Ahmed Rashid Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of Militant Islam: Conversation with Ahmed Rashid, author and journalist: 3/26/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Journalist in Central Asia

I'm curious, with this background, why did you choose journalism?

Well, it was by accident in many respects. I was already interested in ethnicity, and the ethnic groups in Pakistan. I had never did a Ph.D. or anything like that, but I used to read and study a lot. And by chance, I was in Kabul when the first coup took place, the Communist coup in April of 1978. I came back to Pakistan and I wrote a few pieces for Pakistani newspapers about what was going on. And then I was in Kabul when the Russians came in. I went back to London, and I was with several photographers who had pictures of the Soviet invasion, but didn't have the stories to go with the pictures, and they wanted to sell them to the British press. So they asked me to write a few stories. I knew everyone in Kabul; I knew they had gone Communist, I had met the Soviets, purely out of curiosity and interest rather than journalism. So I started writing.

I stayed on in London for about three years, actually, and I was snapped up by everyone, because at that time, it was a huge story, of course -- the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- but nobody really knew what the hell was going on. So I brought a kind of expertise, and I knew who all the players were. There was a lot of factionalism going on at that time, and I knew which faction was trying to do what. So I started writing very extensively for the British press, the Financial Times, The Guardian, some of these Middle East magazines.

I moved back to Pakistan in '82, and got married. And then we both moved back, and I started doing full-time journalism.

Let's talk a minute about journalism. Is it hard for you to write? Does writing come easily to you?

The day-to-day journalism that I do comes pretty easily. Some of the longer pieces, the essays that I do or the analyses that I do, that takes more of an effort. And, certainly, writing books takes a great deal of effort. It's extremely difficult in this profession; to write a book is very different from writing an 800-word story. You've got to discipline yourself, you have to do the daily story, which is something completely different, but then at the same time, perhaps you're writing a book or writing a long essay, which requires silence and time, and thinking and reading and looking at your notes and things like that. So, it's two very different things.

I notice that history is a subject that you find very important as you unravel these current events. Tell us about navigating between research that you might do in a library versus on-the-spot reporting.

My first book came out in '94. It was called A Resurgence of Central Asia. It was the first book on Central Asia to come out after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I had been traveling to Central Asia; I had no clue of the history. There was very little at that time in English on Central Asia. You had this whole Soviet school in America and all over, but nobody covered Central Asia. I didn't speak Russian or any of the local languages. I was having to read books from the twenties and thirties and forties that I got in second-hand book shops. I started reading very extensively on history then.

But I'm fascinated with all academic disciplines. I read anthropology, I read history, I read economics. And I try to have a multidisciplinary approach in my books, where I'm looking at social and economic and cultural issues along with the politics and the investigative journalism side, so that it gives you more depth, a greater richness, and adds to the unfolding of these dramas, if you like.

Next page: Islam in Central Asia: Soviet Legacy

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