November 6, 2014

Dirty Little Secret

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Ilene Prusher
Novelist and Journalist – Israel.

 

I’ll let you in on what a colleague once dubbed “the foreign correspondent’s dirty little secret.” Fixers. Fixers make the world go around. Or at least, they made my world go around in my years of working as a foreign correspondent. For a time, finding a good fixer was more important to me than say, finding someone to spend the rest of my life with. My work was my life, and so my life became about working in warzones and other countries in crisis – places where a fixer is indispensible.

Fixers are not just a crutch for newbies, I soon learned. The most experienced war reporters, possessing great contacts and fluency in the local language, turn to fixers even after decades of covering the same region. As Iraq expert Patrick Cockburn put it an event we had at the Frontline Club in London upon the publication of my book, Baghdad Fixer, sometimes you need a fixer to say, ‘Go down this alley, not that one.’”


When working in a conflict zone, your fixer isn’t just your interpreter. He is also your appointment-setter, your cultural interpreter, your window on everything about the society that you can’t possibly understand but should. When I was working regularly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we journalists often expected our fixers to double as bodyguards and intelligence field officers, and fixers themselves often saw this self-appointed duty to protect their foreign charges as a source of pride. But this put the onus on the fixers to develop expertise in a field in which almost none of them had been trained: the inexact science of scoping out a scene to determine whether it looks safe. At some point, you might worry your fixer is too skittish, or too big of a risk-taker – a wuss or a nut. Given the intensity of this situation, your fixer is likely to become your best friend, or at least your right-hand man or woman. Yes, women. I have worked with female fixers in numerous countries. But particularly in warzones, it is more often than not men who are doing the job.

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photo: Ilene Prusher

As a young, single Western woman, I often felt this dynamic put me in a rather awkward position. Here I was, a woman who was suddenly the boss of a man in a largely patriarchal culture. On top of that, just by being an American, working in place like Afghanistan or Iraq, I was seen as somehow representing “the occupation.” And I come in with my demands: I want to meet him, I want to interview her, I need you to get my here, I want to meet the president, I want you to go gather some material. I want it all by tomorrow, and oh, can you please pick up a case of bottled water and change some money for me, too? Yes, we would prod, ask that question of the interview, the uncomfortable one I just posed about how he felt when he got the bad news about his brother, or how much he earns a month, or what his wife thinks about politics. And can we please take your picture now? Oh, and get your full, real names?

How is the poor fellow walking in the fixer’s shoes supposed to deal with all of this? How should he do his job and make sure you both come home alive?

The sad truth is that more often than not, it’s the fixer who is put in more danger than we are. Too many fixers have lost their lives in pursuit of the story with Western journalists. The dangers and complexities that fixers face is part of what propelled me to write my book. I had seen journalists – who are a minority and who shall remain unnamed – treat their fixers in a way that could only be described as arrogant and almost neo-colonialist, as if the foreign big-shot had come in and all but bought his own personal do-boy. I saw cases where the fixer either took too many risks in the pursuit of the story – or simply came into the crosshairs of the wrong people – and paid with their lives. And on the more human, less devastating side of things, amid the sexual tensions and gender-bending scenarios I described above, I’ve seen more than one journalist get involved with, and in a few cases, marry their fixer.

 

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photo: Ilene Prusher

Everything, I came to realize, hinged on the fixer: the quality of my story, the breadth of my access, the depth of my understanding. My levels of fun or frustration in the course of a day’s work. My very survival. Fascinated with the fixer’s experience, I decided that the only way I could satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to walk in his shoes was to do just that, and so my fictional narrator Nabil al-Amiri was born.

With the mayhem in Iraq back in the news now, many journalists are flocking back to Baghdad, some of them needing fixers. Towards the end of the book, Nabil wishes he could fix something bigger than just stories, to fix everything in his country that is broken beyond repair. Though that is beyond his and any fixer’s ken, there is something meaningful in the hope for something better. Fixers are the bridge-builders between nations, the intermediaries between countries and cultures that are otherwise failing to understand each other.

 

Ilene Prusher is the author of Baghdad Fixer (Halban Publishers, London, 2012). The book will be released in the US in November 2014 (Trafalgar Square Publishers/IPG.) A former foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, she is now a writer for TIME, Haaretz and is a host on TLV1 Radio. You can follow her on @IlenePrusher.

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