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Fouad Hady is a reporter
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"You want to see just the soft, or just the light in your life? You have to see the dark, to ground your humanity."
1 July 2011

Fouad Hady is a reporter

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Tobias Titz

Patrick Pittman on Fouad Hady

Truth is the first casualty of war. This much we know. The truth of the streets of Baghdad has been something journalists, thinkers, activists, politicians and soldiers have been fighting to find for the past eight years, and the past century besides.

Fouad Hady knows the streets of Baghdad. They’re his own. In a past life, he was a filmmaker, but he fled Saddam Hussein’s regime at the turn of the century, undertaking a journey that took him on foot to Jordan and, eventually, by boat to Australia and a waiting tent in Curtin detention centre in the Kimberleys.

Years down the line, he returns regularly to the city he fled, with his video camera in hand. Unburdened by crews or language barriers, at home in the streets of his youth, the raw, harrowing stories he has produced for Dateline, SBS Television’s fearless global current affairs program, are amongst the most urgent and beautiful pieces of reportage I have seen in these last eight years of war.

His stories are a bridge between worlds. Whether he is reporting on the horrors caused to families by the unending legacy of depleted uranium-tipped weapons used in the war (in “Iraq’s Deadly Legacy”), or visiting the former prisons where widows now live in the cells (“City of Widows”), his stories are personal ones. He speaks to people who would not speak to other media. Parents, children, widows. They grab his camera, they shake it, they shake him. They insist that he see, and show, their truth.

Fouad’s fearless reporting has won him two Walkley awards. After I speak to him, he’ll have to run off to suit up for the Logie Awards, where one of his reports is nominated. He has just returned from two weeks of reporting on the journey of a fellow asylum seeker, who arrived in Australia by boat. Though his journey was similar, this asylum seeker’s story ended tragically, with suicide by hanging in a detention center.

We are sitting in the Fitzroy sunshine on a beautiful autumn day, drinking coffee in the streets he now calls home.

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

PATRICK PITTMAN: There’s an interesting line that really struck me from one of your earlier reports, when you were talking about the state of Iraq as it was a few years ago, and you said that they didn’t want intelligent people. That they wanted the intelligent people dead. Is that still the case?

FOUAD HADY: Intelligent people are still struggling, you know? They’re struggling because there is no balance between uneducated people, and educated people. No balance. America, when they invaded Iraq, they didn’t support intelligent people. They only went to religious parties to get support. They made the case for religious parties strong, inside Baghdad especially, and other states. These people, they have something behind them to save them. They don’t trust America. America brought them through, but they don’t trust them. They push themselves to Iran. America gave the Iraqi people to Iran on a dish: “Take it, fresh! Nice!”

You left Iraq in 2000. You watched the invasion happen from here – were you out of detention by then?

I was freed at the end of 2001. I watched it from TV.

What were your thoughts at the time? What did you think was going to happen?

Look, I am a journalist, I have vision, I know what’s going on, what’s going to happen. I had feeling, that Iraq would be a mess. A mess. America they don’t know what they’re doing, they change their agenda every time, this minute they deal with smart people. We have in Iraq more than 100 parties, we have 300 newspapers. America, they deal with very smart parties there, political parties, they don’t know what they’re doing.

Baghdad now, when you go back there, does it feel like a city in chaos, or does it feel like it’s beginning to form into something more orderly?

People are tired. You look at the city, you see a building, you see a house, you see the street. But if you look to the people, you see an ageing face. A tired face. This is why you don’t see Baghdad clearly. I see everything. I jump from street to street with my camera, I see many stories, I watch many stories, I hear many stories.

When you point your camera at people, they have so many stories they need to tell you. Do you go there looking for specific stories?

Everyone has a story. Everywhere. Baby, child, everyone. They want to tell, but who listens? All my projects in Iraq have not been planned. I just go there, and find the story. It’s a risk, on the street, but I go there, and it’s not difficult to find, because everyone wants to tell.

