Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 6, “No More Violence at AUIS!”

Early last year, I began writing about The AUIS Voice, the first independent student newspaper in post-Saddam Iraq.  Started by a scrappy band of Iraqi students and an impassioned ex-Washington Post reporter, the Voice’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, editorial freedom, and the search for truth (rarities among Iraqi media).  In mid-May, via a university grant, I traveled to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq to interview and observe the student staffers in action– along with gaining a glimpse of the university and region where their unfolding story is set.  This series is centered on my trip.

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

Voice staffers work on the layout of the 'protest issue' on a recent weekend afternoon in the newsroom. Left to right: Arez Hussen Ahmed, Taha Faris, Yad Faiq, Mohammed Raja, and Namo Kaftan.

Part 6: “No More Violence at AUIS!”

On a hot, dusty afternoon in Sulaimani, Iraq, five Voice editors and staff adviser Paul Craft gathered in the paper’s newsroom– a small adapted storage space inside the university’s cafeteria.  The diagonal-shaped room sports a single Mac computer on a table, wood-paneled walls, a pair of ornate couches, and a copy of the front page of the first issue framed along one wall.  There are old issues, staplers, pens, page proofs, a random winter jacket, and bottles of water and Coke scattered about. The lighting is sparse, bathing the room in a surreal amber glow hovering between shadowy and, well, dark.

On that day, as I watched, editor-in-chief Arez Hussen Ahmed led an editorial meeting.  Only a few feet away, outside the door bearing the Voice‘s name and logo, a few scattered students sat at the cafeteria tables studying.  Lunch had been served hours before.

The meeting lasted only a few minutes, focused mostly on content for the next issue– the protest issue had already been put to bed and would arrive on campus in a few days.  To be frank, the ideas did not exactly flow.  Overall, the meeting was as eerily quiet as the cafeteria where it was being held.  Editorial page editor Mohammed Raja said at one point, “That’s what happens when the university is so small.  It is tough to find stories.”

The most enthusiastic burst of chatter occurred while staff brainstormed a topic for the unsigned editorial, the feature in the paper in which staffers have been the most aggressive in questioning administrators and challenging the status quo.  On this Monday, the few ideas batted about were lame and quickly petered out, leading to the classic exchange below:

Ahmed: “What’s a problem here?”

Raja, with a sly smile: “I could punch someone.”

Craft, grinning, while holding his hands up in mock protest: “No more violence at AUIS!”

The back-and-forth was genuinely funny– leading to laughter all around.  Then, happy sighs.  Then, silence.  Then, serious faces reemerging.  Then, Ahmed: “So really, what is happening that we should we write about?”

The Voice is at a tremendously important moment of transition– one that I hope might lead to its expansion and maturation but that I fear might be its breaking point.  During its early days, the newspaper was dubbed “a trailblazer in the region,”  “a voice of independence for the AUIS community,” and “a new standard for journalism in Iraq.”

Now at 18 months old, while continuing to uphold that standard, it faces a number of challenges that I do believe threaten its long-term survival.  One of them is a seemingly shrinking staff.  The university does not yet have a journalism program or related classes or clubs– completely understandable given its young age and under-construction status.  But it does make it tough to educate, enliven, and recruit future reporters and editors.

A majority of the students on staff with whom I interacted during my visit were the same ones with whom I had first spoken more than a year before.  Outreach and fresh faces are needed.  Meanwhile, the Voice‘s competition has grown– most prominently a snarky, sensationalist student-run blog that Craft describes as triple fudge rocky road compared to the paper’s vanilla.

Editorial Page Editor Mohammed Raja and I pose in the Voice newsroom.

Separately, it was clear to me during my visit that the electricity of the paper’s start-up status has also faded– and I don’t mean that cynically.  After all, even the most idealistic adventures must eventually settle into workhorse grooves.  But I did find myself feeling an indefinable malaise hovering around many of the proceedings. (Not that the staff lacked for spurts of passion and occasional laughter.  The funniest aside came on production day from Yad Faiq, who laid out an editorial with the headline “Seeking Strength Through Unity,” and then said, “Ninjas would not like this saying. . . . They always work alone.”)  And it was very close to the end of the school year, so I may have simply been seeing the all-eyes-on-break mentality pervasive at many student pubs here come late April-early May.

Either way, the school year’s close signals another challenge for the paper to surmount: The Voice is losing the second of its two most impassioned advocates.

Last fall, Jackie Spinner, the former Washington Post reporter who singlehandedly conceived the paper and inspired students to sign on, left the university to undertake a Fulbright in Oman.  Craft, the university’s registrar, has been a hard-working, compassionate adviser in her stead but fully admits he does not possess her singular devotion to journalism that many students tell me is the main reason they originally joined the paper.

Now, Ahmed is also moving on, after devoting his heart, soul, and oodles of spare time to the Voice for more than a year.  There are a number of dedicated staffers, but Ahmed is so synonymous with the paper’s editorial vigor that there was genuine skepticism among AUIS faculty and staff with whom I spoke about whether the Voice would survive his exit.

One of my lasting memories of Ahmed: Late in the afternoon during production day for the protest issue, he mentioned he had been working so hard he hadn’t eaten anything all day.  He asked me what the English word is for the noise your stomach makes when you’re hungry.  I told him most of us here would refer to it as growling.  He smiled.  “My stomach is growling,” he said.  “That sounds right.”

Will the student(s) set to take over the paper possess a similar journalistic growl?

One student who I am confident will leave a lasting mark on Iraqi journalism is Kurdistan Fatih.  On my first day in the country, I shadowed her during her reporting on a story about construction of the new AUIS campus.  It was an absolutely inspiring sight to behold…

To Be Continued ||| Part 7 (Conclusion)“Kurdistan’s Story”

Read about the Voice’s founding in my exclusive six-part CMM series, originally posted in April-May 2010.

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six

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