift he initially refuses but agrees to accept for his drugs. The next morning she gets on an airplane and leaves Baghdad behind but can not forget what she saw there, how the city has become the very definition of tragedy. And after reading her book, I can not forget Assem. What chance does a child like that have in a place that is falling apart; what chance do any of them have to survive in a city that the world seems determined to tear apart?
They are not all insurgents, Ditmars makes clear, echoing what Stewart and Jones have already proven true about Afghanistan. Just because it's easier for us say they are, they are not all insurgents."
-- Eclectica Magazine
"Hadani Ditmars is a Canadian journalist who has been writing from Iraq since 1997. Of the plethora of books out there on Iraq Dancing in the No-Fly Zone has a sense of reality and immediacy difficult to match. The author is of mixed heritage, with French and Lebanese roots, and her appearance and Arabic skills means she manages to get to where most reporters cannot. In one scene we find her gyrating to traditional Iraqi music, and in another prostrating with conservative Shi'a women for evening prayer. No stranger to criticism, Ditmars has been witch-hunted by sections of the western media for her exposés on the impact of sanctions on Iraqi children and suspected of spying by Iraqi Ba'athists.
Dancing in the No-Fly Zone deftly places the reader beyond stereotypes, into the lives of the people who have lived decades under war, sanctions, oppression and terror. Often passing as an Iraqi, and often using her ability to skip between various European languages - intermittently waving her Canadian passport in defence - Ditmars compels with her audacity. Journeys around dangerous areas in post-invasion Iraq are juxtaposed with memories of her experiences of life under Saddam. With a variety of cunning disguises, at one moment a peasant, another in traditional Muslim veil, she moves among the people like some sort of multiple identity secret agent, often staying too long in perilous circumstances. One almost breathes a sigh of relief to reach the end of the book and find she has not been bundled into the back of an untraceable car.
Yet the action-packed, almost darkly glamorous drama that unfolds is merely superfluous relief for the profound feelings of compassion and disbelief that are conjured alongside. A poignant question seems to run throughout: how can human beings, by fault or design, engineer such misery for others?
A lack of pretentious language allows the narrative to flow easily. Any political messages can be drawn subjectively; there are no sweeping conclusions or easy answers offered. This means whatever your opinion on Iraq, the narrative does not exclude. Instead, Ditmars adds layers to the nameless, countless individuals we see for nanoseconds, flashing across our screens, as another atrocity is announced. The cultural richness, stoicism (which reminded me of grandparents' stories of Londoners during the Blitz) and adaptability of Iraqis clenches at the heart muscle.
In contrast to many books that provide a political commentary, such as Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon, and the less intense but more forgiving Revolution Day by Rageh Omar, this book paints a picture of the tortured country itself, and ordinary Iraqi's experiences. Instead of long-winded allusions to times long gone there are real people, conversations and compelling portraits. This text is a reference on human courage and normalcy in the face of utter chaos, it highlights human triumphs without pretence at happy endings, and it teaches us who, and how, rather than why."
-- Mariam Cook, Open Democracy
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