Bound by the Vast and Fathomless by Randall LaGro, oil and mixed media on wood panel. Photo courtesy of the Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, New Mexico.
This morning I was deeply distressed when reading Judith Malokoff's article "Unspoken" in the Columbia Journalism Review. It stirred up some painful memories of being a young reporter on my own in the Middle East. Sometimes the very people assigned to protect me were those who tried to harm me. Even the simplest experience or business transaction could become fraught with tension.
So many incidents happened in which I had to fend off unwelcome advances or felt uncomfortable, I can no longer recall all of them. And not all these instances were regulated to the Middle East. Here are just a few examples of fraught moments in my professional and personal life:
In Jordan, after interviewing an army general at a desert camp, the all-male television crew and I were invited to join the general for an early dinner at a popular Chinese restaurant in Amman. The general asked if I would come to his office later that week to consider editing the English version of a geographic atlas.
Looking for protection
Arriving at his office, I noticed that everyone seemed to be out to lunch, except for a security guard. In the general's office, he appeared to be all business, showing me the atlas and explaining what changes he wanted. I agreed to edit the English version of the atlas, which was full of mistakes. The general seemed to take this as his cue and strode to the door, ostensibly to ask the guard to bring tea. Instead he locked the door and attacked me.
I started to panic, until I noticed security cameras on the wall. I picked up a heavy book from the desk on which he was forcing me down and hit him hard in the head, then ran to the door and unlocked it. The security guard was nowhere to be seen, so I kept running until I found a taxi. The general repeatedly phoned the television station asking for me, to the point that the Arabic reporters noticed something odd about his behaviour and adopted a protective stance towards me. They would make sure I was escorted home every night in the television van and was never left alone when on assignment.
At this time I lived across the street from the Egyptian Ambassador's home. Soldiers manned a machine-gun mounted on the back of a jeep from a vacant lot across the road. Whether a taxi or a television van brought me home, the guards frequently would search the vehicle. So at least I felt safe at night.
When interviewing a local businessman for a story about a multi-national development project, he invited me to look at some architectural plans in the conference room, then locked the door. I had to hit him with a flagpole to get out of the room.
I was propositioned endlessly by taxi drivers and official drivers, assigned to take me to and from interviews with government figures. If I walked down the street, men would follow in their cars and try to talk to me. After watching subtitled episodes of Baywatch and silly movies portraying women as bimbos, these men apparently considered any Western woman fair game. An English friend was taking a taxi home from a party late at night and was attacked by the driver. Luckily, her screams were heard by a neighbour before she was seriously harmed.
Even after I'd had a baby, sexual harassment continued. A young police officer -the friend of a friend - was trying to help a Filipino woman who babysat for my daughter obtain her working papers. While waiting outdoors for our mutual friend to arrive, he asked if he could have a glass of water. I should have gone upstairs, got the water and brought it outside. Instead, my Southern upbringing kicked in and I naively invited him in for the water. The minute he walked through the door, he pushed me against the wall and kissed me. It took considerable force to shove him away. I shouted at him to wait outside, shoved him out the door and locked it.
When my friend arrived, I told him the story. He was mortified and angry that the police officer had tried to take advantage. I never saw the police officer again. (And I had to fire the babysitter, after she rang up hundreds of dinars in international charges on my telephone).
Of course I soon realised it was my fault for blurring the lines of social mores. By politely smiling and inviting the guy inside the apartment for a glass of water, he took it as an invitation. All too often in the Middle East, the simplest actions can be misinterpreted.
When talking to a respected Muslim lawyer about a case against my daughter's father, I was holding my daughter, then three months old. The lawyer came around his desk and tried to kiss me. I was pinned in between him and the desk, with my baby in my lap! Surprisingly, she slept through the ordeal. And I walked out of his office, never to return.
When being driven to my office after an interview in Shemisani with a well-known Palestinian leader, the car was hit by a young Kuwaiti student, driving his flash sportscar at great speed and running a stop sign. I was on the passenger side, which bore the brunt of the impact. At the hospital, the x-ray technologist repeatedly groped my breasts in the pretext of x-raying my cracked ribs, to the point that I slapped him and cursed him in Arabic. Did I report him? No. No one would have paid any attention, particularly to a woman upset by a traffic accident.
New York days
I interviewed an European politician, who invited me to dinner. When I declined, he chased me around his hotel room in New York. A Belgian man who was the general manager of a landmark hotel asked for my help in a public relations campaign, then attacked me in his office - even though he was friends with the man I was dating! None of these men made any attempts at finesse or subtlety - they just reached out and grabbed what they wanted.
A diplomat gave me a ride home from the UN; enroute, he tried to put his hand up my skirt. I jumped out in the middle of Park Avenue traffic. The incident reminded me of my first job in New York at an advertising agency, owned by an Irish-American with a fondness for the bottle. He often returned from long liquid lunches, reeking of booze. While I was sitting at my desk, he'd come up behind me and try to grope me.
Then there's this story, which thankfully is not mine. To this day, this tale - told to me by a diplomat whom I considered a friend - fills me with revulsion. One evening the diplomat was walking to his car parked on Third Avenue and an attractive young woman ran up to him and said, "Please, can you help me? Someone is bothering me and I'm frightened." The diplomat told her to get into the car and he'd give her a lift.
The young woman was trembling, obviously anxious and fearful. As they drove uptown, she thanked him profusely, saying he'd "saved her" from a terrible fate and how could she ever repay him? The diplomat's response was to park the car in a quiet neighbourhood and insist the young woman perform oral sex! Needless to say, after hearing that man's story, we were no longer friends. The fact that he talked about it so casually, as though it was nothing, highlighted the disconnect between male and female thinking.
In the course of your career, have you experienced similar incidents of sexual harassment? Did you tell anyone in authority? Did anyone listen and take you seriously?