Souad Mekhennet is a New York Times journalist of Turkish – Moroccan descent, born in Frankfurt, Germany. She worked for the Washington Post before joining the New York Times, covering conflicts and terrorist attacks in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. She worked on the feted New York Times series “Inside the Jihad”, speaking to a number of prominent Islamist figures. She is also the co-author of two German language books that deal with the issues of political Islam and jihad, “The Children of Jihad” and “Islam.”
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
[Mekhennet] I am a reporter for The New York Times and since 2004 I have sometimes worked for German public TV. Before working for the New York Times I was a reporter for The Washington Post, and some German newspapers and magazines. Since 9/11, I have travelled and covered many conflicts and terrorist attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. I am the co-author of two books, “The Children of Jihad” and “Islam”, both published in Germany. My colleague Nicholas Kulish and I are also currently working on a book. I attended the “Henri – Nanina” journalism school in Hamburg and I also hold degrees in Political Science, International Relations, History and Psychology.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What was it like growing up in Germany as the child of Muslim immigrants?
[Mekhennet] It is the normal struggle that immigrants, and especially Muslim immigrants and their children, go through every day in European countries. Growing up as a child of a Muslim family in a non-Muslim society is not always easy. People see you differently and treat you differently. You never feel that you belong no matter how hard you work. Social status plays a much bigger role on how one is viewed and treated. I was born in Frankfurt, Germany and am the child of a working class family. My mother is Turkish and my father is Moroccan. They both worked in manual jobs; my father as a cook and my mother as a laundress and cleaning lady. They worked very hard and sacrificed a lot so that my sisters, brother, and I could do well at school. I always felt I should work harder and do better than German kids, and still, I never felt that I was fully accepted. This is, unfortunately, the story of many immigrant families throughout Europe.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What first attracted you to journalism?
[Mekhennet] I wanted to become a journalist from the age of 13, and when I turned 17 I founded a school magazine in high school. Journalism gives you the possibility to uncover hidden things and hopefully contribute to changing them through writing, giving people who are seldom heard from a voice. You also get to deal with all kinds of people, the poor, the rich, the oppressed, the powerful, and be present and ask the questions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During the recent anti-government demonstrations in Cairo, you were detained by the authorities. Was that your first experience of this?
[Mekhennet] I have been in difficult and sometime dangerous situations. The “Inside the Jihad” series which I did for the New York Times took me the back streets of Zarqa in Jordan where I interviewed young men who went fighting in Iraq. I travelled to the barren tribal areas of Waziristan, Afghanistan and Iraq. I visited places where the smell of gunpowder hanged permanently in the air. I encountered men who had been detained in prisons and spoke with tears in their eyes of torture and rape. I have been in other situations where I was the one being interrogated. But what was difficult to bear in Egypt was hearing people being beaten and hearing their deafening screams through the walls. It was harrowing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us how you came to be detained in Cairo?
[Mekhennet] We were on our way back to Cairo after spending a few days reporting on the protests in Alexandria for The New York Times. My colleague and I were travelling back to Cairo with other journalists from the German public television station ZDF, a normal practice in such conditions — safety in numbers. There was a very tense environment throughout the country, we’d heard of television crews being attacked and accused of creating anti-Egyptian propaganda. A day before our trip back to Cairo, we were caught in the middle of a riot with our German colleagues.
At the outskirts of Cairo, we were stopped at what looked like a civilian checkpoint. We had been through many checkpoints without any problems, but this time when our driver opened the trunk of the car, an outburst came out from the crowd, when they saw a large black bag with an orange ZDF microphone poking out. It turned out that our colleagues at ZDF had mistakenly put their equipments in our car, camera bags, camera, equipment to send films via satellite and money. The crowd shouted and banged on the car, pulling the doors open. The ZDF crew in the other car managed to drive off, whilst we were detained.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who detained you? And where and how long were you detained for?
[Mekhennet] My colleague Nicholas Kulish and I were detained on Wednesday afternoon and it was the beginning of a 24-hour journey through an Egyptian detention facility, ending with – we were told by the soldiers who delivered us there – the secret police. We asked our jailers to identify themselves but they refused.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the article you wrote about this disturbing experience, you said that you could hear the sound of other detainees being beaten, how did this affect you?
[Mekhennet] We felt powerless, hearing people scream out in pain, the loud beatings and you feel there is nothing you can do. It was the worst part of our detention, seeing – and in particular hearing through the walls of this dreadful facility – Egyptians who had taken part in the protest or had spoken to media, being abused at the hands of their own countrymen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was your interrogation conducted in English or Arabic?
[Mekhennet] I was interrogated in English.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As an American journalist, do you think that this had any bearing on the manner in which you were treated?
[Mekhennet] Well, I am not American. I do hold a German passport and I am of Moroccan -Turkish decent but my colleague is American. As we’ve written in our article for the New York Times, no physical harm was done to us, we made sure to point that out, but we also made sure to point out the contrast of how Egyptians at this detention centre were being abused. I later heard from foreign reporters who had been through similar experiences in Cairo, some were treated the same way [as we were] and others told me that they got a beating. It is just hard to know what the criterion was for such illegal and inhumane behaviour.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did your ability to speak Arabic assist you in any way?
[Mekhennet] It helped in some situations, especially when it came to talk to some of the men who kept us [detained] and who did not speak any English.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has this experience altered the way in which you view Cairo or the Middle East?
[Mekhennet] No, not at all; Cairo or the Egyptian people have nothing to do with that and I was really touched when I saw all the e-mails that I received from Egyptian people who said that they were sorry about what happened to us. Furthermore, if we were to be turned off of a city or a country because of an unfortunate incident, we, as reporters, will not be left with many places to cover. I also covered rendition and arrests stories in the region. But when I was sitting in the cell during our detention witch my colleague, and our driver, hearing what was going on around us, I thought of my grandfather, Abd-el-Kader (may god bless his soul), who had been detained and tortured by the French in Morocco during the struggle for independence. He was a member of the Moroccan resistance fighting the French occupation. Whilst in that cell I also thought, “what is it with our region?” People like my grandfather who fought the occupation must never have thought that one day an Arab would torture his fellow countrymen, just because they dared to talk to the press or take part in a peaceful protest. This is not the world that they imagined they would leave for their children and grandchildren.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you still covering what is happening in Cairo?
[Mekhennet] I am following very closely what is going on in Egypt and I am in touch with people there and now, following what has happened [Mubarak’s resignation], I will certainly go back at some point.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion about the ‘Egyptian Revolution?
[Mekhennet]From the journalistic point of view, what has happened in Egypt will definitely have an impact on other leaders in the region and elsewhere and how they think about their relationship with their population, and by the way I don’t think that this [revolution] is something specific to the Arab world. People have rebelled against oppressive regimes throughout history and all around the world. There comes a day when one says enough is enough and I won’t take it any more. What has been achieved in Egypt and Tunisia, from a journalistic or people perspective, is incredible. A few weeks ago nobody would have guessed this, and that’s what make both uprisings, in Tunisia and Egypt – and who knows what other countries might follow- a very interesting historical event. Historians and political scientists will be studying both revolts for years to come.
In Alexandria I spoke to many protesters, they were all unified in their call for Hosni Mubarak and the government to step down but depending to which group they belonged to, their wishes and expectations differed. This is both amazing but also difficult to analyze. For sure, at some point when all the dust settles, not everyone who took to the street and raised her or his voice, will be fully satisfied with the outcome, but this has always been the very nature of revolutions.
The hope now is that the post Mubarak era will lead to a prosperous and democratic Egypt. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt is also a big lesson for people in the West to recognize that Arabs too, no matter what religion they belong to, women and men, old and young, rich and poor, can also strive for freedom and work tirelessly to bring about real change through peaceful protests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, do you think that you have an advantage particularly given the important news coming from the Middle East these days?
[Mekhennet] Indeed, I believe that my own personal background and my language skills are an advantage. It puts people at ease when you communicate with them in their own language; it also helps to know the culture and how things work in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which of your articles do you believe has had the greatest impact, either on yourself or your readers? And which article did you find the most challenging to write?
