English original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat newspaper on 27 June 2012
The Arab uprisings over the past 18 months have been challenging for journalists covering the historic and dramatic developments. There have been deaths, injuries, imprisonments and torture of journalists. Some regimes have tried to control, censor and intimidate reporters.
Journalists have often needed courage and resourcefulness during the Arab uprisings to carry out their work and get their stories out. The young Lebanese-British radio journalist Rana Jawad, the BBC Radio correspondent in Libya, is a remarkable example of a journalist who rose to the challenges of the time of Arab revolution.
In the early days of the Libyan uprising Jawad informed the Libyan authorities that she was “taking a career break for personal reasons.” But in fact she went “underground” in Tripoli, which remained under the control of Gaddafi’s regime, and continued to report for the BBC in secret.
The BBC disguised her identity during this dangerous time by having her dispatches read on air by a man, under the name “Tripoli Witness”. The “Tripoli Witness” dispatches were invaluable in giving the audience some picture of what was going on in Tripoli, pieced together from Jawad’s own observations and from the eyewitness reports the gathered from family, friends, and trusted contacts.
Jawad avoided official briefings at the Rixos hotel, where the foreign media was kept under tight scrutiny by the authorities. Her position was made even riskier by the fact that her Libyan husband is originally from Benghazi; the uprising had started in Benghazi and there was hostility to Benghazians from some in Tripoli. In the early days of the uprising Rana and her husband moved into the home of her in-laws in Tripoli, and there they remained for the next seven months.
It was only after Tripoli fell to the revolutionaries on 21 August that the BBC revealed that “Tripoli Witness” was in fact Rana Jawad, and that again began to report under her own name.
Jawad tells of her experiences during the uprising in her book “Tripoli Witness: The Remarkable First Hand Account of Life through the Insurgency” published in London by Gilgamesh Publishing. Her book is a valuable contribution to the existing literature on Libya itself, and on its revolution.
In the book she explains how she first went out to Libya as BBC radio correspondent in 2004, at the age of only 22, and had been there for seven years when the uprising first erupted in Benghazi on 15 February 2011.
At the time she first went to Libya the country was beginning to open up to some extent following Gaddafi’s abandonment of his programme to make weapons of mass destruction. It was not easy to get permission to be a journalist stationed in Libya – it took her four months to get a visa. And once she was there, it was difficult for her to work freely; she recalls how some of her BBC reports got her into trouble with the then head of the Foreign Press Office, a man she refers to only as “Mr Grumpy” rather than by his real name. Many ordinary Libyans were nervous of speaking to her, although she found that in some cases her Lebanese dialect encouraged people to open up to her more than they might have to a fellow-Libyan. Her Lebanese accent gained her the nickname “Star Academy” - after the famous pan-Arab TV show made by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC).
In her first few years in Libya she sometimes thought of leaving and moving somewhere else in the region, but by her fifth year there she had a personal reason for staying: she fell in love with a Libyan, Motaz Elgheriani, whom she married in August 2010.
Jawad’s book is in two main sections. The first is a nine-chapter portrait of Libya, a “reflection on many elements and realities constructed or influenced by Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.” She aims to “shed light on what led to the peaceful uprising in Libya that rapidly transformed into a bloody conflict to topple the man who ruled there for forty-two years.” Her approach is not heavy or academic and her book is a lively and informative read, whchi includes some amusing observations and incidents. Jawad succeeds in capturing the distinctive, sometimes bizarre features of Gaddafi’s “Jamahirya”.
The second half of the book includes all the dispatches Jawad sent to the BBC in the name of “Tripoli Witness”. She introduces each dispatch with a “Retrospective”, putting the dispatch in context and explaining the circumstances in which it was written.
In addition to her determination and professionalism, Jawad brings to her journalism a talent for highlighting the human dimension to a story, and a refreshing sense of humour. Her Tripoli Witness dispatches often include a funny incident, or a joke current at the time. One of the dispatches is headlined “Humour amid the Fear”.
Jawad filed stories to the BBC under the name “Tripoli Witness” for the first three months of the uprising. But it then became too dangerous to continue, and on 13 May she filed her last report - on “Tribalism and the threat of conscription”.
In order to help reduce stress and pass the time, Jawad started knitting and baking cakes in the seven months of the uprising. After she mentioned her cake-making in a 28 August interview on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday series Broadcasting House, the programme’s website published recipes for three of her exotic cakes - Chilli Chocolate Cake, Rosewater and Apricot Cake, and Turmeric and Fennel Seed Cake (Rana comments that the last of these recipes was “inspired by an ethnic treat from my home country, Lebanon").
