Sometimes a reporter is simply lucky enough to pick the right restaurant for tea.
That’s one way journalist Souad Mekhennet, a contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, and a veritable force in modern journalism, describes her experience in 2001, listening in on conversations of the regulars in a Muslim neighborhood in Hamburg. Some of these regulars were affiliated with the al-Quds mosque, which several al-Qaeda operatives from the so-called Hamburg Cell, who would go on to attack the United States, attended.
I Was Told to Come Alone is an intense, descriptive collection of her experiences from the front lines of reporting on jihad, extremism, and terrorism. It’s both thrilling and terrifying: as the title indicates, she’s often instructed to leave her phone, blindfolded, threatened overtly and obliquely, and forced to make weighty decisions in the interest of colleagues’ security. Yet despite the dangerous conditions, she’s managed to break and report on some of the most important news stories relating to Middle Eastern conflicts, bringing the perspective and sensitivity of her own Muslim background as well as her worldly open-mindedness and inquisitiveness. She’s just remarkable.
She’s been at the epicenter of some of the most pivotal current events in the intersection of the Middle East and the West in recent years: 9/11 and the aftermath, war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, Europe’s refugee and terrorism crises.
But it’s not all luck: Mekhennet is a talented and dedicated journalist – a sensitive writer with an eye and a sense for an engaging, important story, a polyglot (speaking German, English, several Arabic dialects, French), and well-versed in cultures and how and why they clash, drawing on her own upbringing in both Western and Arabic countries.
She straddles these cultural lines effortlessly, and it’s clear that being female has been a boon, not a drawback, difficult as it can also be. I loved this – she does endure blatant sexism and the topic of her marital status (and whether she’s interested in marrying jihad fighters comes up far too often for my own comfort, I can’t imagine how she feels about it) and yet she handles this constant prodding about her gender with unflappable grace and patience.
It seems her gender has sometimes allowed her special access behind the lines, maybe even saved her life, although also being Muslim plays a role too. It’s been a helpful combination, as she’s made it out alive from interviews, dinners, and teas with Taliban commanders, al-Qaeda officials, and any manner of jihadi mujahideen. Even when she admits her fear or nervousness in her writings, she’s kept her cool in situations that make me nervous just reading about them.
As she encounters Muslims who identify solely by religion, not taking into account the countries of their birth or which gave them refuge, rather clinging to an us-against-them mentality, she comes to a chilling realization.
I began to understand that I was entering a world from which my parents had always tried to protect me.
But it’s not that she was shielded from discrimination. It’s everything to do with the path one chooses. An interviewed Berlin rapper-turned-fundamentalist explains his reasoning for sympathizing with ISIS and becoming more involved in events in Syria:
“‘Maybe because of my own experience growing up here, I always felt I should support those who are weak, the underdogs,’ he said. I’ve often heard this argument from members of terrorist organizations. The problem is that if it’s taken too far, ‘supporting underdogs’ can easily turn into oppressing others.”
Mekhennet then reminds the reader of her own upbringing as the child of guest workers in Frankfurt, when she was also often singled out by what some refer to as “German Germans”. She gets it, what these others feel as “outsiders”, but she doesn’t let them get away with it. She’s been through the same, and it hasn’t made her bitter, or hard, or angry. Or when she’s felt those things, she’s turned the negativity into something else: curiosity, education, the drive to understand and educate others with the truth.
She’s always showing this contrast: every Muslim has choices to make, see what her family chose, what she’s chosen, despite their struggles against racism and xenophobia. Compare their difficult road with what she says is the easier way out: becoming angry and fighting with violence instead of openness, understanding, and integration.
Mekhennet has the steadying influence of her culturally blended family (a Moroccan father and Turkish mother) who had been through separations, heartbreaks, loss, and the pain of never being fully accepted in a country that allowed them to come as Gastarbeiter, guest workers, tasked with the jobs that ‘German Germans’ didn’t want to do – cleaning, cooking, etc.
In her interviews with many of the refugees who came to Europe in 2013-2015, she’s startled to find that many refuse to do the kind of her work her parents did. Or they balk at the idea of their wives or children doing it. She argues that, unlike the official narrative put forth by some politicians in support of the refugees, they were not the intelligentsia or highly skilled workers as claimed, but rather farmers and laborers. These same farmers and laborers told her they were above doing the same work in Europe.
The more alienated Muslims felt in Europe, I thought, the more separate they actually became, embedding themselves ever deeper in the faith and community the majority culture were criticizing. I remembered how, when I was fifteen or sixteen and enraged by racism and violence against Muslims in Germany, I wanted to wear the hijab as a sign of protest. My parents talked to me. ‘You’re angry,’ they said, explaining that fury wasn’t a good reason to adopt a religious practice.
She’s concerned with what she sees and hears in the refugee way stations, and with what their reaction will be when Europe doesn’t turn out the way they’re expecting.
Mekennet is perhaps best known for uncovering the identity of Jihadi John, the mysterious British-accented ISIS fighter who appeared in several notorious beheading videos. She solves the mystery of his identity, but at great personal risk to herself.
Warned about the potential dangers of attaching her name to this massive story, she rationalizes her decision: “I had my own reasons for acknowledging my role in the story. I wanted to send a message to Jihadi John and others like him: we will tell the world who you are and stop you from spreading fear -and a Muslim journalist, a woman, has the power to do this.”
Smartly written, revealing account of important journalistic endeavors from an inspiringly strong and intelligent woman.
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad
by Souad Mekhennet
published June 13, 2017 by Henry Holt and Co.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.