My J School professor Betsy Rate asked each of us to go interview those whose journalism we admire. I was fortunate to meet Time editor-in-large Bobby Ghosh for my assignment for Betsy’s class. Over a long coffee session, we spoke about how he got into journalism, his experience covering the Middle East and Iraq, and where he sees the industry today. Here is the transcript of the interview.
You started as a local reporter in India, and went on to cover world affairs, served as the Baghdad bureau chief of TIME, and reported on the Arab Spring, security and intelligence. Take us through the journey…
This is going to be a profoundly unsatisfactory answer I am sure, but it happened because I was lucky. I am not being self-effacing or anything. But the fact is that there are a lot of great journalists in India who started their careers around my time. I was very fortunate. At various points, people were willing to take risks on me that frankly, if you look at it in the cold light of day, they really shouldn’t have.
Who were these people?
Let’s start at the beginning. I was 17 years old. There was an English language paper published out of Hyderabad called News Time. It belonged to Eenadu, the biggest Telugu newspaper. They were looking for a sports stringer in Vizag… In those days, Vizag was a city where there wasn’t a lot of sports, so they didn’t want to spend a lot of money. They put up an ad in the local paper. I was 17 years old and still in high school. I just applied without any expectations that they would hire me. I went in…and they hired me. The reason they hired me – now looking back – is that didn’t want to spend much money. Who hires a 17-year-old kid? Nobody does, but they did. They were paying Rs. 150 a month plus some amount per word that I never got. Everyone else who applied were grown up people who were looking for a real job. I was so happy. I would have worked so free, but they gave me Rs. 150 rupees.
And then I went to work for them. The guy who was their local correspondent, a guy called Ruben Banerji, who later went on to work for India Today, used me as his leg man. Although technically I was only covering sports, he used me to run around. “Go to that press conference get me a couple of quotes, go and meet that guy, use this phone…”…So he used me as a kind of reporter-researcher. I was very happy to do that, and he was very generous in sharing the credit. Again, a lot of people in his position would not have been generous. But he was. He said we should have a shared byline.
And then Ruben left. When Reuben left, I told the editors, “Look, I have been doing some of this work anyway… why don’t I continue to do it?” They said, “Ok, you do it until we find someone else.” So I was by myself, there was no other correspondent. I was reporting local news. My byline was appearing in the local newspaper.
And then Deccan Chronicle, a big newspaper in Hyderabad, decided to open a local edition. They reached out to me. They gave me a call. “We see your byline in News Time from Vizag and we would like to meet you.” So I went for an interview. They said, “Would you come and work for us full-time as a correspondent?” And I said, That’s great. [It was] Rs. 850. Fantastic. Lucked out. The interview took place just after my 12th Standard exam between the theory and practical …. I was the only local hire at that time…. They brought an entire team from Hyderabad… they needed some local knowledge. I was their local knowledge. Because this was a brand new operation, it was six months before they created a proper infrastructure. We started publishing on the fly…It was a small town newspaper and I was covering everything. One day I was doing a political story, the next day a Rotary Club meeting, the third day a book review, a movie review…
Six months after they launched the edition, they finally set up an HR department. They sent out to a form to all employees…. Meanwhile, I had joined a local college with no attendance issues. My intention was to study my profession on the job and go and take my exams once a year. So I get this form from the HR department and
I fill up the form honestly and send it in. The next day I get called in by the GM. He says, “You are 18 years old! You never told us you are 18 years old?” I said – “Well. You never asked.” It had honestly never occurred to me that I should tell them. They had offered me a job. I just assumed that they had done their due diligence. I had the advantage of looking older than my age. I had a beard. I looked in my 20s. They were horrified. “We can’t be hiring an 18-year-old. You are not even a graduate.” I said, “You never asked me…you offered me a job.”… “Well. It looks bad”… “So you want me to resign?”… “Well, no we don’t you to resign.” I was doing stories, and they were relatively happy with my performance. They didn’t have enough people who had local knowledge. So I just stayed on. That’s not a normal way to start a career, I was very fortunate….
I worked in Vizag for 2-2.5 years. Bipasha, my girlfriend from high school, now my wife, in the meantime, had moved to Calcutta. I was desperate to go where she was. I had met somebody from the Business Standard newspaper. He looked at my clips, and said, “Next time you are in Calcutta, look me up.” He might just have just being blowing me off. But I took him seriously. I went to Calcutta and applied to a bunch of jobs all within the Anandabazar Patrika group. I didn’t care, I would take any job, as long as I got away from Vizag, I got to live in a big city, but most importantly, I got to live in the same city as Bipasha. Business Standard hired me. I knew very little about business. They gave me a test. I failed the test. They asked me to write a profile of K.K. Birla [one of India’s top industrialists]. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t realize there was more than one Birla. The test included ten difficult words – each of them spelt in different ways. There were words like ‘miscellaneous’. I had to check the correct spellings. I got them wrong. I am terrible at spellings. To this day, I am terrible at spellings. Thank god for spell check. But they hired me. At that point, I was 20 years old.
Were you a graduate by now?
No, no. I was still going back to take my exams once a year. I started working for Business Standard. I learnt on the job. I had terrific bosses — people who really took the time to teach me stuff … I was there for 3-3.5 years… They didn’t know what beat to give me because all the big beats were taken. This was Calcutta, all the big beats were steel, coal, railways. All these were taken by veteran reporters who had done that beat for years and were doing it very well… So they gave me IT — because I was the only guy in the office who used the computer in the corner of the office that nobody touched. I just happened to discover what the word processing software was. So I got the IT beat — as if I was some IT expert.
This was 1989. The IT industry was this tiny tiny thing. The biggest IT company in India then had a turnover of Rs. 50 crore. It was an industry that was so small that everyone knew everyone else. All journalists became very friendly with sources and contacts. I was just in Delhi and I saw Nandan Nilekani [former CEO of IT giant Infosys] and I was reminding him, I was actually sitting in his office with him and Narayan Murthy [co-founder of Infosys] when the phone call came to tell them that they had received their first million dollar order….
So anyway, I got a chance to cover this new industry that was just starting off. They were completely unlike any other business because they were young. Very few of them had a business background. So they were open, approachable, and we could do really good stories. We could get a real insight into how the business was evolving…
Do you remember any of your standout stories from that time?
It was a long time ago… It wasn’t an industry that was important enough that it would be breaking any news. Tata Steel selling a million tons of steel was an important story then, Tata Consultancy Services getting a 10 million contract was not considered big news then. It was too small. It was not so much breaking news as explaining to the reader this new industry, this new energy that was coming out of an unexpected place, Bangalore. Who thought Bangalore could produce anything except for engineering college students?
They then sent me to Bombay to work for Business World magazine which at that time was owned by the same group, Anand Bazar Patrika. Meanwhile Bipasha and I got married.
Did you continue to cover IT?
By the time I moved to Business World, I was an assistant editor, so I had to do a little bit of everything. IT remained my personal beat, but I was doing other stuff as well. I was writing on Coca Cola’s arrival in India, General Electric’s arrival in India. Coca Cola’s re-entry to India. I was doing big corporate stories as well. Keep in mind — I never really set out to be a business reporter. The reason I joined Business Standard in the first place than The Telegraph was that the Business Standard was offering Rs. 1,500 a month, whereas The Telegraph was offering Rs. 1,000. It was a big difference. I was conscious of the fact that I would be living by myself, I had a girlfriend that I would have wanted to take out from time to time, so having a Rs. 500 extra was the reason I joined Business Standard.
But by the early ’90s, I realized that having stumbled into business journalism by mistake, I needed to find a way out of it. It was not what I wanted to do. India was going through a very exciting time in business. The economy had opened up and all these companies were coming in…. But I got a sense that this is not what I really want to do. Also, in terms of just writing, I felt at the time that business stories didn’t give me the opportunities to write the way I wanted….
Were you missing a human face?
No. I didn’t realize what I was missing. There was a vague nervous tick saying that I need to move on. Within India, it was a hard thing to do, because I already was a business journalist and it is hard to break out of the silos. If I did break out, if someone did offer me something, I would have to sacrifice my seniority and salary. I was married, I couldn’t do stuff like that. Then, was the next stroke of luck. Someone showed me an ad for a job for the Far Eastern Economic Review. It was published out of Hong Kong, owned by Dow Jones. It was like the Asian version of the Economist. A very smart, very old magazine, very well-respected. It no longer exists. They wanted applications for an editing position in Hong Kong. Now traditionally, they always hired from within the expat community in Hong Kong. This is 1995, two years from the handover of Hong Kong back to China… the expat community had already begun to thin out a little bit. So for the first time, when they put out this ad, they didn’t get the right quality of applicants from Hong Kong, or an insufficient number. So for the first time, they actually had to look outside of Hong Kong to find somebody. If I had applied one year before or two years before, they would not even have considered my application, because they would not have wanted the hassle of the cost of bringing somebody from India. But they found themselves having to find somebody from outside Hong Kong… so they hired me. My application must have met certain criterion. But even if it had met those criteria previously, this wouldn’t have happened. So I was fortunate.
I got to The Review….I was still doing business stuff but because The Review was a broader magazine that covered politics and society on the one hand and business on the other, I began to do stories outside of business. That was what made it interesting. Of course being in Hong Kong was exciting. For the first time, we had disposable income which was cool. There was actually money at the end of the month…a strange feeling… And there was excitement of something about to happen because Hong Kong was about to be handed over to the Chinese… I was obviously too young to live through India’s independence, so there was sort of an emotional connection to Hong Kong’s handover. I was at The Review when the handover happened. It was amazing.
Shortly after the handover, the person who was my boss at The Review, his name is Adi Ignatius (now the editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review), was recruited by TIME Asia which is in the same building…it was the cheapest transfer they could think of. All you had to do was put your boxes to go up a few floors in the elevator. He was recruited as the number 2 in the Asia edition and they needed another editor. And Adi said, “There is this guy at The Review”…every time I see Adi now I joke that he hired me because I was cheaper than any of the other editors at The Review…it probably is slightly true.
Why were you cheaper?
Because I came from India. I did not know how to negotiate. I took whatever they offered me. I was so glad they were offering me a job. It never occurred to me that I was allowed to say, “No, I don’t accept this, I would like a little more.” It was years later that I realized I could have. Anyway, I was perfectly happy with my salary.
So Adi said, “Do you want to come and work for TIME?” Who says no to that? They gave me a small raise…I would have worked for less money than I was being paid at The Review. TIME was the big city on the hill. For all of us growing up as journalists in India, the opportunity to work with some of my writing heroes, Nancy Gibbs, Richard Corliss, Pico Iyyer… The greatest attraction was the chance to break out finally from business journalism, to do other kinds of stuff. TIME Asia was a very small unit. Everyone had to do everything. There was no room for specialization. So I was doing personal finance stuff and I was doing Philippines politics and I was doing Malaysian society stuff, and Japanese business stuff. It allowed me to do everything… It was fantastic. It was the ultimate journalism school. And I was being paid while doing all this, which was fabulous.
And then was the next stroke of luck…We wanted to do a big story on Kashmir… I had no real experience in conflict coverage…at all. But our Delhi bureau chief at the time was having some difficulty getting permission from the Indian government to go to some parts of Kashmir as foreigners sometimes did in those days. I heard of this, and I said, “I am an Indian citizen, why don’t you let me go?” My editor said, “Well, you haven’t done this before.” I said, “Let me go…What’s the worst that can happen? I will come back without a story.” So they said, “Ok go.” So I went. It was just an accident of having the right passport and the right citizenship.
