Afshin Molavi talks to Kim Ghattas, author and BBC journalist.
By Afshin Molavi | February 6, 2018
When Kim Ghattas boarded a plane in Washington that would take her to Beirut in the year 2009, she was following a familiar path of millions of Lebanese living away from home: a return visit to the homeland. But there was nothing familiar about this homecoming: Kim was on board the airplane of the secretary of state of the United States, Hillary Clinton, as the BBC’s State Department correspondent.
Flying into Beirut on “an aging American government plane” with the Secretary of State Clinton “contrasted somewhat with my image of an omnipotent American superpower”, she wrote in her incisive book, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power.
Ghattas was born in Beirut two years after Lebanon’s civil war erupted, and she recalls her father – and many other Lebanese – saying throughout the war years that the US could end the war when it pleased. The US, in their eyes, was all powerful. “As a child, I never imagined I would one day live in that distant land and would be able to put some of those questions to the American secretary of state,” she wrote.
Watching US foreign policy-making up close disabused Ghattas of whatever was left of her thoughts about US omnipotence from her days as a school girl in war-torn Beirut. These were real people making flawed decisions based on limited information, she came to realize, and her book skillfully chronicles the mix of confusion and earnest attempts to craft smart policy reflective of most US administrations.
Today, Ghattas has taken a step back from day-to-day reporting and the Washington news cycle to focus on writing a new book, reflecting on the contemporary history of the Middle East. Increasingly, she harkens back to the war years in Lebanon but, perhaps surprisingly, she recalls them with “a strange fondness”.
“I would like to one day write a book about Lebanon and I have this sentence that is stuck in my head that I really want to start the book with, and it goes along the lines of: ‘What troubles me most about my memories of growing up in the war is the fondness with which I remember them.’ ”
“I do not mean to romanticize war,” she said. “War is a terribly unpleasant thing. It’s hard to explain to people who have not lived through it exactly the extent [to which] it affects you and stays with you, especially in such formative years.”
Ghattas was 13 when the war ended, it was the year she decided that she wanted to be a journalist. “But I had no idea how to go about it,” she said. Her parents ran a business importing and smoking salmon, and she recalls doing the rounds of clients with her father as a teenager or helping create dill sauces.
Launching a youth magazine in high school, working as an intern for the Daily Star of Lebanon while a student at the American University of Beirut, and serving as a fixer for visiting US and European correspondents while in college, Ghattas slowly built up her own portfolio as a freelancer, starting to report for a leading Dutch newspaper in 2000, then the BBC, and in 2003 the Financial Times.
In April 2003, she was in Baghdad. Another war. More tragedy. More killing. When she heard “the distant sound of shelling”, she told me, “it felt so strangely and comfortingly familiar that it scared me a little bit. This was a noise I recognized very deep in the back of my mind. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.”
Today, after nine years in Washington, which she still calls home, she spends more time in her hometown of Beirut, focusing on her book and her column for Foreign Policy, reflecting on where the region is going, and serving on the Board of Trustees at the American University of Beirut.
La Colombe Coffee in Washington, DC
Kim: Earl Grey
“Pakistani chai,” Kim Ghattas said, recalling a passion she developed for the milky tea infused with cardamom from a long reporting trip in Pakistan a few years ago. “I went through a phase at home where I would make a lot of Pakistani chai,” she said, “but it was too much milk, so I gave that up.”
Like many of her generation, Kim is “more of a coffee drinker, very much an espresso person”. We settled in at La Colombe, her favorite coffee shop in DC, a place that had become part of her BBC-hiatus writing life. “I will come here in the morning and have an espresso, sometimes two, and begin writing.” Later, she said, she would return in the afternoon for tea.
“I would drink tea every morning growing up as a kid with my dad,” Kim says on a winter afternoon. “It was always tea and an egg for breakfast. My father always said, ‘You can’t leave the house without something warm in your stomach. So you must have tea!’ ”
As we spoke of her father, we started with her early years as a child of Lebanon’s civil war.
“There was something in that war that made me who I am”
In my first 12 years of life, there was war in Beirut. Then, at the age of 13, peace broke out. There was still a lot of chaos, a lot of instability in the years that followed, but those war years will never leave you. I’ve always wanted to write a book about Lebanon, and I still haven’t, but one day, I hope I will. And I have this sentence that is stuck in my head that I really want to start the book with, and it goes along the lines of: “What troubles me most about my memories of growing up in the war is the fondness with which I remember them.”
War is a terribly unpleasant, brutal thing. It’s hard to explain to people who have not lived through it exactly the extent to which it affects you and stays with you, especially in such formative years. But there was something in the war that made me who I am. And there’s something also that brought people together. It brings out the worst of people and the best of people. And a lot of people in Lebanon have those strange, fond memories, and I have two thoughts about it.
One is that it’s a coping mechanism, and I think it’s how the Lebanese are able to function at a fairly high level, even though they’ve gone through so much trauma. I don’t actually think there was collective amnesia. Instead, there was a form of collective joking therapy. We recalled the war by recalling the best meal we’d had, or that time when our neighbor wanted to go see his girlfriend on the other side of Beirut, and had to dodge bullet fire to get there, then missed the curfew and had to sleep over at her house. We came up with all these fond stories, which I think helps us forget the bad and remember the good, whatever good there was. There wasn’t much of it. But it helps to cope, and when you do it with the community that experienced it with you, I think it makes it much more manageable to live with those memories, to alleviate their seriousness, and I think that is definitely one way to deal with post traumatic stress disorder.
Second, it means you obliterate a lot of things from your memory. I only learned much later that trauma has that effect on your memory. You have these complete dark patches where you don’t remember anything. I mean, I have some memories that are truly horrible. We really lived on the front lines of the civil war. We were in “no man’s land” between east and west Beirut. Very much on the green line. It was called Hay el Amerkan (the neighborhood of the Americans) because there were a lot of foreigners living there before the war. And then it became sniper central. We literally had to dodge sniper fire going to school in the morning.
We went to school, we went to Sunday lunches, we studied, but our apartment building was also bombed several times. And there were very few people left in the neighborhood. I don’t think we were ever in the apartment when it was hit by shelling, but stray bullets would hit. One time it was hit so bad we couldn’t live in it anymore. Luckily, before the war my parents had bought a small beach house north of Beirut, so that’s where we were living for a while, five people in two rooms. You’d think it’s cool to live by the beach but in the winter it was deserted and cold. And it meant the commute to school was two hours in the morning and two hours back through endless checkpoints.
From conservative Netherlands to cosmopolitan Beirut
I was born in Beirut and grew up in the city, but at home we spoke mostly Dutch, French, and English, and I learned Arabic mostly in school. My mother is Dutch. My father had an import-export business and he went to the Netherlands to meet a supplier of Dutch meat in the mid-1960s, and my mother was working there. It was really one of those fateful stories because my mother was supposed to be on holiday, but a colleague asked her to stay a day later to cover for her. And that day, my dad walked in. She spoke English, but her boss did not, so she became their translator.
They went out to dinner that evening and she helped the boss translate again, and I don’t know the full story but there was another dinner, and he invited her to visit him in Lebanon. She went, and I think went back one more time and then she never left, and that was 51 years ago. And Lebanon was a huge contrast. The Netherlands was still recovering from World War II. There was poverty, rationing, and it was very Calvinist, conservative. It wasn’t yet the liberated tolerant Netherlands we know now. But Lebanon in the 60s had parties and beautiful dresses and casinos and restaurants and concerts. It was a huge contrast, I forget that sometimes. She left a sedate, conservative country and went to Lebanon and saw Levantine cosmopolitanism at its best.
Smoking salmon amid war
Some ask why we did not leave Lebanon when the war started, like so many others. First, my parents had just started a business, so leaving meant really starting from zero. This was a salmon business. My father had an export-import business before, but in 1975, the year the war started, they had just inaugurated their factory where they started smoking salmon, the first such business in Lebanon and the region. There’s also the fact you just don’t know how long the war will last. At some point they sent my sisters to live with my uncle in the Netherlands, but they didn’t like being separated. They didn’t want to leave my dad alone. At the end of 1976, there was a ceasefire. So they thought it was over. They kept thinking it might be over soon, it can’t get worse. But it went on for 15 years, and it kept getting worse.
