2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Ahmed Najm: His Brother’s Keeper

This week on The Trip podcast: Ahmed Najm lost a brother and found his life’s mission.

And here we are, at the last of our episodes in Iraq. Seems fitting to end on a call to prayer at the Erbil Citadel. I’ve been doing most of the recording, including this interview, in the corner of my room at the Fareeq Hotel, but life in Erbil is really about the streets, the endless blocks of food carts and lamb stew joints on Iskan Street, the kids darting in and out of the archways of the market, and more than anything, the imposing sight of the Citadel, a dun-colored fortress atop a mound that rises almost 100 feet above of the rest of the flat cityscape

This structure is the oldest continually inhabited place on earth. There have been people living, building, and dying on that exact spot since at least 5,000 BC, and the dramatic height of the citadel comes from all the layers of life, the mudbrick buildings that rose and collapsed and then were built on top of, over and over, through the millennia.

I feel like we’ve been talking a lot about time in these Iraq episodes, the idea that a place this ancient must be able to persevere through the agonies of the present. The layers of life in this beneath this fortress have to give you some sort of optimism, or at least a longer lens on the current tragedies of Iraq. In this episode’s interview, we’re reaching deep into one of those tragedies, the disappearance of photojournalist Kamran Najm. Kamran’s brother Ahmed turned away from the conservative religion of his own family by not only searching for his brother, but by adopting Kamaran’s life’s mission as his own. As the head of Metrography, the agency that his brother started with Sebastian Meyer, Ahmed is helping over 70 Iraqi journalists work to tell their own story. That to me says it all: legacy, longevity, layers. Thank you Ahmed, thank you Iraq. Love and luck to you both.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Sangar. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

Nathan Thornburgh: Well, let’s get into this. This drink we have here. Tell me what were as we, pull the foil tabs off of these things. I’m going to let my fingernails grow out before I come to Iraq again so I can open all the foil.

Ahmed Najm: Yes.

Thornburgh: That is the sound of opening a Jumex pineapple coconut flavored drink. All right, well cheers.

Najm: Cheers.

Thornburgh: I know that flavor. That’s good. Especially when it’s very hot and sunny outside. It’s cold juice. Why did you choose Jumex as the thing we should drink?

Najm: It is the last drink that I drunk with my brother in 2014 when I was driving my car.

Thornburgh: When you were driving him around and you guys had some juices?

Najm: I drove him to Kirkuk, and that was the last time that I saw him. So this is what I am drinking on a daily basis.

Thornburgh: This is your own kind of meditation on him or memory of him.

Najm: While I do that same job that he was doing. I think having the same drink has given me more power and energy.

Thornburgh: Damn. Well that is a story. But let’s start in there. I’ve known about your work and your agency for a long time. I think a lot of journalists in foreign correspondents have. And I’ve known one of the guys who founded the agency with you and your brother, also for a long time—Sebastian Meyer, who is now back in New York. But let’s get started. It came through your brother who had been a photographer? Is that right?

Najm: Yep.

Thornburgh: Yeah. So tell me about him. What was his name? What was he like?

Najm: Kamran Najm. I’m actually the youngest brother, and we’re six brothers. And after 2003 when we had so many explosions after Saddam Hussein fell, he was going to Kirkuk and all the places that there was conflict and terrorist attacks, just to bring back photos for the local publications. He was just spreading the photos with them.

Thornburgh: This was in Sulaymaniyah?

Najm: That was in Kirkuk. We were living in Sulaymaniyah. We’re from Kirkuk, we were living in Sulaymaniyah, but he was going back to Kirkuk to [take] photos. Sometimes I was driving the car, sometimes he went on his own. And I still remember when he was coming back with the bloody photos from the explosions. And he was trying to show the photos to my sisters, and he was proud that he captured some photos with conflict in them, and trying to share them with the Iraqi publications. But it never worked, because there was something wrong in it.

