Fresh from the barricades of Cairo, freelance journalist and photographer Iason Athanasiadis spoke to students in Luce Hall on Monday, recounting dodging stones in Tahrir Square and hiding out in a mosque to escape the roving bands of Mubarak’s thugs. Athanasiadis has covered the Middle East, Central Asia and the southeast Mediterranean since 1999 and has written for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor, among other international media outlets. He was arrested on espionage charges and thrown in the notorious Evin Prison in Iran while covering the national elections there in 2009, and he was embedded with NATO troops in Afghanistan in the spring of 2010. A native of Greece, Athanasiadis studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University and Persian and contemporary Iranian Studies at Tehran’s School of International Studies. He currently lives in Istanbul, but his next move is to find a way to Libya.
Q: A student is standing in front of you who says he wants to become a foreign correspondent. What advice do you have for him?
A: I would give him the same advice I got from three senior English journalists when I was 16 … First of all they begged me not to do it. They said look at us, we’re destroyed shells of men with no personal life and so on. They said the worst thing you can do is to study journalism. This was stuff you could pick up on the hoof when you’re doing work on the ground. You should go do regional studies, study the language, then put yourself there and start taking pictures.
Q: When you’re not in the action, you often speak to students, and you were a Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard for a year. How do you reconcile your time in the ivory tower of academia with your practical life on the ground?
A: My parents are both academics, so I’ve always avoided becoming one. But the one thing they gave me I think is a feeling for a story, the historical background, which every journalist should have, to be able to understand the context of a story.
The biggest mistake that journalists can make is to take their mores and norms and apply them to a completely foreign culture, which is something that journalists are always doing. They always interview people in their own languages, Western languages.
Q: You have lived in Athens, Cairo and Istanbul. Where feels like home for you?
A: I feel that I have a region, a cultural identity. It harkens back to that earlier, multicultural era in Egyptian history. That was before the blight of the 20th century, which was the blight of nationalism; the fragmentation of multicultural communities. Not that everyone was happy and lived in enduring good will, but you had more mixing among all levels of society than you have today. Now you have essentially elites interacting with each other. Then, you had localized multicultural societies. I feel very comfortable in the eastern Mediterranean — from Istanbul and Athens, down to Damascus and Beirut. Despite a hundred years of sabotage, the region still maintains a very cosmopolitan, multicultural air.
Q: Why did you decide to become a reporter?
A: I obsessively wrote newspapers when I was a six-year-old, as soon as I learned how to write, making up news. I would write pretend-newspapers. But then I went through a more normal phase of wanting to be a dustbin man or an astronaut. And then I returned at about 15 or 16. My father invited me to Beirut, where he was studying classical Arabic. Walking through the destroyed streets of Beirut suddenly created a connection. Before, it was kind of this mythical kingdom that I assumed was somewhere in South America. I didn’t realize it was in the neighborhood, down the street from Athens. Then the Israeli army invaded two weeks later, and these places I had been became the backdrops for journalists on television. That was impossibly glamorous and sexy. I was sold.
Q: If you hadn’t been a journalist what profession would you have been?
A: A vagrant.
Q: If you could interview any source, living or dead, who would it be?
A: Oriana Fallici. She was an activist, Italian journalist who interviewed everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to — just everyone.
Q: So she was a journalist. So you would interview a journalist.
A: Yes. Because she became such a hub. She had done so much and seen so much.
Q: It would be like interviewing everyone else by proxy.
A: It would be like interviewing a repository of knowledge. She was very opinionated, so I don’t consider her a model for me as a journalist, but I find her a very fascinating personality.
Q: You mentioned that the media often gives us skewed coverage — what is most in danger of being missed?
A: The efforts that the regimes are making and the strategies they’re coming up with to sideline these [revolutionary] movements. In Egypt we had a very pretty example of how the military can avoid the cliché of the “bad, violent military repressing the demonstrators with tanks,” and they went for a very sophisticated flanking maneuver: let the demonstrators have what they want, but retain a system that is, aside from having almost the same infrastructure that Mubarak had set up, possibly even more advantageous for the military.
Lumping all the movements together as “pro-democracy” can be a little bit misleading. In Bahrain, they’re of a sectarian hue. In Libya, they’re of a tribal hue. Sure, everyone wants to have more rights. Everyone wants to have more freedom. But when you say ‘pro-freedom’ to a Westerner, they might understand something different than when you say ‘pro-freedom’ to a Libyan from a certain tribe or a Bahraini Shiite.
Q: How has technology, particularly the internet and new media, changed your practice of journalism?
A: Journalism is dying, not because of the internet, but because of the money-men. They believe they can tap into citizen journalists as a way of keeping costs down — who work for less, who will be motivated by ego, and who are also motivated by their opinions.
The whole idea of a journalist is a specialist who doesn’t have opinions. There’s too much information, so journalists are becoming more and more like curators.
Q: What motivates you?
A: Journalism is a way I can bypass giving Yale or Harvard $60,000 a year. It’s a way to get paid a modest amount to learn all my life, to meet people, be in interesting positions, and see history in the making. To get behind the first draft of history and understand what the psychology of the actors was.
Q: How do you maintain objectivity when you become part of the story — when, say, you were thrown in jail for three weeks while covering the Iranian elections in 2009?
A: When I got thrown in jail for three weeks, I tried, just like when I’m reporting on any story, to see the perspective of the other person — the person throwing me in jail. Why did they do that, what is their motivation, what did they hope to get out of this? I never stopped doing journalism when I was in jail. All my antennae were full on the whole time. I even told my interrogators, “when I get out of here, I’m going to write several articles about being in jail. I see it as a kind of very rare embed that is not available to everyone.” And they laughed. And with the last interrogator, I had quite a good relationship. I knew that he knew that I wasn’t a spy and I knew that he knew it was a political game. We talked about Jalal Al-e-Ahmad d, this Marxist-Islamist philosopher who wrote the book Westoxification. We went off intelligence questions: who are you, who are your friends, what did you do these years, and so on.
Q: How do you feel about the passivity of journalism? The way it is an act of recording, rather than acting?
A: I love the passivity of it. I don’t want to get involved because I don’t feel like I have a stake in the struggles of men. I don’t believe in crowds. I don’t believe in masses. My name is Iason, which is a pagan name, because my mother didn’t want to give me a Christian name. She didn’t want to give me a name that belongs to an organized religion. Through my academic parents, I’ve imbibed this individualism that will not allow me to get embedded in a specific cause. I don’t feel a need to be a part of big social movements.
Q: But you do have issues you care about.
A: In Greece, there is the economic crisis right now. And I’m very concerned about how the immigration issue is being taken advantage of by the far right, to turn people against the foreigners, so as to get more votes. But when I’m reporting on the story, I’ll still report their point of view. Not sympathetically — I’ll just put a story there and I’ll let the reader make up his own mind. For the same objective reasons I’ve come to a conclusion, I assume that the reader can come to a conclusion, without me manipulating him.
I think you have to hold your own responsibility to keep these opinions separate and to believe in the objectivity of the decision-making process by which you got these opinions. And not try to manipulate others by taking shortcuts to convince them of something.
Q: Describe the life of a foreign correspondent with five adjectives.
A: Perfectionist. Manic. Sleep-deprived. Inquiring. And a fifth one that hints at mental damage.