Life in the Danger Zone

6 September, 2018
Reporter Borzou Daragahi covering conflict in Libya in 2011

an interview with reporter Borzou Daragahi

Jordan Elgrably

These days it’s not uncommon for journalists (and citizen journalists) to become the first casualty when it comes to investigating conflict and reporting the news. According to Reporters Without Borders, 51 reporters and 10 citizen journalists have already been killed in 2018 alone. Over 300 have been imprisoned. And when not being imprisoned or shot, reporters face skeptics who scrutinize their every word. With history’s heavy-hitting dictators like Stalin and Hitler calling the press “the enemy of the people,” you have to wonder what page Donald Trump is on, as he plays fast and loose with the facts while accusing the press of reporting “fake news” and insisting that the media is the enemy.

All this to say that perhaps Borzou Daragahi’s job as a reporter isn’t as always as glamorous and privileged as it might appear from a distance. As a correspondent and Middle East expert, he seeks to reflect the truth in his work, but despite his expertise, there are always readers who question what he writes.

Born in Tehran, Daragahi grew up in the U.S. and studied journalism at Columbia in the 1990s. He first reported from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in 2002 as a stringer before joining the Los Angeles Times in 2005. Specializing in covering Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the Arab Peninsula states and North Africa, including Libya and Tunisia, Daragahi moved his base to Istanbul in 2015.

He writes about war, politics, economy and culture and is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy at the Atlantic Council, a Washington DC think tank. Daragahi is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his coverage of Iraq and Iran. You can find his columns in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, the Daily Beast and The Guardian, among others.

The Markaz Review: Borzou, thanks for taking the time to give this interview. Folks in Los Angeles became familiar with your byline in the Los Angeles Times as a correspondent reporting from far-flung countries like Iran and Iraq. Can you tell us a little about your own background, where you grew up, and how you came to write about the Middle East?

I was born in Iran, and grew up in New York City and the Chicago area. I have been interested in Middle East history and languages much of my life [in addition to English and Farsi, Daragahi speaks a smorgasbord of Arabic, Turkish, French, Spanish and German]. I was always hoping to give it a go as a freelancer in the Middle East, and finally came to the region to try to eke it out as a journalist a few months after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. 

TMR As someone of Iranian heritage, born in Tehran in 1969, what are some of the major misconceptions that Americans have about Iran; and what are the some of the media blindspots, or misrepresentations, about Iran?

First off, I wouldn’t say that my having been of Iranian heritage gives me any special insight into what’s happening inside the country. In fact, there are many Iranians living abroad who live in a fantasy world when it comes to understanding what’s happening in the country of their birth. I have worked extensively inside Iran, speak and read some Persian, and follow the news there carefully and that gives me a good sense of what’s happening inside the country. There are also journalists and scholars who are not of Iranian origin who have even a better understanding of the dynamics of the country than diaspora Iranians who may have not visited the country in 40 years or ever even been there.

“What’s truly amazing about Iran is that despite the repressive impulses of the security apparatuses, just how much goes on. I am speaking of freewheeling, political discourse, lively cultural transgressions, extraordinary acts of political bravery.”

Iran is a complex country of 80 million people with stark class and regional differences, so it’s hard to generalize—and even harder than most countries to get good information because of the restrictions of the regime. What’s truly amazing about Iran is that despite the repressive impulses of the security apparatuses, just how much goes on. I am speaking of freewheeling political discourse, lively cultural transgressions, extraordinary acts of political bravery. The country is in transformation, with a big generation gap between the ageing leadership and the energetic, frustrated young. The problem is that Iran’s GenX, who should be taking the reigns of power, are completely damaged by the experience of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, so are unable to play a healthy mediating role. 

TMR A former CIA agent, Robert Baer, once related to me that he thought the CIA didn’t know what it was getting into in Iraq, and he admitted in hindsight, he still didn’t fully understand the country. He certainly thought we, the United States, blundered completely with the 2003 invasion and everything we meddled with since then. Was he right? What should we understand about Iraq today?

Iraq is a profoundly damaged society that has been riven by so many wars and crises. There was the Iran-Iraq war, which had an entire intra-Iraqi dimension that pitted dominant Arabs against Kurdish and Shia populaces. Then the first Gulf War, which also sparked Shia and Kurdish uprisings. Then the pain of the sanctions. Then the US invasion. Then the insurgency. Then the civil war. Then ISIS. Each conflict and crisis pushed Iraqis into their sectarian and tribal groupings, and depleted the country’s middle class, robbing Iraq of nationhood. Iraqis need decades of calm to heal, and rebuild their national capacities. 

TMR If there were any advice you could give to Americans to mend and have a better relationship with Arab countries in general, and say Palestinians and Syrians in particular…?

Over the last few years, the US has conducted airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, as well as Afghanistan. Meanwhile it has pared back support for and even diplomatic outreach to civil society groups and democracy activists while embracing repressive tyrants across the region. At the same time it hung the Syrian opposition out to dry, while giving nothing to Palestinians. It has also sought to ban people from Muslim majority countries from visiting their relatives in the U.S. If  Americans really want “a better relationship with Arab countries,” maybe stop bombing them, banning them, betraying them, and propping up their tormentors? 

TMR You’re based in Istanbul these days, and it certainly seems that Turkey’s experiencing upheaval, a case of going to hell in a hand basket. I have one friend, Hussam Ayloush, who insists that Turkey has been the best refuge for Syrian and other refugees; but I have Kurdish and Armenian friends who constantly lament Turkey’s actions towards its ethnic minorities. What’s it been like for you to report from/be based in Turkey? What kind of relationship can Americans expect to have with Turkey going forward?

Turkey’s become a tougher place to work, but is still relatively easy and perhaps not as bad as it looks from the outside. I think that Turkish hostility to Kurds and Armenians is rooted in Turkish nationalism and has been a relative constant throughout the decades—it may even be milder now under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan than in previous periods. I think there is a lot of real tension between Washington and Ankara over specific disagreements—US support for the Syrian Kurds, perceived US  indifference to Turkey’s 2016 coup, Turkey’s cozying up to Russia and Iran. I tend to think the issues will smooth out if the Syria conflict reaches some kind of modus vivendi, and the memory of the coup recedes. Turkey and the West need each other, and the current period of tension
is somewhat of an anomaly.  

TMR After working in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and other areas of the greater Middle East, what’s next for you as a journalist? Is there a bigger picture in terms of where you see yourself evolving in the near- or mid-term?

By the time this interview will have appeared I will have begun a new job as an international correspondent for the UK’s Independent, based in Istanbul, and contributing to coverage of the Middle East as well as possibly the Caucasus, Balkans, and the broader Mediterranean basin. I also am a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank to which I contribute some research and ideas. Additionally, I will continue to contribute to a range of publications, from Foreign Policy to the Daily Beast. I recently started reporting on animal-welfare issues for the Guardian. All that variety keeps things pretty interesting. 

TMR We can’t help but ask, are you ever concerned about burn-out—that after years of covering one crisis after another, you may just want to wash your hands altogether when it comes to being a Mideast correspondent and turn to other interests?

I have a good life in Istanbul, where our six-year-old daughter goes to school and I have many friends. I love my job and this city is a great place to explore. I think having a balanced daily life prevents burnout. 

TMR Finally, are there any books you’ve read in the past year or two that you want to recommend to us, whether nonfiction or fiction?

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan and also Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey, or the television series based on it, “The Expanse,” some of the best and most intelligent science fiction out there.