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #28 of Dumbo Feather

Do you find yourself at all feeling like an outsider when you return, or do you still feel as though you’re part of the city?

I’m a Baghdad boy. I’m not denying Australia. Australia is a beautiful country, it’s my home really, but where you’re born, it’s still in your mind, in your blood. But I can’t live there. I can’t live there any more. Definitely not. Australia is now my country, I want to build my future here.

That must hurt, to say that you can’t go back and live in your homeland.

It hurts, but what can we do? No choice. The situation continues. Iraq since 1920 to right now: mess. That’s Iraq. Everyone wishes to go back to his homeland. But I’m here, the people see the picture in Iraq through me. So at least I give something to Iraqi people with this. I explain the situation in Iraq all the time to Australian people. That makes me feel good.

You’re using your abilities as a storyteller to at least do something. How did you get into that position here? How did you come to the attention of Dateline?

I went to Baghdad, I had my camera with me, I found a story there, it was the first story called “Sarah’s Story”. I filmed it, and when I came back to Australia, I edited it by myself, and I put my voiceover to it: blah, blah, blah. I sent it to Dateline. They said, “That’s a good story”. Iraq 2007 was… nobody could go there. Killings in the street, you can’t see people in the street, it’s hard to see, because it’s civil war. So they accepted this story.

Before that I had a project I didn’t present to SBS, I gave it to Al Jazeera. I have some dealing with Dateline, and I like Dateline, and then they began to give me commissions and some funding to go there, until I established my position. Now we work as a team. They’re good people.

How does it work when you go there now? The Dateline style is very much to go by yourself.

It’s just me. No crew. Everyone there, sent overseas, we want this story, bring the story, spend two weeks and come back.

The last one you told, “Nation of Tears”, was horrifying in its intimacy, depicting the personal grief and trauma of the immediate aftermath of a car bomb, and a child’s death. The family wanted you to film what they were going through, with some hope of showing it to the world. You say you just came across this story. How did you do this?

I went to Baghdad to film “Iraq’s Deadly Legacy”, and this was a second story that came from that. I hired a car on the street, a taxi driver, to drive around. I just wanted to watch Baghdad and see what was going on. He said the road was closed, I asked why, and he said ,”Bombs, everywhere today in Baghdad”. I hear a bomb, I say, “Look, there’s the smoke”, he says “Yes”. I ask him to drive me. He says: “Are you crazy? drive you there? I can’t. I’ll drive you nearby, or close, and then you see it and go away.”

I went there and they wouldn’t let the car come into the street, it’s far from the street, but I went with my camera and found people still there, wanting to save people from the bombs. I started the story there.

Your story “Iraq’s Deadly Legacy”, about the effects of depleted uranium used in conflict, particularly on newborn babies, contains a lot of confronting, even horrifying footage. Did you have thoughts about how much people needed to see of that?

Australian people, they do not always see this footage. They live a soft life. It’s difficult to show someone from Africa, killed by a bomb in the street, or bring someone from Iraq to other place. It’s difficult to take Australian people, to put them in Africa or Iraq. They see the mess, they see the bombs and deaths.

I give them the right to not show this graphic footage. But, should we tell the story? One day on the SBS Facebook, a woman says, “We have enough, you show us enough of this footage”. She’s sick of all that. That is alright, she wants to enjoy the weekend life, coffee, you know? She doesn’t want to see sadness. But if you don’t see the sadness, you can’t grow as a human inside, you know? You want to see just the soft, or just the light in your life? You have to see the dark, to ground your humanity.

It’s very easy to sit in Fitzroy and to blind yourself to that darkness. To Dateline’s credit, it never shies away from that, but we’re able to almost completely distance ourselves from the reality of these things. When you first arrived here, came out of detention, I don’t know if you were in North Fitzroy straight away, but…

It’s a long story, I went to Perth and then from Perth to Sydney and from Sydney, they told me about Melbourne. They said if I went there, it was nice, I could meet artists. I didn’t stay long in Perth. Did you see when American was in Kabul, they captured some Al Qaida Taliban, you see their clothes when they walk on the street? I was like that. They gave me $200, they said to me “Out”, out of the detention centre, you don’t know where to go. They said to me, “There’s the hotel,” that’s it, they just showed me the hotel! [laughing]

That was bad enough for me, to get out of the detention centre. I stayed two weeks, somebody helped me, I went to Sydney. Sydney was too busy for me. I just wanted to get rest, you know? I stayed there about three months, and then I came here.

You feel much more comfortable here?

Yes. I didn’t work in Sydney, but I came here and said that I had to get back to my career, for myself. I have to study, or do something with my cinema, with my career. For a time, I worked as a kitchen hand in the Melbourne Museum. I went to do some courses at Open Channel. After that, I bought my camera and a little laptop Macintosh, and I started to do some stories.

Was the plan to always go back to Iraq and tell stories?

No, it’s different. With Dateline we focus on the Iraq situation, for this year it will be different story, not just Iraq.

When you did arrive in Perth, then Sydney, then here, it must have felt like a culture very disconnected from the reality of those streets. Was that a relief?

Melbourne relieved me. People in Sydney are good, but it’s a big community, it’s a big city, but you can’t focus, you can’t concentrate on your own things. For myself I like to concentrate, I don’t want to move from place to place. In my past I have enough to move from, to work from. When I find a community, I stay with it. With Melbourne I found myself.

Never having been to Baghdad, I have always had the sense that it was, in its soul, a city of great cafes, that sort of artsy Melbourne-esque intelligentsia town.

Melbourne reminds me of Baghdad. It’s very close. Not specific, not exact. But it’s close, it has something, a connection. With the street, with… you know?

Yeah, even under Saddam, Baghdad had that kind of cultural life?

There is, was, under Saddam Hussein, but there is the bottom line: Saddam was a dictator. He was a dictator, and if he had not pushed himself from war to war to war, Baghdad would be the most beautiful city in the world. It has a culture, it has a history, when you go to the street, you find a strange street, when you ask, they say, “Oh, that’s about half a million years”, 300 years, 400 years, you know.

Its story is much longer than just the current horror. When you see what’s happening throughout the Arab world at the moment, had everything in the last decade not happened in Iraq—this is a stupid hypothetical because everything is so interconnected—was there a chance, do you think, for the Iraqi people to be part of something like that, to take control of their own country again? Was something lost?

It’s difficult, you have to take over from America first, and then from political parties, it’s very difficult for ordinary Iraqis – both of those have weapons. How to get out from under them when they have weapons? It’s very difficult.

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.

Which 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.

When you see the struggles going on as we speak in the detention centres, that must be tough to watch. Is it frustrating to be outside of that and see the problems people still have in there?

It’s a very tough situation, a very sensitive situation. The point of the situation is politics. It’s not about refugees. Australia is a big country. If you bring people here, they’re going to build. It’s like when the Italians and Greeks came here after 1945. They built the country. But the problem about politics, between two parties, you know. When John Howard was in power, he cheated the people twice about asylum seekers, to be leader. If you remember when he said that asylum seekers throw their children into the sea, this was cheating. People should remember that. They used them as a reason to get elected. This will continue. This case, this situation, will continue many, many years. We are in 2011. I’ll see you in 2040 if we’re alive and it will be the same situation.

When you’re outside of the politics of that—when you’ve been released from detention, and you’re finding yourself here in Melbourne, building a life, teaching yourself new things—do you feel welcomed? Do you feel, on the street, a different sentiment?

Definitely. The politics are different to ordinary people. Definitely different. Governments devalue asylum seekers, but when you see the streets, you see something different. People welcome refugees, they support them, they help them.

Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Tobias Titz

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