Blinded by the sunlight : emerging from the prison of Saddam's Iraq /
Matthew McAllester.
1st ed.
New York, NY : HarperCollins, c2004.
xiv, 284 p., [16] p. of plates : col. ill. ; 24 cm.
More Details
New York, NY : HarperCollins, c2004.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter
Blinded by the Sunlight
Emerging from the Prison of Saddam's Iraq

Chapter One

Cruise Missiles and Paper Airplanes

March 2003

First came the air-raid sirens, then the pink-and-white tracer fire slicing through the sky above Baghdad like fireworks with no starburst at the end of their trajectory. I ran from my room and was on my way up the darkened concrete stairs to the roof of the Palestine Hotel when the first two bombs hit downtown Baghdad at a quarter past nine. They slammed into the Ministry of Planning, a few hundred yards upstream on the opposite bank of the Tigris. The stairwell shook under my feet. When I reached the roof, I could see black smoke pouring from the remains of the ministry building and drifting south on a gentle breeze. Flames curled outward through the remaining windows. As still as a pond on a perfect spring day, the Tigris mirrored the burning.

An emergency vehicle with a single flashing blue light on top eventually crept toward the site. Some fearless drivers, ignoring memories of how American-led forces bombed some of Baghdad's bridges in 1991, made their way across the snaking river. There were no other signs of life near the burning building.

Two hotel waiters in black and white appeared on the roof to watch. "We'll give them twenty bucks to go away if they ask us to leave," someone said. But the staff just smiled at the growing crowd of reporters and photographers and gazed across the river at their government buildings burning in the night.

We waited for more and it did not come. What did come, however, was an Iraqi voice from behind us. "Go, go, off the roof," it said. I sat between John Burns and Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, and like everyone else we stayed where we were, not even turning around, sure that we could sit out this threat from the hotel management to our prime viewing spots. The waiters must have told the manager, we thought. But this was not hotel management. Once we had ignored their first command to leave, they did not ask again. Tripods started crashing to the floor. A platoon of big men in suits whose patience had disappeared instantly were spreading all over the roof and pushing people away from the edge and toward the ladder that sloped down to the exit door.

"Take it easy," I heard someone say. I turned to look.

"No take it easy," said an Iraqi man in a suit, pushing the journalist hard in the chest.

A photographer tripped and fell down the ladder, smashing his knees and hands on the roofing tiles.

One of the men in suits grabbed a camera from another photographer and sent it sailing off the roof.

They had flashlights. I put my head down, scuttled down the ladder, and joined the completely silent troop of journalists. We padded quickly down the stairwell, trying not to draw attention to ourselves, not knowing who might be behind or in front of us in the darkness.

That, we all agreed as we reconvened in various rooms, had probably been the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police, the same guys who had been going room to room, vacuuming up unregistered satellite phones. These devices were our only way of reliably keeping in touch with the outside world, but they were strictly monitored by the Ministry of Information. If we were caught with one by the authorities we could be expelled from the country. We could not use the roof again.

That was the second bombing of the war. The first had been disconcertingly muted. At the meeting in the Azores, President Bush and Prime Ministers Blair and Aznar had set a deadline for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face war. That deadline was now past, and Moises Saman and I had been up all night waiting in vain for the first missiles to crash into Baghdad. Now I couldn't sleep. So, convinced that tonight the war would not be televised, I had popped five milligrams of Valium -- sold over the counter by the hundred for the cost of a Big Mac -- and drifted off into an adrenaline-killing stupor.

"Dude," said Moises, his voice piercing rather forcefully through my sleep.

Moises was my frequent travel companion, a dear friend and a brilliant photographer. Although a Spaniard, Moises speaks fluent dude, the one-word language of surfers, skateboarders, and, sometimes, photographers. This time "Dude" meant: Get up, the war just started. It was moments after five thirty on the morning of March 20; the sun was still beyond the horizon but close enough for the cityscape to be softly lit in violet and mauve.

The distant boom of bombs or missiles or something -- we had no idea at the time -- had started it all. From our balcony we now watched red antiaircraft rounds daintily arc into the sky from several points around the city. This was the first of many nights of ineffectual gunning by Iraqi air defensemen. We had been to watch the Air Defense soccer team play a few days earlier and, given how bleak their immediate future seemed at the time, I was delighted for them when they had beaten Uday Hussein's Karkh team 2 to 0. Now I was torn between admiring their commitment and pitying their fear of disobeying orders that made them suicidally fire their blowpipe darts in the vague direction of the most sophisticated bombs and missiles and planes in history.

For days and weeks, the world had been promised "shock and awe" when the war began. By that stage, an average Time magazine subscriber could probably describe where the main ministries, palaces, and military bases in Baghdad were and what sort of laser-guided munitions would likely demolish them. But so far, it had been nothing but shock and bore. All we were seeing now was a silent, predawn city letting off a few pretty antiaircraft rounds into the gathering light ...

Blinded by the Sunlight
Emerging from the Prison of Saddam's Iraq
. Copyright © by Matthew McAllester. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Blinded by the Sunlight: Emerging from the Prison of Saddam's Iraq by Matthew McAllester
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2004-01-19:
Soon after bombs began falling on Baghdad, Newsday reporter McAllester was seized by agents from Saddam Hussein's security service and taken to the most feared place in Iraq: Abu Ghraib prison. McAllester was stripped, interrogated, given a pair of filthy pajamas and left alone in a tiny cell to agonize about his fate. Eight days later, with as little explanation as he received upon his arrest, McAllester was taken to the Jordanian border and released. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Iraq to try to get some answers. A riveting account of one man's frightening ordeal, this book is also an indictment of decades of oppression by Iraq's fallen dictator. McAllester examines Abu Ghraib's history (the prison was designed by an American company), interviews some of its victims (including a U.S. citizen imprisoned unjustly for seven years) and catalogues its horrors (torture, rape and execution). In one of the book's most affecting episodes, McAllester tracks down his own interrogator at Abu Ghraib, the man who decided whether he would live or die. McAllester admits he betrayed his Iraqi driver under questioning (it was "a calculated risk, ringed with cowardice"); he also acknowledges that journalists during Saddam's rule were tainted by collaborating with the regime (it was a "dirty, self-compromising process," he writes). He is similarly blunt in his assessment of the postwar occupation, which, he says, is undermined by poor planning and a lack of understanding of the Iraqi people. A Pulitzer-winning reporter with experience in numerous international hotspots, McAllester has produced a fascinating look at life in one of the most repressive regimes on earth. 16 pages of color photos not seen by PW. (Mar. 1) Forecast: McAllester will tour various U.S. cities to promote his book and will undoubtedly garner lots of media coverage, which should result in strong sales. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, January 2004
Wall Street Journal, February 2004
Booklist, March 2004
Washington Post, March 2004
Boston Globe, May 2004
Reference & Research Book News, May 2005
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