A decision at age 13
I decided to become a journalist at the age of 13. So just as the war ended. I felt the world had not quite understood what had happened in the country; I wanted to tell that story. I didn’t know how to do this. I don’t necessarily plot 10 years ahead but I did think: I want to do this, so what’s the first step, then the next step? And every time you take one step, other doors open. So first I went through a very mathematical process to decide I wanted to be a journalist. I wrote an essay to myself, option A, option B, therefore C, and I very doggedly kept at it. My parents were very unhappy with my choice initially because they were hoping I’d take over the family business. But they also didn’t understand what journalism was about. Frankly, neither did I really. I just knew I had to be a journalist and tell the story of my country. .
I often think back and wonder how I even came up with the idea to be a journalist and what model did I envision? I was completely unaware of most US legends. There were no obvious role models around me. We had great journalism and journalists in Lebanon, of course, but none of that was in my world really. At some point, we got the BBC evening news on television, but that was about it.
During college, I was already very busy learning how to be a journalist. I started a youth magazine with friends while I was in my last year of high school, which we distributed across Lebanon to universities, and I kept doing that while I was in university, and I interned with a local English language newspaper, The Daily Star, because I figured that my next step should be some sort of internship, which was a rather unknown concept in Lebanon at the time, and then they hired me part time after a month.
My dream was to do graduate study abroad, but my parents were quite keen to keep me close to them. They lost their first two daughters to studying abroad, and they never came back. So I kept working with The Daily Star, and I started working as a fixer and translator for foreign correspondents who would come to Lebanon. I would drive them around Lebanon in my little grey Golf Volkswagen, translating interviews with Hizbollah leaders or the president or prime ministers.
I loved being a fixer, I learned a lot from the greats of American journalism. I also wrote for a small outlet called Inter Press Service, and I wrote for The Daily Star. And then gradually, I got a few joint bylines in the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Washington Post, and then I started writing my own articles and, finally, I picked up these different freelance jobs for the BBC, the FT, and de Volkskrant.
Things were going so well that I made my peace with staying in Lebanon and I kept delaying the idea of traveling overseas for a masters in journalism. In retrospect, being forced to stay in Lebanon turned out to be the making of my career.
The Iraq War and “the soundtrack of my childhood”
I was in Iraq two days before the war started in 2003. I was planning to stay, but my parents couldn’t handle it. My sister called crying from Paris, my mother called crying from Beirut. One of the reasons they didn’t want me to become a journalist is they wanted me to take over the business. It took a little time for them to come to terms that I wasn’t going to do that, at the time, and it took them a while to acknowledge that I had made the right decision. When they first saw me on television, they said, “Oh, ok, so this is what she does”, and they were very proud. They could see what it meant to be a journalist.
But as much as I wanted to stay in Iraq in March of 2003, I couldn’t stand the guilt of the anguish I was putting my parents through. Communication was very hard, we didn’t know how long things would last, and my dad softly, quietly asked, “How much is the BBC paying you to be there? I’ll give you the same money if you come back.” I was very offended at the time, but I came to understand how he was both terribly proud of and terrified for me. My father was very supportive of his three daughters going into the world, studying, and working, and he had never before tried to stand in the way of my reporting, his rebel daughter, going to Syria, to Iraq under Saddam, covering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon, but this was beyond what his heart could bear.
So, I went to Syria, and I covered that side of the story for the BBC, which turned out to be a big story because you had all these Arab jihadis who were being funnelled through Damascus to Baghdad, and I wrote one of the first stories about that for the FT. It was very early on – before the fall of Baghdad – the Syrians were already busy bussing jihadis to Iraq. Then, I got to Baghdad soon after the fall of Saddam, and in the hotel, at night, I could hear the distant sound of shelling,
It felt so strangely, comfortingly familiar that it scared me a little bit. This was a noise I recognized very deep in the back of my mind. It was the soundtrack of my childhood.
I remained a freelancer for the BBC from 2002 to 2006. In 2006, I joined as a contract staffer. I opened the BBC bureau for them in Beirut, and then, in 2008, I applied for the State Department job and I did that job until I covered the US election of 2016.
The US is not so omnipotent after all
I was the only non-Western – or not 100% Western – full-time press corps correspondent on the State Department plane. I was also the first non-British State Department correspondent for the BBC. I think that’s one of the reasons why my boss at the time thought I had a lot to add, because as the BBC we broadcast to audiences around the world, from India and China to Pakistan and Venezuela, and I grew up with the same questions that a lot of people still have around the world: Why doesn’t the US just do this, or why is the US doing that, and I grew up with my dad saying if the US wanted the war to end it would be over tomorrow. So as a kid, I always wondered: Well, why aren’t they bringing an end to it?
When I came to the US, as an adult obviously, I’d left behind the naivete of my childhood, and I was already a seasoned journalist. I had been around more and seen the complexities of geopolitics, but it was still quite sobering to see the difficulty US diplomats faced to make things go their way – that the US we grew up thinking was omnipotent was actually run by human beings who are fallible and don’t always have the best information available and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. And a lot of people I met were very earnest, very keen to make a good impact.
Of course, there were others who would make comments like: The strikes against Syria were their afternoon entertainment. That contrast can be jarring when you know personally what that means and you hear comments made flippantly about the impact US policy has on the lives of others. That’s a jarring moment.
Cosmopolitanism and Lebanon
I think the ability to embrace a dual identity and be a citizen of the world in a true sense is both very challenging and very enriching. To be able to hold on to your local roots but have a global reach is something that should almost be taught in school. I never lived in the Netherlands, but I grew up speaking Dutch with my mom, and I love whatever bits of Dutch cuisine actually exist. I stay in touch with my cousins. I connect with Dutch diplomats in countries I visit, and in Beirut and Washington I have a lot of Dutch friends, I keep up with Dutch news. I feel very attached to that part of my identity. I would not want to give it up.
I often get asked if I’m applying for a US green card, or if I want to become American, and I think this is a wonderful country, but I have two passports and I would have to give up one of them to become American, and I’m not willing to give up either of them. I’m very attached to my Lebanese identity as well. This idea that cosmopolitanism is a rejection of local identity is a misguided idea. Cosmopolitanism means combining local roots and global reach.
And I think we have somehow perfected that in Lebanon. We are so attached to our identity, down to how each village has its own recipe of this or that dish, and yet we travel, we bring ideas back, we emigrate. In the Levant, cosmopolitanism was at its best in between the late 19th century and early 20th. We forget that period but it’s not that long ago. I think it comes down to education, to mixing of ideas and people; it wasn’t up for discussion, it just was.
“What happened to us?”
I have more time to think now about where we are in the Middle East today, and one question that comes up a lot in our conversations, perhaps mostly among the elites but not only, is: ‘What happened to us?’ What happened to us since the 1960s when we produced so much art and theater and music, beautiful movies? It was a time of reform and progress, the region was not a beacon of liberalism but it was on a trajectory – and then we took a crazy detour. It was also the failure of pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, and the rise of dictatorships, but today we seem to be completely stuck. And I simplify, because there is more than that, but we seem stuck between ISIS and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. And I’m not equating them or comparing them, but people do feel stuck between two models that don’t quite work for them, a terrible binary choice. They want more.
I want to retrace our steps and ask, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ And I keep bumping up against the year 1979 as the year when, in reaction to the revolution in Iran, the Sunni world and particularly the Saudis felt they had to beef up their Islamic credentials. And for the next 40 years, there was a domino of decisions taken, a cycle of actions and reactions, of events happening from Egypt to Pakistan that led us to where we are today. I started thinking about this in late 2014 and working on a book idea, and it’s interesting to see it’s become a bit of the subject du jour. I better hurry up with my book!