For many years Nora Boustany was the correspondent of the Washington Post in Lebanon, covering the Lebanese civil war, as well as other events in the Middle East. The diminutive Boustany was a rarity in having made her mark on journalism in Lebanon as a woman, at a time when a majority of those writing about the conflict in the country were men. She began freelancing for the Post in 1979. The newspaper hired her as staff in the late 1980s, when foreign correspondents had left Beirut, fearing they would be kidnapped, and much of the local reporting was carried out by locals, at great risk. Today, Boustany teaches three courses on journalism at the American University of Beirut. Diwan caught up with her to discuss an uncommon career in journalism.
Michael Young: How did you become a journalist?
Nora Boustany: I left for graduate school at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1975. It was the year that war broke out in Lebanon and it changed my outlook forever. There had been some major incidents, incendiary and irreversible, but they remained isolated at the time. While completing my undergraduate program in mass communications at the American University of Beirut, with notions of wanting to be a foreign correspondent, I also toyed with the idea of delving into theories of communication, national development strategies, and international communications. It only took a few months to disabuse me of a commitment to academia. The land of my birth and childhood was in flames.
Lebanese militiamen, Palestinian fighters, and all the regional and local forces that interjected themselves in that conflict were committing unspeakable atrocities in the name of religion, a preferred lifestyle, or the divide over whether to allow Lebanon to be a launching pad for war against Israel. The prospects for peaceful coexistence, as I had known it, were dire to say the least. Whenever I had time, I headed to the journalism school’s periodicals library and read every newspaper that I could get my hands on to understand what was tearing my home and my countrymen apart: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Die Welt, Le Monde, Al-Nahar. I scoured the headlines and read daily news stories to fathom the abyss into which Lebanon was descending. There was no Internet, international calls to Lebanon were near to impossible, and it took hours to place a call via local operators trying to connect with overseas operators. I went for weeks with no news from my parents or twin sister. Newspaper articles and network news left me baffled, wanting to know more. But I wanted to be the one telling the story, cross-examining the politicians and players, and interpreting their motives and actions to the world. My mind was made up. I took practical news writing courses to beef up my skills. Unable to travel to Beirut over the holidays because the airport was closed due to the battles of Damour, Tall al-Za‘tar, and others, I stayed behind and took two consecutive summer sessions. I completed my master’s degree in one and a half years in December 1976 and headed to Lebanon.
MY: How did being a woman affect your work in a place like Lebanon during the war? My sense is that most journalists who covered the country in the 1970s and 1980s were men. Is that correct?
NB: American and British editors at Western news agencies where I first applied for jobs told me two things as I started out: My university degrees were worth nothing, since I had no experience; and they didn’t hire women. Finally, I landed a low-paying job working the night shift at United Press International, monitoring radios and Arab news agencies, following up on day stories by telephone, and using my free time during the day and on weekends to work on features and other stories that required travel to southern Lebanon.
That is how it began. When my stories started making it into the International Herald Tribune, I felt I had a fighting chance to succeed. In those days I cemented lasting bonds with world famous American and British correspondants, filling them in, helping them out when they parachuted into Beirut with each convulsion and hiccup. I briefed them on what they had missed and observed their approach and flair for news. I travelled around the country with them, translating, discovering, and absorbing their relentless techniques. I learned so much from them. I was hooked on the romance of journalism, its impossible hours and demands, going to desolate places and interviewing forgotten civilians pinned down by the war. Those days fueled my stamina, passion, and curiosity. There were very few women in that universe at the time. When I referred to myself as a newspaper person one evening, New York Times correspondent John Kifner responded, “Newspaper person? Nah. You’re one of the guys.”
MY: What were your memories of those early years in journalism?
NB: The late Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat, his retinue, and guerrillas practically and effectively ruled West Beirut and southern Lebanon. I spent Saturday afternoons covering his fiery speeches in the stadium of the Arab University near PLO headquarters. Israeli air raids came and went. Christian militias defied the Palestinian stranglehold over Lebanon and committed some pretty serious blunders themselves. There were inter-militia battles in Christian areas and in West Beirut. It soon became clear that it was more about power and influence than ideology or religion.
