content warning: war, murder, sexual violence
Liz Sly is the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, a position she has held since 2011. Before that, Sly was a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, and has been stationed intermittently in Beijing and throughout Africa and the Middle East for over 20 years. Originally from the United Kingdom, Sly is fluent in English with proficiency in French and Arabic, the three primary languages spoken in Lebanon.
The interview below, edited for length and clarity, is the product of a candid conversation with Sly on the importance of continuing to report from the Middle East, the role and responsibility of the West (in both politics and media), the ways in which a journalist might try to understand the complexities of MENA (Middle East North Africa), and—where appropriate—situate themselves within it.
It is important that this interview be considered in the context of the habitual complicity of Western media in US and European intervention. While the transition to critical reflection in the journalistic field is slowly taking place, for decades Anglophone media has perpetuated the myth that the West cannot be held responsible for instigating and exacerbating political instability in MENA. Even today, the presence of Western journalists in the Middle East, a region that has been systematically devastated by their governments, raises questions about the obligation of journalists not just to their readers, but to the subjects of their inquiry.
This interview is presented in the wake of the disappearance and murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2. The Saudi Arabian journalist openly criticized the Saudi Arabian government on platforms like the Washington Post, where he was employed as a columnist. After Khashoggi was reported missing, Sly wrote a profile about Khashoggi entitled “From travels with bin Laden to sparring with princes: Jamal Khashoggi’s provocative journey,” where she addressed some of the spotlights that journalists writing for Western publications often place themselves under, and the consequences of that scrutiny. As Sly’s interview suggests, however, these risks are taken willingly by journalists every day in an effort to place a spotlight on the politics of the Middle East, the impact of US intervention, and the concrete effects felt by residents and refugees across a region in flux.
All italicized text below is taken from articles published by Liz Sly in the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune.
He looks as though he is asleep—perhaps taking a nap before running off to play with his friends. But he’s not asleep. He’s dead. He died because of a war the world can’t or won’t solve and immigration policies that say: We don’t care.
The photograph of the drowned little Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach has gone viral on social media, turning him into a symbol of the suffering of Syrians and their desperate scramble to escape.
He had a name, Alan Kurdi; he was 3; and he came from the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane.*
– “Why I tweeted the photo of the dead Syrian toddler”, September 2015
*Alan Kurdi was found washed up on the beach after he drowned while he, his father Abdullah Kurdi, and the rest of their family were trying to flee their hometown of Kobane for Turkey.
The College Hill Independent: I want to start by talking about an article for the Washington Post in 2015 regarding your tweet of a Syrian toddler’s body found washed up on a beach in Turkey. I'm wondering firstly why you found it necessary to write the article in response to the tweet?
Liz Sly: Given the circumstances of the terrible war in Syria, and the huge number of people that have died, and the lack of interest in America about the war, I think I wanted to make the point that sometimes you have to post photographs of human suffering in order to make people aware of what’s going on, rather than cover[ing] it up.
The Indy: So then more generally, what do you think is journalists’ obligation to report the truth as opposed to when they should leave things out?
LS: Well, I think you develop over time a certain judgement for what’s necessary or pertinent to a story, what is true and what is your opinion, and [how] to steer a path between them. Sometimes you learn things that you know if you publish them, they could have incredible consequences and cost human life, and sometimes it’s better to leave those things out. But sometimes you have to make a judgement that people need to know what’s going on and this is something that should be put out there.
“If you lived in Kobane, would you stay?” asked Alan Kurdi’s father, Abdullah, as he recounted the events that spurred his family's fateful departure for Europe in the patched-up wreck of his father-in-law’s home. The walls are cracked, half of the roof is missing, and the living room and bedroom are perforated by neatly rounded holes left by rocket fire.
His own house next door is entirely gone. It was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, he said, and though that is impossible to confirm independently, much of the worst damage in the town was inflicted by the U.S. warplanes that were instrumental in driving the Islamic State away.
-“What the ruins of Kobane tell us about the destruction of Syria,” November 2015
The Indy: You also wrote a story printed in the Chicago Tribune about the ruins of Kobane. Was your decision to foreground American involvement here a conscious one?
LS: I thought it was really important to make a connection to the amount of damage and destruction that we’re inflicting on the Middle East, and the fact that refugees are showing up in the West. Because the West is saying that we’ve got to defeat ISIS, we’ve got to bomb everybody, but they're also saying we don’t want all these people coming… [Alan Kurdi’s] family could have gone home, but there’s no life there, and their house was destroyed, they’ve lost everything, and so of course they were trying to get to Europe.
The Indy: How do you try to do justice to descriptions of such sorrow and pain in people’s lives?
LS: Well it’s quite hard, and I think you have to be careful not to overwrite as well, because people don’t want to be banged on the head with what they’re supposed to think or feel, or have too many words thrown at them at the same time. I’m not always successful but I think simplicity in writing is quite an important thing to keep in mind. Less is more––if you choose the right words you don’t need very many of them. And… you need to feel the story as well. Your compassion and empathy for the people you’re writing about [matters]. Even if they’re not very good people, they had a reason for doing what they were doing, or a reason for the situation they’re in.
The Indy: What do you do to try to reach that place of empathy?
LS: You have to move your head around a situation. If you stand in one corner and look at ISIS, they’re absolute evil. But you can move to a corner where awful things have happened to the Sunnis of the Middle East in recent history and you can see, not why the top guys are doing it, but why a community might welcome them in. [You have to consider their mindset] when they got involved––well, they’re up shit creek. Their houses are being bombed, they’re in the middle of a warzone, their families are being lost––it’s a matter of standing at different angles, a bit like a photographer… You have to explore different points of view.
The Indy: As a journalist, you hold the interesting and rather unconventional position that journalism doesn’t make any real difference at the policy level. Can you talk a bit about that, and also explain why you keep writing anyway?
LS: Well it is quite hard, actually, to continue to try and tell people what’s going on when you know that they won’t take any notice. They will take notice if a story captures their imagination, or moves them, or confronts them with some of the emotions that are going on in the region but it doesn’t actually change very much… I try very hard to explain the politics, the human context of stories, so that people realize that an act maybe by their government or an act happening out here [where I’m stationed in Lebanon] is not happening in a vacuum.
The Indy: And how do you do that? What conscious effort do you make to make sure that your writing comes across that way?
LS: I think a story needs to work on two levels––it needs to be about something interesting, but, on another level, it needs to show you another dimension to what’s going on. So you need to find events, or people, or situations, that illustrate some broader point, [that] open eyes or open doors to understanding something bigger about the situation, if that makes any sense.
The Indy: If there’s a story that you remember writing very clearly, can you walk us through what that process looked like?
LS: I think the story that stands out in my head most recently is the one I wrote about a suicide bombing at a children’s soccer match. Its one of the saddest stories I’ve ever written, probably the saddest story. Nobody had covered this bombing, nobody had gone to this little town. Little was known about it, they just said there was a bomb at a soccer match and some children were killed. [...] It was a tiny little village, and almost all of the victims were children, and the boys who were killed were the sons of the families living around the soccer pitch which is at the center of the village, and every house had lost a child and the whole village was in mourning. It was really a devastating scene and nobody had come to tell their stories, they all wanted to burst out with their stories. I could barely speak, I felt so humbled and awed by the awfulness of what they were going through.
The Indy: I imagine to write an article like that, you have to ask all your questions differently because these people are in such a state of grief. Can you talk a bit about how doing those interviews are different from other interviews that you might do?
LS: As I said I could barely speak, and I didn’t have to ask many questions. I just would ask “Tell me what happened” and they would tell you. And then sometimes they wouldn’t tell you very clearly, and you would have to be extremely patient and not push them. You can’t say “Oh, please say whether this happened and then whether you came from there or there because you’re not making it clear.” You just have to let them talk, let them guide the conversation, and nudge every now and then, and [ask things such as] “Tell me about your son” and of course they will talk nonstop.
The Indy: On a related note, could you also speak to the way in which journalists are responsible to their sources in these kinds of situations?
LS: Well, I wrote a story last week about the murder [of Raya Chidiac] in a Christian village in Lebanon*... I didn’t want to put her family in the middle of a story about a bigger issue when they are grieving themselves. I did ask the family separately, could I get a comment about their daughter? What kind of person she was, just something nice to say about her, and they didn’t want to be interviewed. They were in a deep state of shock, and I’m not going to force them.
*Raya Chidiac was the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese businessman who was raped and murdered by a man identified in Lebanese police reports only as “B.H.” B.H. was the caretaker of Chidiac’s home, and a refugee from Syria.
The Indy: Do you find the humanizing element to be very important in writing stories like these?
LS: Yes… I would have liked to humanize the victim a little bit more by putting in, for example, what was her job, what did she like doing, but I couldn’t get that from the family, and I didn’t have the heart to push it. But I slipped in a nice thing the Syrian refugee who did her hair said. I thought it was important to remind people that this was a nice woman who didn’t deserve what happened to her.
Yasmina, 26, arrived in Miziara with her family in 2012 after her brother was killed in the Syrian war. She got a well-paying job at the local hairdressing salon. Her sister gave birth to two children. Her older nephew attended the local school.
After her employer called to say she should leave Miziara for her own safety, she and her family piled their possessions onto a pickup truck and left to stay with relatives in a town about 40 miles away.
One of her customers was Chidiac, the murdered woman. “She had a lovely personality, and she didn’t discriminate against people,” Yasmina recalled. “I am so sad about everything. I loved my job. I loved Miziara. The people there are so nice. But after what happened, they had had enough of us.”
The Indy: The last question I want to ask is about when you first started out as a journalist. I know that was over 20 years ago, but what was the hardest part of reporting and writing for you?
LS: Writing and structuring a story. You can learn your subject, you can report very well, but then what’s the lede? What’s the nut graph? How do you guide the reader fluidly from the top to the bottom of the story without losing the thread of their interest? Without losing the story, making all the paragraphs follow on from each other? Structuring a story coherently is the biggest challenge to learn for a young journalist.
The Indy: At what point––if ever––did that start to become easy for you?
LS: It’s always a challenge. You know, you’ve done all your work and you’ve got this great story and then there’s the blank page in front of you: Where do you begin? Which part do you pull out to start it with? You have the challenge that you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention in the first paragraph, and before that you’ve got to grab the editor’s attention in the first paragraph. So the challenge doesn’t quite go away, but the more you write, the better you get.
The Indy: Any other major challenges?
LS: In the big picture of it, the hardest part is dealing with this onslaught of suffering and trying to do it justice.
The Indy: I imagine that in those moments of frustration and with the pressure to get the job done and to do it well, it’s easy to overlook or neglect self-care as a component of journalistic practice. What is it that you do or say to get yourself through these moments?
LS: One of the good parts of getting older is you just kind of learn the lesson: it all works out in the end. No matter how bad things look, it does all work out in the end. No story that didn’t quite work out how you wanted it to, nothing is ever actually a disaster—except for the key things of getting things right, not getting things wrong, and getting things out there. And in the end, it’ll probably be okay.
The Indy: Finally, circling back to the theme of doing justice to the stories that you tell, what is it that you tell yourself in those moments when you’re trying to ‘get things right’?
LS: Well, actually, the sad truth is you can’t do justice to it; there’s too much awfulness out there. I think the most depressing thing about it is knowing that you’re not telling the whole story. We tell the whole story of boring political events... but there are so many stories of misery out there, so many people with awful, awful things happening to them, so many twists and turns that are horrible and that are going to ruin people’s lives forever, and you can only tell a fraction of that. There aren’t enough minutes in a day or words on a page or newspapers to actually tell it all.
The Indy: So, one last time I have to ask: knowing that, why or how do you keep writing?
LS: It’s a compulsion, to tell people’s stories. I think it’s something that you can’t get rid of, either, you get a little bit addicted. It’s just a continuation of people’s interest in life and what’s going on around them, and it doesn’t stop, because every day brings new things.
IVY SCOTT B’21 still has faith that journalism matters.