‘First Be Curious’
Anita Pratap: Investigating Terrorism
"Sometimes I wonder is there is anything I haven’t seen in my professional life," writes journalist Anita Pratap, in the epilogue to her 2001 memoir of the turmoil in Sri Lanka and Afganistan, Island of Blood, - "children with legs blown off, mangled bodies, severed heads, burning flesh, machetes dripping with human blood. I have seen countless dead bodies."
Being a journalist is hard enough; being a pioneer even harder. As a reporter for CNN, Pratap was the first woman to file from a war zone, donning a purdah to interview Tamil Tiger Prabhakaran in Sri Lanka.
Today, she has found her way inside another hidden world, living and writing from inside Saudi Arabia. She has accepted the veil again as the price of entry into a world largely inaccessible to the West. She seems unfazed.
"It bothers you to the extent you allow it," she said. "As a journalist your perspective is different. I am there to observe things, ask questions, to go after the facts."
Pratap will be in Vienna this month for two events giving the perspectives of a journalist on war, women and terror in the Middle East.
She will be the featured speaker at a forum on Crisis in the Media: A Plea for Investigative Journalism, hosted jointly by U.S. Embassy Vienna, Office of Public Affairs and The Vienna Review at the Amerika Haus Library on Apr. 23, at 18:00.
This will follow an all-day conference on Women Against Terrorism on April 22, at the Theater an der Josephstadt, sponsored by the Austrian NGO, Women Without Borders (Frauen Ohne Grenzen). Following an opening address by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, Pratap will join a panel of five other women [full list below] moderated by veteran Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi, of the Milanese daily Corriere Della Sera, who has covered the Middle East for nearly two decades and was seized by gunmen in Gaza in Sept. 2005 and held for four hours.
Pratap is passionate about the importance of good journalism in uncovering and reporting the facts essential to citizenship. "Don’t tell me what you think," she exhorts. "Tell me what you know!"
A lot of what passes for journalism today is what culture critic Richard Zoglin called "cocktail party chat" – talk about news, rather than the news itself, a polarized world of opinions.
"It is so easy to get aligned with one camp or other – the rights activists, the environmentalists, the capitalists, the socialists, the Islamicists…," she fumed. "People get polarized at a very early age.
"But first of all, you must be curious," she said. "To be a good journalist, you must maintain an open mind."
An open mind is critical for her current life and work in Saudi Arabia, where she lives with her Norwegian husband, Arne Walther, Secretary General of the 64-country International Energy Forum. She has been hired to write the accompanying text for a photo biography of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. As an Indian journalist with top international credentials, she is considered outside the tangle of the country’s internal political squabbles.
Understanding this society also takes time. It’s hard getting behind the veil of secrecy that shrouds family and community life in Saudi Arabia, she said, and it took Pratap over two years to begin to penetrate the mystery. Some of it surprised her.
In spite of the severe continuing restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, for example, Pratap is a supporter of King Abdullah, describing him as a "wonderful man."
"He is their best hope of reform," she said. Inheriting a society dragged backward by clerics rebelling against the liberalization of the 1970s, the king must lead by persuasion. "We have the impression that a king is able to dictate. But this is a tribal society, and things just don’t work like that.
"The pace of reform is very different there. Fifty years ago, they were still living in tents and riding camels. Mohammed came, and for 1,000 years, nothing happened."
When oil was discovered in the Middle East, the region began its halting steps into the modern age, lurching forward, and falling back again, nearly as far, or farther than before. However, she is hesitant to judge.
"The society is still very medieval," she says, "so the change has to be incremental and slow. Europe had 300 years to make this transition."
A compelling personality in her own right, some critics question Pratap’s objectivity toward her sources, and suggest, as with King Abdullah, she is overly impressed with power.
"She seems utterly enamoured of Prabhakara," complained reviewer Antara Data on amazon.com. "Those who suffered under him, including an LTTE leader like Mahatiya, or Tamilians or Sinhalese are given no agency. And while her hair-raising attempts to interview Prabhakaran make for interesting reading, she’s hardly ruthless or even unbiased in questioning him. One leaves with the sense of Prabhakaran as the ‘messiah of Sri Lankan Tamils’ whereas in reality, while he was once a true hero, much of that aura has faded - now he’s merely a terrorist who can’t come to term with democratic politics. Pratap’s inability to see through Prabhakaran makes this book less than balanced."
The Women Against Terror panel will also include Phyllis Rodreguez, a teacher and artist whose son died in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City; and Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of an accomplice to the attacks now serving a life sentence for terrorism, who has become friends with Rodriguez through a victims reconciliation program.
The panel will also include Hiba Othman, a mathematics professor from Beirut and peace activist; Zeinab al-Saffar, an English professor and anchor for Al-Manar TV in Beirut, and host of a Lebanese weekly political round table, In Their Eyes; and Rania al-Baz, a former presenter on Saudi TV who broke the taboo on domestic violence by broadcasting pictures of her battered face after she was beaten by her husband .