About The Author
Justin Huggler was born in the Channel Island of Jersey. A former foreign correspondent for the Independent newspaper, he covered the occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He has also covered the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the second Palestinian Intifada, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic and the Nepalese revolution. He lives in London.
Below, he introduces his novel, The Burden of the Desert. Set in Occupied Baghdad it brings together a journalist, a US officer, an Iraqi driver and a victim of torture in Abu Ghraib. When a shocking incident at an American checkpoint leaves three people dead, it sets in motion a series of events that will have far-reaching consequences for them all. ustin memorably evokes the atmosphere of a military occupation whose aftershocks are still being felt today.
The Author At Foyles
In 2004, I was working as a correspondent for The Independent in Baghdad. All around me, the American-led occupation of Iraq was turning into a disaster, and the daily routines of my life had become somewhat extreme. I frequently travelled in disguise, wearing an Arab headscarf, to avoid catching the attention of kidnappers. I'd been in a 150mph car chase on a stretch of road notorious for attacks on Westerners. I'd had to dive for cover from the balcony of my hotel room when a gunfight broke out on the street below. American helicopters used to fly so low over the hotel we could see the markings on them.
I'd thought more than once that all this would make a great setting for a novel, but I didn't want to write another gung-ho war correspondent's story. I wanted to capture the feeling of what it was really like to be there, and live through it all.
The idea for The Burden of the Desert came to me one night when I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was alone in my hotel room, listening to the sound of gunfire in the distance. The constant danger had taken its toll: I was frightened and angry that people wanted to kill me just for being a Westerner, and I was angry with the Americans too, for making such a mess of the whole situation.
And then the image came to me of a young American soldier who was as frustrated as me with the way things were going, an officer who just wanted to do his job and get his men home alive. I looked out the window: tracer fire was showing against the night sky. He was out there, somewhere in the city, in its hot streets teeming with intrigue and betrayal. He'd be about my age.
And somewhere else in the city, just a few streets away perhaps, was an Iraqi the same age who wanted to kill both the American soldier and me, who was perhaps thinking how to do it at that moment. And I tried to think why he wanted us both dead.
Then I thought of the Iraqis who risked their lives working with Westerners like me, the translators and drivers: of where they went when they left the hotel in the evening, their private lives, their loves and loyalties. I pictured a young Muslim driver in a secret relationship with a Christian woman, trying to keep her safe as the country descended towards civil war.
The final piece of the puzzle would be a journalist, like me, who had come to Iraq to report but had become part of the story. I would base this section of the novel on my own experiences: how we were hunted by the kidnappers, the constant tension between doing your job and trying to stay alive, how we coped with it all.
If I could write a novel that told how these different lives crossed and connected, then I could tell the story of the occupation, what it was like to live through it, both for the Westerners who could go home, like me, and for the Iraqis who couldn't.
It was a story I could never tell as a journalist, because it would involve imagining myself in the shoes of the Iraqis and the soldiers, seeing with their eyes. But then, seeing things from the other point of view was exactly what we all failed to do in Iraq.
The Burden of the Desert is my attempt to tell that story.