Andrew Billen talks to CNN’s Nima Elbagir and finds out what it is like to be a Muslim covering Islamist-inspired acts of horror
The stained linen suit, the self-draining tumbler of Scotch, the well-turned tale about cheating death on the road – my every preconception about war correspondents has just been shattered by meeting Nima Elbagir.
Although she shares all their best qualities, she is not as other foreign hacks. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t brag. And when she flies into a war zone she packs her prayer mat.
Really? “Actually, I tend to use whatever I can find. My camping towel will generally do.”
I interview Elbagir in the canteen of Turner’s HQ near London’s Oxford Street, a slightly confusing place in that it is not sure whether its greatest icon is CNN’s Christiane Amanpour or the Cartoon Network’s Scooby-Doo.
Elbagir is a striking, six-foot-one Sudanese woman who, at 37, has made her name reporting the terrors inflicted by those who pretend to share her faith.
She has reported from Darfur, Mogadishu, Tahrir Square and Chibok. And here she is, eating a fish-finger sandwich for breakfast and about to go on holiday for three weeks. Not, of course, to Tuscany or the Seychelles, but Zanzibar and then on to Khartoum, where her parents live.
Her well-earned break follows her latest award, from the RTS in February for Specialist Reporter of the Year. The judges praised her “determination, bravery and deep humanity”. All those qualities were evident again in her coverage of the Brussels bombings in March.
Elbagir was there anyway, having spent two weeks on a series of special reports on the isolation of the Muslim community in Molenbeek. She had broadcast her first package, on how easy it was to obtain radical literature, when the reports of two explosions came through.
“We just thought it had to be a gas cylinder,” she says. “They couldn’t have had all those warning signs and then have this happen. I think I was almost in denial.”
In April, she was back in Chibok, the Nigerian village from which more than 200 schoolgirls had been kidnapped in 2014, when Elbagir was the first foreign reporter in. Now, she was showing some of the mothers an exclusive video that appeared to show 15 of them alive and well. The tape had been found, she says, typically apportioning credit where it is due, by her producer Stephanie Busari.
“We were told that Boko Haram was quite unhappy [with the report], but that, clearly, didn’t play into our thinking at all. It is now very closely associated with Isis and this isn’t the image that Isis would like out there,” she says. “No fatwa can justify this. Islamically, there is no justification for anything they do but, even with their twists and turns, there is no way to justify keeping 219 girls hostage to sell them back to the Nigerian government.”
As a Muslim, is she ever called disloyal? “That’s something I get accused of all the time. In Sudan, when I was reporting on Darfur, I was accused of being a traitor. Again, I completely understand that some of these things are very hard to hear. I mean, in Darfur we were reporting on mass rape.
“No one wants to believe that they are culpable in a system that could have allowed something like that to happen, but I don’t think it is helpful to deny that it exists.”
Is truth the most important thing to her as a journalist? “I think that sounds very serious.”
That is typical Elbagir, whose British public schooling has left her with a middle-class English accent and a gift for self-effacement.
Yet the issue is serious. There is an illiterate Facebook page, entitled “RIP Nima Elbagir”, which accuses her of spreading “propaganda” about tribal wars in Africa. The page has passed her by, but, although she comes from a land riven by tribal conflict, she knows that the phrase “tribal war” can sound dismissive, and a little worse coming from her than a white journalist.
I don’t think [war reporters] should be mythologised. We get to leave. It’s the people who stay in those situations… who are brave
It haunts her still that the West largely ignored the tragedy of Darfur, which, aged 23, she reported for Reuters. It was, she says, not an easy story to “package”. It has been called genocide since (a phrase that might have helped), but Elbagir did not call it that at the time because she felt there were “very specific criteria to meet”.
What she did do was spend two weeks with the Janjaweed militia leader, Musa Hilal. She recalls that “at one point, he said to me that these women couldn’t be raped, because they didn’t have the moral character to be raped”.
Didn’t she want to explode? “You kind of just think, ‘Well, I could have a very small moment in which there would be limited satisfaction, or I can just do my job.’”
She is wary about defining her own Muslim faith. She prays five times a day and fasts, which is not always easy on the road, but she calls all that “entry-level Islam”. She does not wear a headscarf, although you can see her, like many women, doing so when reporting from Muslim countries.
I say that I once heard Max Hastings say on Any Questions that when he saw a woman in a niqab he felt a little sad.
“I don’t think that’s really his place to feel sad for someone else,” is her response. “I would feel as outraged as if some mullah felt ‘sad’ that girls were wandering around in hot pants.”
But she is a feminist? “I think that came more into conflict in my mother’s generation. I think my mother found it very difficult to call herself a feminist, because to be a feminist was to be very specific things. Feminism wasn’t terribly intersectional, whereas, in my generation, the emphasis on intersectionality in feminism is much more pronounced. I don’t think my faith is incompatible with any aspect of who I am. I never felt that it was.”
Elbagir would not call her upbringing liberal. Her father is a committed Sunni, but happy for his daughter to report from Darfur. “He just wouldn’t have been happy if I’d been partying until 3:00am.” Her mother is even more serious about her faith. Her grandfather,
a polyglot with a huge and eclectic library, drank and “wasn’t particularly bothered”. Three uncles were practicing Marxists.
One tribe her parents definitely belong to is the media. Her father, Ahmed Abdullah Elbagir, founded Sudan’s al-Khartoum newspaper, suspended after a police crackdown on the press last year. Her mother is its publisher. In 1978, when she was born, her father, then an opposition politician, was in jail; he was only released three years later, when his health had deteriorated with asthma.
The family fled to Britain. Then, during what was known as “the reconciliation”, returned to Sudan to found the paper. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir – still Sudan’s leader – came to power in a coup and the presses were seized.
Abroad at the time, Elbagir’s father decided not to return home; his family, meanwhile, was refused permission to leave. It was two years before the family could be reunited in Exeter. There, the young Nima went to a succession of schools. “I was bored and, basically, a nightmare in class,” she recalls. Nevertheless, with her mother’s encouragement, she did well at A level and made it to the LSE to study philosophy. After graduating, Elbagir was a stringer for Reuters in Sudan and became a trainee journalist. She joined More4 News at its launch in 2005.
“Jon Snow is the reason I ended up in broadcasting,” she reveals. “I was on a panel at the British Museum about Darfur and Jon was moderating. He said to me: ‘Did you ever think about being a broadcaster?’ I was filming at the time, for Reuters. So he introduced me to Lindsey Hilsum.
There was this thing called the Film Unit at More4 News. We were supposed to report, produce and shoot our own stories. I realised that I was a better on-air reporter than a camera operator.”
Channel 4 News was an “amazing outfit”, but small. Its offshoot, More4 News, closed in 2009. Ambitious to do more foreign news, Elbagir joined CNN in 2011.
I’m not typical of the ethnic-minority experience in this country
After she received her RTS award in February, Simon Albury, Chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, wanted to know why the British media had not managed to keep her.
This is not a thought that goes down particularly well with the CNN press officer who is sitting in on our chat. He points out that the channel produces 20 hours of programming a week from London and is an established UK player. Nor is it one that is easy for Elbagir to address without it sounding as if the BBC and Sky should have been beating a path to her door.
Has she ever been discriminated against in TV because of her race? “For me, it’s always been an advantage. I always try and make the point that I’m not typical of the ethnic-minority experience in this country. It is very dangerous to try and glean any lessons from my trajectory. I am privately educated. I speak Arabic fluently. I think it would be ridiculous if I hadn’t managed to find a job in this climate.
“There are two very separate conversations that need to be had. There’s the conversation about the value of representation and how you make that happen. And there’s a conversation about why it is so much easier for people who come from more privileged backgrounds.”
There is a third, too, about women and war reporting. In 2011, following the sexual assault of a French TV journalist, Reporters Sans Frontières called on editors to stop sending women to cover the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo. Elbagir flew there soon afterwards.
Was it too dangerous? “No, I think it’s the complete opposite in most situations. For a start, the aggressiveness tends to be less when you roll down the window and it’s a woman. I mean, I found that extraordinary.”
CNN, Elbagir points out, is full of female role models. Her bosses are women who started out on the floor as cable news was taking off. They would not think that way.
Would it be different if she and her husband of eight years, a Brit she met while in Sudan, had children? “I think that it’s a valid question. I think it’s a question that we would probably all ask ourselves.
“I don’t think that it would change how I did things. I think that either you believe it’s worth it or it’s not. I don’t think that having kids changes this. You could cross the road and get mowed down.”
Elbagir refuses even to call herself brave: “No, because we choose to go, and we get to go home. I don’t think it should be mythologised. We get to leave. It’s the people who stay in those situations, it’s the women who went back to Tahrir Square that night, who were brave.”
Looking back, she thinks her hairiest moment was getting caught up in the ambush of a supply convoy along the Jalalabad highway in Kabul.
I ask if a gun was pointed at her. “Yes, but it was wall-to-wall traffic and there were Afghan families with picnic baskets sitting on the floor. It never kind of unfolds in that Hemingway-esque fashion. It’s always more prosaic than people imagine it is.”
As I say, Nima Elbagir is really like no press-corps veteran you have ever met. If CNN ever gets her behind a presenter’s desk, my guess is that she will end up bigger than Amanpour. Scooby-Doo might need to look out, too. She’s a star.
Nima Elbagir, Senior International Correspondent, CNN, London
Family Married, no children; lives in Battersea
Born July 1978, Khartoum
Father Ahmed Abdullah Elbagir, politician and newspaper publisher
Mother Ibtisam Affan, publisher
Brought up Khartoum, Cairo, London, Exeter.
Education Private day schools in the West Country; London School of Economics (BSc in philosophy)
2002 Stringer for Reuters in Sudan, becoming one of the first journalists to provide footage from Darfur; taken on as a London-based graduate trainee
2005 More4 News and then Channel 4 News
2011 Joins CNN in its Johannesburg bureau
2013 CNN, Nairobi bureau
2015 CNN, London bureau
Biggest stories Unreported World documentary Meet the Janjaweed; reporting from Mogadishu during US air strikes in 2007; the Ebola outbreak; first international journalist to report from Chibok, Nigeria, after Boko Haram mass kidnappings
Awards TV News Story of the Year and Broadcast Journalist of the Year at Foreign Press Association Awards 2008; Peabody Award 2014; RTS Specialist Journalist of the Year 2016
Recreation ‘I’m working on getting some hobbies’
What she watches in her hotel room CNN, BBC, Sky and Al Jazeera Arabic ‘but plenty of trashier telly when I’m at home’