Ilene Prusher has come up with an interesting description of what it means to be a woman foreign correspondent, particularly in a war zone. They are, she offers, “a third gender”, not male, certainly not subservient female, and often regarded with exasperation and suspicion by male interviewees, particularly in the Arab world.
Prusher may well be on to something, and she has a vast body of experience on which to draw. Now, the Jerusalem-based journalist, who has worked for the Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey, as well as her immediate neighbourhood of Israel, has written a beautifully realised account of a third-gender woman, in her first novel, Baghdad Fixer.
A fixer, to the uninitiated, is the person without whom no foreign correspondent can function. He — and in the Arab world it is always a he — is a local person whose value to the journalist is both his command of a western language and his knowledge of the local conditions on the ground.
The fixer will tell you when it is too dangerous to go somewhere — but will also arrange for you to get an interview with someone you might not have got by yourself. Sometimes, the fixer is a driver as well, taking the correspondent to places they might not have found otherwise.
In all cases, the fixer is the essential go-between. In Arab countries in particular, choose your fixer carefully because you will end up relying on him to save your life.
It is this little-known world of dependence and obligation that Prusher meticulously identifies in her book, set in Iraq as Americans invade in 2003.
Sam, her heroine, is a red-haired American journalist whose unexpected fixer is the Baghdadi English teacher, Nabil al-Amari. Nabil, truth to tell, is a bit of a nerd; he ends up as Sam’s fixer not because of his acute sense of a good news story but because of his command of English. Everything else about journalism and the pursuit of news, she teaches him.
But, along the way, Sam learns some hard lessons, and Nabil himself grows up rather faster than might have happened for an average Iraqi, middle-class dutiful son, living at home, waiting to get married.
So how did Prusher make the leap from fact to fiction, albeit fiction about journalism?
The New York-born writer, now married with two small children, grins. “I had been working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Asia, Africa — and I loved what I did but sometimes I wanted to write more about a particular story, a particular subject.
And there’s only so much time you can really spend on a story. You know, you do the story, and then you move on. But there was always a part of me that wanted to do more, to say more about one person, or one family’s life. Writing in a fictional way allowed me to do that.”
There are certainly factual elements in the book that readers will recognise, not least a plot-line about documents discovered in Iraq that may or may not point to a nest of political corruption. Prusher was working on just such a story in 2003 about documents that ultimately turned out to be fake.
“I was so fascinated by this, but I didn’t think that I would be able to connect the dots if I wrote about it in a non-fiction way. So I created these characters and was able to let them take on a life of their own. That’s the magic of fiction. It doesn’t matter, at some point, if it was this way or that. You go along with it.”
As an example, Prusher cites a scene in which Nabil’s fiancée is killed by a random bullet. In real life, she knew a family in Baghdad whose daughter was killed in the Iraq war —by a missile that was fired into their house.
“In an early version of the book, people giving me feedback said it wasn’t believable that a missile could enter a room and kill one person and not the whole family. So I decided to change it to a bullet. Being able to change details all-owed me not to be beholden to the idea that this was the way things were, set in stone, in Iraq of 2003.”
Part of the charm of Baghdad Fixer is the puzzled response of Nabil and other Iraqi men to Sam’s behaviour. Here is where Prusher’s “third gender” theory comes into play — Middle Eastern men in particular, she suggests, simply do not know what to make of Western women journalists.
They do not know how to assess their behaviour and do not understand how their families can let them work for newspapers and news agencies, in a way Iraqi women never would.
“In the book, I write about a real hotel in Baghdad, the Hamra, where print journalists used to stay. There were suites, two or three bedrooms in a suite, which would be taken by a news organisation. And sometimes I would be in a suite taken by the Christian Science Monitor, and one of the other correspondents was a man.
“I came to wonder: what does my Iraqi fixer or driver think of the fact that I’m living with men? Coming from the West, that is the way that people live in university — it’s basically co-ed housing. It doesn’t mean I have a relationship with the men. But it’s just not the way things are done in the Arab world.”
On the other hand, being a woman journalist in such a world can be an advantage. “As a woman, you can speak to the officials, but you can also talk to the women in their homes, and male correspondents would almost never get invited to the family homes. They could never get any access to the home life — which I think is sometimes the more interesting stuff.”
For Prusher there was an additional element of danger — her Jewish identity.
Iraq became so perilous in 2005, that she began adopting Arabic dress and headscarf — and certainly did not share details of her Jewish identity with people unless she knew them very, very well. Colleagues were being kidnapped and held for less.
“Sometimes it was frightening — but also it didn’t feel so strange to be a Jew in Iraq, in a country with such a rich Jewish culture. I liked it. I was fascinated with the way the cultures overlap.”