In 1979, I went to the University of Madison in Wisconsin, thinking of getting a doctorate. I was getting restless. But at the end of my first semester, in spite of top grades in my three courses and an offer for a full scholarship, I was convinced that my heart belonged to practical, professional journalism, not academia. In September 1980, the Iran-Iraq war had erupted and all I wanted was to be in Basra in southern Iraq covering that momentous conflict that would draw lasting battle lines and rekindle historic animosities between Sunnis and Shi‘a in the region. A great earthquake was cracking the Middle East wide open, and I wanted to see it firsthand.
I returned to Beirut, to my parents’ chagrin, and began working at the Middle East Reporter, a daily English news digest of the regional and Arab press that was delivered to the desks of correspondents, diplomats, bankers, and others. In the summer of 1979, I began freelancing for the Washington Post. Jesse Jackson had come to Beirut to make peace, he thought, between Arafat and the Israelis. That was my big break. The Washington Post was caught flat-footed. The now defunct Washington Star, a rival paper in Washington, D.C., had sent a correspondent on Jackson’s plane and all the Post’s correspondents were in summer mode and vacationing after a tough year in the news. A contact I had made while working the UPI nightshift left me a telephone message at home, asking me to file stories on Jackson and his entourage from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the Washington Post. “This is a one shot deal,” he intoned, explaining that it was a temporary assignment. The African-American activist and leader spent three weeks in the Middle East, mainly in Lebanon. I wrote stories for the Post every day, sometimes updating my story after visits to the Palestinian camps and late night encounters with Arafat. The day after Jackson departed, there was a Syrian-Israeli dogfight over Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. I kept suggesting stories. No one objected. I kept trying to get into the paper, though I was just a stringer. I helped correspondents when they showed up. I tried to do even more when they had to leave and news happened. I reported, I wrote and produced features for the paper.
MY: When you started your career as a journalist, did you have any journalistic models you looked up to?
NB: Those were the golden years of journalism worldwide. The best and the brightest came to Beirut at the time—the late Christopher Hitchens, military historians, and of course network stars such as Peter Jennings of ABC News, Doug Tunnell of CBS News, David Ignatius who was with the Wall Street Journal at the time, Oriana Fallaci, and other luminaries. As I built on my experience and portfolio, the Post started sending me on trips to Syria, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, and other places to cover Arab summits, Palestine National Council meetings, and Syrian politics.
MY: What has changed in the way journalists work today, compared to when you were working?
NB: I think back to how we worked during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The invasion brought around 400 of the world’s best journalists to the country, all huddled at the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut and the Hotel Alexandre in East Beirut. We relied on telex machines when there was electricity and an operating line out of Beirut. We used blind punchers, learning how to read the holes in yellow ticker tape to rewrite a word. Sometimes we wrote our stories on an open line and on deadline—a far cry from the technology that exists today that allows you to see your story on the screen, edit it, and refine it before pressing the send button. We sometimes sent our copy and film by taxi over to fixers in Damascus, who would then resend it to the outside world.
Now, with so much technology available, digital possibilities and fancy and reliable means to push one’s copy out are foolproof. The immediacy of the news cycle to worldwide audiences is a boon to our trade, but also a challenge, since less time is devoted to pondering, writing, and finessing a story. The almost instantaneous propagation of news can magnify mistakes. The rules and ethics of such fast-paced dissemination are still being rewritten. Of course the same rules of sound, professional conduct apply and we have to make sure that young journalists understand the stakes, but the pressure in newsrooms for hits and rapid turnaround can have drawbacks.
MY: What was the most important moment for you as a journalist covering the Lebanese war?
