You’re a storyteller, you’re a journalist, when you tell these stories, when they are broadcast, does it feel like you are making a difference?
I meet many people after they show the stories. Some of them, they change their mind, they say: “We feel sorry. We supported the invasion, but we didn’t know it was going to be a mess like that. We thought it was going to be a democracy just like that.” [snaps fingers]
You need time, you have to prepare people. I drink café latte, but all my life I’ve had tea. If you want me to change to a café latte, you have to give me some practice, a taste, not just “have it”, or if you want to drink beer, all my life I haven’t had a drink, and then you have to have it, it’s difficult. Difficult… Difficult…
You come across a lot of stories of pain and heartache in Iraq. There are plenty of those. Have you gone looking for stories of hope? Those seem harder to find.
[laughs] Actually, this a big issue. Dateline always say to me, “We need a happy story”. I say, alright, I’m going to find a happy story. There are happy stories, I’m not denying it, but when you go there, you feel sorry about the other side. I say, “I’m going to bring a happy story when I see the suffering here?”
But I said this time that I wanted to tell a happy story, alongside the story I’m telling of the guy who hung himself, I’m going to do a fashion story. I continue. Happy story, fashion, fashion, fashion you know. I covered all the story, how the fashion changed, how the women changed their clothes over time, from generation to generation, where they wear abaya, if you know abaya, when the women wear abaya, and how this has changed.
At the end of the story, I visited an Iraqi fashion house. It’s beautiful, you know, they show me beautiful clothes from the last hundred years. While we were filming, I said to the model I was interviewing, let’s film outside, not inside the room, we’ve had the formal interview, I want to talk with you about your life. While I’m filming her, we hear the explosion of car bombs behind us! When I came back, I told them, they just laughed, and said what’s the chance of that? I said okay, whatever, you want to show the footage, you show it, I can’t decide.
The Dateline technique and your technique does get people much deeper into stories than they otherwise would.
The Dateline journalists are all great. They fight to get the stories. They’re like soldiers, they hold the camera, everyone wants to bring the story, to show it. It’s not about money, they want to show the stories to the people. It’s called personal story, Dateline. You go there, you bring the story, you’re involved in the story. You see this, take me there, all that. All of them are great reporters.
It must be strange having the contrast between being out there with your camera on your own in Baghdad, and having to put on a suit and go to the Logies.
Yeah! I’m going tonight, we see how we go. I had with this story “Iraq’s Deadly Legacy”, we’ve got a Walkley and international as well, an international piece, we’ll see with the Logies.
Before you left Iraq, you worked in film?
Yes, in cinema. Not documentary. If you work with documentary, it’s very sensitive. The government watch. Sometimes still the government notice when we talk deeply. Sometimes they understand what we mean. If they catch us, we’ll be in a dangerous situation.
Is there any sense of that now? The government trying to intervene in stories?
No, it’s a mess. They don’t care about people, they don’t care.
They’re not organised enough to care.
What drove you to leave Iraq?
Well I was a member of other parties, against Saddam’s regime. I was not allowed to be a member of those parties under Saddam Hussein. I left Iraq because they found out I belonged to the party.
I don’t want to say which party, I left this party, it changed, even the party I belonged, they changed their agenda.
Were you smuggled out? Did you leave of your own accord?
I left Iraq from Baghdad, I went to border by car from Baghdad to an area called Ar Ramadi. From Ar Ramadi I went to Jordan, I walked for about three days. From Jordan, I organised a passport, and from Jordan to Syria, and from Syria to Indonesia.
Why Australia? Was that where you wanted to go?
It just comes like that [waves hands]. I was reading about Australia, I was loving Australia. I was crazy, I wanted to know about this country, but it’s by chance now I’m in Australia. In Melbourne!
When you arrived here you went straight into detention. Was the process to gain asylum tough from there?
Very tough, especially in 2002. They put me in a detention center called Curtin, over near Perth. It was an army barracks, and just tents. We stayed about three months in a tent, and after that they put us in a caravan. You can’t contact your family, you can’t contact your friends. No telephone, no letters, no internet. Everyone in Baghdad thought that I had died at sea.
But after eight months, someone, a friend who was in detention, they released him, he got free, they contacted my family and said I was still alive, but I had to finish the process. After four months, almost one year, I got free. My first call, when they sent me to Perth, I called my family.
That must have been special.
It was. I called them, I didn’t say my name. I said a different name, but they recognised my voice, because the intelligence there, they follow our calls.
Your family are still in Baghdad?
Yes, my family are there.