WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – If I had experienced a bad injury or ended up over my head on the court in college, or if my mother hadn’t been diagnosed with early dementia, I believe I would have chosen a different path entirely. I believe I would have ended up being a foreign correspondent. I believe I would have gone from Wynantskill, NY to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern to the Chicago Tribune to a journalist covering a war zone. I would have been regularly wandering around places where others would say I did not belong. Now I just find interesting faraway places when I have free time, which is limited.
My early stories as a journalist at Northwestern included investigations as to why so many children were getting killed in the crossfire at the Cabrini-Green Housing Development, and coverage of the Midnight Basketball League on Chicago’s South Side. My sophomore year I wrote a profile of a Mexican gang leader, the cousin of a custodian at who cleaned the hardwood floor at Welsh-Ryan Arena. I had no idea how in over my head I was until I saw the scar on my subject’s face. He had a bad scar and he was drunk. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. The guys who flanked him told me that the thought of meeting me and telling his story was something no one had ever asked, and it made their boss nervous. My subject and his guys walked along the sidewalk, glancing over their shoulders in Little Mexico. We picked a restaurant and I put down my recorder while taking notes by hand until I realized it was making him more nervous. I put the notebook away and hoped my batteries did not run out. With my subject barely able to stand up after a few hours, his guys told me around 2 p.m. that the risk was too high for a drive-by. We had to wrap.
When the Medill Club of NYC announced an event, “Women in War Zones: A Panel Discussion,” I bought my ticket and took a seat in the front row.
Two of the four women had been held captive. Three of them have books about their experiences. One of them now has Tina Fey playing her in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”
I sat a few feet away from Kim Barker (Medill ’92), a gregarious and funny woman, who wrote The Taliban Shuffle, now better known as Fey’s WTF, which is exactly what you think it means. Kim was driven to tell her story because of how frustrated she was with why the United States was in Afghanistan, so she wrote a dark comedy about her experience.
Knowing that she had no say on the script, Kim did not read it. She just went straight to film. “I’m watching and thinking, ‘That’s much braver than what I did. She’s running into exploding buildings. I ran away from them. She’s not listening to military personnel. I followed everything they said and asked them how far back I could go.’ ”
Dorothy Parvaz, born in Iran and citizen of Iran, the United States and Canada, has covered nuclear meltdowns and human rights’ stories in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iran. The first thing I noticed is how she could pass for many ethnicities, and the second thing I saw a distinct and deep blank stare – a striking combination of resilience, brilliance and sadness.
“I would sooner eat my own fist than let anyone know I was freaking out,” said Dorothy, who is senior producer for the Human Rights section at Al Jazeera America. “Do you weep? Absolutely not. You never cry. That’s what bathroom stalls are for. You go swallow your tears with dignity.”
In 2011, she was sent to Syria to cover the uprising, where she went missing for nearly three weeks. During that time, she was held in one of Syria’s secret torture centers before being sent to Evin prison in Iran for over two weeks.
“When being interrogated, tell the truth whenever possible,” she said emphatically. “You will never forget the truth.” She said how easy it was to get lost in your own lies. “You always remember the truth. The second they catch you in a lie, they assume everything you are saying is a lie.”
The only exception, she said, was the lie she told because she knew she would remember it. It involved passwords for her social media accounts. When her contact came back and said the one to her work account was wrong, she said that her company put autolock on her account if no entries are made after three days, and he would have to contact her employer if he wanted the info. It was a wise bluff because eventually someone turned on her cell phone and took a picture. The GPS picked up her location and authorities were able to find her in Tehran.
These women covered the tsunami, drug lords and warlords. They went to places where the violence and gunshots were so bad that curfew was 5 p.m. They survived days filled with corruption, disasters, dead bodies, innocent lives lost for no good reason.
We heard from Somini Sengupta, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who has reported from a Himalayan glacier, a Congo River ferry, the streets of Baghdad and Mumbai, and many places in between. Somini, mother of an eight-year-old daughter, said it was so bad in India that the nuns left and the journalists took over the convent.
