Written by Black Balloon Publishing and Originally Published in Our Man In Iraq.
Laura Kasinof is a freelance print journalist. From 2011 until March 2012 she was based in Sana’a where she reported regularly for The New York Times on Yemen’s antigovernment uprising, part of the Arab Spring revolts. Her articles have also appeared in the Economist, Foreign Policy The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Al Jazeera International, among others. She has discussed Yemen, the Arab Spring and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on radio and TV outlets such as BBC World Service, Democracy Now, Al Jazeera International and NPR. Kasinof has also been invited as a panelist to speak about Yemen at institutions such as the Atlantic Council, Chatham House, The New America Foundation and the National Counterterrorism Center. Her work can be found at laurakasinof.com.
**Black Balloon Publishing:**** It seems like you ended up in Yemen, not out of an explicit, deep-rooted, previously existing interest in the country, but rather through a lead from someone at a party who mentioned that there weren't many Arabic-speaking western journalists filing from Sana'a - is that more or less accurate?
**Laura Kasinof: **That is true, yes. I first went to Yemen in 2009 after a friend of mine who had studied Arabic in the country told me about it. I had a few friends who had studied there, because at that point it was a common place to go study Arabic. Not common, but there were some Westerners there. I had always heard good things from my friends who had studied Arabic in Yemen. They loved the country. And then, this friend of mine, at an Obama inauguration party in DC in January 2009, said "What do you plan on doing?" A job of mine in New York was ending, and I said I think I might move back to Cairo to try to be a freelance journalist. I wasn't super excited about moving back to Cairo, but I wanted to get back to the Middle East. He suggested that I go to Yemen, just because he loved Yemen and thought it was a really fun country. He also thought that there were stories there, and then I went home and researched it and saw that there weren't any Western journalists there and that I've only heard good things about it, and there are some stories here and there, so why not? I thought if worse comes to worse I'll go work on my Arabic for a few months and then I'll come home. So that was my original motivation.
**BBP: ****Now at that point, you already had a working handle on Arabic?
**LK: **Yes, I studied Middle Eastern Studies in college, that’s my connection with Arabic. I studied abroad at the American University at Cairo, and I also lived in Cairo for a year after college. So I was conversational in Arabic at the time.
**BBP: ****So it wasn't something you grew up speaking? You just found yourself with an interest in the region and the language?
**LK: **Exactly. Initially I wanted to study political science in college and I had a loose interest working in international affairs in some way, but I wasn't quite sure how and in what capacity. And since I went to college in a post 9/11 environment, Arabic seemed like a good language to study. I went to Egypt when I was six years old with my parents. I had this memory of loving Egypt when I was six, but that's only because I went to the Cairo zoo and they let me feed all the animals in the zoo. I loved it. So I was like okay, I'll study Arabic and then I'll go study abroad in Cairo because I had this fun memory of Cairo from when I was six. So, that was kind of why. And then I enjoyed studying Arabic, I enjoyed studying the region, it's always interesting. So that's sort of what drew me in. I also really enjoyed Cairo when I studied abroad there and then lived there after college.
**BBP: ****So against that back drop, teaching English and kicking around is very different than working as a credentialed journalist. I'm curious about the reception you received in these patriarchal countries where it can be hard for women, especially, from my understanding, for western women, because you can be seen as such an outsider. How did that work in terms of navigating the corridors of power, especially in Yemen?
**LK: **Egypt and Yemen are very different. It is actually more difficult to be a western woman in Egypt than it is in Yemen, which I think surprises a lot of people because Egypt is a relatively more liberal country than Yemen. I can't quite get an understanding of the role of women in Yemen to tell you the truth. They are definitely in a more respected position than in Egypt, though from the outside, it looks like that's not the case because the women dress in the Abaya, and wear all black with their face covered for the most part. There are certainly a lot of societal pressures put on women in Yemen, however, there's more outward respect toward women. There's not the harassment in the streets like you get in Egypt and then as a western woman, no one would dare do anything bad to you in Yemen. You're respected, you're a Westerner, and also, I think Yemenis think it's kind of fun to have a Western woman there. You're a woman who is hanging out with the men and that's okay, because in Yemen society it happens, but it's not the norm.
**BBP:**** Is it fair to say that that applies to the man in the street as well with the government official or the military spokesperson?
**LK: **I actually found the doors open for me easier as a woman because Yemenis are more prone to be kind to me than to western men because of the way Yemeni society works. People wanted to hang out with me. It was innocent, it's not flirty, but also the other thing, people don't take me so seriously as a journalist. Sometimes it can be problematic, but people are more likely to say things that maybe they wouldn't to a man. I found all of those things to be quite helpful, in Egypt, I don't want to say it's more complicated, it’s just different.
**BBP: ****That's interesting. I have some knowledge of Egypt, I don't know a whole lot about Yemen. It's interesting because I know Yemen is such a more conservative religious culture, but that's interesting that in Egypt it's more problematic. But I do want to focus on Yemen. So, here you are in Yemen now and you're fishing around for stories and then blammo, here's the Arab spring. Was that something you saw coming as you had been sniffing around for stories in Yemen? Doubtless, you were aware of what was going on and brewing in Egypt, but was it really clear to you as someone who had spent time in the Middle East and in northern Africa that the entire region's long-standing power structures could be threatened?
**LK: **The simple answer: no. I never thought that what happened in 2011 could have happened. We always kind of thought in Egypt that Hosni Mubarak was there to stay. It didn't really seem that Ali Abdullah Saleh was there to stay. I didn't have the understanding of internal Yemeni politics that I have now, and if I had at the beginning of 2011, maybe I would have understood that there was a lot of shifting alliances among the political elites in Yemen and that Saleh was not as well supported as he had been in the 90s. But I didn't understand that then and there certainly wasn't this very obvious political activity happening on the streets. I had become slightly more knowledgeable about domestic Yemeni politics in the fall of '11 as I was sniffing around for stories. I had more of an understanding of what the opposition was, not that I really thought they were capable of what happened in 2011, of organizing these mass protests. So no, I didn't predict this. And even when the Egyptian revolution happened, that was February 11, when Mubarak stepped down, I remember watching all of that on TV in Yemen and we still didn't think at that point that mess was going to happen in Yemen. It didn't seem like the street could be mobilized in the same way it was mobilized in Egypt.
**BBP: ****But, of course, starting in March and certainly by May, there were some conflicts in the streets and mass protests. These various loyalties were emerging and trying to control the dialogue and then there was the assassination attempt on the president in June. So obviously the mobilization became very apparent, literally on the street level. As it was going down, did you ever think of getting out for safety's sake, or is that when your reporter’s instinct really kicked in and you said "Hey, I've got a scoop. I'm really uniquely positioned to be reporting this”?
LK: Definitely. I realized I was very fortunate to be in that position in Yemen and also that I was not deported as some western journalists were, so I was able to continue reporting the story. I was in a unique position. I definitely wanted to stay for that bit, however, I mean I did almost leave once, in that I bought a ticket to Cairo and went to the airport and sat outside the airport and cried and then turned around and went back into the city.
**BBP: ****Amazing. Was that the result of built-up, pent-up emotion, or just kind of an overall tenseness? What do you think prompted the tears?
**LK: **The tears were that I didn't want to leave and it was just really emotional to report on the attacks, which was definitely work, but it also took a lot out of me as well. I wanted to stay in the country and continue to report but I was concerned about my safety. The reason why I almost left was because in mid-March the commander of this division of the military had split from Saleh and his artillery that was on half the mountains around Sana'a started to point into the center of the city. And the portions of the military that were still pro-Saleh, their artillery started to point toward this general's base, and it seemed like war was going to break out in Sana'a and at that point I didn't understand what that meant, or what the conflict in Yemen meant. I was very scared and thought I had to get out of there. It was recommended to me that I should leave, by Yemenis, by other foreigners, but then I calmed down and decided to stay.
**BBP: ****You were in this incredibly volatile situation and the build-up, in some ways, must be even worse than the actual execution of everything because you never know what that breaking point will be. As you were running around trying to get the stories and dig up the facts and confirm everything, what was it like trying to keep your distance at that point? Obviously you are a journalist and you are writing for these incredibly venerable publications, you are doing your due diligence of course, but where does that line start to get fuzzy? How much of a challenge is that?
**LK: **It is very hard for me in Yemen because I love Yemen so much and the people had endeared themselves to me to such a great extent, so in terms of caring about the story, I cared very deeply about the story. I don't think I would have stayed if I didn't care about the story so much. I definitely felt fully, emotionally invested in the story. But I definitely also tried to remember that I am not part of this protest movement and I'm not on a certain side and it is not my revolution. It is hard to remember that. I am trying to think now of the ways in which I tried to make sure that happened. I certainly became friends with some of the protesters, I spent so much time with them, but I spent a lot of time with them at the protest, I never associated with them outside of the protest. As I got more invested in the story, you start to just see that everything is gray and it wasn't like there was a good side and there was a bad side, and so the best that you can hope to do is do justice to what is happening and report it fairly, and I guess that was what I tried to do. It sounds so cheesy and it's so cliché but is what I’m reporting the truth, or is it bias? The purpose is to report the truth and provide an accurate picture of what is happening in Yemen for the English speakers. So that is what I would try to do. But certainly at the end of my stay in Yemen, at the end of 2011, I went back in 2012 twice for work, but I moved all my stuff out of Yemen at the end of 2011. When I left, I definitely felt almost too embedded in the story. Everyone I was reporting on I knew on a personal level and it became difficult. That was one of the reasons I knew I needed to get out. It was hard to keep my distance, but I'm not quite sure how to report in any other way, because on the other hand, because I was close to everyone, it gave me access to stories and access to inside information to report, and even more accurately because I had a better understanding of what was going on. Does that all make sense?
**BBP: ****Absolutely, and it sounds like your ability to compartmentalize it all, it had almost like a shelf life until you had that ability to recognize that maybe you were too deep or to the point of deciding it was better to leave than stick around and just get deeper, right?
**LK: **I definitely started to feel like I was becoming part of the story as well and that was when I was thinking that it was time to leave.
**BBP: ****Obviously you have this long-standing interest in the Middle East but you got this taste of a conflict zone. Do you ever see yourself trying to chase conflicts, especially in the Middle East where your language ability would be very helpful? Or are you just content to stick to the Middle East no matter what is going on because you find it interesting?
**LK: **It's complicated. I do want to stick to the Middle East because of the language skills and because I am interested in the region, no matter what. Even when it comes to Yemen, I will have a relationship with Yemen for the rest of my life, it feels like at times. There’s a balance between wanting to chase conflicts and report on them - tell the stories that happen amongst conflicts in a healthy way that does justice to the conflict and so I am trying to figure that out now, I think. I am certainly not averse to conflict reporting, it is something that I would actually like to do again because I think that there is a part of humanity in conflict that you don't see elsewhere and it's very powerful. However, I am trying to figure out a healthy way to do so for myself and then when I am emotionally sound, I can do better work as well and do justice to what I am reporting. I am definitely not an adrenaline junkie, riding from conflict to conflict. I know that some people are and some people can do good work like that, that's not quite me, but I do think there's a part of me in conflict that is worth investigating.