War Stories: A Reporter's Education In The Mideast Megan Stack hadn't planned on becoming a war correspondent. But then Sept. 11 happened, and she found herself in the Middle East — the beginning of a seven-year stint of wartime reporting. In Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, Stack reflects on the experience of reporting from war-torn countries.

War Stories: A Reporter's Education In The Mideast

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As a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Megan Stack made several trips to what she describes as Yemen's untamed mountains and deserts clinging to the tip of the Saudi peninsula. What she found is a country that is nearly impenetrable.

MEGAN STACK: And it was particularly daunting because there was a war going on. There has been a war going on, a rebellion, for years now. It is virtually unreported on. And that is because the Yemeni government has done such an effective job of shutting down all access to that part of the country.

MONTAGNE: Introduce us to somebody that you introduced us to in this story, a fellow by the name of Faris.


MONTAGNE: He's an aide and friend to the president, as you describe him. He's the owner of an English-language newspaper. Tell us a little about what he's like, but also what people said about him.

STACK: And if you wanted to write sort of feature stories in Yemen, he was great, because he was a source of a lot of information. But it was clear to me that he was also serving a certain function in blocking information and kind of making sure that you stayed busy with what you wanted you to stay busy. So he sort of took me out to dinner at a great Yemeni restaurant, drove me through the city to see this astoundingly beautiful Yemeni architecture.

MONTAGNE: But when you put to him that you wanted to go to this area that you were really interested in, which you considered the news...

STACK: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...and that was this area where these Houthi rebels were conducting part of the civil war there, what was his reaction?

STACK: Well, he just said, very flatly, you can't go. And I said, what do you mean, I can't go? He said, well, you can't go. You'll never get there. Nobody can go. And he was just very adamant, very strident and just shut down the entire conversation.

MONTAGNE: So Faris, in a way, is the most charming face of what you're talking about, which is a curtain is drawn over whatever's happening in Yemen.

STACK: One of the Yemeni officials that I interviewed told me that U.S. officials were able to sit in on interrogation sessions in Yemeni prisons, and I was very interested in that - what that meant.

MONTAGNE: But were you ever able to confirm that?

STACK: No, I mean not at all. I know that the U.S. did have access to those interrogations and they did have access to the prisons in Yemen. But whatever it was, I feel that it was hidden from our view, and it was not something that we were really able to get.

MONTAGNE: At the very end of your story on Yemen, you have some poetry. And it is a bit of an amazing moment, because the reason that you're out in the countryside listening to poetry is that you're with a poet whose assignment, if you will, from the government is to encourage people to pen verses scornful of terrorism.

STACK: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: But what you'll find when you get there - and they start actually reciting the poems that come from the heart - is something quite different than what in theory was going to happen. I mean, read us one poem you say one man rose to recite.

STACK: He said: The more we try to be Muslim, the more American they try to make us. Our literary teaching and great heritage have been invaded by the West. They drove us crazy, talking about the freedom of women. They want to drive her to evil. They ask the woman to remove the hijab and replace it with trousers, to show their bodies. Now people who do their village rituals are accused of being extremists. Even the music is now brought in instead of listening to good, traditional music. Now people are kissing each other on television.

MONTAGNE: Now, that is what they were really thinking.

STACK: Right. Sure.

MONTAGNE: What does that mean then? I mean, what does that say about, in this case, Yemen, for instance, and the ability of the government or the West to try and change the ideas there? For better or for worse, it doesn't seem to be working, from your experience.

STACK: I mean, of course, people are people, but they have different ideas about things. That is something that's going to remain and that the U.S. is going to have to work around, or accept, or find a way to make peace with.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

STACK: Thank you so much for having me.


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