Interview with Jim Muir, who has reported from the Middle East for more than 20 years
September 26, 2006
The BBC journalist Jim Muir is currently in Baghdad. Before that he was in Scotland, stealing a couple of weeks' rest after reporting the war in Lebanon -- having just come from Iraq. For more than 20 years the Middle East has been his territory. From 1999 to 2004 he reported from Tehran where he successfully trod the tightrope of reporting the truth while not falling foul of the authorities. For many Iranians, his name remains as synonymous with Iran as Mark Tully's is with India. Below he outlines why he still chooses to operate in life -- threatening circumstances -- why he doesn’t eat lamb and his favourite Persian nosh.
Do you not tire of working in conflict zones?
I have never thought of myself as a “war correspondent”, but as someone who covers places where conflicts happen to be occurring. In a sense, war became my default mode when I settled in Beirut in 1975, not knowing that a war was about to erupt, which kept me busy for the next 15 years. War takes you to the front lines of human experience. It also brings major changes. Telling to the world the story of upheavals and injustice is one area in which journalists can make a difference. So frankly, once you get used to that role, you feel that other, more peaceful, stories are not really “real”, and that you're somehow copping out by covering them. My real passion is politics, and I suppose war is a very concentrated form of that, moving history on at fast -- forward speed.
Is the Middle East also a passion?
I do have a passion for the Middle East. I studied Arabic [at Cambridge], both reflecting and enhancing that interest. Funny that it's called the “middle” East -- it does often seem to be the pivot around which much of the world revolves. I've never seriously thought of trying to be posted anywhere else, as I fear it would seem second -- rate and less significant. The Middle East does seem to matter.
Tell us a about your living conditions -- are you in the Green Zone? What is your philosophy for dealing with the unpredictability of the violent world around you?
Iraq is very frustrating journalistically. It is simply too dangerous -- from the point of view of being kidnapped -- to get out properly and spend time talking to ordinary people at random and finding out things at first hand, and to feel what people are going through. We get some of that, but nothing like as much as we should. We are not in the Green Zone, but of course we have to take precautions, which chafe. As for being hit by violence, bombs or whatever, we accept that risk philosophically in the same way as millions of Iraqis have to. It’s the kidnapping that’s the problem. These people are not messing about and your chances of survival once captured are very slight.
What are your key news sources in Iraq?
We have a large variety -- international and local news agencies, local papers, TVs and radios, our own stringers in various places, sources that we call up in the security and administration, diplomats... Because I covered the Iraqi opposition while Saddam was still in power, I also know quite a number of people who are now high up in the new government and that, of course, helps.
What have you eaten in the past 24 hours?
For breakfast, a banana and a few almonds. Lunch, some leftover boiled potatoes. Supper is prepared by a cook who comes in the afternoon, so it’s our only real meal -- today, lentil soup and grilled chicken with vegetables. Chicken happens every day. I wonder where they all come from... Sounds pretty Spartan perhaps -- but I have introduced real cappuccino to the bureau and have made a bit of a fetish of it.
Do you think audiences suffer news fatigue regarding events in Iraq? What is the biggest challenge in countering this?
Definitely there is news fatigue -- endless explosions, piles of bodies. Sadly, when our local staff -- a key element in the operation here -- start telling us about reports of a car bombing or whatever, our first question is: How many dead? If it’s not lots, it doesn’t get on the air nowadays, simple and cynical as that. The challenge is to find human ways of bringing these stories alive, of personalising them, of making the audience really feel what it’s like to lose your child in a car bombing or sectarian revenge killing.
When you look around you in Baghdad, do you fear Tehran might suffer a similar fate?
It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, as the Americans are so obviously overstretched here and in Afghanistan already, that the idea of them trying to overrun and hold a much bigger, more complicated, and probably more resistant country like Iran, seems pretty inconceivable. Some bombing of strategic targets, maybe. But they know they have more than 140,000 troops here, hostage to the much more aggressive role the Iranians could be playing if they wanted to. That seems to me a pretty significant deterrent.
Could you have foreseen when you left Iran two years ago, where it would be today -- possibly about to be attacked by the US?
[The idea of an attack] was being mooted long before I left Iran, but like the nuclear story, it just seems to keep rolling along. The crunch keeps being averted. I don’t think confrontation is in the interest of either side, and I have a feeling (which may be wrong) that pragmatism and realism will eventually prevail. If you want to see what adventurism brings, look at Iraq. Who wants that?
Do you detect any enthusiasm for engaging with Iran among the coalition forces?
Assuming you mean hostilities rather than conversation, not much. I think Iran is seen as a potentially formidable opponent. The coalition forces have already got a lot on their plate, and don't seem to be looking for more problems. They already blame Iran for a proxy role in some of what's going on here in Iraq. I think they’ve twigged that Iran is a significant regional power with a lot of assets it’s barely begun to deploy.
What is your favourite Iranian meal?
Now you’re talking. I’d start, a bit guiltily, with some smoked sturgeon, though it’s hard to find, but no caviar, as that’s really antisocial with the amount of over-fishing and poaching that’s going on. I love ghormeh sabzi, but with chicken as I don't eat quadrupeds, with some mirza qasemi (not too much garlic!) on the side. For pudding, fesenjan (just kidding but maybe I can have some with the ghormeh sabzi). Washed down with ab anar [pomegranate juice], and Alka Seltzer... bliss.
What’s wrong with eating quadrupeds?
I don't eat mammals because I think you should only eat things you'd be prepared to kill and chop up yourself. I wouldn't know where to begin with a cow -- probably get involved in lengthy negotiations and let it off. Comment
>>> Jim Muir on the death of Kaveh Golestan
-- Peyvand Khorsandi's blog, Soul Bean Café