When Doing Your Job Means Risking Your Life

Sarah Harrison Smith on October 19, 2017

25791391_mThe news this week that investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia had been killed in a targeted car bomb attack in Malta highlights the very dangerous nature of the work that writers undertake to expose corruption and injustice abroad. (According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 30 reporters have been murdered so far in 2017.) Three recent books by and about women journalists willing to risk their safety to report from places like Turkey, Iran, and Syria cast light on the perils and allure of their vocation.


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Deborah Campbell says that she strives to "bridge the gap between the readers of the magazines [she writes] for, such as Harper's or The Economist, and people in troubled places who such readers would never otherwise meet." To do that work in countries like Syria, she relies on the help of "fixers" -- local people with contacts and street smarts who, often surreptitiously, accompany writers as they report. One such fixer was Ahlam, a "fearless" mother and wife who had already survived a brutal kidnapping and was working to open a school for displaced girls. With Ahlam, Campbell felt she had found "a hub, a connector, one of those people who knows people, knows what's going on." But then Ahlam went missing, and Campbell embarked on a hunt to find her and to answer the question, "Was she taken because of me?" A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War is a tense, riveting true story that speaks to the courage and loyalty of both women under circumstances most of us would avoid at all costs.

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Oriana Fallaci, who died of cancer in 2006, was one of the most infamous journalists of the 20th century. Even as a child in Italy during WWII, she was brave and determined, working for the resistance under the nom de guerre "Emilia." When her father was captured and tortured, her mother took the family to visit him in prison: beatings had left him unrecognizable, but he hadn't revealed any secrets. Fallaci seems to have inherited her father's sang froid. As biographer Cristina de Stefano recounts in Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend, she was continually intrepid and often reckless about her physical safety. Who else, having been granted an audience with the Ayatollah Khomeini, would not only challenge his administration's restrictions on women but also rip off the chador she was required to wear in his presence, calling it a "medieval rag"? Photographs included here, of Fallaci under fire in Mexico City and Vietnam, laughing with Deng Xiaoping and sharing a drink with Paul Newman, attest to her courage and beauty, which endured even in the face of tremendous danger.

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 When journalist Suzy Hansen told her family in New Jersey that she'd won a generous fellowship and would be moving to Istanbul, reactions were, at best, mixed. Her father, who was still reeling from the attacks of September 11, texted her to ask, rhetorically, "Did you know that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim? Are you out of your mind?" She went despite his reservations, and has continued to live in Turkey for roughly a decade.  Notes from a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World is her account of her work there, writing for places like The New York Times Magazine and The London Review of Books. She is appealingly self-critical and literary in her approach, admitting that she began her life there in confused ignorance:  "Without realizing it, I absorbed the same fear of Islam and Muslims, not in the bigoted way, but in the more insidious manner of the well-intentioned liberal mediator." The years bring loss of faith in her own objectivity and in the myths of American excellence that she once believed. It's a journey few of us would choose to embark on ourselves, but we readers reap the benefits of her unusual combination of pluck and introspection.

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