Reporter's notebook

On being a Jewish journalist in hostile lands

On what would have been the 50th birthday of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, a reporter muses on her stints in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Kingstone at Basra Port (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)
Kingstone at Basra Port (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)

Until the terrible death of The Wall Street Journal’s correspondent Daniel Pearl, kidnapped by Pakistani militants in Karachi and murdered by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan on February 1, 2002, the consequences of being a Jewish journalist in a hostile land never occurred to me. There was a story to tell, and that was that.

I had reported from the Palestinian territories, and from several countries in Africa. The very notion that I couldn’t do something because I was Jewish never crossed my mind. Why would it?

I was on my way to Iraq for the first time (to report for The Jerusalem Report) when I heard the news of Pearl’s death. The TV was on in my hotel room; I had just arrived and I was unpacking. When the anchor confirmed the story, I let out a gasp of absolute horror.

Before Pearl’s grisly execution, his last words were, “I am a Jew.” I am not sure that would have been my chosen phrase. My Canadian background is steeped in assimilation. I am the bacon-eating, secular, nonbelieving Christmas-tree type.

Murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. (Photo credit: the Daniel Pearl Foundation)
Daniel Pearl. (Photo credit: the Daniel Pearl Foundation)

Nothing would have stopped me from going to Baghdad in June 2003. Not even the murder of Daniel Pearl. I traveled from Jerusalem via the King Hussein Bridge to Amman and then embarked on that insane 13-hour drive through the desert to the newly liberated Iraqi capital. Saddam Hussein was still alive.

Even the 50-degree heat didn’t deter me. The invasion had taken place in March and the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square fell on April 9. The Butcher of Baghdad himself was captured eight months later in December.

In the back of an armored vehicle, in Basra (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)
In the back of an armored vehicle, in Basra (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)

At that time Ahmed Chalabi’s Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress, then the main opposition party, was fighting for power. I knew the INC well and had charted its fortunes from its London exile. It was time to write the next chapter.

It was a crazy period. The borders were open, everything was chaotic, cellphones didn’t exist, satellite phones had spotty coverage and they were heavy, expensive and unreliable. The Internet was virtually nonexistent. No one knew what the future held.

Then I heard my friend utter the word ‘Yahud.’ Everything went silent. I felt like a spy whose cover had suddenly been blown

In Baghdad, I stayed for a while with one of the INC’s key players in his newly acquired home in the ritzy neighborhood of Mansour. He had planted roses around the edge of the large garden, the meeting place for long-lost relatives and others jockeying for favors from these new power-brokers.

One day, a crowd sat round in a circle in the shadow of tall palms, drinking whisky and heavily sugared tea, chatting in Arabic, which I didn’t understand.

Then I heard my friend utter the word “Yahud.” Everything went silent. It was as though a bomb had gone off. And I realized that everyone had turned to look at me. I sat bolt upright. “Are you crazy?” I blurted out to my friend. I felt like a spy whose cover had suddenly, shockingly, been blown.

“Don’t worry,” he replied casually. “Nobody minds.”

I minded, for several reasons. The first was safety; how could that not be a concern in the aftermath of Pearl’s killing? The second was that it might make my job more difficult. If Iraqis, conditioned by the Saddam regime to decades of anti-Semitism, knew I was a Jew, would they relate to me differently, mistrust my motives, misinterpret my questions? Being Jewish may not have been central to my identity, but I knew it might matter a great deal to them. And the third was that it was my information to disclose or not.

The conversation that day, though, meandered fairly easily along. There was some mention of Iraq’s former thriving Jewish community, and then that same old chestnut: we were all people of the book, and the issue was with Israel, not Jews.

I didn’t mention to many people that I was on assignment for an Israeli publication, although my translator, Sam, knew. He would later tell me he had a secret desire to visit the Holy Land and hear Hebrew

In that period, indeed, the Iraqis generally saved their bile for the local Palestinians, who had received favorable treatment under the Saddam regime and who were now greatly resented. I had done a story on how some had been thrown out of their homes by landlords who reclaimed their property and as a result had ended up huddled in tented refugee camps.

Later that same week, my driver and I gave a lift to a young woman who was looking for transport, a total stranger, in tumultuous Baghdad. Before she had even closed the car door, she launched into a tirade about Israel and America. They were behind all that ailed Iraq.

I didn’t mention to many people that I was on assignment for an Israeli publication, although my translator, Sam, knew. He would later tell me he had a secret desire to visit the Holy Land and hear Hebrew being spoken. This new Iraq gave him, a man in his twenties, a new lease of life. For the first time, he said, he could talk freely. It didn’t last long.

Sam and Raad, my driver, navigated through the streets they had known since childhood. Checkpoints had recently sprung up around the city and arriving at one that wasn’t legitimate was a source of worry. On one occasion, Sam had just put a media badge on the dashboard moments before we drove straight into a group of menacing-looking men. Everyone had weapons. Raad and Sam negotiated our way out. I remember Sam laughing at how white I had turned. I think he was scared too.

Months later, Raad was driving to work with his younger brother when he was stopped at a similar checkpoint. They shot him dead at point-blank range. Sam subsequently left Iraq.

During my time in Iraq, I talked to young women about love, interviewed politicians about the future, and dined with murky individuals who ran private prisons and sleazy foreigners who made millions selling embargoed Iraqi oil. I had a first, glorious taste of Iraqi pomegranate juice at a juice bar that Uday, Saddam’s son, used to frequent. I found myself crouched down in the hallway of an INC office block in Baghdad for 30 minutes, hiding from a gunfight that had erupted out of nowhere.

When the curfew started at 11 p.m., the streets would suddenly empty. One night, Sam and I had overstayed that hour during an interview with a handsome, cigar-smoking, diamond-ringed sheikh. When I had first taken out my tape recorder, and started to ask questions, the sheikh had urged me to “slow down. This is not how we do it in Iraq. Let’s chat first.” And so we did, talking and drinking small cups of coffee in his newly constructed reed structure, typical of the Marsh Arabs. Finally, the interview began. But later, after dark, a large explosion nearby caused me to almost jump out of my skin. The sheikh found this highly amusing. Nobody else had batted an eyelid. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “it’s all fine.” The interview continued.

My experiences on that trip whetted my appetite. In the coming years, I would report from Iraq — going back to Baghdad that November, and to Basra in January — Afghanistan and Pakistan, for newspapers in Britain, South Africa and Canada.

Kingstone having her hair cut in Helmand, Afghanistan. (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)
Kingstone having her hair cut in Helmand, Afghanistan. (photo credit: Heidi Kingstone)

And in 2007 I made the decision to live in Afghanistan for a while. Kabul offered a source of great stories at a historic time. The country was fascinating and bewitching. And there was a uniquely interesting expatriate community, comprising dozens of different nationalities and religions. I was not the only member of the Tribe, and while there was hardly a secret cabal in Kabul, there were also only a handful of us.

I shared a house for several months with an American woman without initially realizing that she was not only Jewish but also quite observant. On a car journey to the Panjshir Valley, not far from the capital and home of the Afghan hero Ahmad Shah Masoud, she mentioned Passover. Hesitantly, I asked if she was Jewish, to which she said yes. I told her I was, too. She was traditional enough to have brought matzah to Kabul. What the Afghans would have made of that, I have no idea.

More recently, I made a trip to Islamabad, which compelled me to think much more about Daniel Pearl, and the possible consequences of being Jewish, a fact that would be immediately interpreted as making me a Mossad spy. I’d had reservations about traveling to Pakistan, but ultimately not enough to stop me from going.

I found Islamabad charming. A planned city built in the 1960s to replace Karachi as the capital, it has wide leafy streets with large houses and paved roads, is spotlessly clean and is so affluent it has no public transport.

I ate at the few upscale restaurants and coffee bars that had recently opened, as well as in people’s homes. I met possible future presidents and prime ministers, and an elite slice of society as unlike fundamentalist Pakistan as can be imagined. The people were warm and generous, but the complex politics of Pakistan has resulted in a virtually ungovernable country, now arguably the most dangerous on the planet.

Militancy and extremist Islam are the stock-in-trade. The powerful and pervasive ISI intelligence agency knows everything (although they seemed to have missed the fact that Osama bin Laden had taken up residence).

For his last story, Pearl was researching Pakistani militants. He wanted to report from difficult places with tolerance and respect, understanding, and objectivity. An experienced journalist, with the benefit of a large organization behind him, Pearl was doubtless taking calculated risks, not reckless ones. But risks remain, as we know. The foreign editor of an international publication, who went to Baghdad shortly after me, once told me, “When your number’s up, it’s up.” Not long ago he was killed in a car accident in the States.

Pearl’s penultimate words were, “my father is Jewish and my mother is Jewish.” Just like my parents. Prior to his death, I’d barely given that simple fact a thought. After his death, on my charmed visits across high-risk borders, it was always on my mind.

Daniel Pearl would have been 50 on October 10. The Daniel Pearl Foundation, established in his memory, seeks to promote tolerance and understanding internationally through journalism, music and dialogue.

Heidi Kingstone, who is writing a book on Afghanistan to be published next year, has written from the Middle East and North Africa for newspapers including The Sunday Times of London, the Financial Times, Canada’s National Post and Johannesburg’s Saturday Star.

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