Conflict, Media & Journalism, Middle East, The Global Cable Telling the Story of Syria with Zaina Erhaim

October 25, 2019
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

On this episode of The Global Cable, we sit down with Zaina Erhaim, an acclaimed Syrian journalist who is this year’s Perry World House and Kelly Writers House Writer at Risk.

After writing for The Economist, The Guardian, and the BBC, Erhaim currently works as communications manager for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. Over the last decade, she has trained over a hundred media activists in Syria – many of them women. She has also contributed to three books on journalism and the conflict in her home country, and produced two films narrated by Syrian women.

In conversation with host John Gans, Erhaim talks about what it’s like studying journalism based on the Soviet model, what objectivity means in war, what citizen journalists need to learn, and what is happening in Syria right now.

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

Listen now.


Zaina Erhaim [00:00:07] And I believe objectivity is not really standing in the middle between a war criminal and civilians. Objectivity is taking two points of view of people who are disagreeing on something that you can disagree on. For me, I don't think even the BBC or any international media would be objective enough to talk to Al-Baghdadi on abducting the Yazidi women and taking them as sex slaves, because this is an obvious violation for basic human rights.

John Gans [00:00:43] Welcome back to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most pressing issues with people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the director of communications and research here at Perry World House.

[00:00:56] In today's episode, we speak with Zaina Erhaim. Erhaim is an acclaimed Syrian journalist, currently working as communications manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. From her hometown of Idlib in northern Syria, Erhaim defied convention and studied journalism in Damascus and London. Since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, Erhaim has reported events on the ground and trained over 100 citizen journalists, many of them women, empowering these journalists to report on their experiences. She's also made a series of short films narrated by Syrian women; and contributed to three books on journalism and the conflict in Syria. Erhaim is in Philadelphia and at Penn as our Writer At Risk, an annual residence program for journalists who are under threat or working in crisis conditions. In today's conversation, we talk with Erhaim about what it's like to study journalism based on the Soviet model, what objectively means in war, and what's happening in Syria right now. This is The Global Cable. Welcome, Zaina Erhaim.

John Gans [00:02:05] Our first question for you today, Zaina, is what inspired you to become a journalist?

Zaina Erhaim [00:02:09] I don't know whether I can actually call it an inspiration. I decided to study journalism because there were no woman journalists in my province whatsoever, and journalism was considered to be very much a man's job. So being a woman journalist was something like very unexpected, very weird. And despite that pushback that I got from the community and society - for me to be the first woman journalist and then to travel to Damascus, which is like almost 400 kilometers away from my hometown - I got the support from my mom. She was fond of my writing. Well, she's a mom. She has all the rights to like whatever I do. And she thought that I would make a good writer. Being a journalist was the way for that. So she actually bore all that kind of harsh criticism from the community, from the family, for breaking the owner of the family by making her daughter a woman journalist. But she did it. I decided to go to Damascus and I studied journalism.

John Gans [00:03:17] That's great. Has it been as interesting, I guess, as you would have thought it would be when you started off your career?

Zaina Erhaim [00:03:24] Well, the studying itself wasn't really great. I studied in Damascus University and all our teachers were actually Soviet Union graduates. So you can imagine what kind of journalism and ethics and objectivity we were getting. And we didn't even have proper books or a curriculum. We were just being taught whatever the doctor or whatever his set position is, wants us to study. So we were actually studying booklets which were written by the lecturer himself or herself. And they changed every year. Lots of propaganda, lots of bad America, good Russia. I didn't actually analyze what I'd been taught until I graduated. And then I realized how bad it was when I started learning what journalism is.

John Gans [00:04:15] Have you found that this conflict has provided a least a moment or at least a need or a call for your journalism, both in the country and around the world?

Zaina Erhaim [00:04:25] When the uprising started in 2011, many students, carpenters, shopkeepers, found themselves the only source of information for the world. So they decided to hold onto their mobile and start filming. And because at that point I was known to be one of the few journalists, especially in the north, I was contacted by many of them asking like, is it right to take the shot in this way? Should we put those together? What kind of editing program should we use? Am I going to be writing this?

[00:05:00] If they didn't do it, we wouldn't have been getting anything. And I think at some point the protesters got to the mindset that if they didn't report that demonstrations and put it on YouTube, it hadn't happened. So really documenting became so essential. And then when the army get involved in the uprising, and the massacres and the killing started to happen, they felt that if they reported what is happening, there is a chance that it might stop, or the international power would get involved. And we have this saying that the big massacre that happened in Hama in the '80s wouldn't have happened if the international community or the world was able to see. So they were documenting every single victim who was being killed. They were documenting every single mortar until 2013. I think that after the chemical massacre that happened, that has changed because they felt like -  we've been documenting everything for the last two years, the international community is doing nothing. So there is no need. So the way that people were looking to the media and how important and essential it is has changed a bit. I think now after eight years, there is some kind of thought that despite losing all of these victims, losing our lands, becoming exiles, documenting what has happened is essential for the context, for the history. But this is only becoming a topic to be discussed now.

John Gans [00:06:29] That's interesting. It gets a little bit to my next question, and you talked a little bit about how the power of the opinion about the power of journalism in Syria has changed. How has your opinion about it changed? How have you felt as you've gone from these early days when people were trying to document it, to today where I think it's been a few years of frustration. How has your opinion about your craft and your profession evolved?

Zaina Erhaim [00:06:54] Well, I have two paths here. The first is my work with the other citizen journalists because I was privileged to be able to learn what journalism is. I felt responsible to help them out with the things that I had. At some point, I was the only journalist who studied journalism in the North for almost two years. So this is one path for me. I believe whatever happens, if they decided to stay inside Syria, if they go out having the skills of knowing whether this news is right or wrong, whether it's provoking hatred or it's written in a way that could provoke peace, is very essential to me. For me personally, since I started working, I wasn't really planning to change the words through the stories I am doing.

[00:07:41] It was mainly just—I have been thinking about history since then, because for me and mainly history as seen by women's eyes and feminist perspective, because that aspect was completely off of the table at that period of time. So through my work I was mainly trying to document what is happening from a critical feminist and journalist perspective.

[00:08:06] So when, ten years later, a woman is going to be searching for what happened. She will find a woman's picture, women's names for the stories. This would encourage me mainly to invite a woman who had no background in journalism whatsoever to learn. At the first training I did, 14 housewives submitted their application or their interest in attending the training. All of them were certainly married. One of them actually brought five of her kids to the training. We had to dedicate a woman to babysit because it was impossible for me to give a training where ten kids were roaming around us. Their interest was in learning what is journalism and why all the men in our town are doing this and we can't. I was very much impressed by that, I think six of those, because it was practical. Actually each of them wrote a piece during the training, a feature piece at the end of the training.

[00:09:04] We ended up publishing five of those pieces because they were pretty good, and more than ten of those women are still actually gaining their living from doing freelancing now. And they had no idea what journalism was, but they just got a small opportunity and they used it well.

John Gans [00:09:24] I think the two things I guess I would follow up with for that is why do you think journalism had so much appeal to those women? You obviously have spent time, you just talked about some of your training through the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and on your own. How do you structure a training? How do you think through and teach the basics of journalism to people who probably don't have as much experience with it as some in Western cultures or even those in bigger cities and things along those lines?

Zaina Erhaim [00:09:53] So the first one, why it is appealing, it's because in 2011, 2012 and even 2013, many men were doing it, so it became a trend. Most of the activists, you would ask them what they're doing and they would say, "I am a media activist, or I'm a citizen journalist." So for the women, it was very interesting to just understand. I don't think any of them would have expected to be a freelancer or a journalist herself. At that point, I think they just wanted to explore this men's world and understand what is this thing that only men can do. That was the first question. What was the second?

John Gans [00:10:32] I think the question is, how do you structure your trainings? How do you think through to teach this to people who maybe have not had as much experience with it as those in big cities or those with more daily journalism or even just a culture of journalism?

Zaina Erhaim [00:10:46]  I started training those who are citizen journalists already or are doing some work, but they don't have any basics about journalism. I think it is harder to train those who start working and think of themselves as knowing, than starting over with those who admit that they don't know and you can start over with them. I think after the third training, I realized that all of the trainees are men because there are no already working citizen journalists. And at that point, I just went to a women's center who I know the head of in Idlib province. I told her I'm offering free of charge media training for women who are interested. It's gonna be about written journalism because also understanding journalism, women in conservative societies have more ability to work out the things. Having a radio or for their voices to be in public, this is a challenging thing. Or to hold the camera, this is even very untraditional and it will cause problems for them. Written was the method chosen for the women because it fits with the conservative community surrounding them. I actually trained all the women who could fit in the room. So that was it. Then, I was asked by the same center whether I could do another one. And I kept following on with them, so it's mainly firstly the training and then the monitoring, which takes lots of time especially because they don't have laptops. Many of them were actually writing on their mobile phones. The whole piece—and they edited on their mobile phones. Sometimes they would send that in a picture and I had to type it. They don't know how to use emails. Sometimes they would send the whole article in the title because they didn't know that they should be writing in the body. But now, when I see their format of the email—and they don't even forget to put the "Best," and their name beneath  it—I wouldn't believe that those are the same ones who were doing that. Only a couple of years ago.

John Gans [00:12:44] That's amazing. One other thing I thought I would ask is that the Syrian conflict has been a pretty dangerous one for journalists. There have been some pretty high profile journalists who have passed away or were killed in the violence there. How has this appeal of journalism continued throughout the conflict? Have you found that people sort of stick with it? That get involved in and stay committed to it?

Zaina Erhaim [00:13:11] For Syrians, it's a different story than the international journalists who are going there to report. They're already living that danger on a daily basis, whether they report it or not, because the most dangerous places in Syria are actually the markets, the grocery shops, the diesel stations. So it's not where the journalists would usually go to report. I had the journalists get the armed chest vest. What is it called, the flat? And I was asked by the PR whether I could wear it and I was like, do you want me to sleep with it? Because this is where most of the bombing happened. They want me to go and buy some cucumber while wearing it, it will grab much more attention and it will get me in trouble with the armed groups far more than protecting me from the bombing. So this is their daily life. I think reporting would only bring extra risks that are related to the topics that they are doing. If they bothered an armed group, they bothered a warlord or something, assassinated or being kidnapped are the extra risks that come with journalism. But in terms of the random killing, it is there any way. I think for the women themselves, what they find tempting is that they access far more stories and sensitive topics that men would haven't been able to report. Like, they covered issues related to the rise of domestic violence during the war. Things to relate it to kids and families because it is easier in the conservative communities to access those as a woman. For men, I think for some of them it just became a career and they continued doing it. And in some cases, it's also an easier path to be famous. Good payments compared, well, not compared to the internationals who are doing the stories, but I mean compared to the shopkeeper or to the others, citing different reasons kept people going on. But mainly for the ones I know, they really felt responsible because if they didn't do the story, no one else would.

John Gans [00:15:27] I think one of the things we've noticed in reading American and European journalists is they even have a hard time maintaining objectivity about the conflict in Syria, especially because of all the heartbreak and tragedy that unfolded on the ground there. How do you talk about objectivity when you're training journalists and training citizen journalists who are living this and being affected by this in a daily way?

Zaina Erhaim [00:15:55] I dedicate usually a whole one day for the objectivity in the training, and I believe objectivity is not really standing in the middle between a war criminal and civilians.

[00:16:06] Objectivity is taking two points of view of people who are disagreeing on something that you can disagree on. For me, I don't think even the BBC or any international media would be objective  enough to take the opinion of Baghdadi on abducting the Yazidi women and taking them as sex slaves because this is an obvious violation for basic human rights.

[00:16:32] For me, this is the same with the regime and the civilians. But being objective or the objectivity that I speak about in the training is mainly on a daily basis. When two battalions are having clashes, what would you do if the Shariah court raided a school? Actually, I would make a bold play. So you are working as a media propaganda person for the Shariah court. You are from the school and you are an independent. And each of them would write the story as a propaganda. And then we will write it as an objective. So in this context, I think for me, this is what objectivity is. But I think being biased to human rights is not a violation for an objectivity.

John Gans [00:17:16]  I think the question I would follow on from there is that Syria has been in the news of late, the United States and certainly as we're discussing here, is driving the news in Washington. And I think, how is the story changed? And I think, how is the story on the ground changed? And what do Americans need to understand about the latest evolution in the conflict on the ground in Syria that we've just experienced over the past couple of years with Turkey and the Kurds and everything else?

Zaina Erhaim [00:17:48] The story has been changing for for so long. I would, if I want to summarize it, I would say it was an uprising demanding basic rights, freedom expression, human rights, which turned into a war let down by the international community and mainly those who are claiming to be the human rights mentor of the world and then turned into a proxy war where no one really knew who is fighting who.

[00:18:23] And Syrians are paying the prices for all of these international wars which are being held. That led into the refugee crisis, and then everything has turned into a refugee crisis without dealing with the main causes of this immigration crisis. What is happening now, I think sadly and this is personal—I'm not a political analyst—but I think this is the end where Russia, Turkey, the U.S. And everyone is just taking their piece out of the lands and out of the games. And I think no fighting—the war is gonna be stopped in terms of fighting. But I think the conflicts and the unrest is going to be continuing, because people have lost a lot and without justice. The peace is not going to be possible at all. Now I am seeing the end of the clashes. But certainly the unrest is going to be on until something happens and people will get justice. Some democracy is going to be applied.

John Gans [00:19:37] Well, almost three hundred years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who knew a thing about basic rights and about journalism, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs.

[00:19:54] We've updated it for use today and to anchor our Global Cable podcast. These are short questions and they can have short answers, but they can also have long answers depending on what you feel like saying. The first thing I'd ask is who would you most like to meet today and why?

Zaina Erhaim [00:20:12] That was a troubling question. I had to think about it a lot, but I think I would say it is Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights defender and lawyer.

 [00:20:25] She is my role model. She was one of the pioneer human rights defenders. Even before the uprising, she was arrested and harassed so many times by the regime. And in the uprising, she established the first local group to lead the demonstrations.

[00:20:44] She's a very powerful woman. She really only started with human rights, with no ideological enforcement. That's why she was kidnapped in 2013 by a group of Islamist fighters in Eastern Ghouta. Most probably, she's dead. But there is no confirmation. But I think if I want to see anyone, it would be her.

John Gans [00:21:15] Have you read anything, book, articles, seen film, movie, TV show, or anything documentary? Listen to anything, you know, songs, speeches, podcasts related to the world affairs that our listeners might be interested in? Anything you recommend from Syria or elsewhere?

Zaina Erhaim [00:21:36] Actually, "The Cave" film, it is now being screened in the U.S. It's made about an amazingly brave woman doctor who was elected to be the head of a hospital in Istanbul during the siege. I would claim that this is the first documentary taking this feminist perspective about the extra difficulties that women are facing in those positions in the conflict. I would recommend that. And there is also a new documentary that's been done about the temporary marriage in Iraq for the little girls and how the imams actually took a role and people think this kind of contracts. So this is also very interesting and important to be seen.

John Gans [00:22:26] And then, do you know of any individual in the United States, or elsewhere, or in Syria, who has recently done something that deserves praise or imitation? Anybody out there that we should be celebrating?

Zaina Erhaim [00:22:38] There was someone I wish was still alive to be celebrated. His name is Raed Fares, who was actually working on U.S. grants. He established a local radio in Idlib called Radio Fresh, which kept broadcasting until the very latest days. That radio challenged all the traditions. He was providing—it was providing news in an objective way. He personally insisted on hiring women to work in the radio, despite the fact that the area is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an Al-Qaeda connected group. At some point they raided their office so many times, they kidnapped him twice, they tried to assassinate him once, and then he changed the volume of the women who were working in the radio to make it more like masculine voices. But he kept the women in the radio and there were like tens, and they raided the office again because their "broadcasting stinks." Musicals stinks and music is not allowed into Shariah. So he changed it into animals voices and the radio continues to be like the main source of information and interactivity with the community. Sadly, their second assassination attempt succeeded and he was killed last year in his hometown. So he is the one that I would have liked for him to be celebrated.

John Gans [00:24:08] Is there anything that you think Penn students and Penn itself can do? To be of service to the world and to Syria and to the plight of people involved on the ground?

Zaina Erhaim [00:24:20] I think the general thing that I would hope for is not to have perceptions and stereotypes whenever you're working on anything. We had many struggles dealing with internationals. We think that they know better because they studied more or they had a better education system, but they don't even bother to ask the locals about their own perspective, how they see themselves or see the things themselves. Importing some already existed models and implementing it in an area without taking the adoption of the local is not working. And I think putting the human rights aspect in whatever work that you're doing—academia, journalism, whatever—is really essential and speak to the locals, not only about them.

John Gans [00:25:11] That's great. Well, Zaina Erhaim, thank you for joining us here on The Global Cable and thank you for your important work.

Zaina Erhaim [00:25:18] Thanks a lot.