How has foreign correspondence changed over the years? I asked Aya Batrawy, an Associated Press correspondent based in Dubai whose responsibilities extend into Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Over emails and an outdoor dinner in Dubai’s lively Jumeirah Beach area, Batrawy talked about lessons learned in nearly a decade in the region.
Aya, what skills should you have before landing in a place like the AP in Dubai?
The first skill I would emphasize is the ability to be a good listener and to truly be open-minded when covering a different region, country, culture and society than your own. It's essential. If a journalist can avoid seeing events through an "American lens" or the tropes associated with Orientalist writing on the Middle East, it will show in the kinds of stories, angles and questions you ask. People you interview will pick up on your efforts to be respectful of these differences and you will get the right story and the story right. Immersing yourself in the local culture, getting out of the comfy expat bubble and being able to read the local news or watch debate programs in the local language also helps immensely.
Having strong writing skills to convey complex issues in an entertaining and informative way is also important, regardless of the medium you are using to tell the story. Having technical skills to shoot photos and video is definitely a plus, but also being able to think about a story in all formats — how can it be told not only through writing, but visually through video and photos — is necessary.
And what can you adapt or pick up when there?
Building a network of contacts and gaining a stronger grasp of the trends and stories that matter in your region are skills you pick up the longer you cover a region or live abroad. And with every story you pitch or file, your writing skills will improve too.
Emotionally, what do you have to have? An ability to work on shifting teams? Ambition and drive? Self-confidence but not braggadocio?
If you are a freelancer abroad, which I was for several years, you'll need patience to deal with various kinds of editors and editorial styles at different outlets. You also have to be really organized (which I wasn't!) to follow up and collect your payment for freelance work from various outlets.
You should also like the story you are covering to pitch interesting angles and report with sincerity. Self-confidence helps, but stay humble too when abroad and understand that you will always be learning. It takes years of work before you can truly become an expert on any particular beat.
If you land a full-time gig abroad, know that it will be competitive and there will be days where you feel dejected about budget cuts, story play and staffing decisions. To get through those times, stay focused on the work itself and find new stories to immerse yourself in.
Practically, you will probably have to pay for your own gear if you are a freelancer and you will have to be ready to negotiate for higher pay, travel fees, and even basic credit on a story if you're being hired as a fixer. You might also need to have a say in the direction of stories if you are a fixer since that could leave you and your contacts open to risk.
How do you maintain the energy to cover such a wide area, and the critical thinking to prioritize?
Some of the biggest news out of Saudi Arabia that I've covered, like King Abdullah's death, the start of the Yemen war, the ascension to crown prince of Mohammed bin Salman, the announcement that women would be allowed to drive, or the arrests of princes and officials in a corruption sweep, all broke well after 11 p.m. my time.
Those stories take a lot of energy (as does having a 1-year-old at home), but so do the stories that require investigative time.
To prioritize my time and energy, I try to avoid spending too much time on the stories that are being pushed by governments and their public relations firms. Instead, I try to follow the stories of anonymous people on Twitter, the stories of women who are fleeing abusive families, the stories of individuals that convey a wider picture about the realities on the ground. It's easy and safe to go for the stories that come to our inboxes, pre-written by a government media office or PR firm, but that's not what gives me the fuel I need to work a long day or into the wee hours of the night.
Help me out. A story happens. What do you do, platform by platform?
The first thing as a writer that I do is confirm the news and write it. We then work together as a team — writers, video journalists and photographers to assess what visuals and on-camera interviews are possible since often I am making calls and scouring the web for more details for the story. We coordinate with editors to ensure they know of our coverage plans.
If a story includes a viral video posted online by someone, we try to authenticate the video, reach the person who posted the video and secure permission from that person to distribute the video. If there's a skyscraper on fire in Dubai, for example, we deploy to the scene. One writer will usually stay in the office to file updates and to stay in touch with the team at the scene for details, writing the story with shared bylines.
What was one thing you ended up learning that you had no idea you needed to know?
I never thought I'd need to know Arabic so well to work in this region. I knew it mattered, but I also didn't realize how much I had still had to learn.
My parents, originally from Egypt, spoke Arabic at home as I was growing up in the U.S., but to understand the kind of political dialogue and language used by officials, pundits, religious scholars and the media in Middle East required a whole new set of vocabulary and language skills on my part.
Being able to speak to people confidently in their first language, to follow the evening news or debate programs in Arabic, to read Twitter in Arabic, to understand UGC videos posted by protesters or extremist statements posted by the IS group, helped me write more confidently for an English-speaking audience. I didn't have to rely on a fixer, intermediary or solely on translation to grasp the tone and meaning behind statements. However, conveying that in English also required a strong understanding of the audience I was writing for.
I know you asked what was the ONE thing I learned in this case, but I will add this: I also learned that you have to hustle to make it as a foreign correspondent. To really establish yourself, you will have to work late and on weekends, cancel dinners with friends, reschedule trips to see your family back home and maybe even miss important weddings and graduations of friends and family to stay ahead because the news doesn't wait and it doesn't take a day off.
What story that you covered stood out to you? What resonated the most?
I was in Gaza City after the devastating war there in 2008, interviewing a young man who'd survived white phosphorus shelling by the Israeli Defense Force. His parents, twin brother and other relatives died when their car was struck as they tried to flee to safer grounds. He was the sole survivor. He was recovering at a hospital, his mouth wired shut and his arms wrapped in gauze. He'd lost an eye. He was in bad shape.
When I asked him how he felt about the war, he simply said: "I thank God for everything." He explained he was thankful because he would come out of this stronger in his faith. It made me rethink how I view my own struggles, paltry in comparison, and how I approach hard moments in life.
The second story that has left a major impact on me was coverage of Egypt's uprising. For three years, from 2011 to 2014, all of us who worked as journalists in Egypt worked non-stop. It was a roller-coaster of emotions: fear, empowerment, euphoria, confusion and ultimately a sense we were let down. In those three years, I saw the best and worst of human behavior, from youth dying for the right to a better future to police snipers targeting unarmed protesters. Still, the sacrifice and bravery of ordinary people will stay with me forever.
What’s the question I should have asked but didn’t, and what’s that answer?
Thanks for asking this. I want to talk about what it's been like as a woman in this field.
Without a doubt, being a woman has had its pros — police at checkpoints, for example, haven't stopped me. I have also had great access to women and families as a woman in this part of the world. It's also had its drawbacks, though, in interviews with male officials who may not take me as seriously. There are also additional issues of safety to think about, such as sexual harassment on the street.
There's also a pervasive bro-culture in our industry that often leads to unequal promotions and pay. We are still paid less in journalism across the board than our male counterparts, particularly if that male is a white male. Several major U.S. newspapers have had internal reviews showing a 40 percent pay gap between a woman of color and a white male in the same job, even when that woman has more experience.
Talking to other female journalists has helped me realize the struggles are industry-wide, and that while it can be distracting and disheartening, I'm not alone.
Aya, thanks for the time, and good luck with the big stories coming up in your region.