Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson

NPR Foreign Correspondent

2011 Convocation Address

October 16, 2011

Wow! That sums up a whole range of emotions at the moment.

Good evening President Adams, distinguished faculty and students, family and friends, fellow journalists, and everyone else here this evening.

You do me a very great honor today. I am humbled by this recognition of not only my work, but of the people that I’ve had the privilege to report on from some of the most fascinating corners of this world that we live in.

It is also very exciting that this is the first year the Lovejoy Award has been given to a broadcast journalist. It should be noted, in fact it was noted by the president, that I’m somewhat new to this medium and spent most of my career as an ink-stained wretch.

I thank you, Colby College, and the esteemed judges for giving the newspaper editors who believed in me one more chance to pat themselves on the back.

I also must thank NPR for not only having faith that I could make the leap to radio, but for providing me with never-ending encouragement and support to tell the kind of stories I’ve always loved to tell: Stories not about the machinations of politics but of the tragedies and triumphs of the people living in an unstable world.

As I’ve told many people who ask me about my transition from newspapers to broadcast journalism, the best part about being a radio reporter is the ability to bring the world home in a three-dimensional way. Not only do I get to do narrative writing to paint a picture in listeners’ heads, but I get to use voices and sounds to tell those stories from places many of us never get to see.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, who helped mold this former print reporter you see before you into a radio journalist. He wanted to be here tonight, but work-related commitments prevented him from doing so.

What Loren did with me was not unlike throwing someone into the deep end of the pool when he or she can’t swim. I was given a month of training on how to record and cut sound, write radio scripts, and voice stories. And then he sent me to Afghanistan in the dead of winter. And let me tell you, that is a very cold place in the dead of winter, even for this Wisconsin-born girl.

At that time, back in 2006, Kabul was a place where you only had a few hours of electricity every few days. The first rickety generator that I bought to provide power the rest of the time rarely worked. Not to mention, the generator was so noisy that when it did work I had to turn it off so that I could record my voice parts for the stories, otherwise you’d have that sound in the background and that just wouldn’t work.

Suffice it to say, my first few NPR stories didn’t sound very good. It’s kind of hard to sound conversational when you’re sitting in a freezing house with no power, holding a blanket over your head to muffle outside noise, and then reading a script by flashlight. They don’t really prepare you for that in journalism school.

Or when doing a stand-up in a burka, through which you can barely see anything. And forget about peripheral vision. I felt like a baby learning to walk when I wore that thing. Many of my Afghan staff would crack a smile whenever they saw me struggling to put the garment on or wobbling around in it. At some stage, I got used to the thing. I even climbed a mountain in a burka to get to a village where Afghan refugees were flooding back from Pakistan to escape fighting there.

Many women have asked me why I would wear a burka when it is such a symbol of oppression. But my rule is to defer to local customs and not become part of the story by drawing attention to myself, which would have happened if I had not worn a burka in most of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Plus, the opaque polyester garment does offer anonymity when you are traveling in places where Taliban sympathizers would rather kidnap or behead you as opposed to being agreed to be interviewed with a big, furry microphone.

Yet the travails I’ve faced in conflict zones seem trivial when compared to the hardships of the people I’ve had the privilege to report on. They’ve allowed me to record their most raw moments and feelings, often in places where “foreigner” is synonymous with “enemy.” It can be nerve-wracking to have your life captured by a microphone even in the freest environment. I still feel that way myself on occasion, like even tonight.

Yet I’ve met so many people hungry to tell their story, even though they risked imprisonment, lashings, or worse.

I was particularly moved by the young women in Saudi Arabia who’ve been fighting to be recognized as individuals, rather than as wards of their male relatives. They want rights and privileges American women often take for granted, like voting and driving. Saudi women want to travel or start a business without having to get a man’s permission. They want an age of majority for women so they can be counted as adults. Just picture it—they never reach an age of majority in Saudi Arabia.

One of these brave young Saudis is a college student named Ruba. I found her through a Saudi blogger who was interning for us at NPR. Ruba has asked that I not use her full name when I talk about her to protect her father, who works for the Saudi government. She’d be safer not speaking out at all, considering she’s been arrested for her activities and threatened by the religious authorities and police.

And yet last April, Ruba embraced the idea of me accompanying her and a handful of other women she had met on Twitter. Their destination was a voter registration center. They planned, first, to go inside, which is taboo as men and women are segregated in most public spaces; and second, to try and make the male officials at the center register them as voters.

I should note these rare elections they were trying to register for were not actually about giving Saudis a say in how things are run in their country. That right belongs to their king alone. He and his government have effectively quelled the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia with financial incentives, scare tactics, and crackdowns in minority Shiite areas. They’ve convinced many among the kingdom’s majority Sunni population that uprisings will only strengthen the hand of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite enemy, Iran.

So the second-ever, nationwide election for municipal councils that advise mayors across Saudi Arabia was, at best, a show. A nod to the West, if you will, so the Saudis could say: “Hey, look at us, we’re moving toward democracy!”

Nevertheless, Ruba and the other ladies were determined to be allowed to cast ballots, even if it was in elections they knew were bereft of meaning. So in late April, the women put on their floor-length black abayas and veils and headed to the voter registration center with me in tow.

Going with them openly as a Western reporter would have likely landed those women in jail on morals charges. For their protection, I wore not only the abaya, which is required of foreign women in the kingdom, but also the niqab, so only my eyes were visible. Nor could I use a handheld microphone. So I slipped a small recorder into the front pocket of my purse and edged my way forward to make sure I got the sound.

Standing like a silent, black ghost among them, I recorded their historic effort. They argued ferociously with male officials to register them to vote. Their courage took my breath away. After all, these women are trained from birth to stay hidden and not draw attention to themselves.

In the end, Ruba and her friends weren’t allowed to register. But they told me they nevertheless felt empowered. Ruba said the protest gave them a voice they never felt they had before.

I’m pretty sure we’ll see Saudi women doing this again in far larger numbers if the king’s recent announcement allowing women to vote next time isn’t acted upon by his government. Many of the women I talked to who tried to register to vote have also been getting behind the wheel and driving around the Saudi capital. Dozens of other women across the country have done the same.

But their defiance of the driving ban has brought harsh consequences. Some of those who drove were arrested and were forced to sign pledges promising they’d never do it again. Of course, if they do, since they signed the pledge, the punishment would likely be harsher. And there was one woman in the coastal city of Jeddah was sentenced to ten lashes. The king later set aside that verdict, although her lawyer says he’s still waiting on the court to issue a decree to that effect.

No matter what happens, Ruba and others tell me they won’t stop their acts of defiance until they achieve their rights.

I was also inspired by the youth of Tunisia and Egypt, who carry out their acts of defiance in a much more dangerous environment. They turned disillusionment over not having a voice in their country’s affairs, and their frustration over unemployment and corruption, into movements that ultimately brought down their leaders.

Day after day in Cairo, I watched young men and women brave gunfire, tear gas, beatings, and arrests to push for freedom and economic parity. In February I followed them into the shadowy state security headquarters in Nasr City, a northern Cairo suburb. Hundreds of them had broken into the compound to look for the files kept there on Mubarak’s political enemies. They also discovered hidden cells where such prisoners were kept, as well as the devices used to torture them.

In hindsight, it was probably not the brightest move for me to be there. I mean, how would the FBI react if any Egyptian reporter was discovered in the bowels of their headquarters in downtown D.C. and recording people who are breaking in stealing top-secret files?

Egyptian military intelligence officers who arrived on the scene did grab me and my American producer. They questioned us briefly but, amazingly, they let us go.

But as the protestors quickly learned, change doesn’t come easily when you’re fighting a government that has used force justified by a state-of-emergency law to hold on to power for three decades. Slow change is one growing source of frustration with the military council currently ruling Egypt, which has increasingly reverted to violent crackdowns and harsh prosecutions of perceived troublemakers to retain control.

The worst day of the uprising that ultimately ousted Hosni Mubarak was arguably January 28. You may have heard it referred to as the Day of Rage. Scores of people across Egypt were shot and killed by police and by thugs who reportedly were paid by the government.

In downtown Cairo, the tear gas was so thick you couldn’t get away from it. I had a scarf wrapped around my nose and mouth, but had forgotten to bring protective glasses. Soon I was blinded by a stream of tears. Some of the protestors urged me to pour cola in my eyes, claiming it would take the sting out. Some of my colleagues later swore by this as well, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pour the sugary soft drink on my face. Instead, I allowed my translator to lead me by the hand out to the main street along the Nile River so we could hitch a ride away from the gas.

The same day Mubarak had ordered all cell and satellite phone networks to be shut down, along with the Internet. As you can imagine it was a nightmare for journalists who were trying to file their stories, never mind for the organizers of the protests, who were using text messages, Twitter, and Facebook to run their revolution. But as it turned out, the landlines were still working, which allowed me to call NPR and report what was happening on the air.

The worst of the Day of Rage came that night. Heavily armed police were told at all costs not to let the protestors get to Cairo’s main square. I checked into the Semiramis Hotel overlooking that square, known the world over as Tahrir, which means liberation. I have seen a lot of battles, but this one was quite brutal. The police were firing tear gas and weapons and tried ramming unarmed protestors with their heavy trucks.

After midnight, a sea of young people burst past the barricades and flooded the square. The police fled, leaving their vehicles behind, which the protestors set on fire. Army tanks rolled in, but the Egyptian military soon made it clear they would not interfere with the movement, at least not then.

That wasn’t the case in Libya. Unlike Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi had firm control of all aspects of Libyan society, including the military. He turned all of his attention and resources toward finding the rebels who had dared to demand his removal. Gadhafi called them rats and vowed to hunt them down, alley by alley.

With the rebels taking up arms and NATO warplanes supporting them, this Arab Spring uprising quickly turned into a war.

For journalists, it became one of the most difficult stories of the Arab Spring to cover. Part of that was because it was pretty much impossible for one person to cover both sides of the conflict. You were either covering it from the east with the rebels or you were in Tripoli covering it from Gadhafi’s point of view. And the spin doctors were hard at work on both sides.

My first experience was reporting from the Gadhafi side, where I stayed at the infamous Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. It was a surreal, Orwellian experience in a five-star setting.

While NATO bombs rained down around us, our hosts held rambling press conferences at the hotel offering their version of events. The British-educated spokesman Moussa Ibrahim would insist that Gadhafi troops were in charge of Libya. He denied the rebels were gaining ground. “All Libyans love Gadhafi,” he would say. Graffiti spray-painted on walls near the hotel was supposed to drive that point home.

We were forbidden from going anywhere on our own to see if any of that was true. In fact, armed guards around the hotel perimeter sat in chairs that faced the hotel to keep us inside rather than intruders out. Yet many of us still managed to sneak out on occasion to try and get a sense of what was really happening. One of your past Lovejoy award recipients, John Burns, was particularly adept at it. He would just march out there—it was a sight to behold.

But it was dangerous to talk to anybody. The self-proclaimed Libyan version of Larry King would broadcast on state television night after night that we were spies who worked for the CIA. So it wasn’t exactly prudent to go up to people in town and say, “Hi, I’m a reporter, can you tell me what’s going on?”

In the end, we were often forced to rely on government-organized excursions aimed at casting Gadhafi in the best light. Our minders would load us onto buses and take us to see staged rallies. On occasion they would show us rusty old bombs with Russian markings they would claim were dropped by NATO.

They even used the same people to pose as ordinary Libyans for us to interview at different events in different places, as if we wouldn’t notice. For example, one man who was introduced as the relative of an injured child appeared at another site the same day as a resident upset about a bomb allegedly dropped by NATO there. The minders were dismissive when reporters pointed that out to them.

It was easier to cover the conflict from the eastern city of Benghazi in September. There were no minders and eastern Libyans were still supportive of the Western press. So we moved around unimpeded, although we did have to slip incognito past checkpoints closer to the front.

Nevertheless, the rebel leaders’ fiction factor, if you will, was as much of a problem there as it had been in Tripoli. For example there were the false claims that some of Gadhafi’s sons had been captured. Plus the rebels constantly provided exaggerated assessments of rebel advances on the battlefield that were mostly impossible for reporters to verify.

Yet such frustrations haven’t prevented wave after wave of Western journalists from coming in to tell the story. Most of us try and emulate the journalistic tradition of commitment and courage that Elijah Parish Lovejoy set the standard for. But in many places the dangers of doing so are as great now as they were during his time.

Too many of my colleagues have died during the 11 years I’ve worked in war zones. Like my friend Boston Globe correspondent Elizabeth Neuffer, documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, and photographer Anton Hammerl, to name a few. Many have been physically and mentally scarred.

Extreme danger inevitably leads to soul-searching about why we do what we do and whether it’s even worth it.

I’ve had several such soul-searching moments. Like when I was arrested in 2004 in Iraq by the Mahdi Army run by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. I was the lone Western reporter in Najaf, which was under Sadr’s control at the time. U.S. Marines had taken position around the city and were preparing to attack.

Unbeknownst to me, Sadr’s religious court in Najaf held a trial with me in absentia. The judges issued an execution warrant for me claiming I was an American spy. For more than six frantic hours, I pleaded with the black-clad gunmen to not take me to nearby Kufa mosque where such executions were being carried out. But it was my father’s ethnic background that saved me, as I later learned. He was born in Iran. And the Iranians who were working with Sadr’s forces ordered them to let me go.

Then there was February of last year when a Marine patrol I was embedded with was ambushed by the Taliban. During the intense firefight, one of the Marines I’d gotten to know took a bullet to the head less than 50 feet from where I was curled up in the dirt. He was 23, and left behind a pregnant wife.

As I mentioned, such moments raise these questions: Why in the world do we do this job? And is it worth it?

For me, the answers are the same as when I was an idealistic undergraduate at the University of Maryland. I became a foreign correspondent because I wanted to connect Americans to the rest of the world through compelling storytelling. And yes, to me it’s worth it, even if it means a few premature gray hairs for my husband. Thank you, Erik, for that sacrifice. And thank you for your love and support all these years without which, I couldn’t do what I do.

I also thank our son, who I think is probably quite tired of hearing his mom in the thick of it on air.  It’s something many of the people I cover can’t understand. That I do this job for one. Or that my family, quote, “lets me” for another.

I’ll never forget my encounter two years ago with a female police officer in the lawless Afghan province of Farah. She stared in amazement at Los Angeles Times reporter Laura King, freelance photographer Holly Pickett, and me as we waited for a flight back to Kabul.

She asked me in Dari where is your “Mahram?” or male guardian? She then proceeded to answer her own question with a dismissive wave, saying: “Oh, you don’t need a male guardian. You are men.” I was unable to convince her that women are just as capable as men to make their way around volatile areas on assignment.

My gender is definitely an obstacle for some of the men I encounter as well. Many Salafis, who represent a fundamentalist religious movement in Egypt that is gaining traction there, refuse to be interviewed by me because I’m a woman. The same was true for most Taliban officials when I was in Afghanistan.

Sexual harassment, groping, and on occasion, more serious assaults are an unfortunate reality for women working in such male-dominated societies. What happened to CBS correspondent Lara Logan when she was attacked by a large crowd on the night Mubarak stepped down from power was terrifying and inexcusable.

But being a woman covering the Arab world and Afghanistan has its distinct advantages, too.  Many men are more at ease talking to women because they feel we pose less of a threat in volatile environments. And more importantly, women journalists can interview women in these places.

In Kandahar and Kunar provinces in Afghanistan and most recently in the southern Egyptian town of Qena, the men I’d come to interview took me to meet their wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers. These women were as eager to meet me as the men were for me to meet them. I find interviewing such women lends critical insights to conflicts and makes for more complete stories. After all, in a decades-old conflict zone like Afghanistan, they make up more than half of the population.

But in case you are wondering, journalists in the field don’t sit around and say: “Oh you are a man, you can cover this story, and you are a woman, so you cover that one.” My experience has been far more egalitarian. And Mm employer certainly hasn’t hesitated to assign women to cover the Arab Spring. In fact, most of us covering it are women.

My colleague Lourdes Garcia Navarro, who is as talented as she is fearless, is in Libya. There’s Kelly McEvers, another amazing war correspondent who is based in Iraq and one of the few reporters who have made it into Yemen. Correspondent Deb Amos has delivered amazing reports from Damascus and Beirut about the Syrian uprising. These women are my heroes.

And I’m sure Lovejoy would approve of how far all of us have come.

In his time, journalists were at risk simply for reporting honestly on domestic issues. For him, exposing the injustice of slavery proved fatal. From his day all the way to the Vietnam War, it was frowned upon to cover a war from the front lines of both sides, let alone raise questions about the motivation and objectives of one’s own nation.

Today pursuing that “other side,” which so important to meaningful coverage is what makes war correspondence so fraught with risk. We must continuously gauge—often with insufficient information—whether the potential benefit of the next trip we take justifies the risk.

Looking back at what I’ve faced in places like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, I feel it’s been worth it, both for myself and those informed by my work.

Thank you again for having me here tonight. I’m happy to take your questions.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Fellow

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Despite curling up under her protective vest to survive a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan and spending six hours awaiting her own execution after being convicted of being an American spy in Iraq, NPR Foreign Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson concluded, “It’s been worth it, both for myself and those informed by my work.” That’s what she told an attentive audience in Lorimer Chapel Oct. 16 when she gave the 2011 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation address.


Honored as Colby’s 59th Lovejoy Award recipient for her courageous reporting, and receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree, Nelson spoke of her reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring uprisings, and subsequent developments in the Middle East.

She described wearing a burka when necessary, both to defer to local customs and for a measure of anonymity as she traveled to report stories she couldn’t have gotten dressed as a Westerner. “You can barely see a thing,” she said. “And forget about peripheral vision. I felt like a baby learning to walk when I wore that thing. Many of my Afghan staff would crack a smile whenever they saw me struggling to put the garment on or wobbling around in it.”

In Saudi Arabia she donned an abaya and a niqab, which left only her eyes showing, so she could record women arguing “ferociously” with male officials while trying to register to vote. While the women were not successful, “Their courage took my breath away,” Nelson said. And she predicted more Saudi women will join the cause if the king doesn’t make good on his promise to give women the vote by the next election.

Nelson told of accompanying Egyptian protesters to state security headquarters after the fall of President Mubarak: “In hindsight, it was probably not the brightest move for me to be there,” she said. “I mean, how would the FBI react if an Egyptian reporter was discovered in the bowels of their headquarters in downtown D.C. and recording people who are breaking into top-secret files?”

She recounted being disabled by tear gas and having to flee protests in Egypt. She told of being taken on elaborately orchestrated tours of Tripoli by Gadhafi’s minders, who guarded the journalists’ hotel to keep the reporters from trying to get out and find the truth. She spoke of being on patrol with Marines last year as “one of the Marines I’d gotten to know took a bullet to the head less than fifty feet from where I was curled up in the dirt. He was twenty-three and left behind a pregnant wife.”

All of which led her to address the questions, “Why in the world do we do this job? And is it worth it?”

“I became a foreign correspondent because I wanted to connect Americans to the rest of the world through compelling storytelling,” she said. “And, yes, to me it’s worth it, even if it means a few premature gray hairs for my husband.”

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

For more information, visit