NB: I would say the 1982 Israeli invasion again, and the many political assassinations that followed. Correspondents would stand in a queue sometimes to dictate stories on one of the working telephone lines out of Beirut—in English, French, Spanish, German, or Japanese. That harrowing period of dodging Israeli warplanes swooping low over the city, casting ominous shadows, to strafe or bomb targets, or talking to residents hanging on for dear life or hiding in hovels and basements in Beirut, was a very formative one for me. It left an indelible mark on my conscience and my soul as a journalist. The Sabra and Shatila massacre is etched in my memory as an unforgettable lesson about man’s inhumanity to man. It did not matter that I was born a Christian or a Lebanese; what mattered was the sickening, ghoulish way in which women and children were slaughtered.
In covering such stories you come face to face with your humanity, as I tell my students today. It does not matter who you are or where you came from, what matters is who has done what to whom and how and why. The assassinations of numerous Lebanese leaders and two elected Lebanese presidents demonstrated how elusive it would be for Lebanon to ever have a free will as a sovereign nation.
We worked seventeen-hour days at the time. Every minute counted, every crisis was existential. My neighborhood was shelled, the entire parking lot facing my apartment building was incinerated by rockets one night and we woke up to a smoldering landscape of orange carcasses of vehicles. My grandmother was shot by a sniper in her home in the Ashrafieh neighborhood. I evacuated her down the staircase, crouching for cover and holding up a blood soaked towel to her head. Much that was taking place in the country at the time was very close to the bone.
During the Sabra and Shatila massacre, I took in groups of correspondents, translating, interviewing, observing, taking notes. I went in with Loren Jenkins from the Washington Post, who ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. We were the first group of reporters to enter. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times followed. Karsten Tveit of Norwegian television was one of the first to film the aftermath of the massacre, with heaps of bodies collapsed on the ground like rag dolls. American diplomat Ryan Crocker, a junior officer at the embassy at the time, drove into the maze of depravity in his own car to check out reports from correspondents in order to report back to the State Department. Tveit scoured the camps with a camera on his shoulder. He would film a little and throw up a little. It was a chilling scene of unspeakable horror. The narrow lanes were choking with corpses of street traders mowed down outside their homes, women with crosses knifed into their breasts, food rations with Hebrew lettering, and spent bullets. I took Patrick Cockburn into the camps, as I was also freelancing for the Financial Times then, as well as other correspondents from London’s the Observer.
None of the reporters I worked with credited my contribution, as correspondents are obliged to do now. But the lessons I learned as a reporter were invaluable. I felt this moral compulsion to brief Washington Post correspondents as well as others tirelessly. It was not about glory. It was about carnage and butchery. I was honored to work alongside Jonathan Randal, William Brannigan, David Ottaway, Loren Jenkins, and others, including Alan Cowell of the New York Times, and the late Joe Alex Morris and Don Schanche of the Los Angeles Times. To me they were all giants and consummate professionals. I developed a healthy kind of skepticism and a daredevil courage while chasing stories with them that served me well in stories I would later cover in Iran, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, and elsewhere. Lebanon descended into a hellhole after the bombing of the U.S. embassy in 1983, and again in the late 1980s, when Westerners and embassies became targets for a macabre exchange of messages between Iran on the one side and the United States and European countries on the other.
MY: You became the Washington Post’s correspondent in Beirut in 1988. How would you describe your relationship with the paper at the time?
NB: By the late 1980s it had become very dangerous for Western correspondents to stay in Lebanon. Kidnappings by shadowy groups fronting for Iran, such as Islamic Jihad and others, left coverage in the hands of local journalists. It was believed at the time that it was safer for women because Islamic groups did not want to come in contact with females in a situation of captivity. We had tremendous access. We got to interview everyone. None of this protected us from physical danger or other risks. I was threatened repeatedly. The Syrian regime, Al-Saiqa, a pro-Syrian Palestinian faction, the Lebanese Army and even intermediaries for the Lebanese Forces who took issue with my coverage would either call with menacing messages or summon me for cross examination to test my loyalties to their enemies. I always insisted, since all sides were bothered, that I worked for no one other than my newspaper.
I was given an appointment at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus once, thinking I would be seeing then-foreign minister Farouq al-Shara‘. Instead, I was dressed down in somewhat crude, intimidating, and uncompromising language for my coverage of a fierce battle between Syrian troops and Lebanese soldiers who were shot in the back. That report had angered the U.S. State Department, which conveyed its displeasure through its then-ambassador in Syria, Edward Djerejian. My editors stood by me in the most chivalrous way after I informed them of what had transpired. Executive editor Benjamin C. Bradley and my foreign editor at the time, David Ignatius, paid a visit to the Syrian ambassador in Washington, Walid al-Mo‘allem, to protest in the most courteous but clearest terms that I was not to be pushed around or badly treated, as I had their full support and protection. That was then.
MY: What has changed for journalists today?
NB: Now journalists disappear and some places are inaccessible because of the tremendous risks. The beheadings and arbitrary captivity of correspondents haunt newsrooms to this day. Freelancers especially are at great risk. The independence of the medium counted for something in my day, as did our professional standards. When a group of hotheads told the late Shi‘a cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah that I was a worthy target since I was the only one still representing American media in Beirut, he chewed their head off. He told them that I was still reporting on all sides and giving a voice to all groups, including the Shi‘a of Lebanon, when everyone was about to forget that Lebanon existed. He cited as examples of objective and necessary reporting my story in the Post of a massive car bomb that was detonated to kill him as he emerged from prayers in his mosque in Beirut’s southern suburbs, as well as a behind-the-scenes reconstruction several years later of who was responsible for the attack. That era of killings, car bombings, kidnappings, and Israeli incursions was the most sinister and apocalyptic in Lebanon’s history. Internecine fighting and mysterious abductions held the country and anyone passing through it by the throat.
MY: On the same subject, you’re now teaching several journalism courses at the American University of Beirut. Based on your past experiences, what do you recommend for your students?
NB: When I was working as a journalist, I felt compelled to inform the outside world about Lebanon’s predicament. My daily and most pressing urge was to get the news out. I was driven by my recollections of a more peaceful time, growing up in a cosmopolitan and open society. I had this stubborn conviction that there were still some good people who lived there and who deserved better. There were helpless people trapped by the violence and I wanted their story to be told. It was my way of reaching out to a brighter place, driven by an obsession to shed some light on these pernicious forces holding Lebanon and its victims in their grip.
Now, at times, the whole world resembles wartime Lebanon. In teaching young students, I want to inspire them and make them aware that they have a duty to speak truth to power and to report and uncover human rights abuses. I force them to open their minds and look at stories from all sides, even if their empathy and sensitivity may be for one side in conflicts. There is right and wrong, regardless of who the perpetrators are. Until we tell things like they are, injustice will never stop. The inalienable right to speak up, the public’s right to know, and the duty to inform are sacrosanct, whatever the discomfort or inconvenience felt by those we cover.
MY: There is a film out now called The Post, on the Washington Post’s decision, along with other publications, to publish the Pentagon Papers. You worked at the newspaper for many years, so can you tell us how close to reality was the film?
NB: When the film The Post was initially banned in Beirut, I was reminded of the spirit and ethos of that special newspaper. In the lobby of the old Washington Post building on 15th and L Streets in downtown Washington, we were reminded of that special moment in the newspaper’s history each time we entered or left the premises. A huge photograph of Katherine Graham, the courageous publisher of the Post at the time, and our brave and blunt Ben Bradley walking out with triumphant smiles from the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the right to publish, watched over us. They told us to be unyielding and resolute in the face of whoever tried to muzzle us. When I was covering the war in Lebanon I thought of my editors every day. I never knew if I would return home at night, but I always knew that my editors and readers appreciated the risks I was taking. They valued what we did. This fueled our fortitude, our audacity, and grit as reporters for life. When all else is falling apart, this is what I believe in.