Thornburgh: There was something wrong in the photos, or the publications?

Najm: Understanding photography at that time was really hard because we had no academy, there is still no university or any academy to teach the professional way of taking photos, or photojournalism. So at that time he was only taking photos of the explosions. Photographers were competing with each other over who got bloodier photos. In 2005, Kamran contacted this photo agency. The editor said, “OK, what do you have?” And Kamran said, “I have photos of one of the explosions in Kirkuk.” And the editor said, “Can you tell me how many killed?” Kamran said, “Thirteen people killed and some people injured.” And the editor said, “Kamran, thank you. For today we’re not going to take the photos, because there was another explosion in Mosul, in which 30 people were killed and many more were injured.”

So Kamran found out that there’s something wrong with the whole process. So that was the point he started thinking about setting up an agency. He didn’t have a clue about creating a photo agency. In 2008, he met Sebastian Meyer, and they started thinking about founding one.

Thornburgh: Essentially as a freelance photographer, self-taught at that point, he had gotten a taste of the ghoulishness of the news business. They need a high body count in order for a photo to matter to them?

Najm: Exactly.

Thornburgh: Again, self-taught, trying to put together an agency. Because I think at that point Sebastian was also a freelance photographer.

Najm: Yes.

The main goal was to tell stories through Iraqi eyes.

Thornburgh: And a great photographer, but also no more schooled than putting an agency together than Kamran, I guess. And the ethos of the agency then was to present a more humanized phase to the war, or just to have Iraqis making the decisions about what photos get commissioned and how you can create a market for that. What was the founding principle?

Najm: At that time and still, as Iraqis, we’re always proud of our civilization or we’re criticizing our civilization, we don’t accept what we’re living in now. So at that time, Kamran was saying, “We need to tell the true stories. We have to tell the positive stories, but not reject the negative stories.” That was the way that we wanted to present Iraqi stories on a daily basis. We wanted to make some subjects to change the way that CNN or BBC were seeing Iraq, and try to give them stories that they never got from foreign photojournalists.

I’ve been in Mosul and most of the cities in Iraq that had been attacked by ISIS. And most of the analysis [was from journalists] coming for a couple of days, taking some bloody photos from an attack and the frontline, and then going back. We were seeing that, and that the photos were going to the most famous publications while the Iraqi photographers had the same content, but with a more positive side. But international publications didn’t take those. So our goal was to convince the publications to share both [sides] of the stories, which we did. In 2012, one of our stories about the daily life of the laborers in Sulaymaniyah was published on CNN. I remember the celebrations [for placing] this story. We had drinks and we were having a party. So that was the main goal, to tell stories [through] Iraqi eyes.

Thornburgh: So you weren’t there to condemn the foreign journalists who would come in. You were there to just fill out the offerings from the country.

Najm: Yeah.

Thornburgh: I did an interview for this show with Yuri Kozyrev, who had come into Iraq a lot, and he was saying some of the same things you are. Especially later on in this period, where working time and assignments got shorter in length, and he just couldn’t work like that. He was being asked to go to a place like Iraq, cover conflict for three or four days and then leave again. And ultimately it made him get out of that part of the business. When I asked him what his greatest hope for Iraqi photography, and Iraq in general was, he said that he really wants to see Iraqis be able to tell their own story, which is what you’re doing. Which was one of the reasons why I think it’s such a privilege to come and talk to you because it’s almost like finishing that conversation with Yuri, because you’re who he was talking about. Metrography is doing that.

So tell me something about Kamran, what kind of person was he?

Najm: He was always making fun of [everything]. Even the religion that most of my family follows, Islam. So he was not easy to catch. And whenever my father said anything about photography, he would listen, but wouldn’t do it. My parents were always saying that he would get seriously injured or would die one day. We were living with this every day. When there were explosions in Baghdad, we knew that Kamran was in Sulaymaniyah, which is four or five hours from Baghdad, but we were calling him just to double-check his location. He was not staying at the offices, and when there were any conflicts or protests he was not sending photographers to the location—he was trying to go by himself. He was sacrificing all for photography. And that was what happened that day [he disappeared], June 12, 2014. We were on our way to back to Sulaymaniyah, but then he went to Kirkuk because he heard that there was some conflict between ISIS, the Iraqi police, and the Peshmerga.

