Richard Reeves

Bed and Breakfast in Baghdad

LOS ANGELES -- A few years from now, when our occupation of Iraq seems funnier than it does now, a writer will come forward to do the "Catch-22" of the Iraq War. My nominee as the new Joseph Heller is a National Public Radio correspondent named Adam Davidson.

I was walking by a radio last Friday when I heard Davidson being interviewed by Nancy Updike on NPR's "This American Life." She had trouble holding back her laughter at times, and so did I as I listened for more than 20 minutes to a segment called "Mr. Adam's Neighborhood."

The story line was pure American: "Innocents Abroad."

Davidson, at that time reporting for Public Radio International and Harper's magazine, had this idea that he might make some extra money (and be safer) by living in a fancy Baghdad neighborhood rather than one of the hotels where foreign correspondents gathered and bedded down. So, not long after the U.S. invasion in 2003, he rented a house with six bedrooms, figuring he could rent some of them out to other correspondents. The price to rent the house was $14,000 every three months. Other reporters and photographers did move in, one BBC guy paying $2,000 a month.

Off to a good start, in the days when Americans were still welcome and could jog in local parks, Davidson also hosted dinner parties that included occupation authorities from their palatial offices in the Green Zone -- with malice aforethought. After a few glasses of wine, the professional optimists charged with misleading the press and the American people began to talk.

"They were tight-lipped until you got them a little drunk," said Davidson. "That's how I learned it was a disaster from the beginning." The line Davidson heard often was: "It's so much worse than you know."

At the same time, Davidson was running -- or thought he was -- a sort of Baghdad bed and breakfast, an endless party with correspondents coming and going, each of them with Iraqi translators and drivers. He ignored all warning signs of what was really happening. He hired a night guard whose first question was, "Where do I sleep?"

One of the day guards turned out to be the son of the Baath Party leader in Najaf. The guy wanted the job to hide from Shiite death squads. But, of course, the Americans didn't know that. Davidson also didn't know that a "sheikh" he considered both source and friend was telling people that "Mr. Adam" was a CIA agent, the equivalent of a death sentence in many parts of the city. He also did not know that when he ordered one of the drivers to move his SUV out of a privileged driveway spot, the driver saved his pride by telling everyone that he decided to move because he heard insurgents had targeted the house.

Davidson finally decided to move on -- that is, flee to Jordan -- when an Iraqi told him that the visits by Green Zone officials made the house "a legitimate military target." At about the same time, the correspondent, who spoke conversational Arabic, gave a cabdriver complicated directions to his place, and the driver, a total stranger, turned around, smiled and said: "Oh, you mean Mr. Adam's house."

"Yes," he said in the interview, "I know my experience is a reasonable metaphor for the overall American effort there. Wrong staff. Wrong strategy. Wrong stance ...

"I misread the place pretty badly. We don't get them and they don't get us. We can't figure out the difference between a Shiite from the slums of Sadr City and a middle-class Shiite businessman. And they don't get the difference between Republicans loyal only to the White House and a reporter just trying to get at the truth ..."

Oh, and to complete the metaphor: Davidson lost a lot of money because his plan was a mess. He was $22,000 in debt when he fled the country after less than a year in residence.

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