In December Jawad presented on BBC Radio an excellent 55-minute documentary entitled “Knitting in Tripoli”. In the programme (which can still be heard via the BBC website) Jawad tells of the difficulties and dangers she and her husband and mother-in-law faced during the uprising, interviewing both of them, and speaks to women friends who had been with her in Tripoli at that time. She also interviews men and women who had been involved in the underground resistance in Tripoli to Gaddafi. During the uprising, it was very hard for people in Tripoli to do the usual things, “but as I’ve been discovering ,since I’ve been free to report again, plenty of people were actually doing plenty of unusual things to prepare for zero hour – the liberation of Tripoli.” These “unusual things” included the smuggling by women of ammunition in their handbags.
Asked by Al-Hayat for some biographical details, Jawad said “I’m originally from Juwaya in south Lebanon. I lived in Lebanon for a total of three years throughout my life and graduated from a High School in Beirut. Other than that I spent a lot of summers going back there for the holidays in my teen years, most of which were spent in Tyr.”
Jawad’s family left Lebanon when she was very young because of the civil war, and she spent much of her early childhood in Belgium. She was around seven years old when she went back to Lebanon for the first time. As a teenager she moved around quite a bit between Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Lebanon.
Jawad says: “I don’t visit Lebanon often any more, not since High School. I love going back every few years and feel I don’t go enough, but the world is full of undiscovered treasures and life and work gives you only a few weeks off a year. I love travelling and when I do I try to explore a new destination every time.”
Rana moved back to Belgium for her university education, at Vesalius College in Brussels, from where she graduated in Communications in 2003. (the teaching at Vesalius is in English, and the college says it gives “an international education in the capital of Europe”).
Jawad has said she mastered the art of “controversy” through the Vesalius college magazine, The Vernacular, and through her membership of various student committees. “I wrote for The Vernacular for a couple of years, and then became the editor.”
Jawad “moved to London the day after I graduated.” In her first couple of months there she did one odd job and a work experience stint, and then succeeded in getting a work experience placement in the African Service of the BBC World Service, located in Bush House. “The rest, as they say, is history! I was posted to Libya by the BBC African Service, leaving London in February 2004, and never looked back.”
Her parents were initially not happy that she had accepted a posting in Libya. On the night that she broke the news to her father, he said: “Libya?! You’re going to Gaddafi’s Libya?!...Gaddafi with his crazy hair and those scary bodyguards around him...No!”
Rana Jawad as pictured on BBC Online
But once she had started work there, and faced some difficulties, her father was encouraging. In her book she writes that the reason she remained in Libya at the beginning was that “my father diligently reminded me that I was a ‘Jawad’ and that we do not just ‘give up’ when we are afraid.” As time passed, she wanted to stay to help give people in Libya a voice, “which they had not had in decades.”
Jawad wrote her book at speed, starting it after the fall of Tripoli and finishing it in mid-November. “Between the book, and breaking news, and many long months of confinement in the Libyan capital – I was slightly burnt out.” So in December she began a 40-day holiday.
She returned to London at the end of January for training and working in different parts of the BBC. In late April she returned to Tripoli to resume her reporting for the BBC on Libya and the wider region of North Africa.
She had looked forward to reporting from Libya again and says: “My job is much easier now without having to constantly look over my shoulder, or worry about who listened to my last phone call, read my last e-mail, saw my last story and what possible consequence it may incur”
How does she see the future of Libya? “I am cautiously optimistic of the country’s long-term prospects,” she says. “It could either all go very wrong or it could all go well but with a mighty struggle ahead – these are the uncomfortable realities of post-revolutionary societies.” Jawad notes that “Colonel Gaddafi left a broken nation and a broken people behind – that was ultimately his legacy for many. You can rebuild a nation with money but you can’t fix a society with it.”
She predicts: “It will take a new generation to shed the police-state mentality, the corruption and many other ills that dictatorships breed over decades of ultimate power. On a lighter note, Jawad confirms that she is still an avid cake maker and that “my publisher has asked me several times – at times jokingly...I think – if I’m ready to produce a cook book or baking book and I continue to quizzically look him over when he does. You never know though!” If she ever does write such a book, “it won’t be like anything you’ve seen before. I’ll probably write a story before each recipe to tell you all about how it came to be.” With a joking reference to the standards the BBC demands of its journalists, she says the recipes will be “balanced (including all failed attempts), informative and entertaining.”