Despite curling up under her protective vest to survive a Taliban ambush in Marjah, Afghanistan, and spending six hours awaiting her own execution after being convicted of being an American spy in Najaf, Iraq, NPR Foreign Correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson concluded, “It’s been worth it, both for myself and those informed by my work.” That’s what she told an attentive audience in Lorimer Chapel Oct. 16 when she gave the 2011 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation address.
Honored as Colby’s 59th Lovejoy Award recipient for her courageous reporting, and receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree, Nelson spoke of her reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring uprisings, and subsequent developments in the Middle East.
She described wearing a burka when necessary, both to defer to local customs and for a measure of anonymity as she traveled to report stories she couldn’t have gotten dressed as a Westerner. “You can barely see a thing,” she said. “And forget about peripheral vision. I felt like a baby learning to walk when I wore that thing. Many of my Afghan staff would crack a smile whenever they saw me struggling to put the garment on or wobbling around in it.”
In Saudi Arabia she donned an abaya and a niqab, which left only her eyes showing, so she could record women arguing “ferociously” with male officials while trying to register to vote. While the women were not successful, “Their courage took my breath away,” Nelson said.
Nelson told of accompanying Egyptian protesters to state security headquarters after the fall of President Mubarak: “In hindsight, it was probably not the brightest move for me to be there,” she said. “I mean, how would the FBI react if an Egyptian reporter was discovered in the bowels of their headquarters in downtown D.C. and recording people who are breaking into top-secret files?”
She recounted being disabled by tear gas and having to flee protests in Egypt. She told of being on patrol with Marines last year as “one of the Marines I’d gotten to know took a bullet to the head less than fifty feet from where I was curled up in the dirt. He was twenty-three and left behind a pregnant wife.”
All of which led her to address the questions, “Why in the world do we do this job? And is it worth it?”
“I became a foreign correspondent because I wanted to connect Americans to the rest of the world through compelling storytelling,” she said. “And, yes, to me it’s worth it, even if it means a few premature gray hairs for my husband.”
Complete audio of the 2011 Lovejoy Convocation and a transcript of Nelson’s speech are online at colby.edu/lovejoy.