For me, Kamran is a person that [I listened to]. Sometimes even my friends say, “Ahmed, what are you doing? You are doing the same thing that Kamran was doing.” Even the drinks. I don’t want to be like him as a career. Because what he did, I cannot do. I cannot get to the same point, because he was a really, really great person, and he was my teacher when I was Salafi. When I was really strong Muslim, he helped me to get out of that zone. Kamran was the one who saved my life. I think he did that just to carry on Metrography. Now he’s not here anymore, so I have to do what he was doing.

Thornburgh: He brought you out and into his world so that you could continue.

Najm: Exactly.

Kamran was not afraid. Even in the videos and photos that we have from the day that he was injured or kidnapped by ISIS, you can see that he’s wasn’t afraid.

Thornburgh: Was his desire to get close to the conflict, was it bravery? Was it stubbornness? Was he afraid?

Najm: He was not afraid. Even in the videos and photos that we have from the day that he was injured or kidnapped by ISIS, you can see that he’s [not] afraid. That last sentence that Kamran said when he injured—because we have a recording from that day—was, “I love you all and I will die.” This is not a sentence from someone who is afraid. He was always trying to understand what was happening, and he was contacting the security forces from different parties and groups to understand what was happening on the ground.

Thornburgh: Can you tell me about the day that he was injured and kidnapped? What happened?

Najm: The day before, June 11, I was sitting at home in Sulaymaniyah and I sent him a message, because I knew that he was in Erbil, which is two hours from Sulaymaniyah. So I said, “Kamran, tomorrow I’m coming to Erbil to pick you up and I’ll bring you back to Sulaymaniyah.” He was so happy. I still have the text. He said, “Really? OK, I’ll be waiting in this hotel in Erbil.” So, I drove to Erbil in the morning, I met Kamran and I said, “Ok, let’s go back to Sulaymaniyah.” And on the way back to Sulaymaniyah, in the afternoon, he got a phone call from a secretary of the minister of Peshmerga.

Thornburgh: The Peshmerga is the Kurdish militia group.

Najm: Yes. Kurdish forces. So, the guy said, “Hi, Kamran, how are you doing?” And they had just a friendly conversation and the phone cut off. And Kamran was trying to call him back, and after 10 minutes the guy called again and said, “Sorry, Kamran, there was an explosion. There was an IED on our way. We’re fine, but now the fight has started.” And Kamran asked me, when we were one hour away from Sulaymaniyah, “Can you take me to Erbil?” I said, “But we’re on our way to Sulaymaniyah.” And that was two or three days after ISIS took Mosul.  And he said, “No, I want to go to Kirkuk and I will meet you in the evening.”

Thornburgh: So, he wanted to go to Erbil, to come back to where you started to get to Kirkuk, or he wanted you to take him to Kirkuk?

Najm: He asked me to drive him to Kirkuk. So we went back to Erbil, and I took the same road to drive him to Kirkuk. I left him at the main street between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. A taxi was waiting for him. He never usually hugged me when we said goodbye. That day he said, “I will see you in the evening,” and hugged me. This is a detail of what happened that really hurts me—why he hugged me when we would see each other in three or four hours. So we hugged, and he had left his Iraqi IDs, so when I saw the IDs I called him again, when he was in the taxi, I said, “Take your ID.” Because you cannot go to the frontline if you don’t [have it].

Thornburgh: Was this a press badge?

Najm: No, just national citizenship. So he left, and after three or four hours, at 6:00 p.m., I was sleeping. Then I heard that Kamran had been killed. And most of the local TV channels changed their programs, all the news was about Kamran. Because he was quite famous when as a photojournalist, an independent photojournalist.

Thornburgh: But he wasn’t killed.

Najm: He wasn’t killed. We knew that when we went back to Kirkuk on the morning of June 13, it was a Friday. So, we were waiting for Kamran’s body in Kirkuk so we could take his body to Sulaymaniyah. Then Kamran called and we spoke to him, and his voice was terrible. He was so, so sick. He said, “I injured my neck and I’m in bad condition and I’m bleeding.” And he was asking us to go to the village where he had disappeared or was kidnapped when the Iraqi forces left him behind. So, he asked us to find the commander that had left him, just to set up a conversation between the commander and the ISIS fighters. So we were going around the villages just to find the commander, and the commander didn’t believe that Kamran was still alive.

He said, “ISIS is playing, and this is a big game. We left Kamran when he died, I don’t believe that Kamran is alive.” And we gave the cell phone to the commander. So, they found out that Kamran is still alive. But because of not knowing, or not having the military education for dealing with terrorist groups holding prisoners, [there was] a really bad conversation between the commander and the ISIS fighters.

Thornburgh: So the commander called up the people who were holding Kamran at that point?

Najm: Yes.

Thornburgh: And it didn’t go well?

Najm: No, because the commander was threatening the fighters, saying Kamran is an international person. He [told them] “Kamran is a really famous photojournalist, if you kill Kamran, I will destroy Hawija,” which was the city Kamran was calling from. So, what do you expect if someone threatens like that? We heard that the ISIS fighters wanted to give Kamran back, because they knew that he was a journalist, but because the commander was threatening them like that, they thought that maybe Kamran was working for the government or for the security forces.

That was the point that most of our friends in this location said, “This commander made [it seem] that Kamran is like Obama. So, ISIS is not going to give Obama back.”

Thornburgh: Right. In hostage situations everywhere, it’s trying to manage the value of the person that you have. So it’s not too low, it’s not too high. Like you said, these are things that take experience and skill, and it sounds like the commander was just a hothead and didn’t know what he was doing.

Najm: After this happened I became a trainer for the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga and all the security forces on journalism and education, and how to deal with the groups that [are holding] journalists, and the best way to release them, to help the case.

Thornburgh: Wow.

Najm: Now this is what I’m doing.

Thornburgh: So they won’t have that excuse to not know to do that again.

Najm: When I tell them about my experience during the teaching process, they’re shocked. It’s not my job to go to the security bases, but I’m happy at least they can perhaps save more journalists.

Thornburgh: So for someone else to have a better outcome in that same situation?

Najm: Exactly.

Until the point that I find the body or find out that Kamran is alive, I cannot stop looking for him.

Thornburgh: So from that point on it was just silence from Kamran.

Najm: Yes.

Thornburgh: I remember that period of time when Sebastian was telling people not to publicize this at all. And you were also staying very quiet about Kamran’s disappearance. That was your attempt to have a smarter approach towards dealing with ISIS? Why was there a media blackout on the fact that he was still alive, or had been taken alive by ISIS?

Najm: For me, what I can describe about this position was, it was killing me for two years. We were not saying anything. It was like leaving your baby in a jungle, and you know that there’s a wolf in the jungle. If you call out for the baby, you will find it. But the wolf is going to eat it.

Thornburgh: Going to get it first.

Najm: For us it was so hard. When I was meeting journalists, I was trying to tell them about my pain and how I’m dealing, and how I’m going to meet the head of the tribe and also go into the all the prisons with Sebastian, getting information from Iraqi intelligence, but not being able to share it with the publications and media he was so, so hard. We did it because we noticed that ISIS is really smart in watching all the publications.

Thornburgh: And it had been long enough, you guys spent two years searching. You went to prisons, you went to villages, you talked to different tribes in the area. That just sounds like an excruciating process. But you thought that something could come out of it.

