Interview: Louise Callaghan, Middle East correspondent and SOAS Alumna

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Louise Callaghan is an award-winning Middle East Correspondent for The Sunday Times and a SOAS Alumna, graduating in 2013 with a BA Development Studies and History at SOAS. While at the The Sunday Times she has covered the 2016 Turkish coup attempt, the battle to oust Isis from Mosul and Raqqa, and the Syrian Civil War. Louise spoke to alumnus Ali Mitib, a recent SOAS graduate, about her time at SOAS, life as a foreign correspondent and her latest book, “Father of Lions” – the story of how Mosul Zoo survived ISIS occupation under the stern hand of eccentric zookeeper and animal lover, Abu Laith.

Interview by Ali Mitib (BA Law and Politics 2018) a freelance journalist who has reported on breaking news for The Times and The Independent. During his time at SOAS, Ali relaunched and edited the SOAS Spirit, the university’s independent student-run newspaper. He can be found tweeting at @alimitib.

What was your experience at SOAS like?

It was great. In the beginning I wasn’t really involved in the university experience but the more time I spent there, the more I got into SOAS life. 

I made really good friends, and met people who ended up becoming useful contacts. Working in the Middle East, it was a huge advantage to have been at SOAS because you make all these connections that you can use later on in life.

Do you have a favourite memory? 

I loved getting free lunch everyday. I was a frequent Hare Krishna consumer. I ate so many different types of lentils at SOAS. No lentil was left unturned.

How did the SOAS experience – both inside and outside the classroom – help you in your career?

What’s been incredibly helpful is that at SOAS I had a lot of classes with people who came from very different backgrounds to me. Particularly, I was in classes with British women who wore the niqab. If I’d have gone to Oxford and studied PPE like so many journalists and politicians did, I doubt that would have happened. At SOAS it was just normal. The conversations I had there helped give me some perspective on why it was that so many British Muslims felt that they had been demonised and discriminated against. 

How did you get into journalism? Were there any significant milestones in your journey?

In my last few months at SOAS I got an internship at The Sunday Times foreign desk. I was there for a few weeks and then the foreign desk assistant, who was the most junior person there, quit and I was hired to replace her. 

It was a lot of photocopying. I’m really bad at that, so I was quite lucky that they let me do other stuff. What was great about the role was that I was allowed to sit and learn from the correspondents; I think it can be really difficult when you’re thrown straight into a reporter role.

During the refugee crisis I started to get sent abroad more to do reporting. I spoke a couple of languages, so that helped persuade the news-desk that I was the right person to write the story. I’d get sent to Calais for two days to do a story from the Jungle refugee camp and that’s when the editors started to trust me. 

What advice would you give to SOAS students who want to be a foreign correspondent?

At the moment the industry is at a big time of change. It’s really difficult to freelance and especially if you are working in conflict zones it can be really dangerous. With the Sunday Times I have institutional backing so when I go into a conflict zone I have insurance and money to pay for a safe driver. So I’d say my advice is to enter a big news organisation and then work your way to being sent out as a correspondent. 

Louise Callaghan, foreign correspondent, journalist, Middle East
Image credit: John Beck

What is life like as a foreign correspondent? 

It’s the best job in the world. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s going to sound really trite but you just feel so privileged to be in the places where history is being made, and talking to the people who are making it. You get to know the human stories behind the conflicts and the kinds of changes in the world that are happening and tell them to an audience in the UK. 

On a day to day basis I’m based in Istanbul but I’m mostly travelling for a story for the Sunday Times. So that can be Syria, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. It all depends on where the news is. 

Something you do a lot of in your work is centering people in your coverage of what is going on in the Middle East. Why do you think that it is important?

I use that to try and make conflicts that might seem quite abstract and distant more relatable to a reader in the UK. Quite often I speak to people in the UK about a topic I’m working on and they say ‘oh, well, I just don’t know what’s happening there. It’s all so complicated.’ I think that if you can take one person’s story and get them to tell it in their own words, then it’s so much more impactful than just explaining in an abstract way what’s happening. 

Do you have a favourite memory?

Seeing displaced women come out of Mosul when the city – which had been occupied by Isis for years – was falling to the Iraqi army was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. I was standing on the road out of Mosul and I remember seeing these women walking towards me, shelling and gunfire just behind them. Their faces and bodies were completely covered up, in accordance with Isis rules. But when they walked past the army checkpoint  most of them were flipping their face coverings up and looking up at the sun. They were so pale and you could just tell it was the first time that they had their faces out and the sun touching their skin for years. Seeing people’s lives change so drastically in those few minutes was remarkable. 

Tell me about the book and how the idea came about 

I was in Mosul during the battle to retake the city from ISIS and I’d heard about a zoo that was open the whole time ISIS had controlled the city. One day we had some spare time and decided to go see it – bear in mind that it was still a dangerous area. ISIS had only been ousted a few days before and there were still drones in the area and mortars landing nearby. We went in and saw a lion and a bear in cages and these local people just standing there. 

Photograph: Louise Callaghan, Twitter

Most people who had lived under ISIS were very nervous and they didn’t want to say anything bad about ISIS because they were afraid they would be back. The people at the zoo didn’t care. They were saying “we hated ISIS. Their mullahs were hypocrites. They’re not real Muslims. 

I kept in contact with them and less than a year later, I was having lunch with this literary agent. I pitched a number of ideas and he politely made clear that they were all rubbish. So I told him about these people that I’d met in Mosul and he just said “oh, that’s a book”. So it was great. I just hadn’t even thought about doing a book on the zoo. I thought books about the Middle East had to be serious and examine geopolitical perspectives. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I could just write a book about some interesting people I met.

The theme of defiance is present throughout your book. Is that something you noticed when speaking to people who lived under ISIS?

I remember talking to people when they escaped Mosul, and asking them is if they ever broke ISIS’s rules. Almost everyone said “of course I did.”

Everyone had these stories of how even in small ways, they stood up to ISIS. Someone will have sold cigarettes. One woman that I spoke to said “I never wore the gloves. I hated them and the religious police stopped me all the time, but I didn’t want to do it.” 

The people living under ISIS had agency. It wasn’t just that they were repressed and kept in thrall by the terror group. People fought back in small ways. Of course some people supported ISIS, but a huge number of people didn’t. 

I think Abu Laith hated being controlled. He was breaking the rules ISIS tried to enforce, he did things they didn’t want him to do and at the same time kept the animals alive. I think that was really important to him. It gave him something to hold on to. At a time where he felt all his agency was taken away from him, the one good thing that he could do was keep these animals alive. 

Father of Lions is out now in hardback edition. 

Louise Callaghan is an author and journalist for the Sunday Times.

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