Covering War At The Dinner Table

In 2005, as violence raged in Iraq, Iran grew more defiant, and Lebanon rumbled with revolution, my friend Annia Ciezadlo and I were both foreign correspondents living in Beirut. After assignments in hostile and intimidating places, we would inevitably get together over a bottle of Lebanese wine, a table heaped with meze, and talk about the same thing: the frustration we felt putting our lives at risk for assignments that were boring and predictable compared to the incredible stories we had found out there. All journalists keep a mental tally of stories that got away, but sometimes that list begins to stalk you, and the result is usually a book. For me, it was my first book, Lipstick Jihad; for Annia, Day of Honey, her memoir of life in wartime Beirut and Baghdad, told through the struggle to answer the age-old question: "What's for dinner?" Recently, we got a chance to dish about war, food, books and what it's like being a female reporter in some of the world's most ill-reputed places.

What do we learn about a war-torn society, or a given war for that matter, by how people are eating?

The way people handle food in times of stress can tell you a lot about the society, and how it changes with war. During a war, most of the Lebanese I know find it completely natural to meet friends for dinner in the evening: there's a war on, you go out, especially at night. So this translates into more public eating, more social eating, and less emphasis on the private sphere of comfort food and home cooking. In Baghdad, people used to go out to dinner, particularly along the Tigris River where they would eat grilled fish called masquf. But by the time I was there, the public sphere had been so devastated by Saddam Hussein, then by sanctions, and then by the incipient civil war, that people seemed to feel safer inside the family circle.

You talk about the relentless attempts by civilians to hang onto normalcy during war. I always found myself drawn to this as well—my earliest story in Baghdad was about Iraqis pulling their daughters out of school. Do you think this "genders" our coverage—the male hacks embed and cover security and bureaucracy, while the women focus on civilians coping?

I think women have this tremendous advantage in war zones: We can see private life. Men can't, as a rule, especially in the Middle East. There are a few exceptions, of course, but for the most part we can see a universe of private and domestic life that's invisible to our male colleagues. Many newspaper and magazine editors aren't interested in these stories, unfortunately. But readers are. So we write books about them.

And that's another reason I chose to write about food. As an American woman married to a Lebanese man, I had access to a world of families and domestic life that most foreigners never get to see, and food was a window into that world. In countries like Iraq and Syria, with long histories of government surveillance and control, people are very cautious about what they say. They're not going to reveal what they really think to an outsider. They're going to give them the pre-approved soundbite—either "Death to America" or "We love America," depending on who their political leaders are aligned with. But if you're sitting around the dinner table, you're going to get a much more nuanced and honest view.

Do you think women reporters are more attuned to certain kinds of stories?

The only difference is that female correspondents are more aware of women in the countries we're writing about. We tend to identify with them more. We think they matter. I'll give you an example: A male colleague once told me that "Iraqis" didn't think women should be in politics. He was wrong on two counts: polls showed that the majority of Iraqis did, in fact, think women should hold political office. And the majority of Iraqis were women—another fact he was ignorant of, because in his mind there were "Iraqis" and then there was this special-interest group known as women. The idea that the women were the society was not part of his universe. Newspaper and magazine coverage of war zones is dominated by people like him. That's why we write the books we do: because editors may sneer at stories about women, but we know those are the stories the reading public—most of whom are women—want to read.

Are women journalists more vulnerable than men in war zones?

I'm not so sure. Men get raped. Men get groped and harassed in war zones too. They get beaten up just like women. They're actually more likely to be seen as combatants. I think the big difference is the way these incidents are perceived and portrayed by the media—by our own colleagues and bosses. When male correspondents get kidnapped or beaten or groped, they're painted as heroic survivors; when it happens to women, they're portrayed as weak and vulnerable, as victims—a liability. People actually have the gall to question whether they should be doing the job. That's bullshit, frankly. It makes female correspondents less likely to report harassment, lest their superiors perceive them as the weaker vessel. The reality is that we are all soft targets. All journalists, men and women alike.

Your book is a remarkably sympathetic, celebratory, and rich portrait of the Middle Eastern societies you reported from. Why does it lack the anger that surfaces in other female correspondents' work? Were you never sexually harassed or hit on or felt up in crowds? Are you going a little too easy on Middle Eastern men here?

I got the occasional comment, the grope or leer, or the more insidious misogyny of not being taken seriously as a journalist. But it was nothing I hadn't already experienced as a college student, a cocktail waitress, or a just a woman in America. I've had men attack me in the New York City subway, with dozens of people around and doing nothing, for no discernible reason other than the fact that I was a woman and they thought they could get away with it. Almost every woman I know has had similar or worse experiences. So I don't think that kind of thing is unique to the Middle East. Unfortunately, I think it happens all over the world.

Azadeh Moaveni has reported for Time Magazine from across the Middle East, and is the author of Lipstick Jihad, Honeymoon in Tehran, and co-author, with Shirin Ebadi, of Iran Awakening.