I spent Valentine’s Day in Fallujah once — an indication, perhaps, of how unhealthy my lifestyle had become. It was 2004, I was working as a journalist, covering the US-led occupation of Iraq, and it was beginning to go badly wrong. I was at the hotel in Baghdad when the news came through that heavily armed insurgents had stormed the police station and the new Iraqi army barracks in Fallujah, freeing prisoners and killing 17 police officers. The first thing I wanted to do was go there.
Looking back, it was a crazy thing to do. Fallujah was not yet the centre of an armed uprising it would become, but it was already a focal point for the insurgency, a city simmering with barely repressed violence and opposition to the occupation. This was the first time the insurgents had carried out an open assault — up till then it had been suicide bombs and ambushes on American patrols — and we had no idea what we’d find when we got there.
I was 29 years old, and single. I didn’t even realise it was Valentine’s Day, so obssessed with my work had I become. There was plenty of sex going on at the al-Hamra Hotel where the journalists stayed, but little in the way of romance. You could hear the gunfire all night, you took your life in your hands every time you left the hotel. Sex and violence have always gone together, and a lot of the reporters were just reaching out for some one to get them through the night.
I was heavily bearded in those days, and I found if I wore an Arab-style headscarf Iraqis didn’t tend to notice I was a foreigner. Another journalist said he’d come along, and covered his head the same way. We took two cars, both of us with translators and drivers, and set off.
The turn-off to Fallujah was deserted. No American presence, no insurgents, nobody. We drove in through empty streets, growing more nervous as we went. As we got closer to the centre of town we began to see people out on the streets. They stared at us with hard, suspicious eyes. Haider, my translator, said it would be safer if we split up: the two cars were attracting too much attention.
So we turned off and drove into the narrow, crowded streets of the centre. Haider told me to wait in the car and found some one who was willing to talk. He came back to say a shopkeeper had agreed to talk to me, and led me to the shop. The owner gestured Haider and me to seats. The shop was tiny, too small for all three of us to sit down, and the shopkeeper stood blocking the doorway. I realised he’d carefully arranged things so no one could see me from outside. That might be for his own protection — he might not want anyone to see him talking to a foreigner — but it made me suddenly aware how vulnerable I was.
He must have noticed, because he grinned and told Haider he could see I was scared. “You’re right to be,” he said. We asked about the storming of the police station, and he said he hadn’t been there to see what happened, had only heard. Everyone in Fallujah supported the insurgents, he said, they were all against the police because they “worked for the Americans”.
After a bit he noticed some one passing in the street and beckoned him in, saying he’d been at the police station that morning,. It turned out the newcomer was a police lieutenant, but he wasn’t wearing his uniform that day, because it “wasn’t a good day to be seen in a police uniform”. The two men seemed to be friends, though the shopkeeper had just told me he supported the killing of the police.
After we had drunk tea and asked a few more questions, to my relief Haider said it was time we left. We drove out of town, and met the other journalist on the outskirts. He was shaken and he wasn’t wearing his headscarf any more: people had noticed he was a a foreigner from his fair skin and clean-shaven face, and accused him of being a spy in disguise. After that I grew more circumspect about wearing one.
A few months later, Western security contractors were lured into Fallujah on false pretences and attacked by a crowd who pulled them out of their cars and beat them to death. Their mutilated and partly burned bodies were hanged from a bridge. When I watched the TV footage I recognised the bridge, we had driven past it on Valentine’s Day. I realised I had been reckless and stupid that day: it could easily have been me hanging from that bridge,
Strange memories on this Valentine’s Day. But with the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war looming, and civil war raging in neighbouring Syria, they come back.