Leaving Iraq Behind  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2005

Leaving Iraq Behind   

Knight Ridder’s Hannah Allam swaps Baghdad for Cairo.

By Sarah Clark
Clark is a former AJR editorial assistant.      


After two years in Iraq, Knight Ridder Baghdad Bureau Chief Hannah Allam is ready for a change. In January, Allam, 28, will leave a city she's grown to love to open a bureau in Egypt's capital.

Allam, an Egyptian American, will be returning to a place where she spent many summers growing up. The former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter is excited to relocate but says it will be more challenging than Baghdad, where the story is self-evident — "you wake up, something blows up, you cover it; or you wake up, there's historic elections, and you cover those" — to Cairo, where she will cover the more fluid story of the Middle East.

AJR's Sarah Clark asked her to reflect on her experiences in Iraq, press coverage of the violence there and her plans for the new bureau in Cairo.

Q: Have there been any stories you've covered that affected you more than the others?

A: Yes, certainly. The bombings are really hard to forget... [They] form the most lasting images because they are just so gruesome and so incomprehensible, and you can't get them out of your head.

But there are some happy moments as well. Just tonight..we ran into a wedding party right in front of our hotel. There were drummers, a horn section, this band of musicians and the bride and groom; everyone gathered and clapped for them. It was just a beautiful moment.

Q: What are some of the accomplishments of the press in Iraq, and what are some of its limitations?

A: I think [journalists who have been in Iraq a long time] are a very courageous group of people, and they're just trying to do the best job they can under really difficult circumstances.

Of course it's disheartening when we get criticism from back home for portraying only bad news. It's frustrating. We would like to report on more of Iraq, but unfortunately the security situation is not at the point where we can travel around and talk about new schools opening or water treatment facilities. It is a dangerous, risky place and to report those stories would be, in many cases, a life or death kind of situation...

I think that some of that is fair criticism; we could do a more comprehensive job. But when we have the choice of covering a new school opening or 35 children getting blown up in a car bombing, what do you do?

Q: What makes this worthwhile for you? Why is it worth it to you to risk your life every day to do this?

A: I think there are so many stories to be told here, so much about Iraq to explain and so much about the lives of American soldiers that needs explaining... The work has been really re-warding despite the risks. I feel really good about the stories we've produced out of this bureau, and I'm really proud of the body of work.

Q: How did the opportunity to start the Cairo bureau come about?

A: I've been in Iraq over two years now. It wears on you... I was really starting to feel burned out, not so much from the story or the country or the people — I'm still in love with it — but it's just the toll it takes on your physical health [and] your mental health. It saps your strength, your momentum, your energy, everything.

I started talking with my editors about my next move, and they surprised me a couple months ago by suggesting we open a Cairo bureau and start to cover the Arab world better.

I'm packing my apartment right now here in Baghdad, and I can't tell you how many times I've burst into tears this week when I've put away little notes that I found from the Iraqi staff, old notebooks from stories or just little mementos you find: my first press card in Iraq, things like that. It's definitely bittersweet.

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