It’s early July when I make my way to the office of Uitgeverij Pluim, along the beautiful canals of Amsterdam. My mission: a conversation about fear with former Middle East war correspondent Hesna Al Ghaoui, the author of ‘De kracht van angst’ [The power of fear].
I am a little nervous, because I feel intimidated by what I’ve read about her: her experience as a war correspondent in the Middle East, a famous journalist in Hungary, and now an author. Would she find my questions boring or too predictable? Or maybe she would be tired after 2 days of meetings in Belgium and the Netherlands.
When she walks in the office, I’m introduced to a small woman with beautiful wild curly hair. As soon as we start talking, I can put my list of questions aside. Hesna has more than enough to share and we enter into a conversation about fear, the refugee crisis in Europe, being a woman in a male dominated culture, and what it means to be courageous.
The first question that came up when I read your book is: while many correspondents write a book about their journalist career, you write about fear. What made you decide to write about such a specific topic?
Actually, seven years before publishing this book, I wrote a book about my experiences as a correspondent. But when Hungary’s largest publisher Libri approached me for a new book they asked me: why don’t we take a different angle to your work as a correspondent?
A few years earlier I had given a TED Talk for which I was asked to talk about my work as a war correspondent with a specific focus. I chose fear. Since that TED Talk I became increasingly interested in the topic of fear. I read a lot about it and I interviewed people who were in a fearful situation and came out unharmed.
I witnessed how fear sells, and how politicians manipulated the public with fear.
You know, fear is attached to all parts of our live: to work, to being someone’s partner, to being someone’s parent. Fear is very universal. And during my discussions with the publisher, the whole world seemed to be consumed by fear over the refugee crisis. That fear rose to a high level of anxiety. I witnessed how fear sells, and how politicians manipulated the public with fear. All these considerations made me decide to write about fear.
I noticed you are quite critical of the role the Hungarian government played in the refugee crisis and how politicians used fear for their own propaganda. Were you afraid of writing this down?
Of course I had a lot of fears because I didn’t know what would be consequences. I had nights I couldn’t sleep because of it. I had to overcome my fear of writing my observations down. Then people, less critical of the Hungarian government, told me that what I wanted to write was important. Also, what I’m saying is not new. People have been manipulated with fear for centuries. But what changed in the past ten years is that social media brought these fears onto a kind of supersonic highway.
You will never understand another person or another culture if you stay within your own system of beliefs and values.
I believe it can’t be said enough that we should stay critical of the messages we receive. No matter what governments such as in Hungary, Poland or the US say or do, we are still the biggest sensors of ourselves. We have to be aware of how we consume the news and make an effort to listen to others. You will never understand another person or another culture if you stay within your own system of beliefs and values.
When I hear you talking about this, I am wondering what your biggest passion is? Is it journalism and telling stories, or social psychology, which is so prominent in your book?
They go hand in hand. My original love and passion is telling stories. Through stories I learn, I improve myself, I associate. Stories open up little windows that I didn’t know were there. Social psychology can help us live a better life, improve our relationships, help us make decisions.
I correspond between different sciences.
But a lot of people don’t have access to social psychology because they think it’s a complicated science. So now I am no longer a correspondent for the Middle East, but a correspondent for social psychology. I take little bits and develop relevant stories so people can relate to them. I correspond between different sciences.
As a female journalist did you ever face harassment or intimidation, working in an environment which is dominated by men?
It’s funny, many people assume that it must have been terrible working in the Middle East as a female war correspondent. But it wasn’t terrible at all! If there was any difference to being a woman, it actually worked in my favour. This is simply due to the fact that as a woman I had access to many places a man can’t access. I was regarded as less threatening than male journalists. On some occasions the person I interviewed apologised at the end because he didn’t expect me to be so professional and sharp. So they admitted their own bias towards female journalists.
A war situation is so sensitive and emotional, people assume a female reporter is more empathetic to their story
Also, a war situation is so sensitive and emotional, people assume a female reporter is more empathetic to their story. The fact that I speak Arabic opened many doors. And I paid careful attention to the local culture, for example in the way I dressed.
In some way I felt more respected as a journalist in the Middle East than at home. For example in Hungary, I had a colleague who strongly believed that foreign affairs was not a woman’s business. I think he had issues with himself and women in general.
In your book you mention several times: “without fear no courage”[zonder angst geen moed]. Can you explain what you mean by that?
That’s easy. Ask yourself: who is more courageous? The person who is not afraid and does what he wants? Or the person who is afraid but puts this fear aside and does it anyway? The answer is obviously the second person. Courage starts out of fear. Fear is a fuel that helps you be courageous.
In that respect, what was your most fearful moment and what was your most courageous moment? And were they related?
Good question! It’s hard to say which was my most fearful moment. I could tell you about my experiences traveling in a convoy in Afghanistan for 3,5 hours, knowing that an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] could blow up the vehicle any time. That was really fearful because I was not in control. Those are usually the situations in which I feel the most fear. When I feel I have no control. And you don’t have to go to war to feel that. It’s the same as when someone you love is sick and you can’t do anything.
I now remember a situation in the Western Sahara, which was actually the most fearful moment of my life. And you will laugh! We visited a camp with refugees who had been there for decades. My sister accompanied me on this trip and we were supposed to sleep in the camp, in one of the clay houses the camp was full of. When we arrived it was light and we unpacked all our bags. But when we came back from dinner everything was dark. We took out our sleeping bags and slept on the floor.
There it was: the sound of dozens of cockroaches on the floor! They were huge! We heard them walking over our bags. I almost had a panic attack, I don’t think I was ever that scared. I said to my sister: “no way I’m sleeping here!” We decided to sleep in the open air and put some candles around us. We risked the company of spiders and scorpions, but we preferred those over the cockroaches. It’s quite embarrassing actually: I am a war correspondent but my biggest fear are cockroaches.
And was it also your most courageous moment? Because you stayed in the camp instead of getting out of there and booking a comfortable hotel room.
While I’m telling you this story I realise my most courageous moments are not connected to my most fearful moments. I was most afraid when I was not in control. When all I could do was sit and wait. But the moments I felt most courageous was when I could use my fear and act on it. For example, when I was talking back to armed soldiers and stop them from confiscating our cameras. I used everything I could to convince them to let us do our work. I had options, so there was still some way of control.
So we’ve come to the end of our interview. As we are a bookshop we would love to know: what is your favourite book and why we should read it?
I have many favourites. Let me see, I really like the book of Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I can especially recommend it to people who are interested in psychology. It tells us we shouldn’t judge, we should observe. This is part of my philosophy. Accept and observe your fears so you can learn from them. This will teach you more than happiness does. Negative feelings tell you what you really want.
And what kind of books do you read to your children?
My five year old daughter tends to choose books that I really don’t like reading to her. But I don’t want to be the mean mom who censors her daughter. So when I get to choose what we read, I choose books that can open up doors for her. They discuss issues that help her have a growth mindset.
We always tell our children they shouldn’t be afraid. But even adults can’t switch off emotions, how can we expect children to do so?
I realised there were hardly any children’s books about fear, at least not translated into Hungarian. So I decided to write one myself. It is a contra-heroic book. The main character Holli is afraid of everything and she wants to be a superhero because superhero’s are never afraid. A little monster teaches her that it’s ok to be afraid. We always tell our children they shouldn’t be afraid. But even adults can’t switch off emotions, how can we expect children to do so?
We couldn’t agree more. If the book get’s translated into English or Dutch, we’d be happy to add it to our bookshop.