Najm: I was going to the mass graves found by the Iraqi government, and I was stealing bones and hairs from the dead bodies, just to take to Sulaymaniyah International Hospital to check the DNA. And one day the doctor of the hospital said, “Ahmed, let’s talk. Because you brought 73 or so different bones and hairs from dead bodies, and you are doing this on a daily basis. This is not good for you. I totally understand that you lost your brother, but this is killing you.” And I said, “I’m not doing this as a brother. I’m doing it as a journalist.” That’s why I’m disappointed by the government, they’re not doing anything about Kamran, because he was independent, and being independent in Iraqi is like being a prophet saying that Islam is not true, there’s another religion.

Same goes for the government. Nobody helped us. They were just saying, “We are with you.” And that was not enough. I wanted to witness [the excavation] of the dead bodies and find out if they were my brother or not. I still remember the first grave that I saw opened. And I was not afraid. I was just focusing on the faces and the clothes just to find out about my brother. And that was my nightmare for many months. I am not doing this right now. I’m not stealing the bones and the hairs. But if I get the opportunity, I will do it again.

Thornburgh: How do you take care of yourself? Because surely that’s something that Kamran would have wanted too. Do you ever think about releasing yourself from the obligation of what happened to him?

Najm: Until I find the body or find out that Kamran is alive, I cannot stop looking for him. I do it as a journalist. Because Kamran was always saying that we don’t have terrorists. We have bad experiences of dealing with people. So people became terrorists because they have problems that aren’t solved. We have so many embassies and consulates in Iraq and Erbil, they’re not talking about the exact education that we need as a community.

Thornburgh: How does the story end?

Najm: That’s the same question I have. I don’t know. I’m always thinking about years, now I’m married, and when I’m thinking about babies, I’m always trying to compare the age of my baby with Kamran’s return or funeral. I’ll say that I want to find Kamran’s body by the time my kid is six years old. Just to be able to explain. This is something I think about before I sleep. But I meet Kamran most of my nights. And the first dream that I had about Kamran, that was the same story that I heard from the security forces—that Kamran was killed. I saw Kamran in my dream, June 14, 2014. When my family was so happy that Kamran still alive and we are celebrating that Kamran is still alive. He called us.

But one day I woke up and I said to myself, “Kamran is not alive.” And everyone in my family was swearing at me and they said, “Don’t say this again.” But I said, “Kamran came to me and said, I’m dead, today they killed me.” And [my family] said, “No, this is just a bad dream. This is your nightmare, it’s not correct.” But three months after, when we were checking the days that Kamran disappeared or killed, was the same day I had that dream. I never believed in my dream. But this dream is really special, and I want to find out if it is true or not. Ninety-nine percent, I’m not positive about Kamran being alive.

Thornburgh: Ninety-nine percent you don’t believe he is alive?

Najm: No.

Thornburgh: And you think he was killed June 14?

Najm: Not comparing it to my dream, but to the fact that we got information rom security forces and different sources that don’t know each other. They’re saying the same story. We had a thousand of different stories from different people.

Thornburgh: But you don’t know to trust your dream on that. There’s some sort of fact basis?

Najm: I’m saying 99% that he’s not alive. This is because of the information that we got from different people, and also the dream that I had.

Thornburgh: How can people support Metrography? If you’re still looking for Kamran, I think you know he’s there in your agency. What can people do to help support the mission?

Najm: Sharing the true stories from Iraq. And this is what they can do. And getting normal stories to be highlighted by international publications. We want to share the daily life of our people, and the climate change stories, and the pollution. We’re not running from the political stories, but we are doing stories about post-ISIS Iraq and the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons]. But we’re optimistic about the future of Iraq. People should share our stories and emotionally support our photographers to stay in Iraq.

Listen to the full episode on Luminary.

Up Next

Sangar Khaleel: The Man to Know in Mosul

Featured City Guides