If you ask me… Hala Jaber

THERE is in Hala Jaber a mix of cynicism and passionate belief that is probably in the DNA of many foreign correspondents.

After spending three years in Iraq, the Sunday Times journalist, who last month was named foreign reporter of the year at the British Press Awards for the second year running, has lost her faith in the West and has become increasingly disillusioned with its rhetoric.

But although she says she is depressed as a result of what she has seen, and looks distressed when she recalls the loss of two friends — Marla Ruzicka and, much more recently, the Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat — she still holds on to the belief that, as a journalist, what she does can make a difference.

The death of Bahjat blew away the last shreds of the confidence she had that as a woman and an Arab she might have some immunity in Iraq. But Jaber, who is from Lebanon, has no intention of staying away — even if she has bouts when she is convinced she can’t go back.

Jaber, 45, says she frequently begs her foreign editor Sean Ryan to send her to do a fashion show instead. But she always finds herself back in his office persuading him to allow her to go back.

She often refers to herself in the third person as "little Hala" or "wise Hala", and has concluded that she can’t stop going to Iraq as long as the conflict there continues — and her nightmare is that it won’t end for a long time.

Small, wiry, with an air of confidence and strength that is heightened by her willingness to express her vulnerability, Jaber was raised a Muslim, but was encouraged beyond the traditional expectations of women by her businessman father, who would make a point of asking her views during discussions around the dinner table and nurturing her interest in politics.

Having cut her teeth as a journalist in Lebanon in the ’80s, she was given her first job by Associated Press bureau chief Terry Anderson just months before he was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1985 — the last and longest-held US hostage, he was freed after seven years.

It was during these "crazy times" in Beirut that she met her husband, the photographer Steve Bent, with whom she still frequently works with on assignment.

Although determined and ambitious, Jaber says she sees herself as her main competitor. Having won the accolade of foreign reporter of the year in 2005, she allowed herself the luxury of acknowledging that she had won acceptance among her peers, but decided that winning it just the once was "too easy". So she set herself the challenge of winning it for a second time, something that all her colleagues told her would never happen.

On the night of the awards in March, she wasn’t "wise Hala" who was able to look at the situation rationally, she says. Instead she felt "so scared and alone" she didn’t even go to the pre-awards party, but sat on her own and had a couple of drinks.

The feelings beforehand "were worse than anything I experienced in Iraq," says Jaber, so it is small wonder that she describes the moment when she heard her name being called out as "one of the best in my life".

When the ceremony was over she immediately phoned her husband and then her father to tell him, "Daddy, I got it again."

"All of this came about by default"

I’m an accountant by trade. I fell into all this by mistake, seriously. I don’t have journalism training.

I started as a radio monitor. I was the auditor for Price Waterhouse when Terry Anderson asked me to do radio monitoring. This was at a time when I didn’t know what the President of Lebanon was called — I wasn’t involved in that kind of politics.

Lebanon was Lebanon, 17 years of civil war and there are 10 stories every day, they’re massive. It’s a school in its own way, so I learnt the hard way. The war is literally on your doorstep, you have to learn.

Terry Anderson hired me and then within six months he got kidnapped.

When he came out it was the one story I didn’t want to go and cover, because I felt guilty.

I harboured guilt throughout the seven years he was kidnapped because I felt we had let him down as a country. I took that burden upon me and didn’t want to face him and say what have we done to you? You were a good voice for the Lebanese story, for us, and this is how we repaid you.

We have met since. He was on a book tour in London for his book. I told him how I felt and he said he understood, it was something we had to come to terms with and that he didn’t hold us responsible in any form or shape. Now it’s OK. We are friends.

Every time he comes to town I see him.

"If I had to choose the story I am most proud of"

There would have to be two. The first was spending four days with a bunch of young men who were all preparing to become suicide bombers, and I managed to sit with them and talk to them on a one-to-one basis. The point wasn’t to propagate anything, but to look at why people eventually become like that, what is it that triggers them.

