By: Joe Strupp
Not many new college graduates get their first taste of news coverage in war-torn Iraq. But for Bassam Sebti, a Baghdad native, that was the case in 2003 when he worked as a translator for Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll. Fresh from graduation at a Al-Turath University in Baghdad, Sebti, then 22, signed on with Carroll as a translator, putting his new English and literature degrees to use. Five years and much journalism experience later, he has just received a master’s degree ? from a U.S. college.
Although he spent just over a week with Carroll, the experience whet his appetite for news-related work and, months later, got him a job with The Washington Post. “It was by chance,” Sebti recalls of his first assignment. “I had a friend from college who graduated a year ahead of me. He called and told me there was a freelance journalist looking for an interpreter.” That freelancer was Carroll, who gained fame in 2006 after being kidnapped and detained for three months.
After the stint with Carroll, Sebti hooked up in Sept. 2003 with the Post, a job that lasted until July 2006. Starting first as a translator, he later was able to do his own reporting and writing, as well as take photos. Working with such top staffers as Jackie Spinner and Ellen Knickmeyer, among other big names, Sebti says he picked up on the reporting, writing, and other skills as much as if he were in a j-school classroom: “I was concentrating on the techniques ? how they asked questions, how they worked with sources, what they write.”
Knickmeyer, now based in Cairo, recalls Sebti as truly connected to the people about whom he wrote: “While many other people were not affected or had a harder shell, Bassam, years into the war when he saw something bad, it was kind of as if he had never seen anything that bad before ? though of course he had, lots of times. The Bassam soundtrack I have in my head is Bassam saying, ‘My God! That was horrible!'”
After a year in the translator capacity, Sebti was allowed to do some of his own reporting at about the time Baghdad became more dangerous. “I volunteered to go to the worst neighborhoods because I could blend in, hide my notebook, and that is when they started to depend on me and my Iraqi colleagues,” he says.
Sebti recalls one of the worst incidents when a car bomb blew up in 2005 in front of a water plant that had been rebuilt by the U.S. military. “When I arrived, the scene was horrible, 43 children were killed and people were crying,” he says. “One man came up to me whose brother had been killed and tried to choke me.” In another 2005 incident, Sebti drove home, steering right in between a group of insurgents firing across the road at military troops. “We were right in the middle, I really thought I was going to die,” he says.
By mid-2006, Sebti was ready to get out of the country as things worsened and his desire for more education grew. He landed in the United States in August 2006 seeking a master’s degree. Through the help of Spinner, whose sister worked at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Sebti got into its master’s program in writing studies.
In early May, he received his master’s degree. During his time on campus, he worked on a newsletter for foreign students, “The Global Hawks,” writing mostly about immigrant students, especially those from Iraq. “I edited stories about students who came to the U.S. to study, and about their backgrounds,” he says. Being able to see U.S. news coverage of Iraq from this side of the world, Sebti says print media is doing a good job, but broadcast and cable television are weak: “The TV networks need to concentrate on the human drama.”
With a master’s degree and several years of experience for the Post, Sebti would be well positioned to work full time again as a reporter ? but that may not be in the cards. “I am interested in the non-profit field, especially if it has to do with Iraqis and Iraqi refugees,” he reveals. When asked about a return to reporting, he says, “I might, but it would have to do with my region. I would not be interested in covering the news in the United States. After covering the war, it would be hard to cover American stories. They are not as powerful.”