Reporter's memoir as prisoner in Iraq

February 29, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

Blinded by the Sunlight: Emerging from the Prison of Saddam's Iraq, by Matthew McAllester. HarperCollins. $25.95. 304 pages.

Matthew McAllester is only in his 30s, but by all the latest standards of Hackdom -- the mongrel province of globetrotting news correspondents -- he comes across as very Old School. He always seems to have a bottle of Scotch at hand. He smokes like a chimney. When detained by gun-toting authorities, he contemplates attempting an Indiana Jones-style escape, armed only with the blade of a Leatherman tool. And he readily admits that he enjoys the dangerous thrills of covering wars.

But it is when McAllester drops these poses and focuses his journalistic eye on those around him that he is at his best, providing the most rewarding moments of Blinded by the Sunlight, his memoir of the Iraq war.

McAllester builds his book around a single stroke of very bad luck -- his detention for eight days in Abu Ghraib, Iraq's most notorious prison, by paranoid authorities who'd become convinced he was a spy. The episode is the departure point for fascinating encounters afterward with his jailer, his interrogator and his fellow inmates, some of whom had languished in Abu Ghraib for years, suffering terrible torture along the way. Their stories are revealing windows onto the machinations of horror.

In discussing himself, McAllester's best quality is his disarming honesty. He is his own harshest critic. For all his daring escape fantasies, he freely admits to a willingness to tell his interrogators whatever it took to win release, even if it meant betraying his Iraqi driver, a man who had bravely done things on McAllester's behalf that could have easily resulted in his own death or imprisonment, especially if Saddam had held onto power much longer.

McAllester tells us a bit too often of how certain he is that he is about to be killed or tortured during his detention. The fact that he was neither is beside the point. Places such as Abu Ghraib generate much of their terror simply by the force of their legacy, and the uncertainties of his confinement must have indeed been daunting.

But when, in retrospect, he links his experience to those of the long-suffering Iraqis, he is on shaky ground. Frightened or not, he emerged unharmed and decently fed. To offer a relatively gentle eight-day confinement as the centerpiece portrait of Saddam's 23-year gallery of unspeakable horrors seems, at best, an awkward exercise in self-promotion -- a bit like showing off a hangnail in a roomful of amputees.

The nadir comes as he recalls one of the more fatalistic moments in his cell:

"I thought of people who had gone to unjust deaths with calm and dignity, and in spite of my atheism the strongest images -- I felt I could almost see them levitating in front of me -- were of Jesus and Joan of Arc in their last moments. It is possible to die like that, I told myself. If they can do it, I can."

But that, too, is the way of the Old School, piling personal melodrama atop the wobbly foundation of the vertical pronoun. McAllester's sharp journalistic instincts serve him far better when he tracks down all those Iraqis who were around him at Abu Ghraib, on both sides of the bars. They were the ones who had lived the horror for years, and it is their voices that are the most compelling.

Staff writer Dan Fesperman has covered three wars for The Sun, including the fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001, and was a correspondent in Berlin for the paper. His latest novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, recently won Britain's Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for the best thriller of 2003.

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