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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten:Hannah Allam


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Friday, June 30, 2006
Ten:Hannah Allam

By Wendy Hoke

Q: How did you get into journalism? What inspired you to enter the profession?

(I’ve) just always written for fun, ever since I was a little girl. Growing up in the Middle East, I did not feel lot of press freedom. In Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, you would always see the king on the front page because of the tightly controlled state-run press. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to in the Middle East. So, I went to the University of Oklahoma. (Her parents and two brothers also went there.)

Q: What was your internship experience like?

Internships are where you learn how to be a journalist. It’s one thing to work on a student paper and quite another to work with an editor with years of experience and prizes under his or her belt. It can be painful, but very rewarding. But I had a great summer interning in Wichita, Kan., but also interned at The Washington Post. I think it’s a good idea to intern at smaller papers because you learn more, have a chance to spread your wings, work with great editors and have the opportunity to cover more than you would at the big papers.

Q: You became Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder at a fairly young age. How did you happen to land that post?

After my internship at The Washington Post ended, I was 21 and needed to go out and get experience. The Pioneer Press made the best offer. I planned to stay one year, but ended up staying four years. They valued enterprise reporting, nurturing young reporters, stretching the limits of a beat and trying new things. I wrote theater reviews and CD reviews in addition to covering courts.

When the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, I was covering the courts when (convicted 9/11 terrorist) Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota. There was a growing fascination with Muslims in America and backlash against Muslims, and I focused on those stories. Then the war in Iraq happened. Knight Ridder asked for volunteers and pulled a big team of reporters together. We went over for about 10 weeks in July 2003. Once I had a taste, it was really hard to go back to Minnesota.

I was looking at grad schools when the (Knight Ridder) D.C. office called and asked if I would go back as chief. I was 25 and never had any overseas experience. I was a courts reporter in Minnesota. It was great. I never experienced culture shock because the culture, religion, lifestyle and language were very familiar to me.

Q: Describe what it was like to work in Iraq. What were your expectations going into the assignment and what was the reality?

I had no idea what to expect going in. I was terrified more about failing at my first overseas job than the war around me. I tried very hard to play to my strengths. I didn’t have military contacts and was not writing for a huge paper with great access. So I made a conscious decision to seek out ordinary Iraqis. I made sources in government and among religious figures, and that helped because those were the people who were going to run the country. Friends I may have lunch with could become defense minister or finance minister.

In the old days you could jump in a car and head to Kirkuk for a day or head to Fallujah for lunch. I could go without a second thought or a second car. We went all over place. Then the kidnappings, car bombs and beheadings started.

It seems like one day we were meeting at 11 at night at a Baghdad restaurant for karaoke, and the next day that wasn’t possible. I think the mutilation of the four Western contractors was a defining moment as was the kidnapping of two French journalists on the road to Najaf. It became very difficult to travel around the country, and that forced us to be creative about reporting.

I always tried to get past stereotypical images of Iraqis. It made me frustrated when I would see black-draped women crying and screaming at the camera. Women were a great resource for me, and I focused a lot on the role of women and how truly tough they are. Iraqi women are extremely sophisticated. Baghdad has riverfront promenades and nice restaurants. But it’s driven by sectarian and tribal differences that had been united under a dictator.

Q: What’s the atmosphere like among other journalists from KR and other news organizations?

I thought it would be extremely cutthroat and vicious; instead there’s a deep sense of camaraderie. Everyone looked out for each other. We started a listserv to help keep everyone safe and let everyone know about insurgent checkpoints. In the end, we were all in the same precarious, perilous boat. We shared the same frustration. How competitive can you be when no one can get out?

Q: What would you do for fun in Iraq?

We worked so much because of the time difference. I was often writing and filing way past midnight. We’d get together for dinner at the compound, watched a lot of DVDs and threw birthday parties. Anyone who went to the States needed to bring back DVDs of the latest “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Desperate Housewives.” We craved People magazine.

Q: Why did you switch to the Cairo bureau? What’s the biggest difference between the two bureaus?

I spent just over two years in Iraq, with breaks, but that’s a long time to be in that environment. It drains you physically, emotionally and professionally. I needed to be rejuvenated, and besides, my family was going crazy. I wanted to stay in the region, and I wanted to cover the ripple effects of the war in Iraq. We had no one outside of Jerusalem, so I suggested setting up a bureau in Cairo.

Q: Your new post includes covering Iran. What’s the country like?

I wanted to pull up stakes and move there. I’m very familiar with Shi’a culture, but from an Arab standpoint; to see it in a Persian setting is fascinating to me. Iran is so isolated and misunderstood. Of course, I’m being watched. You expect a degree of suspicion. But I’ve been there once, and everyone was welcoming. I asked for and got interviews with government officials. I see a battle of wills between the Iranian government and people. How much can you legislate morality before people push back?

One of my favorite stories from this time was about an Iranian fashionista who skirts the laws to stay stylish. She wears the mandatory hijab mid-way back on her head, and it’s a Versace scarf paired with huge Christian Dior sunglasses. I have to wear a hijab in Iran, but in some places I wear it because I can blend in more.

Q: What’s the hardest part of living abroad? What do you miss most about living in the States?

I really miss only my family. In Cairo you can get anything you want. There’s a Pizza Hut at the foot of the pyramids. There’s a Chili’s and Applebee’s on the Nile. The best sushi I ever had was in Cairo. I do miss the camaraderie of a newsroom. Journalists are smart, funny people, and I really enjoy being in the newsroom. Here, it’s just you and your laptop against the world.

Q: What advice would you share with journalists interested in an overseas assignment?

Definitely have language skills. I speak French and can get by in Arabic. Watch foreign media — BBC, Irish Television, Voice of America. On my laptop, I have bookmarked “Yahoo Iran” and “Yahoo Iraq,” and I also receive an e-mail bulletin of Al-Jazeera in English.

To avoid parachute journalism, focus on the region and get your hands on anything you can read about this area and its history. Read its literature and poetry because that gives you something in common and can turn an interview into a conversation.

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