Beyond the Pale: One Reporter’s Journey to Iraq

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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Jacqueline Gold, a senior reporter for Crain’s New York Business, spends most Saturdays at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale in the Bronx, scurrying after her daughters or reading Torah.

This spring, however, found her in Iraq, where Crain’s had sent her to cover the reconstruction efforts, particularly the participation of New York organizations, companies and individuals.

While many journalists would jump at assignments in far-flung countries undergoing such radical changes, the petite 43-year-old was filled with trepidation. In the late 1980s she had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and Egypt. “But that,” she said, “was years ago.”

Since then, she had over time adopted an increasingly religious lifestyle, including a list of strictures — kosher food and Sabbath observance — that don’t lend themselves to globetrotting in international hot spots. She also is now the mother of two young children, ages 5 and 3.

Nevertheless, with her husband’s encouragement, she began to consider the assignment seriously. “When I learned there were almost 2,000 reporters there,” she said, “I realized it wasn’t likely that I’d be the one to get killed.”

Gold flew first to Kuwait, since an American military base had taken over what had been Saddam International Airport. Unsure of what to expect as she headed for her hotel in Kuwait City, she had been surprised by the city’s appearance. “I saw Starbucks, McDonald’s, even Dairy Queen,” she said, mentioning the “pristine beach” and “luxuries” of her Hilton hotel.

Gold headed to the Information Ministry. After issuing a press card, they told her to come back the next day for a border pass. She then began asking around about a ride to Iraq. Some International Rescue Committee workers happened to be leaving the following day for Najaf; they had room for one more. Gold accepted the offer, hoping she would not be turned back at the border.

By 5 a.m. the next morning, Gold was sitting in an SUV, equipped with a drum of gasoline (in the postwar chaos, necessities are often difficult to come by). During the 10-hour drive, she chatted with the other IRC workers on a topic popular in the circles of rescue workers and Peace Corps volunteers: how successful would the efforts to rebuild be, and how was Iraq faring compared to other models of development? She also worried, though, that the anti-militarism being voiced by the rescue workers “was just one step away from anti-Zionism.”

After successfully crossing the Kuwait-Iraq border, they arrived at Najaf. Equipped with laptop, satellite phone, clothes, cash and sunscreen, Gold checked into a family-owned hotel. Neither the city’s poverty nor the thin cushion on a board that would be that night’s bed fazed her. “I was in the Peace Corps,” she said, “I’m used to everything.”

Gold learned early on what she called an “unspoken rule”: Her job went more smoothly when she kept her Jewish identity to herself. In the lobby of the Palestine Hotel, she said, “I was thrilled to find an old friend, a Jewish woman who was also on assignment for an American newspaper…. When she told me that she’d married a guy from Queens, I blurted out, ‘Mazel tov!’” Her friend’s response: a silent rebuke.

“I saw the same thing with every Jewish journalist I met,” Gold said. “One that even attended a Modern Orthodox day school in the U.S. told me that he had learned to pray like a Muslim” — putting the Jewish prayers of his past behind him.

Throughout the week, Gold traveled to several villages, Bedouin encampments, universities and water-treatment plants, interviewing several dozen Iraqis. She learned, for example, that at the Al Najaf Police Academy, New York City police and firefighters were training 900 local law-enforcement officers to combat the crime and looting slowing the reconstruction.

In Baghdad, Gold went to Saddam’s former headquarters, the huge Republican Palace, which now houses the Coalition Provisional Authority. She interviewed representatives of different projects and spoke with Iraqi men and women from all walks of life: factory laborers, doctors and housewives.

In Basra, she chatted with a group of women. Mothers themselves, they warmed to her when she showed them photographs of her own daughters. When they asked her about her daughters’ names, she told them: Galit means “little wave,” and Batya means “daughter of God.” She did not mention that their names were Hebrew, sticking to her newfound rule.

“I already goofed once,” Gold said. It was obvious to her, however, that they were enjoying her stories as much as she was enjoying theirs. Yet as they got to know each other, Gold deeply regretted being unable to share with them the heart of her identity: her Judaism.

This was difficult for her; just as a connection was being forged, it seemed, she would have to rein herself in. “I have to say, the most painful part of my trip was not being able to talk about being Jewish, or to use any Yiddish or Hebrew words… especially when talking to the Iraqi women about democracy,” she said. An eager participant in political discussions, Gold tends to pepper such conversations with Jewish phrases.

“I felt so close to them,” she added. “I was dying to say: ‘You see how much you like me? I’m Jewish and an ardent Zionist! So you see, we Jews are not really all that different from you.’”

Gold wrinkled her brow and then broke into a smile. “One thing’s for sure,” she said, “if I had been there for several months, instead of just several weeks, I’m sure I would have told them the truth. Boy, would we have had what to talk about then!”

* * *

This article has been adapted from the Yiddish Forward, where Rukhl Schaechter is a writer and editor.

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