|Silenced in the name of freedom
By Paul Belden
AMMAN - Some reporters can pull off the fashion
trick of wearing a military helmet without looking
ridiculous, but not Tariq Ayyoub. He had a round open
face that just wasn't suited for it. And none of those
strap-on steel hardhats ever seemed to stay upright on
his head. They always went slipping down one side of his
face or the other during stand-ups, making him appear
like a rained-on goof.
That was too bad, because
the man was a fighter. None of his friends or family
members can even remember the number of times he was
arrested for practicing journalism as an al-Jazeera
producer in a region still struggling with the concept
of openness and a free press. "Oh, many many times,"
said Khalid, his brother. "I can't count them."
The most recent time was just a couple weeks ago
when Tariq reported on rumors of American military
movements near the al-Ruwasheid border area in Jordan
and got brought in for questioning, again. Nothing
stuck, however, and within the week he had that helmet
back on his head and was reporting live from Baghdad.
Being Jordanian, the bastard didn't need a visa, unlike
journalists from many other countries.
him that, with affection, for Tariq was my friend. Of
course, he had no business being my friend - I only
arrived in town in mid-February, an annoying new-guy
reporter looking for contacts - and an American, by no
means anybody's favorite flavor of the moment. But Tariq
had graciously taken the time to show me some ropes,
give me some phone numbers, pass me some tips, always in
his distinctive clipped Queen's-English accent that held
within it a hint of India.
I'd like to say that
it was my irresistible charm at work, but no such thing
- Tariq did what he did for me for everybody. He took a
look at you, and then he made you a friend. It was just
the way he was.
Which was probably why Tariq had
so many friends. People repaid him in kind. He earned
the sort of loyalty and respect that doesn't come
through by being a braggart or a bully-boy, so common in
journalism. He won hearts and minds by setting an
example of bravery and honesty and kindness that others
couldn't help but seek to emulate.
"If you write
one thing about him," said Sawsan abu-Hamdeh,
al-Jazeera's Amman correspondent, "say this: Tariq was
an honest man. He was incorruptible."
world now knows, Tariq Ayyoub was killed on Tuesday
morning when two or more American missiles hit the
al-Jazeera office on the west bank of the Tigris river
in Baghdad. Tariq was standing on the rooftop at the
time, reporting on a battle that was shaping up several
hundred meters to the south. The Palestine Hotel, haunt
of journalists, was also hit that morning, killing two
journalists, as well as the office of Abu Dhabi TV,
located about 300 meters upriver from where Tariq was
The Pentagon said on Tuesday that it
would never intentionally target independent journalists
in general, or al-Jazeera in particular. Pentagon
spokesman Bryan G Whitman went so far as to tell the
Washington Post newspaper on Wednesday, "Not only are we
not trying to silence their [al-Jazeera's] journalists,
we're one of the few countries that has not expelled
their journalists." It seemed a weird thing to say of
somebody with Tariq's record of journalistic bravery,
but never mind. Maybe they saw that helmet and thought
he was going to jump down from that rooftop and charge a
But it doesn't matter. Every street vendor
and taxi driver in Amman knows the circumstances of
Tariq's death, and to say that anybody here is buying
any part of that crap for a heartbeat would be to commit
a severe overstatement of fact. "Of course they meant
to kill him - for Christ's sake, he was standing on the
roof! Two bombs came in and blew it apart," said Serene
Halasa, a former al-Jazeera correspondent whose first
job in journalism was working under Tariq. "The lies
they tell - they're insulting. Without honor."
Halasa was one of a crowd of Tariq's friends and
colleagues who had crowded at the al-Jazeera offices in
Amman on Tuesday to stand in front of a ceiling-high
bank of television screens and watch a re-run of the
last report Tariq had filed from Baghdad. It was a piece
about how ordinary Iraqis were trying to maintain a
scrap of normality in their lives while street battles
raged a few kilometers away. He showed people shopping,
cooking, doing normal things.
"Probably this is
just the calm before the storm," he said in the wrap-up.
There was no blood in the piece - that came later, with
the footage of Tariq's body being carried out to a car
in a blood-stained blanket later that day.
Tariq's last piece, the bank of screens in the
al-Jazeera office cut to live coverage of US President
George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair
making important promises to the people of Iraq. It was
somewhat unfortunate timing: their eyes red and
glistening, people in the room began spitting on the
screen. "Liars," they said. "Killers." And so on.
Tariq Ayyoub was born in 1968 in Kuwait to a
Palestinian family that originally hailed from Nablus.
His family moved to Jordan in 1990 as refugees of the
first Gulf War. He earned a scholarship to study
economics (a bachelor's degree) and English literature
(master's) at university in Kolkata, India, after which
he returned to Jordan to pursue a career in journalism.
Before joining al-Jazeera, he worked as a producer for
APTN and wrote for the English-language daily The Jordan
Times. He is survived by his wife, Dima, and a
one-year-old daughter, Fatmeh.
In a covered
parking lot across from the Ayyoub family home in Amman
on Tuesday, a group of old men sat in rows on small
white plastic chairs waiting for Tariq's father to
arrive. He finally did, looking old and gray and tired
in his red-and-black kaffiyeh (scarf), a whitened
stubble sprinkling his weathered cheeks.
men in the room rose one by one to kiss him on both
cheeks in the traditional Arab greeting, many whispered
in his ear the words shahid, shahid. Meaning,
Your son Tariq is a martyr.
One of the
men, noticing my obvious outsider status, asked me where
I came from: "Ah, the land of the free," he said. "Tariq
was a fighter for freedom, also. Freedom of speech? You
know this, I think? Tariq also fought for this."
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