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So What Do You Do, Romesh Ratnesar?

A Time writer does his second tour in the mag's Baghdad bureau and talks to mb about his job there, his job in New York, and the intersection of the two.

By Jesse Oxfeld - November 18, 2003

When I first knew Romesh Ratnesar, he was a few years ahead of me in college and one of the world-weary old-boy stars of The Stanford Daily. He continued to live up to that persona, nailing a job at The New Republic upon graduation and washing up at Time magazine a year or so later, in 1997. He's been a rising star there ever since, the rare newsmag staffer equally adept at both reporting from the field and crafting complex stories back in New York from other reporters's files. In fact, amid two years in the London bureau and brief reporting stints around the world, Ratnesar has also found time to write more than 20 cover stories for the magazine, on everything from the ascendance of Sen. Hillary Clinton to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the hunt for Osama. He's now doing a second tour of duty in Iraq, rejoining Africa bureau chief Simon Robinson there after a six-week assignment in the spring. He spoke to by satellite phone last week, about his job and life in Iraq and his future at Time.

Hometown: Rochester, New York
Birthdate: June 11, 1975

What sort of work do you get to do in Time's Baghdad bureau? Do you get to write your own pieces much, or are you mostly filing for other, larger stories to be written back in New York?
It's a mix. I think the first time I was here I wrote four or five stories. I think Simon, who's been here for a while, has written a number of stories. We do file as well; it all really depends on the week and how busy a news week it is. If it's a heavy news week, invariably we will file to New York and the story will be written in New York late on Friday night. But for features we want to work on, we write ourselves.

What's the day-to-day like? Is there a predictable routine, or is it just a responding-to-what-happens-next sort of thing?
Well, what we do is a little bit different from what wire reporters and newspaper reporters do. I mean, we don't have to cover the daily events, which are myriad every day—there are at least 10 news events going on any given day all over the country. If there are major things happening, we'll often go to the scene, but for the most part early in the week we try to figure out a few stories that we want to pursue and then we spend the week reporting those. There is no routine though. It's an interesting and tough place to work, because you don't know from day to day where you'll be going and who will be available. You can't reach most people by phone; you pretty much have to go their houses and hope they'll talk to you. Every day is a fresh field.

When you do go out to do on-scene reporting, do you travel alone? Or do you have guards and interpreters and so forth?
Generally, if we're going to meet an Iraqi, we'll have a driver and a translator with us. If we're going out with the Americans, we just take a driver—and, often, if we're out on a patrol, you ride along with them. We certainly don't travel with armed accompaniment, and I think that's probably true of most print reporters. I think TV, because they carry a lot of equipment, they often have security with them.

Do you worry about your personal safety?
From time to time you kind of have to watch yourself, avoid certain kind of situations. If there's a big attack of some kind and you get a little too close to the crowd, and they recognize you as a western reporter, you can find yourself in somewhat of an uncomfortable position. Any time you go out with American soldiers, especially on combat or patrol missions, there is a risk of coming under some fire. But I don't think about it very much. I don't know that most journalists think about it that much, and, if they do, then they won't go out on those kinds of operations. I mean, there's plenty of things to do here that don't involve taking your life in your hands.

But just everyday things—I mean, have you stayed at all at the al-Rashid Hotel, which those rockets were fired at while Wolfowitz was there?
No. The al-Rashid is, or was, I think only populated by people of the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] and the military people. There were no journalists there. We stay in a residential house that we rented shortly after the war ended. Most of the big news organizations that I know of are renting their own houses or staying in very small hotels. There are a couple of big hotels that people stay in by necessity. But most news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, we all have our own homes, which is where we work, too.

That's a very different world from living in Greenwich Village and working in Rockefeller Center, your life here in New York. Is that disorienting, or at least was it when you first got there, that dichotomy?
Yeah, in some ways. I like working in the field—I like working in New York, as well—but it's a different kind of experience. It's disorienting in the sense that it's always disorienting to go to another country and have to get used to different language, different customs, different currency, just the basics of working in any foreign country. It takes a while. I mean, I found in coming back that it took me at least a couple of weeks to sort out how to make contact with people. The military and the CPA have their own set of rules and ways of dealing with the press. It can take a little bit of effort to sort out how that works. There are just a lot of layers of bureaucracy, you'd be surprised—which makes working here not so different than working in Washington.

What do you find to be the most interesting or significant things you've reported on from there?
I find any time we deal with people who are associated with the former regime, or whose sympathies were for the former regime, they're interesting people to talk to because they've had their world potentially destroyed, their future is completely uncertain, and they're suddenly in a country that is run by Americans and sort of overrun by Westerners. And I think the most interesting thing here is talking to Iraqis about how they make sense of what's happened to them. It's a pretty extraordinary thing to live under a regime for 35 years and then in a blink of an eye it's gone. It's a completely different world and reality for them. That, to me, is what makes working here pretty exciting and stimulating.

This isn't your first interesting foreign reporting assignment. Where are some of the other places you've been, and how does this compare?
I've been in Israel and the occupied territories. I was in Saudi Arabia last year. I've been to the Gulf before, and in Asia. I worked in Europe for two years. I don't think there's anything quite like this. I imagine Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was a pretty extraordinary story. Because of the presence of the U.S. military and the fact that you essentially have a government that the U.S. is running in the middle of the Arab world—22 million people—everyday it's remarkable to take stock of that reality. I don't think there's anything quite like Iraq at this point. There's probably not a story that has as many moving parts and as many stories to tell. I mean, there are just an endless number of stories that are worth pursuing, which we don't have time to do and probably no one is doing. There are stories that haven't been discovered here, and there will be for years. I read today that they've only dug up 40 mass graves and there's something like an estimated 300 still out there. That's hundreds of thousands of people still looking for dead relatives that they have no idea what happened to them. Every one of those people have a story. Most of those stories haven't been told. I think this will be a great place for journalism for a long time.

How much longer are you going to be there?
I'm going to be here until early December. I'll head back to New York after that, and hopefully will be back sometime next year.

One thing I find interesting is this sort dual newsmag life you have. On one hand you do the Nancy Gibbs thing, sitting comfortably on Sixth Avenue and spinning great cover stories out of lots of files and research and so forth. But then you also go off for periods and do the foreign-correspondent bit. Which side of that divide do you enjoy more?
Well, I don't want to get myself in trouble. Both are very rewarding. I'm a big believer in the kinds of stories we do. I think we still are able to synthesize complicated news stories in a way that other publications just don't. I really do enjoy being able to have that perch, but it's something that I need to balance with experience and reporting in the field. They both inform each other. When I'm in New York I have the advantage of having access to reporting from all over the world. I'm in contact with correspondents, and I can pick their brains whenever I want. When I'm here I get to kind of make my own rules and make my own schedule and decide what I think is important and what I think the magazine should be doing, which is also gratifying. I'm lucky enough I have the opportunity to do both.

And when you look down the road, do you think you'll be able to continue to do both or are you going to end up on one side or the other, as a New York writer or a foreign correspondent?
I think that at some point I'd like to spend some extended time in the field in a specific bureau that has a lot of appeal to me. Getting to know one story is always a good thing for journalists, especially journalists interested in foreign affairs. I suspect that even if I do that, at some point I'll be back writing the kinds of stories I've been writing in New York. The nice thing about Time is that it offers all these things to people who work there. People do go off and become foreign correspondents and are never heard from again. They bounce around, travel the world, they live great lives. I don't necessarily see myself doing that, but I'd like to spend some more time outside of the office before I hunker down.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of In the winter and spring of 1996, as the opinions editor of The Stanford Daily, he edited Romesh Ratnesar's biweekly column, "Bread and Circus."

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