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“Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq”, Hadani Ditmars

Mariam Cook
7 May 2006

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“Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq”
by Hadani Ditmars
Arris Books | November 2005 | ISBN 1844370631

Recommended by Mariam Cook:

Hadani Ditmars is a Canadian journalist who has been writing from Iraq since 1997. Of the plethora of books out there on Iraq (now three years since the US-led invasion) Dancing in the No-Fly Zone has a sense of reality and immediacy difficult to match. The author is of mixed heritage, with French and Lebanese roots, and her appearance and Arabic skills means she manages to get to where most reporters cannot. In one scene we find her gyrating to traditional Iraqi music, and in another prostrating with conservative Shi'a women for evening prayer. No stranger to criticism, Ditmars has been witch-hunted by sections of the western media for her exposés on the impact of sanctions on Iraqi children and suspected of spying by Iraqi Ba'athists.

Dancing in the No-Fly Zone deftly places the reader beyond stereotypes, into the lives of the people who have lived decades under war, sanctions, oppression and terror. Often passing as an Iraqi, and often using her ability to skip between various European languages – intermittently waving her Canadian passport in defence – Ditmars compels with her audacity. Journeys around dangerous areas in post-invasion Iraq are juxtaposed with memories of her experiences of life under Saddam. With a variety of cunning disguises, at one moment a peasant, another in traditional Muslim veil, she moves among the people like some sort of multiple identity secret agent, often staying too long in perilous circumstances. One almost breathes a sigh of relief to reach the end of the book and find she has not been bundled into the back of an untraceable car.

Yet the action-packed, almost darkly glamorous drama that unfolds is merely superfluous relief for the profound feelings of compassion and disbelief that are conjured alongside. A poignant question seems to run throughout: how can human beings, by fault or design, engineer such misery for others?

A lack of pretentious language allows the narrative to flow easily. Any political messages can be drawn subjectively; there are no sweeping conclusions or easy answers offered. This means whatever your opinion on Iraq, the narrative does not exclude. Instead, Ditmars adds layers to the nameless, countless individuals we see for nanoseconds, flashing across our screens, as another atrocity is announced. The cultural richness, stoicism (which reminded me of grandparents' stories of Londoners during the Blitz) and adaptability of Iraqis clenches at the heart muscle.

In contrast to many books that provide a political commentary, such as Tariq Ali's Bush in Babylon, and the less intense but more forgiving Revolution Day by Rageh Omar, this book paints a picture of the tortured country itself, and ordinary Iraqi's experiences. Instead of long-winded allusions to times long gone there are real people, conversations and compelling portraits. This text is a reference on human courage and normalcy in the face of utter chaos, it highlights human triumphs without pretence at happy endings, and it teaches us who, and how, rather than why.

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About the author: Hadani Ditmars is a journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Independent, the Globe and Mail, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, and broadcast on the BBC and CBC radio and television. She has been reporting from the Middle East since 1992 and has been on assignment to Iraq six times since 1997.

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