On 9 December 2014, Editor Sami Hamdi interviewed Laura Kasinof, a freelance journalist whose work focuses on the Middle East. From 2011-2012, Kasinof reported for the New York Times from Yemen, covering anti-government protests and conflict that was part of the political upheaval unfolding across the Arab World. Kasinof has recently authored her new book Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, which relates her experience. As an Arabic speaker, Kasinof has featured on TV and radio outlets including the likes of BBC News, NPR and Al Jazeera. She was also a research consultant for Chatham House. She has also written for other publications including the Washington Monthly, Newsweek magazine, the Economist, the San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy and the Cairo Review for Global Affairs, among others.
Below is the transcript of the interview:
Q: The first question is how on earth did you end up in Yemen of all places?
A: How did I end up in Yemen? I moved to Egypt after graduating from college and I was working for a local English-language magazine. And then I had moved back to the States for a little bit but was struggling to find a job, (or a job that lasted longer than a few months), and I wanted to move back to the Middle East to freelance. But I was kind of wary of all the sort of young westerners trying to [do the same] and so I was thinking of moving somewhere else. And I had a few friends who had studied Arabic in Yemen and everyone I know who had studied there just loved the country and had an absolutely amazing time! And when I looked at the time, there were no Western journalists based in Yemen reporting for Western press and I thought ‘You know what? Worst comes to worst, I will go and study Arabic and leave without any money’ and so I moved there initially thinking I would stay a few months and try to get a staff job somewhere as a journalist, but I ended up staying for nine months.
Q: Of course you write in your book that you missed out on the Egyptian Revolution…
A: I moved to Yemen and then back to Cairo and then left Cairo again in 2010. And we were watching on Aljazeera from Yemen and looking at everyone just pouring out onto the streets in Egypt and were like ‘Wow! It would have been so great to be part of that’ and to just witness something like that because of the sheer magnitude of the Egyptian population and the passion and everything that went into it. But at the end of the day I am happy that I was in Yemen. It was just in the moment when you are watching it from afar.
Q: Did you anticipate when you first arrived in Sanaa that a revolution would actually take place in Yemen?
A: No. I was not in touch at all with any or much of the political activism and as you know Yemen is so…the education levels are so low. I don’t know. People just did not seem to be politically active in that sort of way. And so even when the protests first started in Yemen, we never thought that they would grow to the extent they eventually did.
Q: And at what point did you realise ‘This revolution is actually going to bring down the regime’?
A: I mean, the thing is, the regime was brought down but in a complicated way. It was with international intervention in terms of the GCC initiative. So there was a point where I thought ‘oh it has a chance of happening’ and that was probably in late March, early April when the protests in Sanaa and in the other cities became really large. But when Ali Mohsen split with Saleh, it did seem that Saleh’s days were numbered and that is what really caused it which, you know, is kind of sad as it is not activism that caused it; it was some political and also corrupt leader splitting with Saleh.
Q: Many people when they see the Middle East, they see violence, patriarchal societies, and most of the media attention the Middle East receives is to do with Human Rights abuses, dictatorships etc… Yet in your book, you declare a love for Yemen when you describe it in the line ‘Yemen, oh Yemen, she dances to the rhythm of her own drum, with many parts still untainted by influence from the Western world…’ There is a clear schism between these two narratives. How did you arrive to a different conclusion from that which the media leads others to?
A: Because living there I saw so many things that are great about Yemeni society that I think we have lost in America and in Europe (probably more so in America than even in Europe). There is this idea of a sort of social cohesiveness I found and that people really were trying to bolster their family members and it felt like there were so many connections within society that we don’t have. We have to do everything independently in America; I have to keep my life separate from other people’s lives. And that is not the case in Yemen at all and I found that really refreshing.
Q: Not intrusive?
A: There were times where I found it intrusive…yes, very intrusive. And I think that if I were a Yemeni woman, I may have a different tone. Some of the social constructions that were there; if a Yemeni female friend of mine was wearing hijab instead of niqab, people would ask what family she was from so they could judge her family. That sort of thing affects them. As a Westerner I could step in and enjoy the benefits of it, but not be beholden to its limitations. So that was one thing. Also just the lack of commercial, I mean having everything be about business; Yemenis obviously don’t really care much about that.
Q: In your book, you mention that you met the likes of Tawakkol Karman, you even tried to arrange a phone call between her and then Vice President Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi for him to congratulate her on her Nobel Peace Prize (and you express your disappointment when she refused to speak to him), and you also met Saleh’s relatives including Yahya. Essentially you met everyone across the political spectrum in Yemen. How would you describe the world of politics in Yemen as opposed to what you are normally accustomed to in the US?
A: Oh…that’s a hard question…Yemen is just so, it was so based on these certain people’s personalities. Ok, this is the answer. I found in Yemen that politicians, even Yemenis across the board, but particularly politicians from the higher echelons of Yemeni society, their reasons for their political decisions or their business decisions or their likes or dislikes politically, have to do with ancient issues. They have to do with their family that many years ago had an issue with this person’s family. The roots of Yemeni society run so deep and there is a lot that goes on under the table with people’s political alliances that I learnt later when I was in Yemen. Like this person did not like this person because of this but really it was because of this. Their grandfather screwed over his grandfather and that sort of thing. I don’t think that exists in America to quite the same extent.
Q: Your book explores the experiences of a journalist caught in the midst of war, the title itself is ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets’ and your book is actually written in a great narrative that actually allows the reader to enjoy the experiences you had in Yemen. But there are certain points where reality clearly hit you, and the reader, quite hard; particularly the death of a fellow journalist who had been a cameraman, Hassan al Wadhaf, shot in the head by a sniper. You describe how ‘there is no easy way to find out a friend has died’ and that ‘you become way more experienced in this as the months unfolded into years and the death of friends became less a rarity and more expected’. Despite this, you stayed. Why?
A: Oh…why did I stay? I mean I did eventually leave! I just think you can’t make that decision. I mean you can make it all of a sudden or it can take a while to sink in. I still experience it now. I know many more people who have been killed more violently than the average 29 year old American and there is still so…you are able to witness so many extraordinary parts of life through being involved with these politically sensitive and chaotic times that somehow it feels, that sometimes it makes it worth it, though sometimes it is not worth it. There are some things that I still struggle with today which is why I cannot come up with a clear answer.
Q: So in a world where news services regularly broadcast numbers of fatalities in bomb blasts and normally they give you a number and then it is swiftly followed by the sports news so nobody ever really gets to appreciate the figures. But you appear to grapple with the simplicity of the deaths, not just the deaths themselves, versus the fact that you knew the actual victim who died. Is it safe to say that a war correspondent becomes detached from the death unfolding before them?
A: Yeah, I think so. Very much so! And I think that can even extend to people you know. It starts off with people who you don’t know and then because it is happening so many times. I think the only way you can sort of emotionally handle being around that much violent death is to become detached from it. And I would venture to say that Yemenis, Afghanis, Syrians, people who live through these experiences are, not that they are not feeling it strongly, because of course you still feel it very strongly, but, I don’t know. The only way to emotionally survive through it is to become detached. But people respond to it differently. That was my experience. I don’t want to say that is the way for everyone to handle it, but it certainly was for me. But I know that Yemenis have spoken about being desensitised which I think is really sad. It is really sad when that happens.
Q: You also describe how sometimes when Yemeni tribes would face each other, they would shoot in the air in a match of bravado and that the one who could shoot the most bullets was considered the winner. Also journalists who were kidnapped tended to be released upon the payment of a ransom and it was very rare to hear of a captive being killed. However when someone looks at James Foley, surely there is a new dimension to the safety aspect of being a war correspondent. How do you feel about continuing as a war correspondent?
A: I am definitely much more hesitant to put myself in a situation as I did before. Also, I mean, maybe now I’m older, and I don’t want to suggest that James Foley was necessarily young, but maybe you tend to be more reckless, at least I was when I was younger (not that I am that old). And so I definitely am more hesitant. The issue of kidnapping and targeted killing of westerners such as also happens in Afghanistan; it is scary. I am planning on moving back to the Middle East, but I am thinking of moving to North Africa. The other thing I will say is that there definitely is a disconnect though between watching on the news and what is actually happening on the ground. I mean Syria is obviously a different situation. But watching Yemen on the news and then actually being in Sanaa on the ground you realise that ‘Oh, it’s not quite as bad as everyone says it is’. And so, Yemeni friends who are American Yemenis who go back and forth will say that ‘Oh I was so scared but when I got to Sanaa it wasn’t so bad’. So that goes on as well. It is definitely hard to watch from afar what is happening in a violent place. You feel it is much more violent than it actually is.
Q: Your book explores the concept of hope amongst the people who gather in Tahrir square as they seek change and even the reader becomes immersed in that hope. Tunisia is celebrating its first elected parliament after relatively successful elections and is currently in the midst of its first democratically elected President. Where has it all gone wrong for Yemen since the fall of Saleh?
A: I mean there are so many ways that it has gone wrong. But I would say that something I witnessed to such a great extent was putting all the hope into President Hadi, which was ill-conceived. I think that putting all the hope into the National Dialogue as well which didn’t really do anything and not focusing on how to address other issues. Instead the focus was all on ‘how are we going to have this dialogue’ which was so so silly. Also, Hadi got his strength from Jamal Bin Omar which is not a recipe for success in any country especially not Yemen where a leader needs a strong basis of support or they are never going to run the country. And so I don’t think Hadi was cut out to be a leader. But obviously it is much more complicated.
Q: Were you surprised by Houthi’s swift takeover of Sanaa?
A: I was surprised by how quickly it happened but not surprised that it happened because the Houthis have been gaining strength since 2011. They have expanded their territory and in Old Sanaa I was told that you started to see a lot more pro-Zaydi graffiti and a lot of pro-Houthi sentiment. When I was there in 2012, the Houthis were even reaching out to Southern Separatists in Aden and it seemed that something strategic was happening.
Q: And do you agree with many analysts that Yemen is being dragged in the Saudi-Iran proxy war?
A: Yes! It seems like Iran has a lot of lay in Yemen but there are still a lot of very powerful people in Yemeni politics in the North who are backed by Saudi. I do not understand what exactly is happening with the Al-Ahmars as I am out here but I am sure those inside Yemen do.
Q: What is like reading your book back? The book is full of your experiences and it is said that it is easier to deal with when you read them back to yourself.
A: I haven’t read it yet…I have read the drafts many, many times but I haven’t read the final product. But the process of getting to the finished product; I think it was healthy, but there are moments when I read them back, particularly the parts which are most violent. It is difficult, particularly if I really think about it. I have this gut reaction. But when I hear other people read them out, I can feel detached from it.
Q: And what is the future?
A: I am planning on moving to Morocco and I want to get more involved in feature writing like magazine rather than news writing. I loved covering the news but I realised I am not cut out for breaking news. I think it needs a calm character to handle that environment. I think you need a strong nervous system and I don’t think I have that.