Soon after I met Lyse Doucet at the BBC’s new Broadcasting House in London, I realised I was the one answering questions — telling her about myself and where I come from — and not the other way round. On hearing the word “Pakistan” a spark seemed to enter the conversation. This is familiar territory for Doucet, having lived in and covered the south Asian country extensively for years.
As chief international correspondent and senior presenter for the BBC she is recognised by millions — from a scraggly, bearded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan to street revolutionaries in Cairo — and even the likes of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad know who she is.
We talk about the recent activities of young and inexperienced Bilawal Bhutto, who chairs the Pakistan People’s Party, and Doucet calls it our little “gup shup”, a common phrase used among Pakistanis for a friendly chat. I ask if she speaks Urdu. “No, no. My language skills are courtesy and comedy, enough to say hi, ‘kya haal hai, thek thak?’[How are you, fine?] ‘Meharbani’[Favour]. You learn enough to say hello, to show openness, to ask about the family, please don’t arrest me! But also to understand a bit of the jokes and the humour — for me humour is the best language to have.” Doucet also speaks a little Farsi, and she shows me an Arabic language book in her bag.
Doucet’s accent gives a hint of her foreign origins, being born and brought up in Canada, in New Brunswick. “I have been 30 years now with the BBC. There is always this moment where someone says, can I ask you a question? And I know they are going to ask me about my accent and about where I am from because they think BBC ... she must be British, she doesn’t really sound British. Because you see I am Canadian.”
A lot of places she has reported from are former British colonies. “In Middle East people would come up to you and say ‘oh Balfour Declaration’, — it excites people, building themselves up to have a go at me because I am British. I would just listen to it and say actually I am Canadian. I was colonised by both the British and the French. My people, the Acadians, suffered far more than your people did under the British and were expelled from our homeland before you even thought about your homeland. And they go ‘oh’, and it kind of gives them a little bit of respect.”
After she went to university she discovered the best way to get an education was to be a journalist. “For me journalism is this great licence to ask questions and also to work for the BBC became a licence for me to travel around the world.”
In the Eighties she lived in and reported from Africa for five years. It was there that someone recommended she visit Pakistan. “I went around the BBC to all the different sections and I said, ‘Well, I am thinking about going to Pakistan.’ They said, ‘Thank you, Lyse ... We have already got someone there. But I was so determined I went anyway. I went to Quetta and nobody was in Quetta.”
It was 1988 and Hamid Karzai and a lot of Afghans were based in the city, as well as in Peshawar. Suddenly the BBC became interested in Quetta. “Then I went to Peshawar and stayed in Peshawar for a few months. Suddenly the BBC which had said to me, ‘Sorry Lyse, we don’t need anything from you’, wanted a lot of stuff from me. But then, in the winter, on my birthday, which is Christmas Eve, I flew to Kabul.”
It was the period of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal and rumours circulated. “People would come to me and say, ‘You have to leave Kabul,’” Doucet says, her voice taking on the whispery tone of a storyteller. “‘The Mujahideen are going to come in as soon as the Soviet army leave in February ... the place is going to collapse. It is not going to be safe for you.’ And then Afghans would come up to me and say — because still to this day they look at what the Westerners and the foreigners are doing and they have taken measure of that — ‘What are they telling us? If they are all leaving does that tell us that the situation is not certain?’”
She returned to Pakistan, staying there from 1989 to 1993 while also covering Afghanistan. It was the time Benazir Bhutto had come back from abroad and martial law had ended. “I remember getting on a train when Benazir Bhutto started her campaign, and being on my mobile telephone for the very first time, and I still remember to the day what it felt like — my first live broadcast from the train. Benazir Bhutto was starting her election campaign, you know what they are like, these jalsas? Totally chaotic.”
Unlike some other places she found Pakistan very hospitable. “I have this joke still to this day: when you go to Pakistan and you call someone up, they will say to you, ‘When did you get here?’ And it is not an idle question. What it means is how long did it take before your foot hit the tarmac and you took your phone to call them? And if it was something like a matter of week, they would say, ‘How come you didn’t call me sooner? You know, come over. Take my house, take my car, you must have a meal here,’” she laughs.
While she was in Pakistan she became involved in opening a BBC office in Tehran. Doucet worked on it, going back and forth for about a year and a half. “It was so tied up with the Rushdie affair that the Iranian officials would just say to us, ‘You know, it is too dangerous now. You could get kicked out because of our relations with the Brits, because of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. And so reluctantly we put it aside and I went and opened the first BBC office in Jordan instead.”
She found Jordan a quiet place. “What I missed when I was in Jordan is in Pakistan we would invite musicians to play, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was alive and they would come and play ghazals on the roofs, and qawwalis, so we made our own entertainment.” So she likes qawwalis? “Yes, yes, I like qawwalis.”
She felt Jordan was like Islamabad, which is also quiet, but with no musicians. “What happened was, the Pakistani ambassador there, his wife was a musician.” She laughs. “So we got together, we had qawwali in Jordan, in Amman. That was 1993 and I still go to, and still have very good friends, in Amman.”
After this, for some years, she was based in occupied Jerusalem. “People thought then, after the Oslo Peace Accords, there was still the possibility that the Israelis and the Palestinians would make peace. But it was also a very special time, there was some hope that you would go to Ramallah in the West Bank and they would have menus in Hebrew. And Israelis would go and eat in Palestinian restaurants and there was the sense that the two peoples could live together. Fast forward 20 years and people talk about separation. They don’t talk about living together anymore and that is the sad legacy of years and years in which both sides feel angry, disappointed, and sometimes nervous about the other side.”
I mention a need for a strong shift in how the BBC covers the issue. The news organisation describes its reporting as “balanced” and “impartial”. However, there is an argument to be made that presenting the Palestinians and Israelis as equal is not fair when you have one side which is occupied and under oppression.
“Our coverage of the Middle East, our coverage of Israel and Palestine, comes under great scrutiny,” she says. “And it is put under perhaps the greatest scrutiny by the BBC itself.” She went on to talk at length about, for example, how BBC receives complaints from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, perceptions and how they compare these with facts on the ground. “I don’t necessarily agree with you, because I think the Israelis criticise us as much as the Palestinians do. I have been called anti-Semite, a Zionist. My conscience is absolutely clear. I will go and meet friends, eat shrimps on the beaches of Gaza. I will go to Tel Aviv and spend time with friends on the beach in Tel Aviv.”
We move on to her more recent reporting from Syria. “There is no sign yet that it is going to be over any time soon,” she says. “I always say the war in Syria is a civil war, a proxy war in that [it involves] regional heavyweights such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which means it is also sectarian — it is the new Cold War between Moscow and Washington.” However it is also a war on childhood. “What we have seen in Syria, to an extent I haven’t seen in other wars, and it is a horrifying thing, is that children aren’t just caught in the crossfire. They are being targeted. Deliberately targeted and tortured.” On the question of who is behind the killings, she says, “There are no angels in this war.”
If you type “Doucet” in YouTube a curious video of her in Damascus pops up. Filmed in 2011, it shows her being confronted by a Syrian man who said she was talking “very bad” about Syria. “You lie, because you are not talking truth about Syria,” he tells Doucet in the video. “Syria is very quiet. And everybody in population loves Bashar Al Assad, our president. And we support the president.”
Doucet tells him she isn’t lying, that it is actually her first day in the country. “No you are lying. Because everybody here, the population, 23 million persons from Syria love Bashar Al Assad and support Bashar Al Assad.” She told him she wasn’t making it up, there were pictures. “You are advertising like that. No no no, you are trying like that. Everybody when they hear BBC Arabic, [they] can hear the lie about Syria. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.”
Doucet then says Syria may be like some countries where some people support, others don’t. “No everybody supports,” he retorts. “And there [are very few] people, maybe 10,000, like that. But most of people, 22 or 23 million persons, support Bashar Al Assad.” And the conversation went on in a similarly confrontational fashion.
When I bring it up Doucet tells me she is now “great friends” with this man. “I go to see him every time I go to Damascus,” she says. “This was September 2011, the protest began in March. The BBC had not got any visas. So I got the first visa. And there I was the first day on the first visa in Damascus, and I come across someone in the old city selling cashews, and pistachios. He sees me and he says, ‘Right!’”
When he confronted her, the BBC filmed the whole conversation. “I sent it to the BBC. I said you have to run the whole thing. The reason why it is on YouTube is because we sent it. I said everyone has to hear this, we have to hear that they think we are not telling the truth. I am not going to hide that. We didn’t. In fact we said, ‘Please do it.’
“Every time I go to Damascus I go to his shop,” she says. “The next time I saw him he said, ‘Oh hello, how are you? Here, have some pistachio.’ He gave me lots of nuts, we had a chat. And of course I asked if he was saying the truth. He said, ‘Yes, but we have to talk. The situation has changed. So there is nothing wrong with people criticising.’ I didn’t accept what he said, but I defended his right to say it.”
She plans to travel again to Syria in a few weeks. “I think where I will say the BBC is doing a great job is that we are covering it from all sides,” she says. “From the government-controlled areas, from the rebel-controlled areas, the areas which are somewhere in the middle.”
She is aware of the risks too. “It is very dangerous,” Doucet says, “dangerous especially in the opposition areas. We all have to be very careful — we are taking risks but we feel they are risks worth taking because the story has to be told. But there is no denying it is risky. It is risky most of all for Syrians because this is their country and this is their future. Every day I am in Syria I tell myself to try and get it [the story] right.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.