When I began my career as a foreign correspondent in the early 1990s, during the Balkan wars, local journalists were never part of the story. In Bosnia, where few of my colleagues spoke the language – Serbo-Croat, later called Bosniak – we relied on talented young men and women to act as our fixers and guides. But they were often more like Virgil leading us through hell: they were reason, wisdom and pragmatism, even though their country was dying.
They risked their lives and did not want glory. They felt it was their responsibility. I often felt shame that they worked alongside me on the frontline, amid shelling and sniping, and knew so much more than I did about the story – but why was my name alone on the byline? Slowly, that started to change. Some of us trained them to begin reporting their own stories, make their own films and radio reports. It was a lesson for me. It wasn’t just that they spoke the language; it was their insight that made me wonder if parachuting foreign reporters into a conflict was entirely fair to a reader. Today, as a result, I am a board member of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which trains local reporters.
So here is the question: can a foreigner, no matter how invested in a conflict or country, ever tell the real story, the way someone whose home country is being ravaged by war, or a humanitarian crisis, or who knows the politics of the land inside out, can? I spent nearly three years covering the siege of Sarajevo; it was a war that shaped me. It prepared me as a human being and as a journalist. I knew I could not have done it without my Bosnian friends. But could they have told the story better?
I felt the same way when I went to Rwanda in 1994 during the genocide and wondered: should this terrible story be told by Africans – by Rwandans, Tutsis or Hutus? Wasn’t it their story to tell, not mine?
I did not go to stories unprepared. I had worked in the Middle East since the first Palestinian intifada. I learnt how to report in Gaza in the shadow of local reporters, who were really activists. But even though I grew dangerously attached to the story, was it my story to tell? Years later, walking into the besieged Jenin refugee camp while the Israeli Defence Forces fired shots at us from tanks, a local reporter said to me: "This is my country. I don't mind risking my life. But why are you doing it?" I told him we both had the same goal: to bring a voice to the voiceless. He did not look convinced.
In Iraq, in the days of Saddam Hussein and then after the occupation, I worked with many Iraqis who helped us survive. But it was their future at stake, their country that was being ripped apart. Even though my heart was also breaking at what was happening to Iraq – a country I love – it was not, as my friend Ali pointed out, my country, nor my roots.
The question of whether or not foreigners can truly understand another culture, no matter how gifted they might be as reporters, writers or linguists, is an old polemic. I once had lunch in Paris with a Syrian writer who said (a trifle too aggressively) that I had no right to write a book about war crimes in her homeland because I was not Syrian. I was hurt and disagreed – I still do – because objectivity matters. But I also listened to her points and took note. I would never, no matter how much I read, or what I felt, have the same blood ties she did.
When Our Women on the Ground, a collection of essays proclaiming to be by "Arab women reporting from the Arab world", arrived on my desk, I was suspicious at first, thinking back to that Paris lunch. But the collection is a revelation: it is women writing about their passions, their questions, their lives and loves, often in countries where being a journalist is a tremendous act of courage and being a free woman is often taboo. And yet, these are words written about working, mothering, loving, surviving and trying – above all, to be truth-tellers.
Can local reporters really tell the story of their home country objectively? Arab journalism has gone through tremendous changes. There was a time when reporters were so fiercely tied to political parties and factions that the question of objectivity did not even begin to come into play. If you read Al Hayat, you knew what you would get. If you read Al Ahram, you'd get something else. Some journalists I knew were so tied to party loyalty (and, sometimes, party money) that theirs was not a tough job. But try working for the Sudanese National Broadcasting company at the height of Omar Al Bashir's rule, like Shamael Elnoor. Every day, she faced moral dilemmas because her bosses' editorial views reflected the ruling party: "Our youth were being shot dead by the ruling militia, and police were calling them vandals and criminals," she wrote. "I was expected to repeat those expressions and inject them into my news reports."
She wasn’t alone. Female reporters in Algeria, Morocco, Syria and across the region faced the same concerns every time they went out to report and felt the fear that came with trying to tell the truth. “Growing up in Syria in the 1970s meant one thing,” says the BBC’s Lina Sinjab. “Breathing fear.”
In some ways, the Arab uprisings changed styles of reporting as repression and taboos fell away, particularly for women. It was a time of liberation, when Arab female reporters came into their own. I remember being thrilled by the number of Arab women on the streets in Tunisia during the Jasmine Revolution, protesting but also blogging, recording, filming and documenting events. The pattern continued in Egypt, Libya and Syria. I was haunted by the young photographer I met in Aleppo, so committed to her work, despite her own safety; the Libyan human rights reporters who tried to write about transitional justice, despite never having lived in a country where there was rule of law.
They were finally being hired, not as fixers or translators but as reporters, producers, camerawomen, editors-in-chief. The rise of social media across the region prompted new digital platforms, new innovations.
"You know who this little girl is?" Lina Attalah's dying father proudly told a nurse in a Cairo hospital. "She's a journalist. She founded a newspaper." Ms Attalah did that not once but twice, co-founding first the Egypt Independent, later Mada Masr. In the past decade, her life's work has been dedicated to honest and transparent journalism. Sometimes the women felt split in two by their identity and gender. Palestinian-Canadian Jane Arraf, who has one foot in the West, one in the Middle East, often asks herself: "Would it have been equally painful to watch the trainwreck unfold had I not been Arab?" A reporter for the broadcasting station NPR, she might have understood the tragic miscalculations that destroyed Iraq but she says: "I might not have been conscious of the depth of misunderstandings as worlds collided."
I think if I had read this book of Arab female voices before my Paris lunch, I would have been better equipped to defend myself. But I also would have understood my friend’s frustration. I still do believe foreign western reporters have a place writing about the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and Asia. The narratives of an outsider belong side by side with those of a local. They should complement, not distract from each other. But I get it. I’ve lived in France for 15 years. I was married to a Frenchman; my son is French and I have a French passport. But can I write about the occupation of Paris or the Algerian war with the same nuances as my French colleagues? In the same vein, could they write about the pain, as an American in exile, that I felt hearing about the 9/11 attacks or how I felt arriving in Afghanistan the next day? I am not so sure.
I wonder if I would have the same fierce emotional reaction that Donna Abu Nasr, a long-time Saudi correspondent, had when she watched a woman in Jeddah in 2011 selling underwear outside a shopping mall for the first time, a job that previously only a man could do. “I felt overwhelmed with pride and joy,” she wrote. It wasn’t just the seller that moved Ms Abu Nasr to tears, it was the cultural transformation of “the new Saudi Arabia” she had witnessed over years spent talking to Saudi women. She wasn’t just reporting a story; it was also her story. As a non-Arab, could I ever really comprehend that?
Janine di Giovanni is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and a senior fellow at Yale's Jackson Institute. She is the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. Follow her on Twitter @janinedigi