Interview'You only learn what you’re trying to say at the very end'

In memoir ‘Love, Africa,’ a NYT reporter shakes off the frat boy to become a man

Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Gettleman’s adventurous coming of age tale has all the Hollywood elements: brushes with death and the near-loss of his long-term love

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman on the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir, 2018. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman on the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir, 2018. (courtesy)
  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay In the Ogaden Desert, Ethiopia, 2007. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay In the Ogaden Desert, Ethiopia, 2007. (courtesy)
  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in northern Afghanistan, 2002. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in northern Afghanistan, 2002. (courtesy)
  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman stands in front of the Black Jew Hotel in northern Kenya. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman stands in front of the Black Jew Hotel in northern Kenya. (courtesy)
  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay in an Afar village in Djibouti. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay in an Afar village in Djibouti. (courtesy)
  • New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay interview one of Sudan’s 'most dangerous, intelligent and whimsical intellectuals,' Hassan Al-Turabi. Khartoum, Sudan. (courtesy)
    New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay interview one of Sudan’s 'most dangerous, intelligent and whimsical intellectuals,' Hassan Al-Turabi. Khartoum, Sudan. (courtesy)

Jeffrey Gettleman is not concerned with making you like him in his 2017 book, “Love, Africa.” By the middle of the memoir, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has recounted repeated infidelities and other lapses in judgment. In fact, he comes off as a bit of a schmuck.

But as he honestly charts his push-pull long-term relationship with his college girlfriend and the Dark Continent’s competing embrace, we readers watch him struggle, grow up, and become the adventurous yet compassionate journalist he is today.

Gettleman, who was raised in a suburban Jewish Chicago household, became entranced with Africa and Courtenay concurrently as an 18-year-old freshman at Cornell. His journey from ne’er-do-well frat boy to East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times fulfills the promise in the book’s subtitle: “A memoir of romance, war, and survival.”

It is when he is fighting for his life — or his relationship with Courtenay — that the story unfolds in Hollywood-ready scenes: Showing grit under the worst circumstances, Gettleman comes close to death from malaria, bomb explosions in Iraq, captivity by African rebels. There is wanton loss of life in every new arena, until the curtain closes on marital bliss and children at a Kenyan homestead.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in northern Afghanistan, 2002. (courtesy)

“Everything in the story happened exactly as I described it,” said Gettleman in a telephone conversation punctuated by his two boys shouting in the background at the home he shares with Courtenay in India. (Gettleman is currently the New York Times South Asia Bureau chief, and reports from the subcontinent and beyond.)

“I did come to Africa as an 18-year-old, and it did change my life, and open me up in many ways, and I did pursue this dream for years and years of getting back there, and I did meet my wife at the same exact time, and we were sort of torn as young people are about how much to pursue your own career and how much to pursue each other,” he said.

But that’s merely the book’s Cliff’s Notes. It also becomes a lesson in self-healing and the ability to ask and receive forgiveness. His emotional openness is startling, almost shocking.

Near the end of our phone conversation, Gettleman said that in retrospect, he would have been even more open. “I would write it differently today if I had to start over, no doubt. Because you only learn what you’re trying to say at the very end after you’ve walked away from it,” he said.

Below is a redacted transcript of an hour-long discussion, which delves into the dangers of being a Jewish journalist and what he wanted to accomplish in this first book.

Was this your first time really baring your soul in your writing?

I did not set out to write as personal a book. I set out to write a more straightforward book about my travels and work in East Africa. And I did want to write a bit about my quest to get there. But the more time I spent writing, and by myself, and just thinking over my life and the choices I’ve made, and how I arrived where I’ve arrived, it just opened me up and I just felt like it would be dishonest to not be more personal.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay in an Afar village in Djibouti. (courtesy)

You often come off as a real schmuck in the book. I mean, really, really schmucky behavior. How could you put that down for posterity, for your kids to read later on?

I think there are very few of us who are so focused that we know exactly what we want and pursue it in the right way. More common, I think, is that we sort of stumble around trying to figure out who we are and what we want to do. And for me, I just felt like I needed to be honest about that with the hope that somebody reading it would be like, “Okay, maybe I can avoid falling into those same traps.”

How has it affected your more objective journalism writing after having gone through that?

There was so much I had to unlearn in writing that book, because as a journalist you’re just really encouraged to keep your feelings to the side and not make the story about you, which often is very important. And for instance, if I’m writing a big piece about people suffering from atrocities in Myanmar, it’s not about me. I have no standing in a story like that. I can’t relate to it, and I don’t know much about it, and their suffering is so much greater than anything I’ve ever tasted.

But just the process of having gone through writing about myself and trying to express my feelings, it just made me a sharper observer and a stronger communicator.

It was a great, fast-paced, adventurous read. But often it felt you were kind of spiraling around; that you didn’t know where you were going. And then finally, it clicked – you found your anchor. What was the turning point for you?

You know, a few things. Part of it is just maturity, that at a certain age you stop making the same mistakes, and you begin to kind of figure out which way is up. I had this quote in the book from a guy that I met years ago who said it took him 35 years to figure out which way is up. And it sounds totally pathetic, like, why did it take you that damn long? But for some of us, it just kind of does.

New York Times reporter and wife Courtenay shortly before they were kidnapped and thrown into an Ethiopian prison. (courtesy)

And so my relationship with Courtenay: I should have been honoring that from the get-go, and I should have just resisted any other momentary pleasures or curiosities, and just focused on that relationship…. I was torn by those impulses of really being in love, and at the same time, being young and curious and inexperienced. So that eventually sort of settled itself, because I realized, “Okay, this is the woman you want to be with, why risk anything anymore.”

I also think I went through some pretty searing moments, like in Iraq where I thought I was going to be killed, where I saw a lot of people who were killed, where I was in this universe that was sort of totally upside down morally – people were doing the worst things to each other. And I kind of participated a little bit in that, and I was lying, and deceiving, and being selfish, but it shook me, the whole experience, and when I came out of that it made me more aware of the fleetingness of life.

And then I got really sick with malaria, and so, I just had no illusions about just being sort of indestructible. And once I learned that, it just made me want to settle down with somebody I really cared about, and I had that person all along, and that was kind of the tragedy, in a way, of our story, is that we could have done that when we were really young, and we probably would have been totally happy.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in Karbala, Iraq, with a pious Muslim who self-inflected bloody wounds. (courtesy)

But maybe not – maybe we would have hit a point later on, and we would have looked at each other when we were 30 years old and wanted to see what else is out there. I don’t know. It worked out, with these scars.

In certain sections of this book, you did talk about being a Jew, and how at some points it was an obstacle or even downright dangerous. Can you give me an example of one such point, and how in retrospect you would have played it the same or differently?

A lot of the work I did was in the Arab and Muslim world, and people have very strong theories about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and just this perception of Israel, and by extension, Jews in general. And often they don’t discriminate whether you’re Jewish or Israeli, it’s like they’re synonyms for many people.

So often, I would just absorb a lot of this anti-Semitism based on ignorance, and also – it’s funny: When I was in Kashmir a long time ago as a young guy, and the guy was like, “No Jews are allowed in Kashmir.” I was entering Kashmir, and I was like, “Well, how do you know if he’s Jewish?” And he was like, “Well, we can smell them.” And I was like, “Okay.” So that type of stuff happens all the time.

But more specifically, when I was in Somalia I had problems finding somebody to work with, and later I found out that a rival journalist had spread the word that “Oh, that guy is Jewish, and you Somalis shouldn’t work with him.” That was really dangerous, because there was an al-Qaeda branch operating in Somalia, and even though the Somalis aren’t directly involved in any Middle Eastern issues, there are people there that just hate America, hate Jews because of their association with Israel, and something like that could have made me a target.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay interview one of Sudan’s ‘most dangerous, intelligent and whimsical intellectuals,’ Hassan Al-Turabi. Khartoum, Sudan. (courtesy)

We had problems finding anybody to work with me, and even worse, I’m trying to walk a very fine line in these stories, where I’m gonna interview one side, and then I’m gonna drive across town and interview the other side. And one side might be the government fighting these Islamic radicals, and the other side might be the Islamic militants themselves.

So I’m just trying to present myself as a neutral person willing to hear both sides of the story, and to tell why these people are doing what they’re doing. To use some empathy, not be judgmental, and just absorb what they want to say. I was going to meet these Islamic militants, and it can be very dangerous if they sat down with me and they were like “Oh, this guy is Jewish.” They might have thought I was an Israeli spy, they might have just had a bad reaction to me just because they thought I was Jewish. And I didn’t learn that until I was already there and in these situations, so that was potentially dangerous.

But more often than not, it just wouldn’t come up. Usually when people would ask me my religion in places like Somalia, I usually would try to change the subject or not have the discussion. But I did let people know who I worked with, anybody who I was close to, I would say, “You know what, by the way, I’m Jewish.” Usually, I just never got much of a reaction from people I was close to.

But another thing is that we’re such an oddity as the foreign journalists in these places. It’s like my wife, when she was working in Somalia. They didn’t really treat her like a woman – they treated her almost like a third sex. Because she was a woman, but she was a foreigner, and so she’s not under the same kind of burden that most women in their society are.

