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So What Do You Do, Richard Engel, Middle East Correspondent, NBC News?

NBC's Middle East correspondent discusses reporting on war and relaxing to MTV

By Julie Haire - November 21, 2007
There is a certain personality type that pursues a job as a foreign correspondent in a war zone. After all, there are foreign correspondent jobs in Paris. But for Richard Engel, NBC's Middle East correspondent and the only television reporter who's continually covered the Iraq conflict since it began, it's clearly less a job than a calling.

Especially when you consider, upon graduating from Stanford, he picked up and headed to Cairo with only some small savings and a passion for finding the story. Born and raised in Manhattan, Engel has now lived in the Middle East for 10 years. After a three-year stint covering the Palestine uprising against Israel, he was freelancing for the BBC and ABC in 2002 when he signed with NBC, and he's been there ever since.

By most accounts he's a thorough and dogged reporter; he speaks and reads fluent Arabic (in addition to Spanish and Italian) and has been known to go house to house to report a story. As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote, "Among the small circle of journalists who risk their lives in the region, Engel commands considerable respect."

Despite eluding death enough times to know his reserve of luck may be depleted, you get the feeling there's no where else he'd rather be. Here, he shares some of his thoughts on working, living, and surviving in war.

Name: Richard Engel
Position: Sr. Middle East Correspondent
Resume: "Reporting from the Middle East since 1996"
Birthdate: September 16, 1973
Hometown: New York City
Education: Stanford University
Marital Status: Single
Favorite TV show: MTV Music Countdown
Last book read: "Biography of Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia"
Guilty pleasure: "Blackjack"

What is your typical day like -- if you even have one?
There are really two kinds of days. There are the times when I'm with the military and I would say, maybe that's about 30 percent of the time. On an embed, you're living on the soldiers' or marines' schedule. You're up very early and you go out on patrol with the troops, sometimes they come back for a break in the middle of the afternoon, they go on more patrols in the late afternoon and generally get to bed pretty early, or sometimes we're filing late in the evening. When you're with the military you live with the troops, sleep on cots; sometimes on a big base, they'll give you a trailer. Other times it's just sleeping in a very abandoned building that the soldiers have turned into a combat outpost or a forward operating base.

When I'm back at the bureau, which is not in the Green Zone despite what many people still assume -- it's just in a hotel in Baghdad -- we try and go out into the streets. I go out every single day. Now that things area a little bit safer, we're venturing out more. I was at a hospital today. Yesterday I was at a mosque, and I was doing an interview with someone and I went over to his house to have an iftar, the Ramadan break fast meal with him. So when we're here in Baghdad, we go out and do meetings, do interviews to stories, go out in the city, and then come back and file from the bureau. Violence in Baghdad is down considerably so we are venturing out more, still with security, but for awhile it was very difficult. The violence was so intense. I mean, literally, you'd go out and drive past bodies in the streets. You're not seeing that anymore. There is a bit more freedom of movement now than there used to be, but there's not really a typical day. It depends on what you're doing. If you're doing a story on doctors, you spend time with doctors. If you're doing a story on Blackwater, then you try and talk to the police and embassy officials. It depends on the story you're chasing.

And to what do you attribute the reduction in violence?
I would say it's four things. One, there are more troops on the ground -- or more American troops on the ground. Two, the troops on the ground, and this is according to military -- not only [the top US Commander in Iraq] Petraeus' office but also field-grade officers, you know, commanders who are in the field -- they like the new security plan more. They think it makes more sense. The new security plan not only has more troops on the ground, but it has the troops spread out throughout the city much more than they were before. The troops used to be concentrated on big bases from which they would patrol; now they're spread out in the city in dozens of smaller bases. And the idea is like oil -- you drop oil on a piece of paper, and then there's oil spread out until they're all interconnected. The concept anyway. So that strategy appears to be more effective. That's two things. Three: The Sunni tribes, or some Sunni tribes, have decided to fight with the Americans and fight against Al Qaeda. And four, Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to call a truce and cease fire for the time being. So you have four things coming together all at the same time, which are all very fortuitous and all have an impact in reducing the violence. The question is, How long will it last? And no one can give me a clear answer on that.

In the beginning, the challenge was just having the energy and the time to report all the stories. You could just walk down the street and collect them like leaves that had fallen off of a tree.

You've had a few close calls yourself. Is that always on your mind?
No -- I'm not obsessed about it, but I'm not letting my guard down yet. Right now we're in a situation where it does feel safer and we're putting our toes in the water, but I know that that water is very deep and you don't want to go too quickly too fast. So I am cautious, and I think as a result of having been here for about five years -- this will be my fifth Christmas coming up soon -- you get cautious. So I go out every day; I'm not paranoid about it. I spent all day out today and yesterday, so it's not like I'm just sitting in here under my blanket, because otherwise what's the point in being here?

Do you feel like you have enough access there to report the stories effectively?
It's not ideal, but it's ... I think if you read the newspapers and you watch the television and you read the magazines and you read the analysis, I think you will get a fairly accurate vision of what's going on in Iraq. So I think that journalists have done a very good job in covering this war despite the hardships. Is it perfect? No. I think there's often too much punditry and Washington stories written about Iraq, and I think the stories written from Iraq are the ones that have more merit -- but that's also because I'm writing from Iraq.

How do you feel like the job has changed over the past five years? Can you say if it's more difficult, or less difficult because of your experience?
It's not even the same job. Each year has been totally different. The first year was invasion. And then there was exploration. People ask me, "Do you get bored? Aren't you getting sick of it by now?" Not at all. Each period has been totally, totally different. Saddam Hussein was in power when I first came to Iraq. So we've gone from Saddam's in power to Saddam's being hanged by an elected Shiite government of his former enemies. We're not even on the same planet as we used to be. And each period has had its own challenges. In the beginning, the challenge was just having the energy and the time to report all the stories. I mean, they were everywhere. You could just walk down the street and collect them like leaves that had fallen off of a tree. There were stories because this country had been closed for decades. And then tension started building and then -- bang -- it snapped. And for the last two years, it's been a civil war period phase. At least the last year and a half. Now, are we in a truce or a holding pattern or at a turning point? I don't know. We've entered a new phase of the game right now, but I'd be foolish to say where I think it's going. I don't know how long this period of calm will last. I hope it lasts for a long time.

And how do you sift through the information you get -- like from the Iraqis or the military? I've spent some time overseas in developing countries, and I think it's really hard to get information from people.
Well, I know a lot of people. I've been here a long time. I get called, I know people, I have dinner with people. Getting information is not the problem. Getting accurate information, I don't know. It's hard to confirm things. I mean, I'm on the phone or out all day long -- which is all I do. I don't do anything else.

I guess I didn't really mean getting the information; I meant how do you know what's accurate? How do you sift through peoples' agendas?
You just call lots of people, speak to lots of different people. Certain things are straightforward. There were two women killed yesterday in Karada. There's no debate about that. I was there. I saw the blood on the streets. I saw the glass. I saw their hair on the pavement and it's covered in blood. And I spoke to seven witnesses who all told me the same thing. Did the car try and stop? Yes. I could see a skid mark on the street. I was able to look at it. I'm not a crime scene investigator, but this was pretty clear cut what had happened. Other times, it's more complicated when you're talking about political agendas and the reasons things happen and the political maneuvering within the Iraqi government and the long-term objectives of people like [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki and [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Allawi. Then it becomes more Byzantine.

The fact that you know Arabic seems like it would be an incredible advantage. Are people surprised that you know it?
Most Iraqis I speak to, yes, they're very surprised. Most people I speak to assume that I'm from Lebanon or Egypt or my parents were from the region or something like that. I frankly think it is the critical advantage and I would recommend to any young reporters to do that immediately -- that that would be the critical thing, is the language.

And how do people generally receive you as 1) an American, and 2) a reporter?
Usually you can break away from that. Obviously when I show up to a scene with a camera, it's clear what I do for a living. But it's not that I'm perceived as some sort of American presence. If you show up and you're speaking in Arabic and you talk to people, and you ask them questions and you greet them in a way that makes them comfortable and implies that you know where they are -- because when you interview someone on the street, they talk language that's very local. They're referring to names of streets where an event happened or particular neighborhoods, so if you're familiar with the names of the streets and the names of the shop owners who own the streets and you know what happened there three weeks ago, it doesn't make you perceived as such an outsider. You can just talk to them and have more of conversation on terms that they're comfortable with.

Do you find the people are welcoming to you?
Oh yeah, very much so. Absolutely. In general the people here are incredibly nice and welcoming. The problem is getting people right now who are willing to talk and have their faces shown because so many people feel threatened, and that has been the real difference. In print, you can use a false name or bring them into your place or talk to them over the phone. I need to interview people on camera in their place of business or in their homes. In this society right now, that puts people at tremendous risk and we do sometimes, we will agree, "OK, we'll shoot you in your home, but not expose the outside where we are. We will come in with the camera in a bag so nobody sees that we're coming in to interview you." We're working on a story right now on doctors. It took me three days to find a doctor who would be willing to let me interview him and have his face shown on camera. And it is an incredible act of bravery that he's letting me do that. He has no interest in doing that. We're not paying him anything. He just wants to have his story told and he's willing to do it.

There was an article recently where former military spokesman Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who's generally in favor of openness between the military and the media, said that journalists don't spend enough time getting to know the troops. What do you think about that?
That is a problem. Oftentimes on embed, because of the restrictions or our need to file, sometimes we're asked to go in and do an overnight embed. It's worthless. You need to spend three, four, five days, a week with them, get to live the situation. You need to spend time with them; otherwise you're just running in, grabbing some sound bites and leaving, and you don't do a service to them, you don't do a service to the viewers. It's unfortunately sometimes a necessity of the business with deadlines, but he has a point.

Is there is an issue at all with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
I think we all suffer a little bit from it, from post-traumatic stress. [There's] this theory that every person goes through four stages of covering the war in Iraq. First stage -- I've mentioned this before, it's been written about quite a bit -- but stage one is, "I'm invincible, I'm Superman. Nothing can happen to me." Stage two is, "This really is dangerous and something might happen to me." Stage three is, "You know what? This is really very dangerous. I've been here so long; something is probably going to happen to me." And stage four: "I've been here too long, I'm pushing my luck. I'm going to die out here." And depending on where you are psychologically, I think that is reflective of your post-traumatic stress. And I've been all over the charts, from one to four -- I usually settle in around three.

Julie Haire is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

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