Our men in al-Sham

Over the last few years, Seth Frantzman and Jonathan Spyer have reported on the ground from Syria and Iraq, as well as other places. Spyer’s Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars was published in 2017, while Frantzman’s After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East was published in 2019. I met with them both in Jerusalem to discuss their work. 

How did you get into covering the region in the first place? It’s not like every nice Jewish boy’s dream is to visit Kobani.

JS: Well, there are a number of aspects really. I finished my PhD and I knew that I didn’t want to become an academic. And I’d already been dabbling in journalism as a side gig since the early nineties. So I decided to start taking that more seriously. And then Seth and I were very focused on Israel during the Second Intifada. Afterwards came the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – that was when I decided that I didn’t want to work for the Israeli public service. Not that I’m against the state, but I didn’t want to be in that field. Together this left the field of journalism, and being a foreign correspondent. And I took my first reporting trip to Lebanon in 2007.

The year after the war?

JS: Yes. And then I began to write more about the region for the Jerusalem Post, and then gradually for other publications too. In 2010 I took my first trip to Iraq to interview the PKK leadership, and then from 2010 the region was busted wide open. History returned to the region, fascinating, amazing, astonishing stuff was taking place in country after country, and for me Syria and Lebanon had become my main interest. I had a lot of contacts in the Syrian opposition.

When the Syrian War began in 2011, I immediately began pestering my contacts and friends to say, look I need to get in, can you help me? And then in February 2012, after a lot of messing about that finally bore fruit, I took my first trip into Syria, to the province of Idlib. Since then I’ve been to Syria many times. It’s become in lots of ways my central focus and interest. I hadn’t really thought of being a war correspondent. I wanted to be a Middle East correspondent, but when the Middle East ends up being about war, you become a war correspondent too.

SF: I have a similar sort of trajectory. I came here to do my masters and PhD. I got the MA and I guess I got the PHD around 2010 or so, and I always liked dabbling in journalism because I was writing sometimes as a columnist, and I didn’t know that much about the wider Middle East. I think I was interested in doing Middle East Studies a bit as a graduate student, but I ended up doing a bit more about Ottoman or British Palestine. I didn’t know much about Syria or Iraq, except what I read in the news.

I started teaching at Al-Quds University after I got my PhD. I was lecturing on American foreign policy to Palestinian students and I spent a lot of time covering riots in the Palestinian territories. I was involved in the 2009, 2012 and 2014 wars in Gaza, and then the Arab Spring started. In 2014, after ISIS first came to prominence, the genocide against the Yazidis began. I remember sitting in Beit Hanina in Jerusalem and watching a video of people being beheaded, or machine-gunned in Sinjar, and I decided that it was important to cover that somehow. I first went to Turkey to do some reporting and then the next year I went with a friend named Laura Kelly to Iraq. And the rest is history. Like Jonathan, I kept going back again and again, I got very addicted to it and I wanted to try to cover as many countries as I could. So I went back to Turkey, I went to Jordan, Egypt, I went to the Gulf to do some coverage there, but I never went to Syria or Lebanon. I felt it was too difficult or dangerous. But, certainly Iraq and the Kurdistan region were places I felt very comfortable in, and I felt it was important to be there.

I think as an Israeli or someone who’s Jewish, you face all sorts of struggles in this region. There are some places you can’t say that you’re Jewish, and certainly being Israelis is really difficult. But even if they don’t know you have Israeli citizenship it’s a series of little hurdles.

Read the whole interview in 2019 in the Tel Aviv Review of Books.