Just one of my comrads, out of many, who was murdered this week:

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.

I call 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.”

As the 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 killed.

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 tank.

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.

After 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.

As the 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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