Why this Iraqi never gives up — on his weight loss or his country

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Marco Werman: I want to ask you if you remember Iraq, but of course you remember Iraq. And yet it feels as if Iraq has fallen off the media radar here in the US. So today, we want to devote a few minutes to it. Let’s start with someone who knows the country very well. Paulien Bakker is a journalist who’s spent a lot of time there, she’s been going back and forth to Iraq since 2008. You’re from the Netherlands, Paulien. What drew you to Iraq initially, and what was it like when you got there the first time?

 

Paulien Bakker: My first visit was in April 2008. I went to Sulaymaniyah, which is in the north of the country, in the Kurdish area, and it was just like a summer holiday. The Iraqi people are so friendly. They easily invite you out to a picnic, and I went to parties, and I walked home late in the night. Things really seemed to get better again. Yet at the same time, so many things have happened in the last year. There were so many stories, it felt like a candy store.

 

Werman: Your reporting in Iraq was not the kind of “Let’s go find the latest IED that blew up.” You met a lot of everyday Iraqi people who we didn’t hear much about during the war, we certainly don’t hear much about them these days. I’d like you to tell us about one of the people that you met. His name is Khduer Hawakeen.

 

Bakker: Yeah, in 2011 I went to Baghdad to write a series on everyday life and I hung out a lot in this barbershop, and there was this old Baath officer who wanted to know exactly who I was and what I was doing there. But once he understood what I was doing there, he changed and he said, “You have to meet Khduer,” and that was really nice. Khduer is this young Christian guy, he weighed like 538 pounds, which is huge. He’s a very shy guy and had all these posters of Arab singers on his wall. He was really determined to lose weight. What was really funny was he was watching this American TV show, The Biggest Loser. Every day, he’s thinking, “Okay, I’ll exercise tomorrow,” but then he corrects himself and says, “No, tomorrow is the day.” He was really determined. Yeah, you can really relate to someone trying to achieve that.

 

Werman: It’s this weird connection he has with the United States because his weight problem seemed to have started during the American occupation and it’s this American reality TV show, The Biggest Loser, that kind of coaxes him into improving his life.

 

Bakker: Yeah. One of the reasons he started eating was because he was helping people out of a burning building after a bomb blast, some journalist from the L.A. Times. And after that, he also lost his hand in an accident with a generator. So, that’s what made him start eating; it made him pretty big until he decided that that’s not the way to go.

 

Werman: But he’s always confronted by these challenges. He goes for gastric bypass surgery and that doesn’t really work out and he gains more weight. But he somehow remains eternally optimistic about everything. How did being overweight affect him psychologically once you got to know him?

 

Bakker: That’s the brilliant thing about Khduer: he just didn’t accept it. I think that’s a point where most Iraqis have come. At a certain point, you cannot let the outside world influence your choices for the future, you have to follow your own path and you never know how long it’s going to last because bomb blasts are everywhere. When I last saw him last year, he just survived another bomb blast. So, it can happen every day.

 

Werman: Since the rise of ISIS over a year ago in Iraq, I’m just wondering, are these people trying harder to leave the country? Are they settled in, come what may?

 

Bakker: No. Since 2014, another three million people have fled. I saw it myself last year when I went back to meet the most resilient Baghdadi's that I met in 2011. There were a dozen people, and out of the dozen, half had fled and four were planning to go. Also Khduer actually, he’s applying for a visa. For me, that’s very sad because these were the most optimistic and most entrepreneurial people. They really wanted to change the cycle of violence, they really wanted to do something for themselves and not get caught up in the misery.

 

Werman: What you did is not really war reporting per se. I’m curious to know what you were hoping yourself to come away with in terms of understanding what’s happening in Iraq.

 

Bakker: I think a lot of the time we’re very much afraid of things when we don’t really understand them, and when we get closer to people inevitably there comes a point where you realize that they are just like you and there’s nothing to be afraid of, you have the same challenges to deal with in life. What’s beautiful for me about the Iraqi people is that they are so resilient. There’s this young shop owner who decided to open this big Maximo clothing store, and he said, “We’re all afraid. But if we’re not doing this, we’re losing all these years of our lives.” So, you see really what it means, the big things in the news, what it means to an everyday person.

 

Werman: You planning to go back to Iraq any time soon?

 

Bakker: I’m planning to go back, but at the moment it’s over 160 degrees, and so I’m just going to wait until after Ramadan, I think.

 

Werman: Let things cool down a little bit. I can’t blame you. Paulien Bakker has reported out of IRaq since 2008. Paulien, very good to meet you. Thank you for your time.

 

Bakker: Thank you.