Last spring, during my final semester at Oxford, a cousin wrote to tell me that she was planning to work for an American company in Iraq over the summer. She suggested I join her. The company was called Iraqex, and it claimed on its website to have "expertise in collecting and exploiting information; structuring transactions; and mitigating risks through due diligence, legal strategies and security." Iraqex was also looking for summer media interns, my cousin pointed out, who would "interact with the local media" in Baghdad and "pitch story ideas." This was almost too good to be true.
I have wanted to be a reporter, and particularly a foreign correspondent, ever since I was given a copy of John Simpson's Strange Places, Questionable People as a teenager. In this memoir, Simpson recounts his many adventures as a BBC reporter: lying in a gutter at Tiananmen Square in 1989, his camera rolling as bullets zipped by; being arrested during the revolution in Romania; and broadcasting from Baghdad in 1991, with U.S. bombs exploding around him. Inspired, I began writing for my high school paper, eventually becoming its editor, and at Oxford, where I majored in Classics, I joined the staff of a campus weekly. (Simpson had edited a quarterly at Cambridge.) By the time I heard from my cousin, I was already slated to begin journalism school in the fall, but I was yearning for some John Simpson-type real-world experience. In fact, Simpson had actually spent years toiling in the BBC's London office before being sent overseas. And here I might be able to get a break right out of college.
I submitted my internship application within days. (Yet by then my cousin's parents had decided she couldn't go to Baghdad and Iraqex had changed its name to Lincoln Group.) After an anxious wait, I was called by one of the company's employees. He was young, himself just out of school, and he ended our short interview by asking whether I would be able to stay focused on work "with mortar fire at the end of the street." I was honest about my credentials. I had been to the Middle East, having vacationed in Egypt and Syria a couple of years before. During a spring break, friends and I had cycled some two thousand miles from Geneva to Damascus. And at university I had handled the pressures of translating Cicero and Polybius, But, I admitted, I couldn't say for sure about the mortar fire. He seemed to think this would be fine.