By Maan Jalal
One of the most powerful takeaways from reading Souad Mekhennet’s memoir was something her grandfather told her. The people with power are the ones who write history, he said. This statement is something that proves true, time and time again, in Mekhennet’s life. It is the foundation for the work she does and what drives her to put her life at risk as a journalist.
Mekhennet is a German author and journalist and a correspondent for The Washington Post. Throughout her career, Mekhennet, who is of Turkish-Moroccan descent, has covered conflicts in wartorn, dangerous regions and has reported on terrorist attacks in Europe. Most astonishing is her determination when interviewing some of the world’s most wanted men who belong to radicalised and extremist groups such as Daesh and Al Qaeda.
Her memoir, I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, is nothing short of riveting, from the first page to the last heartbreaking chapter. It details her life as a young Muslim Arab woman living in Germany with her family, and their struggles as immigrants when anti-Muslim sentiments were on the rise. Mekhennet then details how her childhood and personal experiences shaped the career path she chose to take, reporting on the world of terrorism.
Since the publication of her memoirs, the Chicago Journalists Association named Mekhennet the 2017 recipient of the Daniel Pearl Award, which was established in the memory of Daniel Pearl, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped by terrorists and killed in 2002. Her memoirs are also being adapted into a drama series by The Cantillon Company and Brillstein Partners. After reading the book, I can guarantee that the show would be one not to miss.
Mekhennet was always told to come alone, with no form of ID, no phone, no recording device when interviewing jihadists. All she had was a pen and writing pad. I imagined she would simply ask questions and leave, but no. Mekhennet engaged with these extremists in a way that challenged their ideas, their thought process and their actions. With that in mind, on my way to interview her, I half expected to meet a loud, bolshie and perhaps even a confrontational journalist and thinker. What I found was a strong, determined, soft spoken and calm individual whose collective personal experiences, work and goals are inspirational.
For many Muslims of my generation, the events of 9/11 were a tipping point for how we perceived ourselves and how the world viewed us. Having lived in the West for 18 years during this time, I saw a marked difference in how I was treated after the word ‘terrorist’ became synonymous with Muslim and Arab. My religion, my looks, my place of birth, my language, my very name were, if not a point of discussion then a judgement on who I was and what I stood for. I was expected to be part of this dangerous problem or to answer for the violence that someone so far away from my own lived experience committed, in the name of our shared religion or perceived identity.
As I read Mekhennet’s book, from her experiences as a young Muslim to her journey of trying to build bridges, to find meaning in the chaos of extremist behaviour or the illusion of this “clash of civilisations”, I saw myself. And every other young Muslim I know who is struggling to understand this web of violence that has been unfairly connected to them.
Mekhennet’s book is a vital piece of documentation that needs to exist right now. Not only is it important from a journalistic point of view, reminding us of the key role they play and the risks they take to get stories, but it is also the documentation of what one Muslim woman can achieve despite the odds. Given her example, I think the words of her grandfather ring true. In Mekhennet’s story, she has used words not only to empower herself but to also empower the rest of us.
I spoke to Mekhennet, who was in the UAE recently to promote the Arabic translation of her book published by Rewayat Books at the Sharjah Book Fair, about the process of writing her book, its reception and the Muslim representation in global media. Excerpts from a conversation…
How has the feedback been on the book so far?
In the US, so far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very curious about those I interview, people I present in this book, how they think. People were actually very thankful and grateful. I received really positive feedback. People who have lost family members or loved ones since 9/11, people of all different ages. In Europe, I received some positive feedback, but also some threats, from people in Germany and especially in The Netherlands. I think it has a little bit to do with the current political situation in Europe.
Were you expecting this kind of negativity?
It is a very crucial time when it comes to the situation in Europe. We have the rise of populist ideas and anti-Muslim sentiments. You have to just look at the elections and events that unfolded in some European countries. So, I understand also from personal experience, that I mention in the book, that some people have an issue with a person of Muslim or Arab descent trying to challenge them on an intellectual level. Somebody who has actually been through these experiences, has interviewed some of the most wanted people in this world, and who grew up in the West — but who also understands the mindsets in the Middle East and in the Muslim world, and works for an American news outlet. It’s a very unique perspective.
What was it like to put down your experience as a journalist, and also weave in your childhood and personal life?
It was challenging for me because I don’t like to talk about myself and my life and how my work has affected me. So, it was a choice I had to make, and I think it was important to explain to people who I am, how I grew up. Also, the way my parents and grandparents taught me Islam, how I understand the religion… when I was in Germany, I went to a Christian kindergarten. I describe in the book, for example, the situation in Germany when the houses of Turkish migrants were being burnt… I think it’s important to tell all those stories. Because people forget, unfortunately that this is part of the truth.
What about the writing process itself?
The writing process for me was sometimes so difficult. It was difficult because, you see, I have been through some very harsh experiences. I have risked my life and put myself in danger. And so, when I wrote, I wrote it in a way whereby the reader could be with me on this journey. I had to also explain how I felt when I went through those experiences… it meant that old wounds were opened again, old traumas came back and I had moments where I just said, “I can’t finish this, I just can’t”.
How can we tackle this issue of representing ourselves positively as Muslims by making it clear that we are against acts of violence but we aren’t ashamed of our heritage or identity?
First of all, by having an open and honest discussion about the things that are going wrong, and how some people are getting radicalised. As you can see in the book, I describe different people, different biographies of men and women and I describe different circumstances, which led to their radicalisation. I’m saying this to people in the West as well. I think we should have the discussion in this region — what are the reasons for radicalisation? What are the kind of mistakes that are done by us as a society? Why are recruiters being able to win over the hearts and minds of certain people? I believe it’s because we don’t allow, on a global level, certain discussions to happen. We need to have those kind of debates. We need to allow them and we have to allow people to challenge each other on an intellectual level, which means discussions.
What else do you think is necessary?
There has to be a clear idea, on a global level, that when people speak on behalf of Islam — or any religion — and preach certain things, we don’t all believe that to be a part of our religion. We need some kind of an institution that will clarify and say this is not how it is. It’s so important because we don’t have that. And also, frankly speaking, we need role models. Yes, I know there are some amazing people all over the Arab world who have achieved amazing things, but we need role models on a different level. Someone who has worked hard and achieved something. I know this is hard today when we are looking at what the newest trends are in phones or makeup or whatever, and yes, that’s also part of life, and that’s wonderful, but we also have to be aware that, as citizens of this world, we have a responsibility, to be aware that we send messages through our actions. We have to, on different layers and different levels, change the way we deal with topics and how we discuss them.
Maán is a bibliophile, art enthusiast
and collector of second hand books