Senior Visiting Fellow | Journalist | New York Times Bestselling Author
You are currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tell us about what you do.
I am affiliated with the center that Carnegie has in Beirut, Lebanon. After an intense period, the fellowship allowed me to take a step back from journalism. I had been covering the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016, and previously traveling with the U.S. Secretary of State. I wanted to write a second book and it provided me with the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day news and hang my hat at a great institution and think tank.
Before Carnegie, I had been a Public Policy Fellow for six months at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. The Woodrow Wilson Center is a wonderful place for journalists and thought leaders to begin the research process for a project. As a fellow, I mostly focus on writing my book. I participate in conferences that Carnegie organizes and moderate panels for them.
Most recently, you covered the 2016 U.S. General Election for the BBC. What was it like to cover a presidential campaign on a 24/7 news cycle?
The process that America goes through to elect a president is fascinating. Of course, I was familiar with the process. However, this was the first time that I covered an American election. For instance, the amount of hours on the road that candidates log and the amount of money spent was mind-boggling. I am after all a foreigner in the U.S. and every country has its own system. How the U.S. electoral system runs is a bit odd for outsiders (I still don’t think I understand the Iowa Caucuses).
In March 2016, I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy magazine remarking on the fact that some subtleties reminded me of the Middle East like presidential candidates with the name-calling and the heated discussions during the debates. Ted Cruz invoking God. With hindsight, it reminded me of the Middle East in a rather ominous and prescient way.
At the time, it was all tongue in cheek because the rule of law and systems of checks and balances in the U.S. are very strong, but I was struck by Donald Trump saying something like ‘I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and people would still vote for me.’ That was not language I had ever encountered in a Western country. Everyone thought it was funny, a fluke or something that would just disappear, but it didn’t.
In 2008, you served as the BBC’s State Department Correspondent and traveled with Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry. Tell us what it’s like to travel with the US Secretary of State.
I loved those years traveling with the U.S. Secretary of State because I had a front row seat to the making of American foreign policy. I went to places I would not have the chance go to otherwise, like Kazakhstan or Tanzania and it’s true you whisk past in a bus and barely see anything. You are in the bubble of the Secretary, but it gives you perspective and makes your reporting come to life and informed. I know the Middle East well, but it was incredibly interesting to go to Pakistan for the first time and sit through an hour-long town hall meeting between Hillary Clinton and several hundred Pakistani students in Lahore. I listened to their questions about why America was doing this or why it was doing that and realized their questions were similar to the questions I had about American power when I was growing up in Beirut.
I found it interesting to discover the limits of American power. The heavy lifting that it requires for American diplomats to get anything done. For example, the groundwork and endless phone calls that happen, before the Secretary of State even gets on a plane. Many people who live on the receiving end of American power think that America can just snap its fingers and something happens. Yes, perhaps President Trump can snap his fingers and Tomahawk missiles are launched at Syria, sure, that can happen. Otherwise, it’s a large machinery that needs steering. To watch that up-close was fascinating, I learned a great deal and gained maturing experiences, it was like going to get a PhD in hands-on foreign diplomacy.
What happened behind the scenes that you weren’t expecting the first time you traveled with a Secretary of State?
I was not expecting the plane to be old. It did not fit with my image of America as a superpower. I did not expect the Secretary of State to come to the back of the plane and speak directly to us and answer questions.
I did not know how two things in particular worked. First, the American reporters who travel with the Secretary of State are part of the motorcade, and they get front row seats to the press conference the secretary gives. They automatically get to ask one or two questions. I remember being a Lebanese reporter and covering the visit of Condoleezza Rice, and possibly once Madeleine Albright under Bill Clinton, and thinking who are these pushy American reporters. Why do they get to ask the first question? We’ve all got our hands raised, and we want to ask a question too. This is my country. This is my prime minister with the secretary of state. Why aren’t we getting first dibs? Suddenly, I found myself in that motorcade, in that front row seat asking the first question. I understood the process. It’s a small detail, but it matters to the optics. When they take the specified number of questions, the press conference is done, and they leave. It was very baffling for the local press. We were left wondering: Why won’t you take any more questions? Why are you leaving? We have more questions.
Second, it was interesting to sit in the State Department press briefing room for the first time and understand how that process worked. As a non-American, living in Beirut, what you see from that press briefing is one sound bite. The sound bite that is relevant to your country or the biggest story of the day. You are sitting in Beirut, you turn on the news, and the newscaster says: And today at the State Department spokesperson said that Lebanon was receiving another aid package or maybe assistance to the Lebanese military was under threat because Congress was asking questions about the end use of funds, etc. If you are sitting in Beirut, then you think the secretary of state or spokesperson woke up and had something to say that morning about Lebanon (and that’s how that sound bite ended up on your television). When in fact, you realize it’s the answer to a question asked by someone in that briefing room who is possibly a Lebanese reporter and had they not asked that question the sound bite would never have seen the light of day.
No matter how many times I boarded that plane (and I boarded that plane a lot) I never forgot that I came from Beirut and once was a little kid sheltering from the bombs in Beirut. My job was to ask the tough questions of officials. The job of journalists is a public service. We travel hundreds of thousands of miles, cover wars, and sometimes get shot and killed, we go to jail, we get arrested, we get beaten up, everywhere around the world. We do it as a public service to our audiences and the people who deserve the truth, answers, and accountability.
You are the author of The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power, a New York Times Best Seller. How did the idea for this book come about?
