Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.
This week, we want to make sure the fantastic journalist and editor Elizabeth Dickinson is on your radar.
Elizabeth is Middle East editor and correspondent for Monitor Global Outlook, a news start-up of the Christian Science Monitor. She has written for The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The National, and Al Monitor, as well as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The New Republic, among others.
She is author of Who Shot Ahmed, a Kindle Single chronicling the murder of a 22-year-old videographer, killed in cold blood in the dead of night at the height of Bahrain’s Arab Spring. She was the first Western journalist to chronicle the private Gulf donor network to Syria’s opposition. She is co-editor of the recent book The Southern Tiger, Palgrave MacMillan 2012.
Elizabeth is a former Gulf Correspondent for The National newspaper, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and Nigeria correspondent for The Economist. She graduated Cum Laude from Yale University, with a degree in African and International Studies. A former Overseas Press Club scholarship recipient, she has reported from five continents and speaks fluent French, Spanish, and Krio, as well as basic Yoruba and Arabic.
So basically, yes, she’s a mess and needs to get her shit together.
Also, fun-fact: Her awesome grandfather helped build Mount Rushmore and was one of the last-surviving members of the team there.
Our brain-picking session begins:
FPI: How would you explain your reportage and expertise to a third-grader?
Remember that scene in the Wizard of Oz where they finally pull back the curtain? That’s my job. Only sometimes there are lots of people trying to stop me from doing it.
But seriously: I write about the politics of the Gulf, and the people living there – who include not just locals but millions of expatriates from South Asia, the Levant, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. I try to figure out how things happen in the Gulf and why, and then see if they have an impact elsewhere—which they usually do.
FPI: How did you start following the story on the private Gulf donor network funding Syria’s opposition? Why is it so important to understanding the larger conflict at hand?
Sometime in 2012, I kept hearing Syria-watchers say things like “the funding from that brigade comes from a Kuwaiti,” but they never knew much more about it than that. I started digging around and realized that there was a huge network of funders across the Gulf, centered in Kuwait because of its lax regulations and open politics. I began to map out the network using social media, trying to see who the key players were, and then I spent several months chasing down the fundraisers themselves.
I’ve come to believe, after almost two years of following this, that the private donors have been just as important—perhaps more so—than state backers of the opposition. They have been there through thick-and-thin; when the opposition’s allies were finicky, the private money kept coming. Their ideologies, ideas, and strategies have helped shape the opposition in ways that have fundamentally transformed the conflict. And just as importantly for anyone studying the region, the Syria experience has cemented a network of funders who have experience and expertise in organizing an armed rebellion. That web won’t easily be untangled even after Syria’s conflict ends.
FPI: Why did you decide to write a Kindle Single on Bahrain? In the scope of the larger “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Spring,” as it’s been called, what does Bahrain’s own uprising tell us?
One of my visits to Bahrain happened to coincide with the very sad death of a young citizen journalist who had been shot by an unknown assailant. I met his family, saw his environment, and was overcome by the mystery surrounding his murder. The story struck me as an example that encapsulated so many other facets of the crisis in Bahrain – and how the political turmoil has taken so much away from so many different kinds of people. More than anything, I was hoping to tell the story of how political crises reverberate through everyday lives, and how families and individuals rebuild afterward.
FPI: You were a correspondent in Nigeria for some time. We talked to Alexis Okeowo a few weeks ago about perceptions of the country. How do you think the press and international community gets it wrong?
Alexis knows far better! But I would just say that the media tends to cover Nigeria with shock and awe rather than compassion. Some of the news that breaks from Nigeria appears incomprehensible in a Western context, and it is covered in this other-worldly tone. That lens is really quite demeaning and dismissive; it’s also, frankly, a bit lazy.
FPI: And! You speak Spanish! And co-authored a book on Chile. Latin America doesn’t make it into the news as much as the Middle East. But what are some stories or threads you’d like to cover there, or would like to see more focus on?
Arepas should get more attention; I’m waiting for them to conquer the global culinary scene a la sushi in the 90s.
Latin America is a region of optimism, and this incredible moment in its history shouldn’t go un-noticed. After the Cold War, decades of interspersed military dictatorships, insurgencies, and really crushing financial difficulties, countries such as Brazil, Peru, and Colombia are today finally throwing off all hindrances and reaching their potential. There’s a sense that this is their time to rise; it’s unobtrusive, peaceful, and middle-class driven. The region is bursting with innovations in governance, poverty reduction, environmental conservation—all areas where they could potentially lead the so-called developed world within just a few years’ time.
FPI: What’s your favorite piece that you’ve written or edited? What did you learn through it?
Whatever I’m working on at the moment. I think my flexible curiosity is one reason I love being a journalist; I get to dig into new things every week. And almost everything is fascinating in its own way.
I always learn the most from being edited. I actually love it. New eyes always see questions and new angles that can bring out something crazy or different or exciting in a piece. I think one of the challenges of freelancing is that you can’t build as permanent a relationship with an editor. I’ve been very lucky to have incredible mentors that have helped fill that space.
FPI: Any book or film recommendations on the Middle East or Latin America?
Since the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian press has been republishing a lot of his work from time spent as a journalist. It’s amazing! Gives me blind hope that someday I’ll be able to write a novel…
FPI: What have been some of the difficulties – if any – about being a woman in the industry? And what advice do you have for young interruptors?
As a reporter, I have always found being a woman to be to my advantage. I can approach people in a very un-intimidating way, which is incredibly important when you are broaching sensitive issues.
But as a pitcher and a writer, I have found my gender to be a challenge. Approaching editors is intimidating, and more so when yo
u see that a lot of it remains a boys club. I don’t have a tendency toward self-promotion, but I have had to teach myself since this is such a massive part of the business these days.
Young interrupters: don’t be competitive with one another! Be competitive with yourself – do your best, work your hardest, etc. And then applaud your peers when they do the same. Stepping on other women (or men) to get ahead…. That’s lame, and eventually editors and colleagues will figure you out.
FPI: Also, you’re a competitive runner. Any advice on that front? How does it relate, if at all, to your bad-ass coverage of the world?
Competitive is a strong word, but I am definitely in love with running. At one point I started a nerd-blog called “Pack Your Running Shoes” where I mapped the routes I took in every city I visited. Which would have been awesome, if it weren’t for the fact that it would have allowed anyone to stalk me instantaneously. But running while traveling is a must. It’s the best way to see a place; you cover lots of ground, you get to see peoples’ reactions to your presence.