At the Crossroads of the World, a Radio Reporter

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NPR's Ivan Watson is based in Istanbul, Turkey, where he reports on locations as disparate as Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, telling stories that vary from the struggles of Iraqi Kurds to the auction of World War II Nazi tanks in Bulgaria.

ALISON STEWART, host:

NPR has 18 foreign bureaus around the world. Places like Shanghai, Rio, Rome, Cairo. But there's one bureau that has a unique distinction, its location. Istanbul sits at the crossroads of East and West, nestled between the emerging states of Eastern Europe, the war zones of Iraq, and the eastern-most reaches of Western Europe. This is NPR foreign correspondent Ivan Watson's beat.

Based in Istanbul, Turkey, he explores central Asia and the Middle East, telling stories that vary from the struggle of Iraqi Kurds to the auction of World War II Nazi tanks in Bulgaria. On his way back to Istanbul, he dropped by the New York bureau to offer this Reporter's Notebook, and let us turn the tables on him. The interviewer became interviewee.

Ivan, when you're in a situation like that, where you're in Istanbul, where every place you look, there's something exotic and beautiful and intriguing, do you have to put on your brakes for yourself? Because everywhere you look, there's probably a story. What criteria have you set up for yourself in terms of, OK, this is a story I will pitch?

IVAN WATSON: That's a good question. Usually, you look for a little hook or something that fascinates you. And, I don't know, I think maybe one of the problems is I tend to lean away sometimes from hard news-type stories, and I go for things that just are purely interesting, and that I get really enthusiastic about.

There was one day, maybe a year ago, and I was kind of in between projects, and I was looking out my window. And I saw these dolphins swimming on the Bosporus Strait that goes through Istanbul, and said, wow! You know, this is a city of 12 million people, and there's a bunch of dolphins swimming through the middle, in a filthy body of water with lots of boats.

And we just kind of pursued it, and it was great. And, I don't know, I mean, maybe they're not the kind of stories that are grabbing headlines, but they're fascinating and they show a side of life in another - in a far-off part of the world. I don't know. They're the stories I love to do.

STEWART: Well, there's one such story you reported recently about a Turkish singer...

WATSON: Right.

STEWART: Who's also a political activist, who is also...

WATSON: A transsexual.

STEWART: Well, there you go. That's a man-bites-dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: Well, you know...

STEWART: When you see a story.

WATSON: Exactly. I mean, the reason I kind of jumped on that one - the singer's name is Bulent Ersoy - and she's not so much a political activist as just someone who gets into the tabloids a lot, because she is one of the judges on the Turkish version of "American Idol." And you know, she married one of the contestants, who was kind of 20 years younger than her.

But she created a scandal at the height of Turkey's military incursion into northern Iraq when, in the middle of the show, she kind of went off and said - questioned the legitimacy of the invasion. And, just, people went crazy, because Turkey is a very patriotic, very nationalistic country, and questioning the military is very, very taboo. But this woman has a history of it. She was banned from performing on stage when she underwent - after she underwent her sex-change operation.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to a little bit of your report.

(Soundbite of Reporter's Notebook)

WATSON: More recently, the transsexual diva became fodder for the local tabloids when she married, and then divorced, a much younger man, who was a contestant on the Turkish version of "American Idol." Ersoy appears as a judge on that program. And it was on that show last month, at the height of the Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq, that Ersoy suddenly became the country's most vocal war critic.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Ms. BULENT ERSOY (Turkish Singer): (Turkish spoken)

WATSON: Seated in front of a giant digital Turkish flag and dressed in a frilly white gown, the raven-haired singer challenged the Turkish army operation.

Ms. ERSOY: (Through Translator) This is not a normal war. I'm not a mother, but if I could give birth, I wouldn't sacrifice my child for this conflict.

STEWART: Now, is this the kind of story that everyone in every household was talking about?

WATSON: Yes. And I thought it revealed a couple things about Turkey, which is a country that's hard to categorize. You know, we hear a lot in news coming from overseas about Arab countries, about Iraq, of course, which is next door. We hear about Iran, which has ayatollahs and a nuclear program.

