The Washington Post will soon have 30 foreign correspondents in more than 20 locations outside of the United States. This year they’ve tackled delicate and complex topics including the refugee crisis and the never-ending political drama of life in Brexit Britain. Sure, reporters are used to asking the tough questions, but what happens when they find themselves on the receiving end?
Whether it’s about President Trump or their personal lives — here are a few of the unusual questions our correspondents have faced this year:
“Why has the world abandoned us?”
Covering Syria, I don’t get crazy or funny questions, only sad ones. Invariably, they take one of two forms. As the years have dragged on and the world has turned away from the suffering in Syria, more and more people whose stories I seek out ask me: “If I talk to you, will it make a difference? Will anyone care?” And I have to be honest and say I really don’t know.
The other question comes at the end of an interview. “Can I ask you a question?” they say.
I always know what’s coming next — “Why has the world abandoned us?”
I do my best to explain that, although it is true that the international community has done very little to help Syria, some people do care, that as journalists we care, and we hope through continuing to tell the stories of Syria we will at least ensure that Syria isn’t entirely forgotten. But it always makes me sad, because they are right, and I don’t even feel convinced myself. — Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief
“Where is your husband?”
One disconcerting question I have frequently been asked while reporting in South Asia and Muslim-majority countries (so often that it no longer seems weird) is some version of the following: “Are you married? Where is your husband? Are you traveling alone? Why? Do you have children? How many children do you have? How many sons do you have?”
The question is asked in a variety of tones, ranging from polite and sympathetic to suspicious and impertinent. It is asked by people I am interviewing or complete strangers I encounter. It is asked with a variety of apparent motives, from mere curiosity about foreign customs, to bewildered astonishment at meeting a woman who travels and works alone, to an occasional spark of interest. Basically, it is an effort to place me, to assign me a familiar or recognized slot in the social hierarchy or customs of their world.
In conservative Muslim-majority countries such as Afghanistan and in much of Pakistan, virtually all adult women (as well as many older teenagers) are married and have children. It is socially abnormal for them to remain single by choice. A childless wife is assumed to be unable to conceive and is considered an object of pity. An unmarried woman is seen as a potential source of temptation, and a widowed woman is often pressured to marry a brother or cousin of her husband. Women who flee from abusive husbands are often held in shelters which they are not allowed to leave, because their being “loose” can bring trouble.
I have experimented with a variety of answers, depending on who is asking and what the circumstances are. Generally I try to change the subject or to be as vague as possible without raising more questions. Often I simply say, “My family is home in the U.S.” and try to get back to whatever we were discussing. Sometimes I say I was married in the past, which at least suggests I have had a “normal” life. Sometimes I say I never had children because I was always traveling, which is not untrue, but that I have adopted many cats and dogs. This usually makes people laugh and breaks the ice. — Pamela Constable, Kabul bureau chief
“Do you think you and me will be fighting each other?”
I was out at the Brexit Betrayal rally in London on Sunday, a nice December walk, plenty of tourists out and about, from the Dorchester hotel, past Westminster Abby, to 10 Downing Street. The march was called by the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which is a right-wing populist movement, and was a real force behind Brexit in June 2016. UKIP today is in disarray, more extreme, and now allied with Tommy Robinson, a felon and fierce anti-Muslim campaigner who founded the English Defense League, and so the folks at the rally were the die-hards.
I chatted up Declan Cummins, a London truck driver. When I introduced myself as a reporter with The Washington Post, he responded, as many people do these days, with “fake news!” But he was friendly.
Cummins suggested to me that the European Union was organizing its own supranational army, in support of one-world, globalist agenda, “an E.U. army under Brussels control, where our boys will soon be on the front-lines in Europe.”
Then his question: “Do you think you and me will be fighting each other?”
I asked, “Who?”
“America and Britain,” he said.
“In a war?” I asked.
Yes, he said, followed by a discourse on Trump being deposed by radical Democrats. A lot about Hillary and Blair. I add this to our list of odd questions, because this is a typical one, of the things banging around people’s heads because of the Internet. — William Booth, London bureau chief
“Why is Washington so chaotic right now?”
As questions go, it was standard fare for Washington Post journalists working abroad: Why is Washington so chaotic right now? But the location — in front of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s tomb — and the questioner — a self-described Italian fascist who threw a crisp, stiff-armed salute in Mussolini’s direction — were a little more unusual.
It turned out that Antonino Monti, 64, whom I went on to quote in a report about an attempt to build a new museum of fascism, actually had a pretty decent understanding of American politics, since he works at the Sigonella Air Base in Sicily alongside a lot of Americans, he said. Monti comes to visit Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace, at least four times a year, he told me. And while Italians are accustomed to political turmoil at home, many appear to be more surprised at what’s happening in Washington.
Monti asked why Trump and congressional Republicans couldn’t work together to pass more laws, since Republicans were in control. (He had some theories.) He asked whether Trump would win reelection. (Anybody’s guess, I said back in January.) And at the end of our conversation, he asked his daughter — who was holding the family’s Chihuahua on a leash — to snap a photo of the two of us in front of Mussolini’s crypt. — Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief