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A jolting awareness that I crossed paths with Nick Berg

Jamie Francis has made two trips to Iraq, most recently in April when he and senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin spent four weeks there looking at the war's effect on the country.

By JAMIE FRANCIS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 15, 2004

Nicholas Berg
Jamie Francis

On a warm evening in Baghdad's old Jewish quarter last month, I was taking photos in a crumbling building when I was literally pushed toward a Westerner with ivory skin and a red beard. He was lifting weights inside the Arnold Classic Gym. He wore black steel-toed boots as he grunted out exercises beneath dozens of portraits of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Iraqis called him Mr. Nick.

I was amazed to meet another English speaker inside the local gym, but I was there to photograph Iraqis and had little interest in being sidetracked with small talk. But soon, I found myself in a casual conversation with an engaging young man, whose intelligence and friendly nature allowed him to move easily in and out of a strange culture.

Now, more than five weeks after the chance meeting, I have learned that Mr. Nick was actually Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old Pennsylvania man who was beheaded by a group of hooded men in Iraq. The grisly murder was videotaped, and it's now thought that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden, carried out the execution.

Times colleague Susan Taylor Martin and I were first lured to the gym by a small sign along one of Baghdad's most traveled streets. The sign, which showed a bare-chested man with rippling muscles, seemed out of place in Arabic culture. The owner of the gym, Sabah Taleb Mehdi, hung the advertisement for his business, which is an homage to Arnold Schwarzenegger, his childhood idol.

I suppose Mehdi felt compelled to push the two Anglos together. He said Mr. Nick was a regular who had been coming for weeks, and he seemed to enjoy shouting the American's name: "Mr. Nick, Mr. Nick, Mr. Nick," he would say as if singing an Arabic melody. "Mr. Nick good, Mr. Nick very good."

And the young man would cast his brilliant smile and try to answer back with a few words of Arabic. At the end of his workout the two embraced and patted each other on the back. As always, Mehdi refused payment from Mr. Nick for the use of his gym.

We were together for maybe 45 minutes or an hour and exchanged a few personal details. He made his way around the circuit of dinged weights, doing arm curls, squats, military presses, pull ups. He was curious about my digital cameras and the places I have traveled for the Times.

Mr. Nick told me he was a contractor. I didn't push; I waited for him to say more. In today's Iraq a pleasant conversation can spoil quickly with aggressive questioning, since everyone is defensive about security.

We both expressed a level of comfort about Iraq, even as conditions spiraled out of control all around us. Just a few days earlier four American contractors had been killed, dismembered and burned in Fallujah. Each hour seemed to bring new tension. Gunfire and explosions had become background noise.

Berg didn't mention being held in custody from March 24 until April 6. According to news reports, he was jailed in Mosul because his activities aroused suspicion. And if the reports are correct, our meeting came only one day after his release and two days before his kidnapping.

He said he was not working because conditions were too violent, but yet he had taken to traveling the country by local taxi - highly unusual for most foreigners. (Susan and I were doing the same thing as we filed stories and pictures to the Times.)

Mr. Nick described trips to Mosul and Kirkuk, riding in the ubiquitous orange and white taxis with car loads full of Iraqis. But he said nothing of where he might go next.

I was unsure about his nationality. He talked of family in America but also of being in Israel. He looked the part of a construction worker, but there was never a mention of who he worked for or more specifics about what he did. It's impossible to know much of a person in 45 minutes, but this much is sure: He had a wonderful smile, and he was likable, engaging and adventurous.

His skin, hair and thin beard made him stand out in a gym filled with Iraqis. But his muscular build placed him in the brotherhood of those who pump iron, and although language was a problem they managed to hold a warm, if halting, conversation with his fellow bodybuilders. When a street vendor arrived selling apple juice, the Iraqis and the American drank from the same cup.

I only learned late Thursday evening of Mr. Nick's identity. CNN was pursuing the story and had learned he was a regular at the gym. Mehdi gave them our names and a producer called.

I immediately told the CNN producer that she had made a mistake. No, I had never known a Nicholas Berg. She would e-mail me pictures, she said. But as she strung together the words - Arnold Gym, Sabah Taleb Mehdi, Nicholas Berg - I didn't need the pictures. I went numb.

Then the pictures arrived on my computer. In an endless five seconds of silence I gazed into his eyes. I imagined the video of his beheading and was disgusted. I recalled an NPR report that described the details so vividly that I turned the volume down so my 3-year-daughter could not hear.

The TV pictures and still images of a captive Nicholas Berg were nothing like the man I met. His skin was pale, his youthful beard thick and sculpted, and he seemed smaller.

I failed to connect the dots, I think, because Mr. Nick was so confident and comfortable surrounded by people unlike him. He displayed a faith in humanity common to all of us who travel in dangerous places and sometimes must entrust our lives to strangers.

So when I heard the news of an American's beheading, I just assumed it was someone I never knew. Someone who made a huge error in judgment. Someone who had made a tragic blunder. Maybe someone who had trusted the wrong person.

I don't know how much we had in common, but I recognized Nicholas Berg as a kindred spirit, someone who sometimes sees adventure where others see danger. I saw a piece of myself in him, and that's what frightens me. That's why on Thursday night, I lay sleepless in my bed listening to the wind, with Mr. Nick's smile etched in my mind.

[Last modified May 15, 2004, 01:00:35]

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