She's not tired, just unhappy. "Are you kidding?" Caryle Murphy said yesterday when asked for a telephone interview from her hotel room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "I'm paid to write stories, not give interviews."
But everybody wants them. On Monday, The Washington Post foreign correspondent escaped from Kuwait City, where she had been in hiding for 26 days, sending news accounts back with people fleeing the country. At the end, she was the only Western journalist reporting the Iraqi occupation firsthand. Leaving Kuwait, she traveled hours through the desert in a convoy of nine cars, reaching the border on Monday and Riyadh on Tuesday.
"I was," she said, "just doing my job."
Unflappable, low-key, hard-working. These are the words friends and colleagues use to describe the Cairo-based reporter. Cheap is another.
Murphy's first concern -- after being out of telephone communication for weeks -- was the outrageous amount her Saudi Arabian hotel was charging for phone calls to the United States. When she finally got through to the foreign desk of The Washington Post, an editorial aide tried to transfer her call immediately to David Ignatius, the foreign editor.
"No, don't do that," Murphy told the aide. "This hotel is charging too much. Have David call me back."
When she called her relieved parents in Massachusetts, "she said she didn't have time to talk to us," said her mother, Muriel Murphy. "She had a story to file, she said, and called back four or five hours later... .
"All my children," she said, "are like this."
Raised in Brockton, Mass., Murphy is 43 and the oldest of six. Her father, Tom Murphy, is a pediatrician. The composure of their children comes from him, according to Muriel Murphy. Caryle's younger sister Kerry Burke had a second explanation, which other friends and family echo. "We've been brought up with a lot of faith, which we rely on."
On the phone, Murphy sounds at ease -- cracking self-deprecating jokes. But in television interviews yesterday with the networks, she seemed strained and uncomfortable. "She's an extremely shy person," said her mother, "and this attention is the last thing she'd want. When we told her that Newsweek wanted us to pose for them, she couldn't believe it."
Her family, friends and colleagues who saw the broadcast also thought Murphy had dyed her blond hair dark as part of some kind of escape disguise. This was very amusing to her. Perhaps embarrassing would be the right word.
"No," Murphy said, "I just haven't been to the hairdresser in a long time."
Muriel Murphy also thinks her daughter looks thin. "She's lost weight," she said, "and she didn't need to."
The particulars of her escape, and her methods for getting articles out of Kuwait, will remain a mystery, said the reporter. "I promised the people who helped me not to discuss it. Obviously, I hope to someday tell the whole story, but at this point it's still too dangerous."
"Caryle has experience in rough environments, in war situations," said close friend Robin Wright, the Los Angeles Times' national security correspondent, who has known Murphy for 15 years. They both covered the war in Angola. "She knows how to handle herself. And she works hard."
Wright saw Murphy at her post in Cairo in May. "She'd been there since October and still hadn't bought furniture for the place," she said. "When I visited, she still hadn't unpacked her boxes."
The youngest of the Murphys, Colleen, said she hasn't spoken to her sister since July. "She was bummed out then, because she'd missed the Iranian earthquake."
Murphy first joined The Post in 1976, after having worked as special correspondent in Angola. She had first gone to Africa -- to Kenya -- as a schoolteacher after graduating from Trinity College in Washington. She became interested in journalism and returned to Massachusetts to work on her hometown paper, The Enterprise, but says she was "very bored" there.
"With my savings, I went back to Africa, and to Angola," she said. When war broke out, she didn't leave. "I was in the right place at the right time," she said. Covering the war, first for Newsweek and then for The Post, Murphy was placed under house arrest in her apartment for 11 days, then was expelled by the Angolan government.
"In neither case," said Murphy of her experiences in Angola and Kuwait, "was I physically harassed or did I think I would be hurt or killed ... the worst thing I thought could happen was that I could be detained like other Americans -- which is the worst situation for a reporter."
In the late '70s, Murphy returned to Africa, reporting from Johannesburg. She returned to Washington in 1981 and joined the Post's metropolitan staff to cover suburban Virginia. While she was working, she studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins University in hopes of getting a foreign assignment.
Cairo was her first choice. "I wanted to come to the Middle East because it's a very complex place -- which I appreciate," she said. "I like getting into complex situations and then trying to simplify them for people back home."
As a child, she loved to travel. And "when she was quite a youngster," said her mother, "she said she'd write a book on Africa someday." "Caryle," said sister Kerry Burke, "was always looking for excitement in life. She was probably more daring as she got older."
Her mother worried, she said, about this foreign assignment. "The whole Middle East seems so explosive," she said. "I was hoping she'd get Paris or London, but when she got assigned to Cairo, she -- of course -- was very excited."
Last summer, knowing they wouldn't be seeing Caryle for a year or more, the Murphys threw her a family farewell party. They called it "A Celebration of a Year of Celebrations." All the year's holidays were rolled into one day. They drank champagne in the morning to celebrate New Year's, then Irish coffee for St. Patrick's Day. Everything was videotaped. Thanksgiving dinner was taped, "then we freezed the frame," said Burke, "and the table decorations were switched to Christmas."
"Caryle," she said, "was supposed to take out the videotape on each holiday and watch that particular section."
She's not planning to return to the States soon, Caryle Murphy said. She might meet her parents in Ireland next month, while they're on a long-planned holiday there, but otherwise she'd like to get back to work.
There were times yesterday when Murphy sounded like she wished that she were still there.
"It'd be great to still be there," she said of Kuwait City, "if I could go around, like I did in the early days, in a taxi, using phones without bugging equipment. But by the time I left, a Westerner could not go in the street because if recognized, you'd be picked up."
She didn't leave because she thought she was in danger but because she was confined and her contacts were limited. "I just felt the situation wasn't going to change drastically in the next few weeks," she said. "And knowing my editors, I knew they'd want me to get out and start filing again."