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.