Sara Hussein


What do you do as Middle East correspondent at Agence France-Presse (AFP)?

I’m a reporter at AFP’s Beirut bureau, where we cover Lebanon and the war in neighbouring Syria. My job also occasionally takes me elsewhere in the region. In recent years, I’ve reported from Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. My job covers everything from politics and economics, to features about cultural and academic life, and what we call ‘offbeat’ stories about the lighter side of daily life. I’ve been in the region with AFP for nearly five years, and I’ve been able to write about some of the most momentous events in recent history. It’s a real privilege.

Your previous position for AFP was as the Washington bureau desk editor. What did that entail?

In DC, I worked on the English desk, editing and translating stories from across North and South America. I also reported there, covering various branches of the US government and doing feature pieces. A lot of my work focused on US politics and foreign policy, but because DC is our Americas hub, I was also involved with our coverage of stories like the Haiti earthquake and the coup in Honduras. It was a great way to start at AFP, seeing how the agency works from one of its busiest hubs and working with very talented people writing in four different languages.

Why did you decide to join AFP and what was the application process like?

I’ve always wanted to be an international correspondent with either a newspaper or a wire service. It has been a life-long dream, and AFP is a great organisation with a global network of journalists working in text, photo, video and multimedia. I started out with AFP as a stringer, contributing to their coverage of Guantanamo Bay, and then I applied for a temporary position that opened up on the editing desk in DC. When that contract was up, they offered me a staff position on the desk in DC, and about 18 months later I was sent to the Middle East.

Prior to joining AFP, you were a freelance journalist for four years. What was it like?

Freelancing is tough, in my opinion. Some people enjoy the freedom it gives them to pursue a variety of stories in different locations and work for a range of media outlets. I appreciated those aspects, but I found it difficult to be working constantly to sell pieces. I think over time you build up relationships with media outlets so you’re not simply cold-calling to pitch your stories, but it can be quite difficult and demoralising when you’re starting out. That said, it was a great way to build up a portfolio and learn on the job.

Which story are you most proud of having covered?

That’s a tough one! I’m very lucky that I arrived in the Middle East with AFP just before the Arab uprisings began. I covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria and I’m very proud of all of that work. Covering Egypt has been particularly important for me because I’m half-Egyptian and so the story is more personal. Individual pieces I’m proud of include a description of the scene at Cairo’s Zeinhom morgue in 2013. It was after the deaths of hundreds of protesters and in a very politically charged and tense atmosphere. I tried to focus on the indignity of the place and the individual grief of families rather than getting into the politics. I’m also proud of the work I did during Gaza’s 2014 conflict, with the help of my brave colleagues. I witnessed the infamous strikes that killed four Palestinian children on a beach. Some of the injured survivors came into our hotel, where we administered first aid as best we could. As soon as the injured were evacuated, I had to sit down and write. It was extremely tough, and I’m proud of the result.

There is quite a bit of controversy about how useful journalism degrees actually are. As someone who studied the subject at the American University in Cairo and is now a journalist, what’s your take on it?

I started university two years early, and I picked a journalism degree because I knew I wanted to write. I was young and possibly a bit naïve, and I assumed doing a journalism degree was the best way to get into the field. In retrospect, I would advise someone in my position to do a degree in something else – a language, history, economics. I think a minor in journalism would cover the key things you can pick up in the classroom. The experiences that best prepared me for journalism were the freelancing I did in my summer holidays, and working on the student newspaper under a wonderful mentor who was an ex-foreign correspondent with the Washington Post.

After your BA, you did an MA focused on International Human Rights Law at the University of Chicago. Would you recommend it, and how do you use it in your daily job?

I don’t think an MA is a requirement for being a good journalist, but I’m glad I did the programme at the University of Chicago. It broadened my horizons and put me in settings with incredibly smart, articulate and well-read people. It was very intimidating at first, but ultimately gave me a lot of confidence. The degree was also immediately useful for me because I ended up covering military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, and later on writing about Supreme Court rulings. Legal decisions are often very dense and complex to understand, and the MA gave me great experience that allowed me to explain these decisions to readers.

Do you think there are particular barriers or advantages that go with being a female journalist posted in the Middle East?

As with everything in life there are advantages and disadvantages, both of which have been expressed many times by other female journalists. There are some distinct challenges. In Egypt, for example, sexual harassment and assault are a huge problem and that makes reporting more difficult for women in certain circumstances. In some war zones I’ve reported from in the Middle East, male fighters were reluctant to allow a female reporter to bunk with them overnight because of cultural norms. And on occasion, I’ve encountered some hostility when covering funerals in places where women are not traditionally seen graveside. But, there are also clear advantages. The most obvious is that, as a woman, you have access to both male and female society, something that many male correspondents don’t have. That allows me to tell very important stories about the civilians who often suffer most in conflicts. And I’ve often found that men are willing to share emotions and thoughts with me that they might feel uncomfortable sharing with a man. In tense situations too – gathering mobs, or disputes between armed men, the desire to keep a female journalist safe can also be a great advantage.  

What would you recommend to a young woman who would like to pursue a similar career?

I would say:

-          Read a lot - newspapers, blogs and social media, but also books!

-          Do a degree that will give you a solid grounding in a subject matter other than journalism.

-          If you can study a language at university, do it. Increasingly, media outlets don’t want people who can’t work in the local language.

-          Get out there and start reporting, the sooner, the better, whatever the subject is. The best experience you can get is on the ground, finding what works and doesn’t.

-          Don’t be embarrassed to contact journalists who are doing what you want to do and ask their advice. Media, like anything else, is about networking, and the sooner you start to build that network and get guidance, the better.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?

The most rewarding aspect of my career is something of a cliché, but I’ve had a front-row seat at events that are of real historical significance. Some of them have been bloody and difficult, but all of them have been immensely interesting and I’m incredibly humbled to have been there and covering them. I don’t think there is a ‘least rewarding’ aspect to this job. It’s what I wanted to do from a young age, and I can’t imagine doing anything else!

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

You have to be a good writer, and that requires a lot of practice but also tough and constructive editors. I’ve been lucky enough to have several. Curiosity is also key – you can’t be a journalist if you’re not constantly rooting out new stories and scraps of information to turn into pieces that will inform and hold the attention of readers. You need to be a good listener, both during interviews, but also in your daily life. Story ideas often come from daily conversations with a whole range of people outside the workplace. To work for a wire agency, you need to be able to work fast, often under enormous pressure, without cracking or making mistakes. Speed with accuracy.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

There have been many, and I’m certainly still learning. A lot of my reporting has been in war zones, so I’ve had to learn how to stay safe and report in a way that does not endanger others or myself. Being an agency reporter means working fast without sacrificing accuracy or detail, and that’s something I’ve had to perfect. Reporting from the Middle East attracts a lot of attention, so I’ve had to grow a thick skin. I’m happy to receive criticism of my work, and I often take it into account, but I’ve learned to ignore baseless personal attacks. I’ve also become better at working in a team, both with other writers, but also in a multimedia team with photographers and video journalists who have different reporting needs from me.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

I think reporting in Syria was probably my biggest challenge. It is the place I felt most unsafe, and it was very tough for our team to report without endangering ourselves. I was lucky to work with a great AFP team, and that is always key in war zones – you have to be able to trust the people you’re working with. I followed the guidance of those with more experience than myself, and the advice of the local reporters and fixers we were working with. I tried to be hyperaware of our surroundings, constantly reassessing the risks as we moved and discussing them with my colleagues. If any one of us felt it was too unsafe, we wouldn’t proceed. There really is no story worth dying for. I owe it to my family and my colleagues to report responsibly in dangerous places, and that always guides me in conflict zones.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I’m very proud to have won the Prix Bayeux Young Reporter award in 2011 for my work in Libya, and of the work I did with our great AFP team in Gaza, working in very challenging circumstances during the 2014 conflict there. More generally though, I’m proud and incredibly grateful to have the job I do. I’ve wanted to be a foreign correspondent since I was young, and I’m well aware of just how lucky I am to have achieved that.

Why the interest in foreign policy?

The interest in foreign policy probably stems from my background. I’m half-British and half-Egyptian, so I’ve always had an interest in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. From a young age, we travelled back and forth between the UK and Egypt, and I’ve never felt fully rooted in just one place. I love to travel and be immersed in the politics and culture of a new country. I can’t imagine staying in one place permanently.

Do you have a role model and if so who and why?

I have had many role models. Some of my earliest were the incredible roster of female international correspondents at the BBC – Orla GuerinCaroline Wyatt and many more. They really inspired my interest in being a foreign correspondent and I’m humbled to be working alongside some of them today. Nowadays, I’m equally inspired by my generation of reporters, male and female. They are too many to name, but the excellent work they do keeps me on my toes and prevents me from even thinking about getting complacent.

Sara Hussein | Lebanon and Syria reporter | Agence France-Presse’s Beirut office

10 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied University of Chicago | The American University in Cairo

Previously worked as a freelance journalist

Finder her online @sarahussein LinkedIn 

"I’m also proud of the work I did during Gaza’s 2014 conflict, with the help of my brave colleagues. I witnessed the infamous strikes that killed four Palestinian children on a beach. Some of the injured survivors came into our hotel, where we administered first aid as best we could. As soon as the injured were evacuated, I had to sit down and write. It was extremely tough, and I’m proud of the result."