By: Joe Strupp
Hannah Allam, the 27-year-old Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau chief who has received praise for building that chain’s largest foreign bureau into a major force for Iraq War coverage, plans to leave the country in September after more than two years there.
Her next stop will be Cairo, where she will open a new Knight Ridder bureau in January 2006 and cover news throughout the Middle East.
“I’m going to have to start again from scratch in Cairo, it is my dream job definitely,” Allam told E&P via cell phone this week. “Iraq will still have a bureau and Jerusalem will have one and we will all cover it all.”
Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder’s Washington editor, confirmed the reassignment, saying “Hannah has done a spectacular job and she will be moving to Cairo so she can apply those great reporting skills to much of the rest of the Middle East.” He said a successor will be named, but has yet to be chosen.
Allam, who first covered Iraq two years ago as a temporary Knight Ridder correspondent, became bureau chief in late 2003. She has since built the 16-person office up into Knight Ridder’s largest non-Washington outpost. The bureau has received praise from journalists both in and out of the newspaper chain, while Allam has gained a reputation for being outspoken on matters of reporter safety.
Just last week, she responded sharply to a column by St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Mark Yost, which claimed reporters were not giving a full picture of life in Iraq, especially positive news.
The Baghdad bureau, which has been housed in seven rooms on the top floor of a hotel, has seen its share of tragedy in recent weeks. On June 24, stringer Yasser Salihee was killed on his day off, while the assassination on Tuesday of Miijbil Issa, a member of the Iraq Constitutional Convention, affected the bureau because he was a favored source.
“He is my third source in a month to be killed,” Allam said. “Will it ever stop? Every day they are dying.”
Allam, an Oklahoma native whose father is from Egypt, said she has strong ties to Iraq through her Middle Eastern heritage and has enjoyed her time there. But she said the increased danger has made the assignment more frightening, as well as harder to complete.
“I still love this place, but I don’t love the conditions I have to work in,” Allam said. “I think I have tried to do all I could. I don’t really have a life outside of work here.”
Allam stressed the increased dangers that have changed the reporting situation in the past two years. “When I first started, there was a real collegial press corp,” she explained. “We knew Iraq was dangerous, but not for us. In the old days, we could travel, the coverage could be comprehensive and complete and you could have a life. Go out to karaoke at night or to parties.”
But, in the past few months, Allam said the atmosphere had dramatically changed for journalists. “It suddenly came that you couldn’t travel,” she said. “You begin to wonder if you can give your readers a full picture. It is extremely difficult and not as much fun.”
Allam cited a story she wrote on Monday that appeared in many papers on Tuesday about life in Al-Musaiyb, the site of a deadly suicide bomb explosion last Saturday that killed nearly 100 people. The story, a scoop of sorts, came about after Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi called and invited her to travel with him to the area.
“I am so desperate to get out of Baghdad and this was a great story, but [the destination] was also one of the top five targets in the country,” she said of Al-Musaiyb. “I went for it but it was scary. It reminded me of how much we miss by not being able to go out there. I don’t see it getting easier.”
But Allam admitted that she is also drawn to Cairo, where her father still lives and where she can take up the challenge of building a new bureau and tackling broader news subjects. “I still have extended family there and I have never lived there, although I have gone back and forth,” she said of Cairo. “Baghdad is similar to Cairo in a lot of ways, it is an old, historic capital. I will be able to travel more and report, but not under the threat of constant gunfire. It is obviously a lot more stable.”
Still, the bureau chief admits that she is so connected to Baghdad’s people and issues, thoughts of leaving remain bittersweet. “The other day, I was trying to imagine what it was going to be like going to sleep in my last night in Baghdad,” she said, adding that it will be nice to live in an apartment instead of a hotel. “Going from a big, bustling staff and constant adrenaline rush to a bureau where I will be all alone.”