They were not religious people, they were very secular young men, university graduates from well-off families. It was amazing to listen to them during hours and hours of conversation, having arguments and chain smoking at night and them trying to tell me what brought them to that point.

I had always thought that you don’t suddenly become a suicide bomber, you don’t wake up one morning and think ‘I want to blow myself up and kill some people’. There’s got to be something beyond that and I don’t believe it’s just brainwashing either.

It was a very revealing story both to me and people who read it.

Another one would have to be Fallujah before the bombing, me penetrating it last December when no one had, when the Americans had blockaded it for more than a year.

"I thought being a woman gave us immunity in Iraq, but when I heard what they did to Atwar Bahjat, I cried and cried"

I’m no braver than anyone else. But I continue to make believe — and I say make believe because I’m convinced now that it’s not the case — that I am an Arab, and that is still an advantage. I say I make believe because the last few weeks and months have proven that Iraqis aren’t even safe any more, so why should an Arab be.

There’s no immunity any more, it’s no longer about nationality or origin — they are killing everybody.

When they picked up Atwar Bahjat a month ago and killed her, it was the last straw, in a way. There are those moments when I think that I can’t go back there. Oh God, I go through them definitely and that was one. I cried so much when I heard. I cried and cried.

I had kept on thinking that as a woman I had immunity, but when they killed her it showed even that doesn’t help us any more.

I felt helpless. We won’t ever find out why and I really wanted to know why, maybe for my sanity more than anything else. I felt guilty for all the times I should have called her more or seen her more when I was there, and maybe guilty because I have a choice — I can tell my foreign editor I really don’t want to go to Iraq and he won’t send me.

When our local correspondent Ali drops me at the airport to come back and I give him a big hug and see tears in his eyes, I feel so heartbroken. I know that feeling because I used to be there in Beirut.

I lived through the civil war and the journalists used to come in and then leave, but we stayed.

"I sometimes feel I carry Iraq on my shoulders like excess baggage"

I’m only now noticing the impact being in Iraq has had on me. I’ve said it so many times to friends, but initially they thought it was a figure of speech, but it isn’t, it’s become part of my way. I now live it, which I never used to do. Last year Marla [Ruzicka], a young girl from California, was killed there in a car bomb. I flipped after that.

I don’t look at things the same way. Part of me is always depressed in the sense that I have given up believing that politicians and governments, the Western world that I actually believed in hugely, is what it says it is all about. All the nice rhetoric is not true.

Sometimes I feel like I carry Iraq on my shoulders and I can’t shrug it off. No matter what I do, where I go, it’s literally there with me like excess baggage and I don’t seem able to get rid of it.

"I feel it’s my duty to go to Iraq"

I will go back. I think at the moment we have become the only truthful relay to the West of what’s going on — I’m talking about the few journalists who continue to go to Iraq. If we decided we couldn’t go then we would get what the Americans tell us, which I’m sorry is total capital BS, and what the Brits are telling us, which is also not true.

I think that I’m destined to be tied to this country for as long as this story goes on — and that’s frightening in its own way.

It’s like I’m duty-bound morally, professionally and as a human being.

"I don’t think I could do what I do if I had children"

I don’t have children. It didn’t happen. But in the past four years, because there have been times I haven’t understood why I didn’t have children, I have thought maybe now I do understand, because this was going to happen. Somehow the places I’m going, and the stories I’m doing, the people I’m meeting, and the situations I’m in, I don’t think I’d be able to do if I had children. I don’t think I could put any child through that — you could get killed and we don’t kid ourselves about that, so somehow its worked out for the best in the long run.

"Growing up in Lebanon during the civil war taught me how to deal with Iraq"

When I come back I usually hit a bit of a low, but I usually work it out. I cry and cry and cry. I can burst into tears for no reason. I talk about it, I won’t hide it. I think I learnt in my own country how to deal with it, how not to lose my mind totally.

"I have one nightmare"

It comes and goes, but every trip to Iraq, usually by the second night, I have it, then I move on. When I’m home I usually have it and then it’s done. It’s basically that I am caught in a situation and it’s to do with decapitation.

I watched the videos because I had to write about them. I had never seen anything like that before. My worst nightmare is that I am in a situation and my head is going to be cut off, and slicing through my throat and maybe the knife is not sharp. I can feel the pain and I hear the gurgling of those people and their voices when they were being killed. It’s the one thing that has really gripped me. It’s my one terror.

Even now when I’m there and I meet with insurgents I say, ‘Listen guys, if I ever get kidnapped — OK maybe not by your group because you’re sitting with me and accepting me, but by another group you know — promise me one thing. Whoever takes me, if they want to kill me, tell them please to spare me the knife. I don’t mind if you shoot me in the head, but not the knife.’ That’s my nightmare. There are times I will wake up and I am screaming. Maybe I shouldn’t have watched all of them, maybe one was enough, but I justified watching each story — now my boss bans me.

"I felt ashamed to be a Muslim"

One night I watched one — it was one of the Americans before [Kenneth] Bigley — and I was in Iraq and I totally flipped, I freaked. I phoned my father at night and I was cursing like he has never heard me in his entire life. I was telling him I was born a Muslim, but I recant it if they want to tell me this is what Islam is about, even though I know that’s not the case. It was my immediate reaction, I felt so angered and ashamed that people could even do it in the name of religion. It makes you struggle with yourself and your identity.

"I am destined to do hell holes"

I have decided I won’t ask for fashion shoots any more, but I am going to make a list of all the other hell holes so little Hala can have a choice of hell holes. I need to be refreshed from Iraq by doing other hell holes, places such as Africa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, then I can do Iraq better.

"The standards I set for myself are so high, it’s scary"

Winning the award the first time was amazing, but I set a challenge — it’s the way I function — that the hardest thing would be getting the second.

Everyone was telling me that I would be disappointed, that I should be content with being nominated, that it wasn’t going to happen. When Jon Snow said my name it was the best moment of my life. The painful moments will always be there, but it made it worth it. It was like ‘thank you’ and well done, which you need.

I never sit back and think I’ve made it. I still panic every week as if I’m producing the first story.

Sometimes people talk about the competitor this week getting a better story and I always ask, ‘Who’s the competitor? Oh you mean that newspaper.’ But I don’t compete with the newspapers, I compete with myself. This week I do a great story, and now my nightmare is how am I going to beat myself next week?

"I always promised myself I would be in the front seat"

My niece said to me, ‘I don’t have the guts to do what you do’ and I said to her, ‘There’s nothing special that anyone of us has or doesn’t have. If you were there you would dig deep inside of you and find that strength or the courage you need.’

We all have it, I don’t think it takes a specific person. I love what I do and despite all the horrors of what we’re surrounded by I think I’d rather be on that front seat, on the front line seeing it first hand, feeling it rather than sitting back at home.

I’m fortunate in lots of ways, but don’t think I’m different to anyone else.

Hala Jaber’s LEARNING CURVE

I knew I had made it when…

I don’t think anyone of us ever makes it fully, but I think I knew I had made it beyond what I was a few years ago when my peers at the Sunday Times and at other newspapers gave me a pat on the back and said ‘well done’.

There were all the other foreign correspondents, names that mattered to me. But I had always felt I was an outsider. It was like a special camp for them, but I wasn’t part of it. I wasn’t part of the system.

Suddenly I was among them and accepted by them as an equal.

The hardest lesson I ever learnt…

The hardest lesson I learnt is a very short one, but it’s more and more realising that I’m human and my life is very cheap in lots of ways. In an instant, in one second, with a bullet or a car bomb or a knife, for that matter, all the years I’ve had, everything I’ve done, all the education, all the history can be just wiped out like that. Human life is very cheap.

I’m learning that every day in Iraq.

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