[Mekhennet] There are three stories that I can think of: the story that we broke for the New York Times about the kidnapping and rendition of Khalid El-Masri, a German of Lebanese decent who was kidnapped by the CIA and it later turned out to be a case of a mistaken identity. The second story is the personal story about what happened to my colleague and I in Egypt. The third story is about a Pakistani woman, and in this story one could clearly see the common hypocrisy that exists in both the Muslim and Western worlds. She was abused by her husband, who cheated on her and without shame or embarrassment told her about it, a Muslim man who thought that he is entitled to do this to his Muslim wife. She also experienced the increasing anti-Muslim sentiments that are becoming prevalent and fashionable in the western countries nowadays.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the situation for Muslims today in the west?
[Mekhennet] Europe is unfortunately moving more and more to the right and politicians are finding anti-Muslim and racist rhetoric sellable and not condemnable. Anti-Muslim sentiments has always existed in the West but as the economic crisis deepens, European Muslims are becoming an easy targets of blame and are finding themselves being cornered and labelled as backward and potential threats to the national security of these countries. These Muslims are citizens of these countries and should be protected by their laws. But it is harder to censor hate speech in European countries especially when the recipients of this hate are the vulnerable Muslim communities. However it is also an imperative for Muslims to get better organized and stop always looking for the differences between them, but rather focus on the things they share in common. There are so many groups in Europe who say they are representing Muslim communities and who don’t get along with each other, because of different interpretations of Islam, as they see it, or because they belong to different schools of thoughts. And it is really important, that people have to be aware that this is neither helping their religion nor themselves or their children. Differences are always going to exist but there are so many things that these groups share in common and they would have a tremendous impact if and when they realize that.
What is needed is not only a change of Muslims’ situation in the world, but also in the Islamic world. For the last ten years I have covered militancy in Europe and the Islamic world. There are things that I think the peaceful protesters in Egypt have in common with all these men and women – whom I interviewed in the past –who at one point in their lives decided to take up arms and go to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Yemen or Somalia: They lacked role models in the Islamic world, and had lost all trust in their leaders and politicians, whom they viewed as being corrupt and out of touch with reality. They felt that their grievances are not taken into consideration. Of course, the Egyptian protesters opted for peaceful means to change their lot, and they should be commanded for that. So, I think there is a serious need for role models in the Islamic world and building trust between those who govern and the people.
The Muslims in the West also lack role models they can look up to. Whenever I speak to school kids in Germany I always emphasize that nothing should be taken for granted in their lives and that they have to work hard in order to realize their potential. Like myself, many of my friends do not come from rich or influential backgrounds, but still through hard work, we were able to become who we are. From the age of 14 I worked at a bakery next to my school cleaning floors, I [also] worked at a hostel for old people, and I am proud of that and I always tell these kids to look ahead and that, with hard work and perseverance, everything is possible.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any particular regions that you still want to cover or does it simply depend on where the story is?
[Mekhennet] It’s a mix of both; there are definitely some people that I would like to interview, but of course I also look for breaking stories.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you found there to be any major differences between working for an American publication in comparison to a German one?
[Mekhennet] I can only speak of my experience with the newspapers that I worked for; certainly the New York Times and Washington Post have both very high ethical standards. One of the biggest differences with the German press, for example, is that as a reporter with the New York Times or the Washington Post, you are not allowed to bring your own opinion or analysis to an article. This is different in Germany; they want the reporter to say what their point of view is.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that hard-copy newspapers are being threatened by the internet and the free and easy access of information there? What do you think about the proposed decision for online news content to be placed behind a pay-wall?
[Mekhennet] Well, I am sure that people will understand that quality has a price, and of course it is an investment for a paper to send a reporter or a photographer to places to cover a story, especially when doing investigative journalism, which is very important, and is a big investment for media organizations. Undoubtedly access to information is changing and with it we will see a change in habits and cultures. But I believe that there are still people who prefer the feel of the paper in their hands.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any final words of wisdom or advice for aspiring Arab journalists?
[Mekhennet] I have met some very brave and great journalists who live and work in the Arab world and I admire them for the work they are doing. But I also came across some people who would publish rumours in their stories as ‘facts’ and not think it important to double-check their information. So if there is any advice I would give to young aspirant journalists, it is to always double check your information. Credibility for a journalist and a newspaper or any other media outlet is extremely important in this business. Having more that one source will help to weed out rumours and ensure that your information is sound and corroborated.