Ben Hubbard is a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East. He has spent 10 years in the region, studying and reporting for the US newspaper. During this time he has covered events taking place in the Arab world, particularly the Syrian civil war and its repercussions on the entire region, the rise of armed groups and the influx of immigrants on the Greek island of Lesbos.
His interview with Asharq Al-Awsat appears below:
Can you please tell our Arab readership a little about yourself?
I am a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent with the New York Times newspaper. I am an American citizen who was raised in Colorado and I studied history, Arabic language and journalism before starting my career. I have now been living in the Arab world for about 10 years, two as a student in Arabic language at the American University in Cairo and now eight working full-time as a journalist. I have covered a range of countries and stories, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya.
I came to The New York Times from the Associated Press in 2013 and my focus most of the time since then has been on the civil war in Syria and its echoes throughout the region, from the rise of militant groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State to the migration crisis on the Greek island of Lesbos.
How did you start your career in journalism?
I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a journalist, but I eventually realized that I needed a job and wanted to write for a living, so journalism seemed like the best option. I had been a big reader since I was young and much of my interest in writing stemmed from wanting to produce writing like that I had always loved reading.
I did a master’s in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internship at The Associated Press, which offered me a job. I worked there for five years before moving to The New York Times.
What was the duration of your trip to the Saudi prison?
My first visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2013 and I have been back since around 10 times, getting to know many different types of Saudis and making some good friends. My visits have grown more frequent lately because the changes in the kingdom have led to new interest in Saudi Arabia among our readers.
I am fascinated by the changes taking place in the kingdom because of the economic situation, the regional dynamics and the country’s large youth population. I am also very curious about the new initiatives being headed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and I hope to meet him in order to better understand this leader who is trying to address the kingdom’s biggest challenges.
How can you describe your experience at Haer Prison?
I arranged to visit the Haer prison though contacts at the Saudi Interior Ministry, who are proud of the programs there and like to show them off to visitors, including foreign diplomats and journalists. My visit lasted half a day and the assistant to the prison director escorted me through the different sections.
I was able to have a few brief chats with inmates. We visited the prison radio studio and met a man who did a funny show in which he impersonated accents from different parts of the kingdom. He said he had been arrested years ago for trying to go to Iraq to fight the Americans! And here he was chatting with me and making a comedy show. He said he was glad that he had never made it to Iraq because things had turned out so badly there. Of course, it is always hard to know how much of the story you are getting from a prisoner when the assistant prison director is standing with you…
Do you think this is your best story yet? If not, kindly tell our readers about another prominent story you have managed to cover?
Last year, I took about ten days to travel around Saudi Arabia by myself for a story about tourism in the kingdom. I went to Al-Ula and Madain Saleh (Al-Hijr) and the Farasan Islands, both of which were very beautiful. I was in the city of Buraida working on another story when some friends took me to the Ghada Festival in Anezah. I found it fascinating to see what a cultural festival looks like in that part of Saudi Arabia and since they apparently don’t have many foreign visitors, I ended up being treated like a celebrity, with Saudi girls trying to take photos of me with their phones.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences with any other different language? How has this benefitted your career?
I have studied a number of different languages and used to speak French well, but my focus on learning Arabic, both reading and speaking, has pushed all the other languages out of my head. But knowing Arabic has made a great difference in what I do, allowing me to do interviews without a translator, to read local newspapers and websites and to become friends with people in Saudi Arabia and other countries whom I would have had a hard time communicating with otherwise. Knowing the language allows a reporter to access a deeper level of the culture in a way that can greatly inform the reporting.
You have reported from many different conflicts and countries and have no doubt witnessed many disturbing things. Do these experiences linger with you or do you forget about them and move on when an assignment is over?
I have spent some time in war zones but I don’t consider myself a war correspondent. Some people focus on conflict; I focused on the Arab world and there happened to be wars there, so I covered them. I spent some time in Syria with the rebels in Idlib and Aleppo in 2012, which was both fascinating and terrifying. These experiences generally don’t affect me long afterward psychologically, but I do remember coming home to Beirut after being in Syria and looking up nervously at the sound of an airplane, wondering if I had to worry about an airstrike.
Do you have any advice you would like to give Arab journalists in particular?
The rules for doing good work are the same for journalists no matter where you are: work hard, get the facts straight, make an honest effort to understand all sides of an issue and remain skeptical of official narratives.
The difficulty in the Middle East now (and not just in the Arab world) is that the conversation is so polarized that many people only want to hear information that supports their side and will refuse to listen to media that comes from a different perspective. So instead of informing people about the complexities of issues and the different motivations driving different actors, the media ends up solidifying what many people already believe. That, in my view, makes it harder to build the understanding that could help resolve some of the region’s conflicts.
How do you think the Syrian crisis will end?
Unfortunately, I don’t see many indications that the Syria conflict will end soon. Neither side obviously has the power to win militarily, but they are also clearly not ready to come to a negotiated solution. I think the war has some more time in it.
How many hours do you spend working a week? Does this leave you with much personal time?
I have no idea how many hours I work per week, but definitely too many! For me, the best part of being a correspondent is that I am largely in charge of my own time. No one cares when I come into the office or when I leave as long as I am on top of the news and keep producing good work. That does mean that I end up working lots of nights and weekends, and the total hours certainly add up to more than I would put in in a normal job. But who wants a normal job?
What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism?
The best thing a young journalist can do is a find a job where they are doing what they like – whether it’s writing, shooting videos or making webpages – all the time. The only way to get better is to put in lots of time trying new things, failing and learning from those failures. As my friend, the American writer and poet John Evans, likes to say, “Writing is like doing push-up. The more you do the easier it gets.”