Journalist Kareem Shaheen spoke about his coverage of the Middle East
Former Middle East correspondent Kareem Shaheen from The Guardian stopped by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) on Jan. 30. Shaheen spoke about his experience covering the aftermath of a gas attack in a small Syrian town called Khan Sheikhun in 2017. He was the first Western journalist to reach the area after the attack.
The event was moderated by Kyle Matthews, the executive director of MIGS. About 30 people attended.
“The most overwhelming thing to me was realizing how much of a ghost town [the gas attack] has turned the city into,” Shaheen said, adding that one of the most memorable moments was seeing the graveyard where many bodies were buried, including one family that lost 20 members. “It was very sombre and sad. You can really absorb how many lives have been destroyed when you see all the tombstones and fresh earth,” he said.
Originally from Egypt, Shaheen reported for The Guardian from February 2015 to August 2018. He covered a wide range of topics from politics to security in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and other regions in the Middle East.
“It hits you how cruel the conflict can be and sometimes how senseless the killing can be,” Shaheen said. “It reminds you how fragile everything is.”
Shaheen said it is important to be a human before being a journalist, while being able to understand that people opening up about hardship is an act of generosity. It’s important “to recognize they have had some extremely tough experiences and that there’s no way you could fully convey the extent of their trauma and their suffering,” he said. “At the same time, [it’s important] to be grateful that they’re telling you their stories because they don’t owe you anything as a journalist.”
While sharing the stories he encountered in Syria, Shaheen said that the ability to show your readers what is happening around you is not an easy task but one that comes with practice. “It’s this ability to paint a portrait of what’s going on and what the scene was like,” he said. Shaheen worked on this skill when he was in Lebanon, reporting on the suicide bombings that spilled over from the Syrian war.
Shaheen is grateful to have met many different people in the Middle East, as he found them to be resilient. “It’s just a matter of having to suffer through so much,” he said. “People in Lebanon endured 15 years of civil war […] and yet, you still see people doing hopeful things, you still see people who are fighting to build a better Syria, a better Lebanon.”
Shaheen never identified with the term ‘war correspondent’ because he was never covering the frontlines of the attacks but rather the aftermath. “When we call ourselves war correspondents, it detracts from the overall reporting mission that we have which is to tell the story as it is,” he said.
In a world awash with misinformation, Shaheen strongly supports the idea of paying for news. “It’s becoming so difficult now, to determine what truth is and for that to really matter,” he said. “For journalists, it’s an opportunity to be more transparent about the work that we do and how we gather information.”
When Shaheen was covering events in Lebanon, he wrote about Maameltein, an area where human traffickers would trick Syrian women to come to Lebanon, steal their passports, kidnap them and force them into prostitution. “It was difficult to get a hold of any of the women, because they were under police custody or they were taken to shelters,” he said. “It’s probably the only time that I actually cried in an interview […] while talking to that woman.”
For student journalists who want to cover issues in Middle Eastern countries, Shaheen advises three things. First, learn the language. “I don’t think you could be a good reporter anywhere if you don’t learn the language,” he said. “It’s the only way to delve deeper into cultural and religious contexts of those societies.” The second piece of advice was to be curious and humble. “Wherever you go, people will have great stories,” he said. “Try to listen to what people have to say.” Lastly, Shaheem advises students to be empathetic towards others. “People are allowing you into their lives for a brief moment to experience something really special,” he said.
Shaheen added there is no such thing as over-verifying when it comes to journalism. “Always triple-check everything,” said Shaheen. “It’s like when your mother tells you that you’re handsome, you need to have it checked by three other sources,” he said as he laughed.
Photo by Gabe Chevalier.