“I was told to come alone. I was not to carry any identification and would have to leave my cell phone, audio recorder, watch, and purse at my hotel in Antakya, Turkey.” These were the conditions under which Souad Mekhennet, an investigative journalist at the time for the Washington Post, met with Abu Yusak, the ISIS leader who oversaw the ISIS hostage program, in 2014. Thus begins the fascinating journey of Ms. Mekhennet’s story of investigative journalism in the world of Islamic militants across Europe and the Middle East.
Souad Mekhennet is a Muslim woman of Moroccan and Turkish descent, born and raised in Germany. She was born in 1978 in Frankfurt and has two older sisters, one of whom suffers from brain damage. She attended a prestigious German journalism school, Henri-Nannen School in Hamburg. “I was one of the youngest students they ever admitted, and the first child of Muslim guest workers.”
Mekhennet was deeply affected by the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein and slowly evolved into a highly skilled investigative reporter for the New York Times and then the Washington Post, as well as various German outlets. She became absorbed with journalism’s obligation to take the world inside the minds of Islamic militants after 9/11 and specifically after having had dinner with Maureen Fanning, whose husband was a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center. At that dinner, Fanning struck a chord when she said “‘Nobody told us there were people out there who hated us so much…Why didn’t we know this? Politicians didn’t tell us. You’re journalists, but you never told us.'” “She was questioning whether we were doing our jobs, and I found her criticism legitimate.” Mekhennet wondered, “Why aren’t we doing a better job of telling people like Maureen Fanning what the jihadis think of them?” This interaction has driven Mekhennet throughout her career.
In the memoir Mekhennet describes meeting with Muslim militants throughout the world, including in Iraq, Germany, Algeria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Egypt, France, England and Syria. She relays a harrowing experience about being arrested in Egypt. Each story and each exchange with a terrorist and the related politics is gripping and keeps the reader on the edge of her seat. She even relays a personal story about family members lost to terrorism. The journalistic experiences she describes begin when she is 19 years of age (1997) and end with her experiences through 2016.
Equally as interesting as the travels and meetings are Mekhennet’s introspective observations about being Muslim, as well as her interactions with Muslims, the terrorists and nonMuslims. Mekhennet thinks back at various times to discrimination which she experienced and the resultant fear and isolation she felt as a Muslim in a nonMuslim country. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if an Islamic State recruiter had found me in those dark moments.” At various times she is believed to be a spy, she is used as an unknowing pawn by intelligence agencies and she is suspected of being a jihadi sympathizer. Throughout she maintains her professionalism as a journalist, but periodically questions the openness and bigotry of western society.
The memoir concludes with some thoughts about culture, tolerance and acceptance, ultimately acknowledging that in the end we are all the same. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: a mother’s screams over the body of her murdered child sound the same if she is black, brown, or white; Muslim, Jewish or Christian; Shia or Sunni….We will all be buried in the same ground.”
The books is must read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11257248__Si%20was%20told%20to%20come%20alone__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold