Jihan Hafiz of Necia Media Collective 🌎
When our co-founder, Mari, asks to me get in touch with members of Necia Media Collective who’s work resonates with me or I find interesting, I rush to their website and find Jihan Hafiz, an award-winning journalist who’s been covering some of the most important revolutions and revolts in countries such as Egypt, Israel, Gaza, Syria and Palestine for the last 8 years. Writing, producing, shooting and editing all of her documentaries and segments there are reels and reels of Jihan's brilliant analysis of the foreign policy that caused US involvement in the Middle East, the instability and corruption of the region as well as personal stories of being arrested and of losing close friends and colleagues to the violence and wars that have erupted in last decade.
Because her contact information is unavailable online, I request it from Necia Media’s founder, Jessica Diaz, who’s interview with Mari you can read here and who happily obliges. I send Jihan a preliminary email introducing myself and La Liga, knowing that because she’s based in Brazil and travels quite often, it could be weeks before she will get back to me. No one is more surprised than me when, the next morning, I see her reply, graciously accepting my interview request and wanting to talk via skype as soon as possible. We set a date for early Sunday morning because of the 8 hour time difference between us and agree it will be more of a conversational, dialogue between us rather than a traditional interview.
With a backdrop of chirping birds and rude neighbors cutting grass at 8am, what follows is a loose transcription of our conversation where we explore how Jihan got her start, what it's like to be a woman of color in media, and our shared experience as immigrants.
Mia Rodriguez: I was actually wondering if we could start with you telling me more about yourself and your background. Y'know, everything that I’ve found on the internet is related to your life and work now that you’re established but I want to know more about your childhood, how you got involved with politics and journalism, where were you born, what’s your ethnic background, etc.
Jihan Hafiz: Definitely. Well, I was born in California, actually. Northern California. My family left shortly after my little brother was born, my youngest brother; he was born in D.C. I have no recollection of California, though, we left when I was like one or two years old and I haven’t been back since. We went to Egypt in the 90s and I grew up there. I came back to the states when I was 12 or 13 because my mother wanted us to have an education and to be “American,” whatever. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant in the states…
MR: Of course.
JH: It’s very unfriendly. Growing up in Egypt was a completely different experience, culturally, traditionally, religiously, the language; it’s just a very different environment. And I come from a mixed family: my father is Egyptian and my mother is Polynesian. My mom not being an Arab and not being a Muslim, too, was kind of contentious for my dad’s family, growing up in Egypt where the mother raises you and so on and so forth. I grew up in a Catholic and Muslim household. I knew about Islam, I went to a Catholic school; there was never a question about my identity at all. It was never a question about what your ethnicity was, or what color your skin was or your hair was, so I grew up never really knowing about race. I knew about sexism because that’s a given: boys here, girls there. I thought that that’s how life was. And we were living in a middle-class neighborhood in Egypt, too; my dad was working, making good money. Me and my sister were going to a private school so we were doing well. And then we came to the States and we went immediately into poverty.
So I found you become nothing in the States when you return from your origin, even though you are born in the U.S. We relied on government assistance, so you’re sort of bottled immediately into “this is who you all are.” And people are so confused by people like us. There were always insults about why we spoke English properly, about the way we look. Things I grew up loving and embracing and seeing as normal, I had to defend and be ashamed of. I went to a white school – our mom put us in a white school – racist as hell. They considered everyone that wasn’t white ESL students. So immediately when I came to the States, I felt different from America. Even my parents were like, “be American, you’re here to be American, embrace American life," while sticking to the cultural norms of our parents. But I felt the U.S. hated us! How can you be something that you’re completely rejected from?
MR: It’s interesting how that happens, how that’s such a common immigrant experience. Sometimes, back in your home country, you’re doing ok, you’re able to sustain yourself and even own your home or own land and then you come to the States and you’re thrown into some of the lowest income level, socio-economic neighborhoods in the city you settle into and you feel trapped. People reject you, they don’t accept your assistance programs, they ban you from their neighborhoods or stores, you’re marginalized and trapped in neighborhoods that the city doesn’t care about or maintain because poor people of color makeup the community; the immigrant experience can be so traumatizing.
JH: When 9/11 happened, just as we were beginning to be accepted to some degree, we suddenly became terrorists. No speaking Arabic, no talking about Islam, and the mosque we were going to was targeted by the FBI, in Virginia. So I got involved with protests when I was 13, Me and my sister were protesting against the war and invasion in Iraq, Islamaphobia, racism, xenophobia toward Arab people, and at this time, people were getting the shit beat out of them when they protested. I began to take a little handicam with me that my dad got for me for Christmas one year because I liked to take photos. I started filming the protests, posting them online on YouTube, so then I found myself in a place of “I have to document this in case someone gets beaten by the police.” I was getting arrested in New York when I was 16 or 17, mainly for protesting against the war, very pro-Palestine, and so on. The white school I went to, they were like “since you’re gonna be a failure in life and end up working at McDonald’s, you need to go to a career center instead of college, where you can learn a craft.” Which was a blessing actually, because there I was exposed to a television production course and after my mom put me in the Connecticut School of Broadcasting – another trade school – where I could learn how to do radio, news and televisions. My professor was looking to hire an on-camera reporter at this international TV station and he asked me if I was interested. I was beyond myself, I was 21, I couldn’t believe it, I told him for sure I’d do it. So then I was working for an international Iranian station; it was broadcasting in the States. From there I went to work for RT and then the Egyptian revolution happened. I had a comfortable job, I was an anchor on television, I was 23, my family was incredibly proud, my mom and dad came from nothing to seeing me on TV, but my passion was in Egypt because I grew up there, in a police state, my father and many family members have a series of torture/intimidation stories. In my reporting, I was always focusing on Egypt. The second day the revolution kicked off, I went to Egypt to meet my partner and we covered the 18 days, start to finish, which was one of the most incredible experiences in my life, to witness a revolution of my people, a place where I grew up and was familiar with. People thought they couldn’t do it but to watch them fight with such veracity and power was a really beautiful experience. Eventually I became involved too, and after Egypt we crossed the border in Libya – we were some of the first journalists there to report on the revolution’s early days to the war. From there, I went on to cover the Gaza War, I covered the peace treaty of 2012 in Syria from the Turkish border when the war started.
MR: How and why did you end up in Brazil, then?
JH: I came to Brazil after years of covering the Middle East because I needed change. I was 26, I had worked nonstop until that moment; I never had a college life, out with friends, being young, I never had that. So I came to Brazil to be far away from it, because, what happens in Brazil? Nothing. I imagined life as a nonstop party: they’re happy and they’re beautiful. That’s what I thought. But there is extreme oppression here in Brazil, where I’m living, in Salvador de Bahia, which is the blackest capital in the whole country, in all of the Western Hemisphere. There was and is extreme police violence toward the Black population here. The same extreme I saw in Egypt, where I consider the police the most violent and disgusting. And then Ferguson happened, and you started to see how connected we all are, there is life in rebellion. For people in Mexico, in Greece, in Egypt. That’s the power that we have as reporters. Western reporters can get the story, but maybe not always the way we can. The closer you stay to who you are and where you come from in your roots, the more connected you can be to the people you’re trying to relate to.
MR: I feel like most of your stories are about women, or focus on women and women’s place in the revolution, in the war. It seems like making sure the public is aware of the community and strength of women within a country in conflict is a priority for you.
JH: I grew up in a gender-based society, in Egypt. I was always surrounded by women so I always saw things from a woman’s perspective. When I was covering the revolution in Egypt, I couldn’t believe how women were fighting, breaking off rocks to make weapons, filling up bottles to make Molotov cocktails --women were really badass. Medics, doctors, volunteers, fighters, it was amazing what they were doing. And revolution is revolution, but wherever I went, they were much more important than the men and yet got no credit for it. Being a woman in Egypt is one of the most difficult places to be a woman, next to India, because of the high levels of violence you face, sexual harassment, molestation, assault, they have no voices. So on top of the revolution, we’re fighting men, the male species in this country. My focus has always been that, like in the war in Libya where the women weren’t always on the frontline but they were back home making and sending food to the soldiers, hiding black servants because they were being persecuted at that time. There are a lot of things you can’t know unless you ask a woman. A man can’t ask a Muslim woman anything, making eye contact is difficult enough. So the leverage I had was tremendous and I really respected that.
MR: And the more they trust you, with personal information and their stories.