I was instantly hooked, and I immediately felt like that’s what I had been missing…that’s what was gnawing away at me, that’s the change I wanted — the chance to go cover conflict, not so much the bang bang, the adrenaline of it, but what conflict does to people, to society, how it changes the way people think, behave, act towards each other, how it changes interactions in society. I found that incredibly fascinating.
How was your conflict reporting received?
Well, I did a cover story. It went down well.
Did you have any inhibitions as a first time conflict reporter?
It was frightening. Until I got there, it was just the excitement of it… I didn’t think too deeply about it. It was only when I got there that the risks became apparent. It was scary. There were a few occasions when I thought, “Am I going to make it out of this?” I was frightened, but I never regretted it. I never told my wife I was going. It was a big secret.
Was there ever a life-threatening situation?
Of course there was a life-threatening situation. There was violence…I went out on patrol…we didn’t call it embeds in those days with the Indian military unit. They got into a firefight with some insurgents. It got quite heavy…I had never seen anything like that before. There was live fire going on, explosions. But there were some unspoken rules of engagement that even people shooting each other would respect…We are in the middle of a raised highway. Soldiers on this side, insurgent on this side. Lots of fighting and shooting going on for 45 minutes. Suddenly, somebody shouts out – “Stop!” Stop? Who says stop in the middle of a fight? We realized that emerging from the forest on the other side was a man and his wife and their kid on a motorcycle and a side cart. An old motorcycle and an old side cart. And they were moving ever so slowly. And everyone stopped shooting. When they finally did the complete loop and disappeared into this side of the forest… the fighting started again. That kind of decorum doesn’t exist anymore.
For me, the most gut-wrenching thing to see was just how badly the Indian army was behaving. As an Indian, I had been raised on a diet of propaganda. Until recently the Indian media was complicit in that. The Indian media does a better job now but back then, nobody questioned the official line that the army was holding the line against terrorists, that the Kashmiris were somehow bad people and our jawans were brave and honorable. I saw with my own eyes that that was not true.
How did you start covering the Middle-East?
A couple of years later, the second intifada began in Palestine. We have a bureau chief in Jerusalem but the intifada was raging extremely hot and it was too big a story for one person to cover. And so the editors in NY said, “You have done some of this conflict stuff. Do you want to go?” I had never been to the Arab world but who says no? So I went.
Did you tell your wife this time?
(Laughs) Yes, I did.
How was this different from covering Kashmir?
While the bureau chief covered what was going on in Jerusalem, I went north to Jenin, where the siege was taking place. It was very bloody and sort of a pivotal moment of the intifada. And I got to see firsthand really serious firefight. I had never seen anything of that scale. Kashmir had all been small arms… This was tanks…levelling an entire section of town. It was very intense. It was very scary. When the actual siege was taking place, no journalist was near it. My life was not as risk. After the fighting had taken place, I was trying to get an assessment of what damage had been done, what effect it had on society.
One of the key people who had been killed in that siege was a man called Mahmoud Tawalbe. And Tawalbe had been the leader of Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombing cell…A very, very bad man, a very scary guy. I was trying to build a profile of him — what made him tick, how important was his death… In the process, I began to interview people who had known him – his wife, his mother, schoolmates. I was asking questions about him. What I didn’t realize was that in Palestinian society, they had no exposure to Western style journalism. So for them, anyone asking questions like that was a spy. After a few days, I got picked up by three young men of the militant wing of Islamic Jihad. They picked me up, blindfolded me, tied me up, threw me into a car, drove me out in a field, and said, “We are going to have to kill you because you work for the Mossad.” I laugh about it now. But I was terrified. They said you must work for the Mossad because you are asking all these questions. I said I am a journalist. “No, no journalists don’t ask these questions,” they said. “Why do you care what sort of boy he was at school? Why you do care what kind of food he liked to eat? Those are not questions that journalists ask. Those are questions that the Mossad asks.” So they claimed they were going to execute me.
Fortunately for me, my fixer and translator was a smart guy, a local guy. Once he heard who had picked me up, he knew exactly what to do. He went straight to the political office of the Islamic Jihad, and reached the political leader in Jenin and said: “Look, you guys are making a mistake. You picked up my colleague. He is not the Mossad. He is a journalist, he works for a prestigious magazine. This will look very bad for you if something happens to him.” So he then made some phone calls to other people who made some more phone calls so finally the guys who were holding me… one of their phones rings. He answers the phone… I am only hearing his side of the conversation. My Arabic is not great but I can tell that he is being shouted at….and is apologizing. After getting the call, he takes off my blindfold and says, “You didn’t tell me you are from India! We love Indians.” Suddenly, he is the friendliest guy in the world.
The benefit – obviously it was terrifying and I won’t recommend it to anyone and I don’t it to happen again to me — was that Islamic Jihad was so apologetic that they gave me full access. Anyone I wanted to meet, anything I wanted to know about Tawalbe … If I wanted to know what his favorite ice cream was, they would tell me. And they would take me to the guy who knew what his favorite ice cream was. That was the level of access I had. I got to meet actual young men training to be suicide bombers. Just amazing access. The story that came out of it was a very strong one.
Was that one of your most standout pieces?
At that point, yeah. That was one of the stories that got a lot of play in this country.
What about personally, was it one of your favorite stories?
No, I won’t say that. It was very instrumental in my career and the experience of covering that situation was one of the building blocks to my career. I got a lot of this thing about being Indian. Israeli soldiers would treat me very badly when they thought I was an Arab, they would shout at me, scream at me. At one point, one of them pointed his tanks at me. Once they find out you are Indian their attitude changes completely. “Oh you are from India! Listen I want to go to Goa in October. Can you suggest a hotel?”
What was your next big break?
Then 911 happened. Within TIME, I was seen as someone who has covered conflict, So I wanted to go to Afghanistan. But the only way in for me was through Pakistan. Pakistanis won’t give me a visa. I was very frustrated. I had to sit and edit stories from Afghanistan but I couldn’t be there myself. It was very painful.
In Fall 2002, I moved to London for the European edition published in London. When I moved, it was already fairly clear that a war was coming in Iraq. The drumbeats had already begun and that was part of the attraction of moving… I felt if I was in London I would be closer to the action. The European edition covers the Middle East, the Asian edition doesn’t.
So in 2003 – this is another stroke of luck – I got into Iraq. They were not giving visas to any of TIME’s regular Middle East correspondents but let me in because I was Indian. Again, my passport was my passport. They told me when I got to Iraq that the only reason we gave you a visa is because you are Indian. So I went to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, I got see firsthand what that was like, the fear in which the people lived, the resignation they felt about their condition and the hope that somebody would come and save them. Not everyone felt that way and not everyone was able to say so because I was always with a government minder… but some people were brave enough to say so….Sometimes, I snuck away from my minder to get a taste of what people felt. Then came the war. During the war, Saddam kicked us out…
Were you already in the bureau?
We didn’t have a bureau.
So you were going in and out?
During the war I was not an embed. I wanted to cover the Iraqi experience but as I said, Saddam kicked out a whole bunch of journalists so I was stuck outside in Amman. A couple of days before the statue came down I snuck back into Iraq, and parked myself in Fallujah for a day, which was not a very safe place. And I arrived in Baghdad on the day of the statues going down. Other colleagues who were on embeds also arrived at the same time. So we set out for the first time creating a Baghdad bureau. No one had told me that this would be a long-term assignment. If they had, I would have happily accepted it. As things got hotter and more dangerous, my bosses back in NY I think began to feel guilty and would keep saying, “A few more months and we will relieve you.” And I kept saying, “You don’t have to release me. I am happy to stay here.” But I had no idea that I would still be there at the end of 2007.
I got to see the best and the worst of it. The hope and expectations that were generated by the fall of Saddam and the incredibly stupid decisions that led to the unraveling of that hope and expectation. Things got very, very ugly and I got to meet a lot of unpleasant people, terrorists and insurgents, suicide bombers… I also got to meet a lot of the victims. I was very fortunate, I was working for TIME and we had the resources that kept us safe. But also since we had an interest in the story, we were constantly sending 2-3 correspondents to cover it. This meant that I could always rely on other colleagues to cover the American experience of the war, the soldiers’ experience. I did a little of that. I did some embeds. But after a while, it became the same story over and over again. I was very glad that other colleagues were able to do that and I concentrated on life in the red zone. How ordinary Iraqis were experiencing what was happening to their country, city, neighborhood, and once again, the fact that I look like this was an incredible advantage.
You could blend in…
As long as I could keep my mouth shut. I could be in the car with my other Iraqi colleagues – drivers, translators, guards, and be driving around…Nobody paid us any attention. The greatest weapon, the greatest armor you have in a war is anonymity…and I was anonymous.
What about the language?
My Arabic got better and better. Particularly colloquial Iraqi. I always used a translator for interviews. On the streets I kept my mouth shut. Even when people realized I was not Iraqi, the fact that I was Indian was a huge advantage. People were favorably disposed to Indians. They like Indians. They watch Indian movies… Shammi Kapoor [a famous Indian actor popular in Iraq] saved my life. And that was just one example. There are many examples when being Indian saved my life, There was an occasion when my Ali, my bureau manager and lead translator and I were heading towards our car…A couple of cars came screeching out towards us. These young men come out with Kalashnikov guns, grab me and drag me into the car, hitting me as they do. My translator is an older guy. He starts shouting at them and hitting them with his walking stick. “How dare you! He is my guest, he is my friend!” It’s all about cultural conditioning. Even bad guys are raised in a culture where you are supposed to be respectful towards your elders. So suddenly, they are less worried about me and are saying to Ali, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt him, we will feed him, we will return him to you…” I am thinking Ali, don’t poke the bear, they have got guns. But he knew what he was doing. Ali is an amazing guy…..saved my life 5-6 times… He knew that in his cultural environment he was within the bounds of what was allowed. In fact, he was taking advantage of his cultural knowledge. They were trying to appease him. “We will give him food…as soon as we get the money we will return him.” And Ali was like, “Money? What money” They said: “Ransom money.” And then, Ali plays his trump card. “He is Indian, you stupid boys, he is Indian. Do you know how poor he is? You stupid boys…go kidnap an American. Let him go.” And they let me go.
Being Indian was life saving. It meant I got access to people. They felt comfortable with me. I felt comfortable with their culture. I was allowed into homes in a way that probably if I was blond and blue-eyed, I would not have had. Particularly in 2006-07, when a thousand people were dying in Baghdad every month, all the journalists were essentially confined…But I could go out, not everyday, but occasionally, I was able to jump into the car with my Iraqi colleagues and say, “Let’s just drive around.” Even if I didn’t carry a notebook, or a tape recorder….And I never never wore body armor there.
First of all, when you wear body armor, you are advertising that you are somebody special. Two, it creates a psychological barrier between you and the person you are talking to. You are communicating to them that you are somehow more important than they are. They are not going to lower their guard while you have your guard up. I often had my armor in the trunk of the car but never once wore it. Except when I went on embeds where its compulsory. It’s not just me, most journalists did not wear it. In that environment if you are wearing an armor and not wearing a uniform people think you are the CIA. And you don’t want to be thought of as the CIA.
So that was Iraq. From time to time, I would go to other places in the Middle East. I was back in Palestine. Jordon, of course, many times. Later on, I would go to Saudi, Yemen, UAE…and I realized in the Arab world I feel at home. Culturally, it is close enough to Indian culture that I don’t feel like a complete stranger… And even after my Baghdad stint was over I was asked to move to New York as the world editor…I continued to stay engaged with the Middle East. I did a year in DC covering national intelligence, national security. I came here to be the deputy international editor but always made sure that every 2-3 months, I managed to get away from my desk responsibilities and go and do stories.
Then, the Arab Spring happened. I got to travel to Egypt a number of times, as well as Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen… all over the Arab world. I like to think that I brought perspective to the Arab Spring because I am an Indian…I was born and raised Indian. That gives me a different take on things. Many people are instinctively skeptical about the Arab Spring. How could this possibly work? These are people with no experience of democracy, so desperately poor, so beset by their own internal differences, sometimes prone to violence towards each other…how can democracy flourish in this….And I think of myself as an Indian …People going back to 1947 would have said all these things about India and they did…and so, I constantly remind myself if India could make it, there is no reason why these guys can’t. In fact they have more going for themselves than India did at that time. So I think that allows me to approach these stories from a different point of view and hopefully that adds a little value for the benefit of the reader.
I read in one of your earlier interviews about how you feel almost guilty about enjoying a normal day in Central Park…what is it like for you to be sitting in a café and talking about your days in Iraq?
It is hard. Because I know that my Iraqi colleagues sacrificed enormously to make it possible for me to do what I do. We lost one colleague… he was killed because he worked for us. Two colleagues were very badly wounded…they nearly died because they worked for us. Two others were kidnapped and tortured because they worked for us. Several others had to flee the country or get their families to flee the country because they worked for us. And that’s the sobering thing. That’s a burden you carry now.
The three Iraqis I worked closely with are Ali al-Shaheen, Raed and Assad Majeed. Ali was our lead translator and bureau manager. We no longer have a bureau. We had to lay them off. Hopefully, we did well by them in terms of a severance package and so on. Just because we don’t pay them a salary anymore doesn’t mean the connection has gone. We worked together in those kinds of environments. It’s not a normal office relationship. It’s a brotherhood that comes from being in the trenches together. We were a band of brothers. I will be connected to them for the rest of my life. And they are connected to me. I am acutely aware of the fact that there are still people who would kill them because they had once worked for us. Twenty years from now, God forbid one of my colleagues would be gunned down because once upon a time he worked for an American company… we may think our relationship with them is over, but in a profound way it is not and it never will be. So those are some of the additional burdens that come with covering the warzone.
People keep asking me how difficult it must be for me. Yeah, it is difficult, but it is a lot, lot more difficult for people around me…I was always aware if I didn’t like it, if I was too frightened, I could get on the plane and leave and it would not be held against me. My bosses would never say to me – “Oh you chickened out.” The war correspondents’ rotation was typically two months in, one month out. I always got the month out, and when I was out, I was out. People were very respectful of the fact that this is a very intense job and it took a heavy toll psychologically as well as physically…so when I was off, nobody would call or send emails. It was up to me to tell the HQ when I was ready to go back in…
This was a luxury my Iraqi colleagues didn’t have. They couldn’t leave. They had to deal not just with the fear of their own lives but the fear of my life. They were responsible for me… Many of them had to lie to their friends and family about what they were doing for a living because it was too risky to tell people they were working for an American company. Above all, they had to deal with the trauma of seeing their country falling apart. Anytime I felt overwhelmed, all I had to do was look at my Iraqi colleagues and remind myself — if these guys can come into work everyday, then my anxieties don’t amount to very much in comparison.
Did you suffer from any kind of post-traumatic stress?
I would rather not talk about it…
It’s not coming in the way of your everyday work…
No… When you live in a sort of abnormal mission, your behavior becomes abnormal in some ways and you have to recognize that that’s going to happen… and if you are lucky, you will have friends and family who will gently or not so gently alert you to the fact that you are behaving in an abnormal way. For example, during those five years in Baghdad I sort of lost the ability to sit in a coffee shop and enjoy a long relaxed afternoon. I would be anxious, constantly looking at the door, sit with my back to a wall and as soon as I would finish, I would be ready to leave and I would tell Bipasha, “Come let’s go.”
During that period I became a lot less patient. Not just when sitting and having a cup of coffee but in general a lot less patient. I lost the ability to enjoy myself…I literally, literally would be eating a meal in a restaurant and suddenly fond myself unable to chew anymore…I would take the food out and put it down because I was overcome with the sense that I am eating this nice food in this nice place with a nice glass of wine and Ali or Rayad or Assad or any number of my colleagues – where are they now, what are they doing? Have they gone to work today? Those anxieties creep up on you suddenly. Then you learn…force yourself…you learn…
This is an occupational hazard for war correspondents…Other people’s problems seem so petty. So you come back from a warzone and your friends are complaining about the fact how their maid didn’t turn up, how the teacher on kids’ school is giving them a hard time… your first instinct is, “Get a life! What is wrong with you people. Don’t you know there is a war on?” But you have to train yourself to remember that everybody’s anxieties are perfectly valid for them. Just because they haven’t been to a warzone doesn’t make their problems smaller in their experience than mine are to me. So you have to guard against that kind of kneejerk reaction.
And I was always conscious of the fact that this was an enormous strain on my wife…
Yes, I was going to ask you that…how did she cope?
She had to endure the anxiety of not knowing what is happening to me at any given moment. Anytime, there would be a report on CNN of some explosion in Baghdad, all her friends and family would call her. I was not reachable so they called her. “Oh we saw this on CNN…” They are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, but they don’t realize that it is adding to her level of stress.
And how did she cope?
She is extremely tough. That’s how she coped. She had a small group of really close friends who understood and empathized and helped. During this five-year period, she was first in London then in Hong Kong and then Singapore. I would call 10-12-15 times a day and have short conversations. Any time I heard an explosion, I would call her and say this may be on CNN but I am ok. But sometimes it’s a damned if you do it, damned if you don’t do it situation. Sometimes, there would be an explosion that took place in another part of the city… I hadn’t heard it and didn’t bother to call. But CNN had heard it and reported it.….Now, she is thinking, “Normally if there is an explosion he calls. He hasn’t called… so what’s going on?”
I called lots and lots of times. I called every hour. Btw, my Iraqi colleagues were doing the same. Every hour on the hour. They would text all their family just saying “Ok.”
Skype saved me, unbelievably useful. People behind Skype… give them a Nobel prize. My wife and I were able to see each other [on Skype] on weekends…weekends for her. I didn’t really have a weekends… We would just leave Skype on even if we were not actually talking to each other. We could hear the noise of people moving around in the room, and see each other in the background. Because of the 4-5 hour time difference, we would even have meals together.
How important is video in your reportage?
Nowadays when I go on the road, at least 50 per cent of the time I have a video camera. I am not very good at it. Our younger journalists know video journalism from day one… they know how to use the software, they are editing on the fly…it’s becoming very important both online and on the iPad…On the tablet edition, there is a lot of video.
Would you advise young journalists to come with all sorts of skills to the job market because there are still a lot of people who want to be just print or just broadcast journalists?
I doubt that luxury exists anymore. If it does at all, it won’t for very long. One of my regrets is that I didn’t do enough video to do in my career. I never had the opportunity. I wish I did. I think I would have been a more rounded journalist with more television skills.
Would you have liked to do some of your stories from Iraq on video?
Yeah. Absolutely. I did some but not in a way that I found satisfactory because I didn’t have the technical skills. The thing with TV and radio is that they are not just for amateurs. They require professional technical specific skills. It’s not that they just can be learnt. They have to be learnt. Writing is a little more instinctive… but I don’t believe videography is instinctive at all. Maybe someone who is a very good videographer would feel another way…From my point of view, I think you can learn to become a better writer by writing a lot and reading other people’s writing without someone giving you specific technical education on how to write. I don’t think you can do that with videography.