The book is a result of where I come from and where I ended up. Where I come from is a war-torn country, growing up in Beirut as a child in the war with many questions about American power, that made me want to become a journalist. I started my career in the Middle East covering Lebanon and then the wider region. I moved on to become a State Department correspondent for the BBC. My background and position in the State Department press corps, those two combined, are at the heart of the book that I wrote. In a way, it’s about my journey from Beirut to Washington.
It’s my effort to explain to people like me around the world who have questions about American power, about how it works and how it doesn’t work, who are the people at the heart of it, to explain to a wide audience in America how their power and the power of their country is perceived overseas, what it does, and what it brings them. As the words “international liberal order” have become maligned and Americans wonder what it ever did for them and what it brought them, I believe that in the pages of my book you can find part of the answer. My book addresses both audiences, international and American, and it comes from the result of who I am and my journey.
Why did you decide to become a journalist?
I was 13 years old and wrote an essay to myself to determine what I should be when I grow up. I felt passionate about various things, like writing and traveling but mostly about trying to explain my country’s story to the outside world. When you are a young and idealist teenager, these are the sorts of things you think about. That essay led me to the conclusion that I should be a journalist. I pursued that path doggedly and much to the despair of my parents. They wanted me to take over the family business in the food industry. If your parents are also rolling their eyes at your plans to become a journalist, this is my way of telling you, don’t give up on your dream.
How has being a journalist informed and shaped your worldview?
My worldview was shaped during those formative years in Beirut. Growing up in the midst of war really shapes you in indelible ways. It shaped my personality and what drives me. It shaped a desire to constantly search for the facts, explain events to others, always grow and learn, and impart that knowledge to others. Being a journalist, traveling to countries like Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, but then traveling to the U.S., and traveling with the secretary of state, what it has done and shown me is that we all have much more in common than we realize. What binds us and bring us together is much bigger than what divides us, East and West.
This is an incredibly polarizing and divisive time in the world. Walls and barriers are going up. We are hesitating to extend a hand to others. We must accept that everyone has something to teach you. It sounds trite, but whether their experience is only shaped by their life in a village in Pakistan or whether they come from New York City, everyone has something to teach you. We can learn from each other, it may sound trite or naïve, but I believe it’s true.
You spent 10 years in Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. What sorts of stories were you covering? What memories stand out to you the most?
I covered everything from the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the massive uprising that followed demanding the departure of Syrian troops that had been occupying Lebanon for 30 years, and I covered the Iraq War (and covered Iraq before the war under Saddam Hussein). I covered Syria under the rule of Bashar al-Assad. I covered Saudi Arabia and the first municipal elections. I covered the 2006 war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel.
At the very beginning of my career, I was an intern. I showed up at a Lebanese newspaper for a one-month internship (it was an English language newspaper). The concept of an “intern” wasn’t well-known in the country. They didn’t really know what to do with me but brought me onboard. I must have been 19 years old. On my first day, I ended up driving their star reporter, who was British and didn’t speak Arabic, to south Lebanon to do some reporting after Israel’s proxy militia had shelled a town outside the area that they controlled.
Nicholas, the reporter, always traveled with a colleague who translated for him, but that person wasn’t available that day, so I volunteered. He had never seen me before, he didn’t know what to make of this kid offering to drive him to the south. But he didn’t have any other option and eventually agreed. I started doing that with him on a regular basis, and this way, I also met other foreign reporters who traveled to Lebanon and needed help with translation and what we call “fixing”, a local contact who can set up all the relevant appointments with government officials or students, artists, intellectuals or whatever the story requires. They were reporters from the Washington Post, L.A. Times, NPR, and I learned a lot from them. I started writing for newspapers myself at the same time.
In the end, I was covering the war in 2006, it was a terrible summer for Lebanon. Our infrastructure was destroyed and twelve hundred people were killed. The country paid a high price. For me, as a journalist, it was an important moment in my career. I felt a duty to report about what was happening in my country. It’s the reason I became a journalist, I felt that should there ever be another war in my country, I wanted to be able to tell that story to the outside world. To report for the BBC, an international news channel, was a powerful vindication of my decision to become a journalist.
What would you say helped you break into the international affairs and foreign policy realm?
The willingness to do whatever the job required. I could have shown up at the newspaper (where I interned) and said I’m not driving anyone around. I did everything for the foreign reporters that came to Lebanon. I booked their dinners, set-up their appointment, translated for them, and sorted out their visas, whatever it took. As a fixer, I was a one-woman show even while I was doing my own reporting.
Despite my youthful shyness and doubts, I never hesitated to put my hand up. When I went up to the reporter, I didn’t tell him that I was uncertain about my Arabic translation skills. I thought what the heck. He doesn’t speak any Arabic at all. Let me just do it. I will figure it out. I can find a solution. And I did. I ended up translating for reporters in interviews with government officials.
What advice might you offer to early-career women?
Be curious, be enthusiastic, be flexible and always ask: why not? If someone tells you that what you want to do is not achievable, that this or that job is not for you, the answer should be: “why not?”
I was very fortunate to have a father who never thought of his three daughters as anything but fully empowered citizens of the world. That’s what gave me the ability to always ask: “Why not?” Like on that first day when I offered to take the reporter to south Lebanon—well, why not? When I was starting out, there weren’t many women doing what I was doing. I thought why not me. It’s a question that challenges the system in a good way.