They spoke about the key role of fixers, the locals hired to help with the language, logistics, and background on the area, people, customs, and culture.
“You’re only as good and as alive as your fixer,” Dorothy said.
Somini added, “And your driver.”
Kim said, “I told Farouq, ‘It’s your game. It’s what you are comfortable with. It’s important to listen.’ ” She added that if things got dicey, she knew she could fly out. But her fixer had to stay.
The panel confirmed that they were aware of their friends being colleagues working for other news outlets. They viewed their situation as professionals who wanted to tell the best story as opposed to telling the story or stories better than their peers. “People who backstab don’t make it far,” Kim said. “If you’re lucky, your career will be long. You should build camaraderie because you need each other.”
All three women agreed that they were far better received than most would imagine. Most of the top reporters in Afghanistan are women. They, as women, knew that they could get better interviews with women and men alike. “Most people were thrilled to talk to an American about the president and politics,” she said. “There were times where I wore the abaya and the burka and brown lenses. They want to see you. You wear what you have to wear to get the story just like you would if you were interviewing a college kid on campus. You’d dress like them.”
Regarding the safety of today’s journalists, Dorothy, who knows better than anyone, addressed how unsafe it is out there today. “It’s more dangerous in places where they are trying to control the message and the narrative. As a storyteller, they will take you out. More and more we are the front line. Journalists are being used as part of terror organizations.”
The panel said none of them would go to Syria if they were assigned. They added that because they cannot cover the story from the inside of the country – from the front line – they have to rely on technology to relay messages and report from afar.
The panel said basically that freelance journalists are not protected as compared to journalists from reputable and established organizations. They say when the “fit hits the shan,” you need someone to get you out, and it won’t happen if you are flying solo. They advised the young journalists in the room to be experienced as reporters before jumping off the plane. All of the women had 10 years of experience prior to taking on their bigger roles on the front lines. “Being a foreign correspondent will stretch your limits,” Somini said. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it in DC not the DRC.”
All three of them said basically this: “Know who you are and don’t just jump off a plane straight into hell just to increase your twitter numbers.”
Why did they sign up for this line of work?
“We didn’t sign up to tell war stories. We tell stories of people who get caught in the crosshairs of history.”
My takeaway was that I would pass the never lie rule without a doubt – to a fault. As for the no crying piece, let’s just say there have been times in writing a really sad story of death and loss that the subject starts crying, and then I’m done. Maybe if I had enough time in bathroom stalls I would have become stronger. Or maybe seeing the depravity and hopelessness time and time again would have shattered me.
The only thing I was sure of by the end of the evening was that I had the honor of listening to four truly extraordinary women. Below are photos, bios and books written by each of the panelists. I’m hoping to finish WTF in the next few days.
- DOROTHY PARVAZ, a senior producer for the Human Rights section at Al Jazeera America. She was previously based in the Middle East for four years. In 2011, she was sent to Syria to cover the uprising, where she went “missing” for nearly three weeks. During that time, she was held in one of Syria’s secret torture centers before being sent to Evin prison in Iran for over two weeks. She has covered Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran, as well as reporting the ongoing nuclear meltdown in Japan. Parvaz was born in Iran and is a citizen of Iran, the U.S. and Canada.
- SOMINI SENGUPTA, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, has reported from a Himalayan glacier, a Congo River ferry, the streets of Baghdad and Mumbai, and many places in between. She currently covers diplomacy for The Times. The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Youngis her first book, published in March 2016, by W.W. Norton.
- KIM BARKER was the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribunefrom 2004 to 2009, based in New Delhi and Islamabad. Her book about those years, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a dark comedic take on her time in South Asia, was published by Doubleday. The movie version, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was released March 4. Barker is now a metro reporter at The New York Times, specializing in investigative reporting and narrative writing.
- Moderator ROXANA SABERI is a reporter for Al Jazeera America, a cable news network. Based in New York, she covers stories in the U.S. and abroad. Saberi lived and reported in Iran and the region from 2003 to 2009. She is the author of Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran.