From waiter to U.N. intern to foreign correspondent for The New York Times, the onetime DWA major urges aspiring journalists to 'just go for it'
New York Times foreign correspondent Kareem Fahim '93 made his first visit back to campus in 10 years for a lunch and talk with diplomacy and world affairs students February 24. The DWA major spoke on topics ranging from the situations in Syria and Yemen to how he became a writer for the Times. Fahim is now headquartered in Cairo.
How did you wind up in diplomacy and world affairs at Oxy? I wanted to study the Middle East, and DWA was maybe one of the only majors that included a focus on the region's contemporary politics (this was before the relative blossoming of college Middle East studies programs; at the time, Oxy did not even offer Arabic).
Were any professors particularly influential? Modhumita Roy, who taught post-colonial literature, and Meg Crahan, in Latin American studies, were both amazing professors who sharpened my understanding of the Arab world by drawing comparisons across regions. We also became friends.
What did you do after college? At various times, I was a waiter, a bartender, an intern at the United Nations and at Spin magazine, a web producer, and working in production on feature films.
What compelled you to pursue a graduate degree in international affairs? I missed school, and was looking for a way to pivot toward journalism. I ended up at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, where I could combine journalism classes with Middle East area studies and Arabic language courses.
You started at The Village Voice as a freelancer after 9/11. What was that experience like? Intense and very humbling. In the space of a few years, as a rookie reporter, I went from reporting on the aftermath of 9/11 in New York to covering the American invasion of Iraq. I was lucky to have supportive editors who had an appetite for foreign coverage, and kept indulging my requests to go back to the Middle East.
I started working at The New York Times in 2005 and spent five years on the Metro desk before I started itching to go abroad again. After a brief stint in Cairo in the summer of 2010, the Times foreign editor asked me to return to the region after the revolution in Tunisia. I have been based in Cairo ever since, as a roving Middle East correspondent.
What's the most dangerous assignment you've had for the Times? I have covered most of the uprisings and conflicts in the Arab world over the last five years, so there have been more than a few hairy assignments. Moments from the wars in Libya and Syria, as well as during the aftermath of the military coup in Egypt, stand out.
What was the most rewarding? Hard to pick one. Big stories like the uprising in Egypt, or the fall of Tripoli, Libya, are obviously momentous and thrilling. But I've found assignments in places like Bahrain and Yemen, that don't get much media coverage, maybe more rewarding— I am always surprised to find that people in those places remain generous with their stories and time, despite the infrequent visits by journalists.
How has covering the Middle East changed since the events of the Arab Spring? It has become far more dangerous and our movements, sadly, much more circumscribed. I am currently in Yemen and remember a time when I could fairly easily travel to many part of the country. Now, I cannot step foot outside the capital without layers of government approval, and many parts of Yemen are too insecure to even consider visiting.
What do you enjoy most about your work? The part after all the coaxing, when someone decides to tell their story. Also traveling.
What advice would you have for students considering journalism today, given the changing climate of the profession? Tune out all the grim predictions about the demise of journalism and just go for it.—SAMANTHA B. BONAR '90