But we don't really know where Turkey fits in, except that it's a Muslim country. And I think it kind of shatters some stereotypes, because this country has a very famous person who is - has undergone a sex change operation, and still loved by much of the population. It reveals some of the complexities of this society.

STEWART: You were covering U.S. military operations, starting in Afghanistan, at one point. You actually landed there the morning after the first American bombs started falling on the Taliban?

WATSON: Yes, yes, yes.

STEWART: What do you remember about that day?

WATSON: It was the start of this, you know, very successful bombing campaign by the U.S. military, which, within a matter of weeks, overthrew the Taliban. And nobody expected it. Nobody predicted it. And as you would drive around the Afghan countryside, you'd see the leftovers of the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. You know, these tanks and armored personnel carriers that were lying on the side of roads, that the Afghans were using for scrap metals and to hitch their donkeys to.

And the U.S. military kind of challenged everybody's perceptions of what the conflict would be. And I never in my life expected that, you know, before Christmas, I'd be running into Kabul, and the Taliban would be fleeing. Unfortunately, you know, the situation is a lot more difficult right now. It's actually rather tragic what's happened.

STEWART: How were you received as an American reporter during that time?

WATSON: Oh, Afghans were really enthusiastic.

STEWART: They wanted to tell their stories?

WATSON: Yes, yes. They loved being photographed. Yes, I mean, they had been pretty much bombed back into the Stone Age by 25 years of war and Soviet occupation and civil war, and the fact that 9/11 happened, and suddenly, the U.S. and the entire world was looking at Afghanistan. This was viewed as a huge opportunity, and a chance, and there were really high hopes.

You know, the Afghans really welcomed the international community for a couple years, but that opportunity kind of petered out, you know. There weren't a whole lot of results on the ground. There were some fascinating elections and there were some projects, but also an awful lot of corruption and lost opportunities.

And as one very experienced reporter put it, he said that the U.S. and NATO, which is really leading the military operation there, is repeating the mistakes of the Soviets, sending more and more troops in, and relying on bombing more and more and more. And that just does not win the confidence of the population.

STEWART: Part of your job is, obviously, asking questions. What kind of questions do people you interview ask about you and ask about the United States? What are they curious about?

WATSON: How much I get paid.

STEWART: Money? Yes?

WATSON: Yes.

STEWART: The basics. It's funny.

WATSON: How much does my place cost? That's often a question.

STEWART: They seem like New Yorkers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: Do you get paid more for coming to war zones, often? You know, they figure you're doing this, kind of, for the big bucks.

STEWART: Interesting.

WATSON: Which, boy, that would be fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So the concept of truth-telling and being a conduit for people back at home, to understand their culture better, isn't really on their radar, it sounds like.

WATSON: Not always.

STEWART: That's interesting.

WATSON: You know, as societies get more and more exposed to - especially societies that have been cut off, like Iraq was, and Afghanistan. As people get more accustomed to the outsiders and to the aid workers that come in, and the governments and the military and the journalists, you know, those perceptions do tend to change. And there's sometimes some bitterness. You know, we've seen your types before, and we talk to you and nothing happens. You know, it doesn't help our lives to explain what's happened here.

STEWART: We're speaking to Ivan Watson, who has returned home to the United States. Do you still consider the United States home? Or is home somewhere else these days?

WATSON: I've been living a decade overseas, and I feel pretty out of touch. But I - yes, I'm an American, yes.

STEWART: So you made it - you've been to Afghanistan and Turkey and all of these places. But a trip to Missouri, you told me, is something that excited you.

WATSON: I never saw the Mississippi River before. I mean that was, you know...

STEWART: I think somebody needs to take a road trip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: I can get around - I can get around Mesopotamia, you know. I know the roads better than most locals, but I've never seen the Mississippi River.

STEWART: Rent you an RV. I'm telling you, that's what we need to do. Give you a gas card. Send you on your way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: It's a little sad, ten years, a decade out of the country. I'm used to parachuting into third world countries and so on. But coming back to my own country to a part of it I've never been to, it's kind of mind blowing.

STEWART: Often, we hear your Reporter's Notebooks. Do you enjoy doing them? Is that a good opportunity for you to, sort of, unload?

WATSON: Yes, it's a way to try to explain things that always get cut out of the radio scripts when you're doing kind of a news feature, or an analytical feature. Sure.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to a little bit of a recent Reporter's Notebook of yours.

(Soundbite of Reporter's Notebook)

WATSON: Not long ago, I watched a fistfight almost break out at a dinner table between an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and an Arab interpreter from Baghdad. It started when the Kurd mentioned that he'd noted down Kurdish for his nationality while filling out a hotel registration form. The Arab laughed, and said, there's no such thing as a Kurdish nation.

The Kurd looked directly at the Arab and said, quote, "Do you know why I like Israelis? Because they're so good at killing Arabs." The Arab had insulted a Kurd whose family fled chemical bombardment by Saddam Hussein's army in the 1980s. No regime has succeeded in crushing the dream of an independent Kurdistan.

STEWART: What do you think about the Kurdish population is under-reported?

WATSON: Is under-reported? I think the entire story has been under-reported for a century. As one, kind of, Kurdish rebel leader once put it, I guess back in the '70s or '80s, when the Palestinians were getting a lot of attention for their fight for an independent homeland, the Kurd said, you know, we don't get press because we only kill our enemies, you know. They go after the Iraqi government.

They didn't go for spectacular, kind of, terrorist operations in other countries and things like that. And it's a little-understood and very complicated issue, because you have these millions and millions of people scattered over four different countries without - and they're all split up in their divided factions, and it is just - it's not as cut-and-dry and as easy to understand, certainly here in the U.S.

STEWART: You've recently spoken about the press corps in this area, and Turkey being sort of a fraternity, a brotherhood, where you share ideas. And also you share resources. But also, safety is an issue as well. Can you give me an example of that?

WATSON: Well, actually, the sad thing is this kind of fraternity of reporters, that kind of work in some of the conflict zones and throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately, over the past year and a half, I've watched a lot of these people lose their jobs. But the reporters overseas have - I've often thought that they would be your first line of defense if you got in trouble, if something happened.

Whether it was your car breaking down, or getting arrested by a local, you know, warlord or police chief or something like that, that they would be the ones who would follow through and alert the right people and get in touch with everybody, more often than not, because you've got their phone number. And in some of these countries, you know, it's very hard to get through to a human being at the local U.S. embassy, or at the United Nations office, or what have you.

STEWART: If you come to the United States, the biggest story right now is the economy and the election. Do you get election news over there? Are you interested in the current presidential election?

WATSON: Yes, I love it.

STEWART: Yes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WATSON: I can't get enough. I mean, when you get American, you know, domestic news feeds overseas, it's fascinating. And that's a question I'm being asked all the time, whether I'm in, you know, Dubai or Kazakhstan, or whatever, is people asking, you know, who's going to be the next president? And then they say things like, is America really ready for a black president? Is America really ready for a woman?

I think that country's too racist for this, or too this or too that. I think it blows some of their minds when I say, I really don't know who the next president is going to be. I have no idea. I can tell you who I kind of like, or whose views I kind of like, but I have no idea what is going to happen. And in countries where everything is fixed, it's a little hard for people to grasp.

STEWART: What story is waiting for you?

WATSON: I've got to go to Jerusalem, because our reporter's leaving for Baghdad. I'm going to go to Afghanistan for a month. There's been a story I've been working on in the States, an Iraqi-American couple, that brought me back here. I'm excited to get back to Afghanistan. I've been away for about a year. And it's a fascinating country, and it's unfortunately, not doing so well. And I just want to see how these folks are coping, and if there's any kind of hope. I really hope there is a glimmer of hope there.

STEWART: Well, we wish you safe travels, Ivan Watson.

WATSON: Thank you very much.

STEWART: Thanks for coming in.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: And that's it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project. We do thank you for joining us. You can join us all the time. Find us online at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Alison Stewart.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

And I'm Rachel Martin. This is the Bryant Park Project, from NPR News.

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