TRUTH AND PERSPECTIVE
A Conversation with Journalist AMAR BAKSHI about His Beginnings and His Travels
By Jonathan Metzelaar
Journalism is a discipline inextricably bound with truth. Good reporting peels back the surface layer of events to reveal basic truths about how the world is currently working and why it’s currently working that way. It is through journalism’s exposition and analysis of specific events that people gain a deeper understanding of both themselves and the world as a whole.
Nobody understands this better than Amar Bakshi. A contributor at CNN, Amar is perhaps best known for his work on “How the World Sees America,” an ambitious global report that brought Amar all over the world as he interviewed dozens of people about America and its effect on their lives. Through the rare and incredible perspectives these interviews provided, people were given a glimpse into the complex and nuanced truth of many controversial issues found both in America and abroad. Mr. Bakshi was kind enough to talk with me a bit about his project and his travels.
Jonathan Metzelaar: How did you get started? What sparked your initial interest in world affairs?
Amar Bakshi: I got started in journalism by chance. When I was an undergraduate I did my senior thesis on political propaganda in Zimbabwe and it was a text and video thesis. I ended up getting jailed for a week while in Zimbabwe, because the government accused me more or less of being a spy. This was in my senior year. When it came around time to look for a job I didn’t have anything lined up, so I emailed ten people that I would have liked to work with. I didn’t have any email addresses though, so I pretty much googled them and blindly emailed addresses like firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the people I emailed was David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post. He told me I had fortuitous timing, because my international experience was very well suited for a new blog he was doing called PostGlobal, which connected 75 international journalists in an online discussion on a new issue every week. I took the job, really enjoyed it, liked David and the life he was leading, and thought it was a great thing to pursue.
JM: “How the World Sees America” is an interesting project. Where did you come up with the idea for that?
AB: After I spent the first eight months editing PostGlobal, I really wanted to hit the road again. After the jail experience, my mother said no traveling for a year. But David and Fareed Zakaria very generously agreed to fund this idea I had to travel around the world with a video camera for a year, documenting how people feel about the United States. The idea was that you could develop an online following by pursuing one line of questioning over time and space, and that through text and video you could get more across than you would with just text or just video. [Fareed and David] thought it was an interesting idea, and agreed to pick it up and support it for a year, so I got to see twelve countries in one year.
JM: What were your hopes for the project? Was it solely to give people new perspectives on certain issues?
AB: I wrapped up the project several years ago. The idea was to give people in the US a sense of why people around the world feel a certain way towards America. This was in the latter years of the Bush Administration. Approval ratings of America at the time around the world were fairly low, and I think a lot of US people were wondering, why do they hate us? What’s going on here? What’s the basis of this hostility? What I tried to show was that there are certain deeply rooted emotional reasons, based in experience, that affect how an individual or a community views the United States, and that they’re different from country to country based on America’s policies towards the given nation. Sure, big symbolic things like Guantanamo Bay are important, but so are the experiences of Filipinos living here in America, or Indian call-center employees interacting with American clients. So there is all of this sort of nuance that gets missed in the big abstract discussion on how the world views America.
JM: I read the article about Hector, the Mexican drug-runner, and it was incredible. Have any of these stories particularly shocked or surprised you in any way?
AB: There’s one story about a man of Pakistani origin in the UK. When the war in Afghanistan broke out, he decided he wanted to go and serve the interests of the Afghanis who he thought were being mistreated by NATO and coalition forces. So he basically went there and tried to join the Taliban forces. He was so disgruntled by his government that he went out there. But as he was driving into the town, he realized that the Taliban was using young boys as shields to cover their offensive. His ideas of good and evil completely capsized. So it was an interesting story of how, through more radical media, he had developed one image of the conflict. He thought his [UK] government looked really bad, but when he saw it for himself, he realized how bad the Taliban was in a way he didn’t understand before. And now he’s an important community leader in that UK town, trying to get people to understand not to radicalize, trying to get people to see the nuance in all of this. He says to people, ‘You might be angry about a drone attack, but don’t confuse that with sympathy for the Taliban.’ That was one of the stories that moved me because of how he told it and how interesting he was.
JM: Working with the Washington Post and CNN has afforded you many opportunities for travel. Would you say it’s more difficult to enjoy your trips when they’re centered around stories you’re working on, or do you feel like the reporting you do on your travels enriches your traveling experiences?
AB: One thing I learned to do while reporting is to really enjoy conversations with strangers. I think to do an interview well, you have to like the person you’re talking to. If you enjoy being with them and you’re genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say, they say more. So it’s almost a skill to maintain a high level of interest for a long period of time in a stranger. And that’s something I got better at as the year went on, and that has been great for me in my life and my future travels, because to be able to give that amount of attention to someone else isn’t as easy as you think, but it’s a very valuable skill. It’s made work more fun, it’s made travel more fun, and it’s made my life more enjoyable.
JM: Travel has plenty of inherent dangers in and of itself, but I’d imagine traveling to report on world events can be significantly dicier. Have you had any experiences in your travels where you felt like you were in very real danger? If so, did it turn you off to it in any way going forward, or make you more wary of traveling to certain places?
AB: Well, Zimbabwe definitely changed the nature of my travels. I think as a younger person, and especially a younger American, I had this sense that the system worked, and that in other countries you wouldn’t be arbitrarily detained. I had this idea that the institutions that I took for granted in America were also in other countries. I didn’t think this rationally, but I felt it internally. And they really weren’t. I mean Zimbabwe was essentially a police state where laws were relative. Corruption is rampant in many countries and you have to be careful. So after Zimbabwe I made sure I took a lot more precautions.
JM: Which of your travels did you find particularly enlightening or inspiring?
AB: I think India is an exciting country to visit, because you see the energy in some of the cities, the entrepreneurialism, and the sense of limitless possibilities. That sense of adventure, of drive, of ambition and big dreams, that’s a very heartening thing to see and a very inspiring thing to see. You realize how much there is left to do in the world. People, even though their government isn’t working particularly well, are making new businesses and are thriving. They’re building hospitals in spite of the obstacles the government puts in front of them and the lack of infrastructure. I think India’s a pretty exceptional place in that regard.
JM: Are there any upcoming projects or events you’re working on that you’d like people to know about?
AB: Well I spent the past year and a half working with Fareed Zakaria over at CNN, managing CNN.com/gps, and I’m now working on a series of smaller articles, but there’s no big project on the immediate horizon.
Amar Bakshi is a journalist and world-traveler who has contributed to CNN, The Washington Post, and Newsweek, among other publications.
Amar Bakshi interviewed by Jonathan Metzelaar
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography Courtesy of Amar Bakshi
Design by Marie Havens
Photography Courtesy of Amar Bakshi