NRK correspondent Sigurd Falkenberg Mikkelsen recently published the book Arabisk høst (Arab Fall, Cappelen Damm, 2016), a collection of correspondent’s letters from the Middle East from 2011 to 2016. This book is the reason why the editor of Modern Times sits down with him, to look behind the scenes, and at the role of the reporter.
In his first letter, from October 2011, Mikkelsen travels to Libya. This is immediately before the fall of Gaddafi, and somewhat by chance, Mikkelsen ends up outside as storage house where a massacre has just taken place – machine guns, grenades, dead bodies being burnt. He writes: «Inside, there were the remains of over fifty people; a black mass of burnt human flesh, ribs, human ribs, poking out from everywhere, and the white skulls, I remember them as shiny and clean against the dark, messy mass. In several places attached to curly spines.»
He withdrew right before throwing up, this was not «a place for a living human to be», he writes. The worst thing he ever experienced, he tells Modern Times. Before this, his knowledge of the region was something he had learned, not directly experienced himself: «I felt like I stepped into a different world. It was dark, and the stench was horrible. I felt like I touched on something beyond human comprehension. This is something that comes from somewhere deep in our history. »
Into reality. Mikkelsen has travelled around the Middle East for 15 years. You may wonder what his motivation is. What draws him to the region? «For me, it’s the most natural thing to do. When the war in Afghanistan broke out, I wanted to be there,» he says. «It was a very deep-felt emotion. The same thing with the war in Iraq. And 15 years later, I’m still here.»
With an advanced academic degree from Sciences Po in Paris – the same institution that former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre once attended – you may wonder why he is drawn to life’s harsh realities. «I chose not to continue my academic studies in Paris, I was simply too restless. I liked it, and those years changed me as a person, but I felt this urge in my body for something more, I wanted to go out into the world.»
In a previous Modern Times-interview with NRK’s senior foreign correspondent Odd Karsten Tveit (November 2015), the point was to get out of the hotel bar. Tveit has been out there for a lifetime, and has survived in several conflict zones. What about Mikkelsen, the generation following Tveit – has he ever been close to getting killed? «It’s actually hard for me to answer why that has not happened. Once, in Iraq, a grenade passed us by only a few meters. Several car bombs have also cut close. You have to find your own limits in this job. Sometimes you over-expose yourself to danger, you have to be able to withdraw. But to return to your question about why I get out of the hotels, as Tveit also did: I believe that is the core of the journalistic report as a genre, to get out and see for yourself what is happening. Even when it’s enough to say ‘yes, those people were there’»
We can understand Mikkelsen’s point that it’s not enough to listen to what activists are saying, or what the government denies. But what if your own life is on the line? «I belong to the old school, what’s written in social media and other sources is not enough. But I ask myself whether it’s worth it. Both before and after I got a family of my own, I’ve thought that a dead reporter is worth nothing. At the same time, this is an important job, you have to go out and control reality – something I do as well as I can, within my own abilities and limitations.»
Tveit was described by a colleague as behaving very rationally during massacres, like during the one in 1982 at Sabra and Shatila. He walked around, counting bodies. Is Mikkelsen able to keep a certain distance to this madness? «No, it’s very hard. But it’s my job as a foreign correspondent. You can’t get overwhelmed by emotion. But if you block your emotions out, you lose the human aspect, and the report doesn’t turn out good, and it’s not good for yourself either. As you can see, this book is an attempt at that.»
Politicians. Mikkelsen the reporter has travelled around for years, most recently stationed in Cairo for five years for NRK. We arrived to Cairo at the same time, in August 2011, immediately after the revolution, while the big demonstrations were still happening at the Tahrir Square. We have travelled together before on the West Bank with former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Edie, and we have both had our camera equipment picked to pieces when entering the presidential residence of Israel’s former president Shimon Peres. We have also run up the stairs in Ramallah, Palestine, to catch the handshake between Eide and President Abbas. But what do these politicians attempts at creating peace really mean? «I don’t harbour a lot of illusions in terms of politics, but I still believe that bridges can be built in the Middle East. A common understanding of how we are connected, rather than what sets us apart.»
Being Norwegian. Mikkelsen is Norwegian, and I wonder whether that has an influence on his work as a reporter. Is there perhaps something old-fashioned and Christian-minded behind his motivation to try to make the world understand or react to these atrocities he sees? «It’s possible, but I’m not particularly religious,» says Mikkelsen.
On the other hand, he says, he has never felt 100% Norwegian. Interestingly, the Breivik massacre in Norway is what was on his mind when he arrived to the tourist massacre in Tunisia. One day after the massacre, he stands outside the gates of Marahaba Hotel in Sousse, where 38 people were killed, and writes: «A shiver ran through the humid Mediterranean heat, like an inner quake, when I arrived to the scene.» Was it similar to Breivik’s cold-blooded slaughter when mainly Western tourists were killed during the massacre in Tunisia, one after another, for thirty long minutes? «Maybe my nerves were fraught, and I arrived with a lowered guard, maybe because the event reminded me of Utøya,» he writes. This orgy of murder, as Mikkelsen called it, was carried out with automatic weapons against people in their swimsuits. Mikkelsen says: «I had never seen or heard of such a personal terrorist attack in the Middle East. I’ve seen brutal attacks with great consequences, but not in this way, to kill one after another in such a cynical manner. Still, I ask myself, was the journalistic distance broken during this event, because there was something Western about it, and reminded me of an experience from Norway?» Yet, the next day he was calm, and walked in the path of the murder in order to re-construct what had happened.
Does it matter? In his book, Mikkelsen expresses doubts around the role of the reporter. Is there any use in reporting, writing articles, being on TV, bringing yet another story of violence? «I still believe that this is the most important job in the world. At the same time, it’s hard to see that there is no reaction at home or any echo of what you’ve reported. What is ability to shape people’s world views?» But in spite of the lack of influence of the media, he says, someone has to meet the victims face to face and tell the world what is happening.