It’s sort of the same with religion. These guys are looking at us as these foreigners, these outsiders, these visitors from another culture and another society, that when you tell them something like, “Oh, and I’m also Jewish,” they’re like, “Okay.” They don’t seem that fazed by it, because they’ve already sort of chalked you up as a stranger.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and wife Courtenay with the Rashaida nomads, in Eritrea. (courtesy)

In the book you were talking about the destruction that the US has wrought, essentially, on Africa – and other nations, mostly colonial nations. I wonder if you had noticed any tread marks from Israel, which in our telling has quite a presence in Africa. How did you see Israel perceived in Africa?

You know, it’s a good question. In countries that have a strong Islamist element in power or militancy, there’s definitely this kind of bias against Israel. You see it in a place like Sudan. Some of the people in these Islamist countries like Sudan are rabidly anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic, and very kind of on-guard. So the government can potentially shape the narrative and say, “These guys are the bad guys, and we should be vicious and hateful towards them.”

In parts of East Africa that weren’t as Islamist, like Kenya or Uganda or Congo, Israel wouldn’t come up too much. In Kenya I think the relations were pretty good, and Israelis were recognized for a lot of the NGO work that they do, doctors that help with cataracts, and agricultural programs that help with irrigation, there was a bit of that going on.

And then in places like South Sudan, the South Sudanese government was getting some help from Israel in the security sector with arms, and training, because they had a natural ally against Sudan that would help the Islamic elements in Egypt.

But I think that except for Ethiopia that had that indigenous Jewish population, there’s just very little known about Judaism, even though it’s not that far away [from Israel]. You know, even, let’s say, Somalia or Kenya, East Africa, it’s not geographically that far away from Israel, right? But these people know very little about Judaism and Israel.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman stands in front of the Black Jew Hotel in northern Kenya. (courtesy)

I would meet people who were very surprised that I was Jewish. And I was like, “Well, what did you think a Jewish person was?” And they were like, “I just never really thought I’d meet one.” It was almost like this mythical creature that people didn’t expect to meet.

How long do you imagine you’ll spend in India?

I don’t know. We’ve been here for eight months. Maybe a couple years? I don’t know.

Do you see yourself living in the States again?

My wife really wants to move back home. I’d be happy traveling the world until my last breath.

When you go back to the States, is it “home”? 

No. It’s really interesting. We’ve been outside the country for 12 years, so just feel a bit disconnected, and it’s an unsettling feeling.

When I go home it looks familiar, it’s easy to drop into any conversation because you know what people are talking about. Most of the cultural references are familiar. But you feel a lot less interested in what people are interested in. So you feel this sense of being a little bit alienated from your own culture.

Khalid Hussein, a translator in the Times’s Baghdad bureau, saved New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman’s life several times. He was shot and killed not long after this interview. Baghdad, 2004. (courtesy)

It makes me worry that I’ll never feel at home anywhere. Because living in Africa as a non-African, even though I care deeply about it, and I speak Swahili and I understand a lot of the history, and I’ve invested a big part of my life in it, I’m not an African. I’m always kind of moving through life in Africa as an outsider. Albeit, hopefully a compassionate one and a somewhat knowledgeable one, but still, I’m an outsider.

But then you come home and you feel that same sense that you’re moving through your society a little differently than others. Even though on the outside you don’t look that way, you feel that way.

So where is home?

I think it’s about where you feel comfortable. And I felt very at home in East Africa, even though it wasn’t my home. And even though I wasn’t growing my hair in dreadlocks and pretending that I was not from where I came from. I mean, I was okay with the fact that I grew up in a totally different environment and I tried to make this place my home.

I mean, people do that all the time – you see that in Israel on the streets. The Ethiopians, the Russians, even the formation of the state, it’s people from all over the place. The United States is the same way. So we just intuitively can make a home where we care about a place. But we also lose sight of that: We don’t all have to live our lives where we grew up.

New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He missed. (courtesy)

Are you working on another book yet?

No, I’d love to write another book because I learned so much just about how to put together a book that it would be a shame not to do try to something again with all the lessons I’ve learned.

I used this little cabin that I rented outside of Nairobi on this cold, cloudy hill, and I spent hours and hours, like hundreds of hours, sitting in this little room by myself, just staring offline at Microsoft Word, moving words around, going through pages, looking at old journals, just by myself. It was terribly lonely and somewhat traumatizing to just sequester yourself like that. But I think of those times where I was just able to wrestle with these ideas that I cared about, and in your day to day life you just don’t do that that much.

It was a really intense activity that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done intellectually. I mean, it was just staring at a blank page, even after you’ve created lots of words. It’s that same kind of feeling that you’re just trying to make something out of nothing, and you’re doing it day in and day out, and that’s really hard.

I miss the purity of that intellectual exercise, of just trying to express yourself, write your sentences well, connect ideas, put things as clearly and as dramatically and as honestly as you can. We just don’t do that most of our lives.

Yaakov Schwartz contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: