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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

German war correspondent Souad Mekhennet on penning the hard truth

Mekhennet talks to us about her memoir which details her going behind enemy lines in Iraq and Syria

Souad Mekhennet arrived at the Sharjah International Book Fair to launch the Arabic translation of her memoir  I Was Told to Come Alone. Courtesy Kalimat Group
Souad Mekhennet arrived at the Sharjah International Book Fair to launch the Arabic translation of her memoir I Was Told to Come Alone. Courtesy Kalimat Group

Journalistic pursuits often begin with questions.

In the case of Souad Mekhennet, they were those directed at her that got the ball rolling.

The war correspondent recalls a meeting in Hamburg, not long after the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, with the widow of one of the New York firefighters who perished in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Centre.

“She turned to us and said, ‘I am holding you guys responsible, to a certain extent, for what happened,” says Mekhennet.

“She asked us, why didn’t she know that there were people out there that hated us so much? Perhaps if we did, she said, then something could have been done to stop this from happening.”

The second question was one Mekhennet posed to herself.

Born in Germany to Turkish and Moroccan parents, the news that a number of the 9/11 hijackers were radicalised in her homeland triggered a bout of soul searching; what powder keg of grievances did these fellow Muslims have to unleash such wanton destruction?

Mekhennet’s quest led her from the mosques and halal restaurants of Hamburg’s slum neighbourhoods - where some of the 9/11 terroristswere known to frequent - to arguably more dangerous terrain in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where she interviewed some of the world’s most wanted men.

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These experiences are relayed through an equal mix of candour and piercing analysis in her book, I Was Told to Come Alone.

Published in June, the memoir, written in English, was a bestseller in the US and the United Kingdom and will now reach a wider – and perhaps more important – audience with its Arabic translation, which was launched at the Sharjah International Book Fair at the weekend.

Structured chronologically, starting with Mekhennet recalling her childhood (particularly focusing on the time with her fiercely feminist grandmother in Morocco), to her 9/11 investigations in Germany, the rise of ISIL in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and concluding with the return of ISIL fighters to Europe after the fall of the “caliphate”, Mekhennet pulls no punches when it comes to her insights.

“The people that I spoke to in Iraq called me a hypocrite because they viewed me as a westerner. One example they spoke about is how the war in Iraq was about toppling the Saddam Hussein regime under the pretext of mass destruction.

“They said that with no weapons found, how have people responsible for this not faced any consequences? Those are questions that we should discuss further at least. It doesn’t help if we don’t discuss them because [terrorism] recruiters are doing that already,” she says. “Another part of the problem is that there is no space for people to discuss their grievances without feeling they will be framed. This again leaves the doors open to recruiters who take their grievances and are discussing those topics. We need to not only have those discussions but to also challenge those point of views.”

Tackling perceptions is a major theme throughout Mekhennet’s book. Plenty of revealing – yet never sentimental – anecdotes are dotted throughout, that illustrate that life in ISIL-held territories was relatively communal.

“There was one case where a tough high-level fighter in Iraq promised me an interview and then he said no. So we went to his house and we were greeted by his mother. She greeted me and called me her ‘daughter’ in the standard Arab customary way. I told her my situation and how I would lose my job if I didn’t get this interview and she summoned her son and told him that she would curse him if he didn’t speak with me,” she recalls.

“Then there were other people that I met who were on the fringes of the fighting. They simply came because they wanted to live in the so-called caliphate as opposed to going there to fight.”

More than the acclaimed reviews, Mekhennet says she is grateful for the reaction her book received from young Muslims on the perilous path to radicalisation. She recalls them being shocked at some of the hard truths laid out in I Was Told to Come Alone.

“They thought what I had written couldn’t have been printed in a western country. Some said, ‘You dared to write all this and you still have a job? You are not framed or put in prison?’ I said yes, I can talk about radicalistion and also the responsibilities that we have as communities – including the Muslim communities in the West and here in the Middle East – when it comes to this important issue.”

I Was Told to Come Alone is published by Henry Holt and Co. The Arabic translation is out now published by Kalimat Group and is available at the Sharjah International Book Fair, the Sharjah Expo, until Saturday. For details, go to www.sibf.com