JH: It’s all about trust. If you can’t see yourself in the position of the mother whose child was killed in an airstrike in Syria, if you can’t see yourself in the position of a parent who’s working as a domestic worker, not speaking English, making shitty wages, being completely exploited, then I feel you are lost. If you can’t connect your own personal experience of being exploited, understanding the imposition of the oppressed, then you’re not doing your job as a journalist, at least in this world, where things are so exploited even in our own industry. Everyone falls into it after a while, you begin to feel less human because they treat you less human. It’s possible to take on the vulture personification, and that’s why we have things like Necia or La Liga, to stay as close to being human as possible and feeling that there is a community of people who are doing the same kind of work, who are encouraging each other, supporting each other.
MR: What was one of the most powerful stories you heard from women during your time there?
JH: There were a number of violent rapes one year in Egypt, in Tahir Square. And women were being assaulted every day, being groped on the bus, harassed, miserable things that made you want to hide your beauty and femininity. There was a strong sense we only had with other women. I recall going to protests and distinctly looking for other women around me. Women began to realize they needed to organize and arm themselves. It was such a powerful time for women in Egypt, having them recognize their bodies as weapons, by arming themselves, taking self-defense classes, walking around in gangs. I was living in a communal journalist home, a number of women journalists, both Egyptian and foreigners, had been living there and had been assaulted, and one night we started confessing all the horrible things that had happened to us and we decided if it meant being armed, we would attack men who attack us. We called it “gender wars,” because it was really a gender war, what we were facing.
MR: In the same way you face the potential of negative of attention and potential for violence in your reporting, have you ever faced that within the industry? Do they accept you, the industry and these media outlets, as a radical woman of color who’s being openly critical of the government?
JH: It was difficult, because when I started I was 21 and I used to fake my age because no one takes a young person seriously. Even with my background, as a protester and covering activism, I had to lie about my age and hide being radical. I had to pretend to be impartial to fit into that world because there really was a structure that was dominated by white reporting. People thought I was an intern or PA when I would cover a Congressional hearing, when I was a journalist! My (male) partner and I were covering a story once for a “progressive” network, whatever that means, completely run by a white structure. They were going to send one of us to the Middle East but because of security but because of reasons, they could only send one of us. My name is an Arabic name, I speak Arabic, I’ve been covering this region since I was 15, I grew up in that world, but they wanted to send him. I couldn’t believe it. Why? Because he has a college degree? Because he’s 10 years older than me? Because he’s white? Why do you see his abilities to report more suitable than mine? Then I thought ‘what would these white people know about our suffering?’ I was furious about it. In the end, they sent me.
MR: And the way they justify sending white reporters, specifically white men is because these are the people that are going to continue to enforce white supremacy, they’re going to continue to report from a narrative and a point of view that’s going to have white supremacy and U.S.- centric and U.S. favorable ideas in their writings. And they just don’t feel comfortable having a point of view or a critique from someone that they perceive, because we have brown skin and non-western names, as not “real” Americans. You’re always a second-class citizen.
JH: Now it’s different, they see people of color coming up in the world because the population is changing, we are the majority, we’re becoming the majority: you have to accept it. And over time, you bond with people, you bond with these communities, so you have their support, leaning on other reporters to tell you that they’re underpaying you, they’re exploiting you. The reality is, as long as your name is what it is, your identity is what it is, they’re always going to consider you a local, pay you a local currency, treat you as a local not as an international journalist. It’s just the way media works, how do you fight it? You’re a part of it. You have to blend somehow, there are areas where you concede. I’m still learning how to deal with it, how to hold on to my passion to do the stories I want.
MR: It’s interesting that you mention how its difficult to be seen as an “international” figure by the media outlets you work for and by the public. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you’re a brown, woman journalist and not a white, male journalist. It almost seems to reinforce the idea that the white race is somehow more globally accepted and mutable than someone who very clearly belongs to a single ethnic group. I feel like, as brown women, we are often kept in “brown women” boxes and they only see us as being able to cover things that affect brown women, specifically. But brown women are so global. We’re everywhere. And the roles we play are so diverse in every different culture we encompass. What are your thoughts on the way our identities are so limited in the minds of White American media?
JH: I wish I had figured that out myself. My interpretation of why media corporations choose white reporters is because of they believe they have more credibility. Perhaps they assume they’re better educated, they’re more trustworthy because they look like them. They see white faces as – well, first, their lives matter more than ours, according to the media. They’re the highest in the totem pole of human. Look up online, “famous reporters” and look up their demographics, where are they from? What’s their nationality? White men. White women are making it now and it’s passed off as “look, women are breaking the norm.” But that has to do with gender, not with race or ethnicity. I know for all women, it’s been extremely difficult for them to be taken seriously, because they think that we’re skewing things. A lot of it might have to do with the fact that we come from these places so we’re coded as being biased. But isn’t that the minority narrative? In the same way they have their narrative, we have our own narrative that focuses on our side
MR: I saw your documentary, “Son of War” about your friend, colleague and photojournalist Ahmed Deeb and the article you wrote about the death of your close friend Ali Mustafa who died while reporting in Syria. In both, you called out the industry and media outlets who hire you and use your photos, use your stories, use your videos, but don’t care about your welfare, don’t pay you fair wages for the dangerous work you do, don’t pay you on time, and basically don’t care about you at all. I liked that your voiced your distrust of the media, because I think that people, the people who’s stories we often want to tell, feel that way about them, about us, as well. Knowing how exploitative and disposable we are to the media ourselves, is it hard for you to reconcile trying to convince the people that you talk to that they can trust you, when you can’t even trust the people who hired you? Even though you want to believe that the work that you do will give people more faith in reporters and journalists, convincing them that you’re all there to help them and tell their stories and bring attention to their cause, how do you do that knowing that the corporations you’re working for are white, rich people?
JH: Everything you’re saying, I was grappling with myself. When I did Ahmed’s story, I did it out of anger and frustration and distrust. It took me two years to make, it was an ongoing process, but when it finally came out, a lot of people contacted Ahmed, thanking him for what he does and saying they didn’t know this was happening. “Journalist” used to be a word that meant trust and honor, considered a public service, an important contribution to society. Now you say you’re a journalist and it’s like “oh you’re a scavenger, vulture, you steal things, you run away with people’s lives and souls.” And you often hear “I don’t trust journalists,” to which I reply, “I don’t trust them either.” And your work is your credentials. You don’t need a press ID, you tell them, “look up my name online, I hide nothing from you, we bare similarities.” And they can trust you more because they believe you. It’s the biggest struggle, I think, for a journalist.
MR: Since we’re on the topic of journalism and the politics of journalism, I saw the video where you were interviewed by The Real News about your arrest in 2013 in Israel; you were held for days, not allowed to contact anyone, strip-searched, had all of your equipment and footage seized, and eventually deported back to the U.S. You said in the interview that the reason why this happened was because, to the Israeli government, “journalism is activism.” My question is, do you think journalism is activism? Do you see what you do, what we do, as a form of activism?
JH: I do think journalism can be or is activism, it depends on the person writing. I believe part of what I do is activism. I detest police violence and I’m going to expose it the best I can. I hate the regime in Egypt, I am 100% against the military regime, even though I have young cousins forced to be conscript soldiers in it. I can’t stand the military, so all of my reporting will be against them. I’m not objective about that. The U.S. government is notorious for doing shitty things that require exposing too, it’s required everywhere there is inequalities and violence. I think the most important journalism is activism.
MR: Yeah. At it’s best, journalism is activism.
JH: The best form of journalism is the one that includes activism. And the truth is: media pushes policy. They push white supremacy, they push U.S. imperialism, creating the mentality and narrative people believe in. Our job is to counter it.
MR: Exactly. Thank you so much for your time, Jihan, I know you have to go. It was so lovely and inspiring to speak with you. It’s hard to talk about these things, and these are the conversations that happen and aren’t reported on. They see us writing our articles and putting our new material, but they never see how frustrated we are, how frustrating it can be to get them out or to feel like we have a voice or we have someone that can publish it or that someone is going to care. Your words have really filled me with courage this morning.I honestly thought it was going to take you months to get back to me. I thought you were gonna take one look at my email and put in the trash folder.
JH: Never. But it’s definitely important to keep connecting to other journalists and reporters, especially who are on the same page. It’s really good for me, to be connecting with you, with people who understand me and I know are out there, it’s great. It was so wonderful talking to you. I never talk about my life as a journalist, either. I’m always asking questions. It’s good for me to have this conversation just to have the conversation, to hear your feelings, your experiences.
MR: Thank you for all your advice and your time, I feel so healed.
JH: Thank you! Big hug!