For her whole life, Souad Mekhennet, a reporter for The Washington Post who was born and educated in Germany, has had to balance the two sides of her upbringing – Muslim and Western. She has also sought to provide a mediating voice between these cultures, which too often misunderstand each other.
Soon after the attacks on September 11, 2001 her journey began to transform – in part because she was a Muslim woman, she started gaining unparalleled access to leading jihadist militants from Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. For Mekhennet, reporting on Middle Eastern extremism "is more than a job; it is a search for a piece of my own identity."
In her memoir, I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, Mekhennet offers access into meetings with some of the most wanted men, often at great personal risk. But finding a partner, as you'll see in the excerpt below, wasn't easy, as jihad followed her into her private life. After one particularly grueling assignment in Algeria, she arranged to spend some time in New York. She wanted to get to know her fellow reporters and editors better and improve her English, which is her fourth language after Arabic, German, and French.
Working with American colleagues who were married with children had made me realize that I, too, wanted to find a partner and build a family—and definitely not with some jihadist sheikh looking for a second or third wife. After long, exhausting days in strange faraway places, I sometimes overheard my coworkers sharing their experiences with their spouses. Meanwhile, I was always trying to keep the truth about what I'd seen or heard or felt as vague as possible when I talked to my parents, my brother, and my sisters.
But finding a partner wasn't easy for me, as jihad followed me into my private life. After the Algeria debacle, I arranged to spend some time in New York, working out of the Times headquarters. I wanted to get to know my fellow reporters and editors better and improve my English, which was my fourth language after Arabic, German, and French.
My American friends seized the opportunity for matchmaking. Some arranged dinners to introduce me to "accomplished Arab Americans"; another signed me up for a website where I could supposedly meet Arab singles from around the world. All went well — until the men found out who I was and Googled my articles.
Some hated what I was doing, and accused me of making Islam or Arabs "look bad"; others sent messages full of compliments but noted that "what you are doing is so brave but also dangerous."
The man who wrote those words was an American-born engineer of Arab descent whom I'd met online. A friend had set up a profile for me, entering answers to questions about my preferences and whether I wanted to get married and have kids. (The answer to both was yes.)
There was no picture of me on my profile page, and I never sent my picture to anyone I met on the site. I wrote that I was of Arab-European descent and worked in media, without specifying where. I said I was independent and hardworking, that I liked to listen to music, that I liked long walks and art museums and went to the movies and read a lot, and that I was a very social person. When one man I met on the site learned who I was, he asked if, by "social," I meant that I liked to meet jihadists.
Even before I got responses like that, I had mixed feelings about online dating. I didn't feel at home in that world, and separating the normal people from the nuts was time-consuming. But the friend who set up my profile told me that half her friends in America had met their partners online. "This is the new thing," she said. I thought it might be worth a try.
Finding a partner wasn't easy for me, as jihad followed me into my private life.
As with any dating site, some men were looking for a fling. I immediately deleted those messages. But some guys seemed more serious. An engineer I was talking to seemed well-mannered, friendly, and open-minded. He said he wanted an equal partnership. When I first told him I was a journalist, he seemed excited. He said he liked women with strong views, who were engaged in world events. He didn't mind a woman working or traveling, but when I finally told him my name (after chatting with him anonymously for nearly three months), he felt differently. Instead of the light conversation we'd shared before, his tone grew more stilted.
If I'd traveled the world to cover environmental issues or fashion, none of it would have been an issue. But this guy worked for the U.S. government. I interpreted his message as a way of saying good-bye.
We dropped out of touch.
I never met the engineer in person, but I did meet a wealthy Arab-American businessman whom I'd also first encountered online. He flew to New York to take me out for coffee. On our way back to my office, a man accidentally bumped into me on the street. He said he was sorry, but the businessman was furious. "You should really apologize to her," he told the man. I assured him that everything was fine and that the man had already apologized. But I also thought, I can speak for myself just fine.
My colleague Michael Moss worried about me in his brotherly way. He and a Times researcher and friend convinced me to let them run background checks on the men who wanted to meet me, including the businessman. It turned out that he'd been arrested a couple of times for beating his ex-wife.
When he contacted me again online, I told him I didn't think we were a good fit. He seemed perplexed. "Why?" he wrote. "We had a nice coffee. I thought we had something." I told him I knew about the domestic violence arrests and asked him not to contact me again.
I felt I was wasting my time. Like most people, I wanted a steady and loving partner who understood me and appreciated my quirks. I knew that if I had children, my work might change, but I wanted to be with someone who would be proud of how I have built my career, not afraid or ashamed.
"What happened to all these people who say, 'Behind a strong man is a strong woman'?"
I asked myself and all my girlfriends. "Where are they?"
My friend Mahvish pointed something out to me. "You're a badass in your job," she said, "but with guys, you're just too nice." I certainly felt pressure not to intimidate men with details about my day job. The fact is that many men have set ideas about women who work in the field I do. It was hard for the men I met to see me as anything but a thrill-seeker or some kind of bizarre female action hero. Many were drawn to what they saw as the glamorous side of my work, but they were often surprised to learn that I also cooked, cleaned, and liked wearing nice clothes and going out with friends, or that I wanted to have children. It seemed impossible for them to hold all these ideas in their heads at once. The jihadis who said they wanted to marry me didn't get it, either. For them, I was little more than a curiosity.