Mikkelsen’s older colleague, Odd Karsten Tveit, told me of a female reporter who went to the responsible Falangist leader for the aforementioned massacre in Libanon and screamed at him, calling him a butcher. Where do you draw the line between activism and journalism – is it that important to keep this distance? I ask Mikkelsen. «I’ve never felt the need to scream at anyone”, he says. «I am there to understand and to report, and then other people have to decide how they’re going to react.»
But in one of the 24 letters in the book, Mikkelsen relates how he, as the first one on the scene, meets a starved crowd of refugees in a forest outside the city of Dohuk in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees are there, because of IS. The educated Kurd he meets asks him: «We thought you were bringing us food?» Mikkelsen from NRK replies that he’s come to tell the world about their existence. He gets no answer. What did you feel then, I ask Mikkelsen. «They were disappointed that the first person arriving from the outside was standing there with a microphone. I thought the same thing myself – What am I doing here with a microphone?»
While he reflects upon the refugees in this letter, he thinks that those who are poor, are the ones who are always hit the worst: «I tell their stories, but the world doesn’t seem to listen, or cares only about itself. So what do you do? Give up?» Is it really enough to merely report? I ask again. Mikkelsen replies: «For me, it’s hard to draw a clear line. But basically, if I wanted to help someone in need, I would have gotten a job in an aid organization.»
It seems natural, then, to ask whether he, as a Norwegian coming from the outside, really has been able to feel the fear and violence that the vulnerable in the Middle East are feeling. Has he been touched by it in that way? In one of his letters, he describes how a bomb fell right near his daughter’s playground. He also writes about when his wife was due to give birth, and a curfew had been introduced after the fall of President Morsis. Didn’t all this seem very threatening? «Yes, it’s a primary instinct. This was about the survival of my wife and yet-to-be-born daughter. When it’s very personal, you react differently. My nightmare was that we would be stuck in traffic or at a checkpoint.»
Egypt. But what can he say specifically about Egypt now, after these years as a correspondent in Cairo? «It’s not easy to conclude, and there is no black-and-white answer, either. To me, this is an Egyptian tragedy – it could be felt already during the preparations to the presidential election in 2012, when Morsi won. From then on, it’s mostly been about the struggle for power.» I ask whether religion played any big role. «Maybe some, but mostly it was about power and politics». We talk about this for a while – that some people want so much power. When is it enough? «This is a very good and fundamental question. It’s sad to see the spirit of Tahrir in 2011 being lost, step by step. The struggle became gradually more desperate. In the end, there was nothing left of the revolutionary spirit.» After Morsi was killed, the security services outright murdered 800 people who were demonstrating in the provincial town of Minya. Mikkelsen was present at some Egyptian court hearings, where a judge sentenced «683 people to death with a strike of the hammer», as the book says. Mikkelsen comments to Modern Times: «It was strange to see members of the Brotherhood behind bars, after all, only a few years before they had been travelling around, meeting heads of state. People probably underestimated what mental shift Morsi’s government represented to the old elite – and how destabilising this was for the country. People didn’t want a state controlled by the Brotherhood, so this last change with the army didn’t come out of nowhere.»
But then what about the media and freedom of speech in today’s Egypt? «Even with an elected president, freedom of expression is being supressed. It’s becoming increasingly hard to be a journalist. Protests are not permitted. Some of this is for security-reasons, but they are cracking down on all kind of activists, so there are no real opposition and no real democracy. Most of the leaders from Tahrir are now in prison along with the Islamists.»
Travels. Mikkelsen used to study Arabic in Damascus. He is constantly returning to the hotels he lived in before, across the region. In fact, the word «hotel» is mentioned 68 times in the book, but he also refers to other, former adventurers descriptions of hotels and travels. Why? Interestingly, Mikkelsen also hints that the travels he didn’t undertake, might have been the strongest ones. A trip to the Ramses statue he didn’t take, or a long, calm train ride, which was replaced by an airplane. The title, Arabisk høst (Arab fall) is a reference to Stig Dagerman’s book Tysk host (German fall), when Europe lay in ruins.
Many of the places in the Middle East he had only read about, before visiting them later: «When you travel in your imagination, you can keep the atmosphere of the journey, hang on to your own world. That’s also an important part of the journey. You can travel for many reasons, but I think a lot of people are disappointed by reality. But the meeting-point between reality and imagination is interesting! Many good books have been written by people who never visited the place they were writing about. Although I’ve been traveling as a journalists, I also want to open up other rooms.»
One of these rooms is his many descriptions of shoes in his letters. Abandoned, nice shoes in an empty garden – should he take them with him? Shoes after a massacre in a soccer field. Children’s shoes after a bomb strike. Shoes with no owners. Continuous descriptions of shoes’ colours and fabrics – the word «shoe» is mentioned a total of 48 times in the book. «I wasn’t aware of that! Shoes are a symbol of the Middle East, and shoes without owners is a strong symbol of death. Streets with children without shoes is a symbol. Maybe I’m particularly interested in shoes, because my grandparents ran a shoe shop in Tønsberg…»
The truth. I change the conversation by asking about all the lies involved in power politics in the Middle East, whether he knows Hannah Arendt’s theory on totalitarianism, a total system of lies – connected to the wish to have honesty and truth. He replies: «What is truth, really? I think there is more and more noise, and less and less truth. But this applies to Europe and the U.S. as well. One of the most painful things is that there is less and less common understanding of a fact. And that makes it more and more difficult to build a coherent society. To me, not only the Middle East has become a harder place to be, but Europe as well. I have returned to a changed continent.»