BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Saturday, 26 January 2008, 12:05 GMT
Hospitality in a suspicious world
Working as a Westerner in the Muslim world has been complicated by the conflicts of recent years but BBC correspondent Kate Clark who has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza still finds delight in the hospitality and kindness of strangers.

The taxi driver was calling me back. It was late at night in Irbil, and there was a problem with the fare.

A taxi driver in Irbil, northern Iraq
Sometimes it is the taxi driver who wants to keep down the fare
We had spent the half hour journey chatting. He told me he was struggling to bring up a young family on a low income and with soaring inflation.

"Rent," he said, "had gone up five-fold and petrol prices 20-fold since 2003."

So I paid him a bit extra. He called me back to argue over the money because he thought I had paid him too much.

"Why do you go to such dangerous places?" people often ask me. They mean dangerous, Muslim countries. I usually report from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.

"Do you have to wear a headscarf?" I'm asked.

"Do you ever feel threatened as a woman?"

It is difficult to explain that the sort of generosity and open-heartedness shown by the Kurdish taxi driver is very compelling and very normal across the Islamic world. It is generally a good place to be a guest.

But it has become more complicated.

Bin Laden's war and the US-UK military response, and the polarisation between the Western and Islamic worlds mean such ordinary human encounters have become more difficult.

Western journalists are now targets for some Muslims in some Muslim countries. And it does not matter what we actually do or believe, we may be considered enemies.

Western conspiracies

In Afghanistan, foreign reporters and aid workers used to work alongside every faction in the long civil war.

Taleban fighters north of Kabul in 1998
Anti-Western feeling in Afghanistan has increased in recent years
When I lived there before 2001, there was very little anti-Western sentiment, not even from the Taleban.

They still remembered Western support during the 1980s for the jihad against the Soviet occupation, so when the US criticised them, they were actually surprised, nonplussed.

These days, many Afghans, including some friends, speak darkly of Western conspiracies to oppress the Umma, the global Muslim community. And now I am nervous just walking down the street in Kabul.

Places in Pakistan where I used to go on holiday have become strongholds of the Pakistani Taleban.

Basra, in southern Iraq, where in 2003, I drove around with a female producer and was invited in for tea or lunch by interviewees, is now ruled over by hard-line religious militias.

Bleak lives

In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where I lived in the late 1980s, life was extremely tough.

It was during the first Palestinian intifada - the uprising against the Israeli military occupation - and there were curfews, strikes and clashes.

In one of the Gazan refugee camps, I remember an adult carefully explaining to a small child who had picked up a stone to throw at me, that this would be shameful - I was a guest.

People would send a child out to buy a can of cola for me - they could not afford a whole bottle. Actually, they could not afford a can either.

The kidnapping of Western journalists in Gaza would have been unimaginable when I was there 20 years ago

Palestinians were generous despite their bleak, constrained lives. Lives which, they were usually too polite to point out, my country was historically, partly responsible for.

The kidnapping of Western journalists in Gaza would have been unimaginable when I was there 20 years ago.

Untold stories

The dangers make operating as a journalist very difficult.

You want to find out what is going on. And you particularly want to hear from the marginalised and powerless.

But how can you do that if the only way you see a country is by being embedded with the British or American army?

Who tells the stories of civilians in Iraq or southern Afghanistan? Indeed, who tells the stories of Taleban foot soldiers?

And if that is not done, who is to know whether the American military or the British government or the Afghan president sitting in Kabul or indeed the Taleban spokesmen are telling the truth or not?

Cautious travelling

In some places, you now have to work out more devious ways to report.

Kate Clark drinking tea in Hazarajat, Afghanistan
Afghanistan remains a place where strangers offer you tea and a bed for the night
In September, the British were assuring everyone that life in Basra was fine. But it was too risky to go, so I did my interviews by phone.

People said music was banned and assassinations commonplace. "The ruling religious militias," they said, "were like Shia Taleban."

In Afghanistan, I continue to travel.

I have met members of the Taleban and spoken to civilians from areas affected by fighting and discovered richer and more complex truths than the official views.

Complaints about political exclusion, predation by provincial authorities and economic hardship seem to drive men to fight more frequently than jihadi ideology.

Afghanistan remains a place where strangers offer you tea and a bed for the night, where proverbially, people say that, when faced with guests, what is important is not how big your house is, but how big your heart is.

But the threat of violence means travel has become a cautious business.


Visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, then, was a treat. It is Iraq and it is safe. I encountered everything I like about the Islamic world, without any fear.

When I eventually managed to pay the Kurdish taxi driver his extra fare, I thought, "this wouldn't happen in London".

But actually it does sometimes.

If the driver is Afghan or Pakistani or Iraqi and we chat about his home country, I do quite often end up trying to drive the fare up, while he endeavours to drive it down.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday ,26 January, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Afghanistan
18 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Iraq
18 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
18 Jan 08 |  Country profiles


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific