HomeAbout/Meet the Staff
SPJ 23 Website

From Middle America to Mideast: Allam’s meteoric rise impressive here and abroad

By Billy O'Keefe

LAURA BURNS / The Working Press
For young journalists, it may be hard to imagine that in a few short years you can go from writing term papers to reporting from the streets of Iraq. Hannah Allam, the Mark of Excellence Luncheon keynote speaker, did just that.
In May 1999, Allam graduated from the University of Oklahoma. By December 2003, she was Knight Ridder’s Baghdad bureau chief — 25 years old and the youngest bureau chief in Iraq.
Some may romanticize the idea of a foreign correspondent as itinerant adventurer, but Allam’s job description included pulling her staff together during the toughest of times in one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Two Iraqi staff members were killed during Allam’s tenure as bureau chief. One promising young journalist, Yasser Salihee, died from an American sniper’s bullet to the head on his day off.
“It was devastating and to this day I don’t know how we pulled through those dark days,” Allam said.
From the time she entered the country — a few short months after the Iraq war began, to the uncertain security of today – Allam has seen the tides of violence “ebb and flow.”
“I’ve seen it at its best — when we could photograph people on the street and visit just about any neighborhood — and also at its worst, such as during the sectarian killing sprees of late 2006,” Allam said, referring to the reprisal killings that occurred between Sunni and Shiites throughout Iraq.
She explained that the current situation is a quiet period and most Iraqis don’t believe this will continue because the Shiite-led government has refused to integrate Sunnis into the security and work forces.
“I predict a spike in violence, though I pray I am proven wrong,” Allam said.
After more than two years in the war zone, Allam left the Baghdad bureau in January 2006 to start anew in Cairo as Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, which bought Knight-Ridder.
Her new beat encompasses the entire Middle East and surrounding regions where Allam has done everything from riding in a truck mounted with a machine gun through Somalia, smoking a hookah pipe with women in Saudi Arabia, to listening to Bedouin storytellers in the Egyptian Sinai.
Allam began reporting full time from the Middle East in late 2003, a little more than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dramatically increased media coverage of the area.
When Allam won the John S. Knight Gold Medal journalism award in 2005, Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder said during her time in Iraq, Hannah “has squeezed into two years what many others don’t experience in a lifetime.”
Allam praises the reporters who break down Middle Eastern stereotypes and critically cover Western policy. However, she believes there is still a long way to go to improving reporting of the region.
“[There are] very few reporters [and] editors with the language [and] experience to put the region in context,” Allam said.
“Instead they end up reinforcing stereotypes and the trite narrative of ‘wild-eyed, West-hating, bomb-building Arabs’ when in fact most folks in the region are worried about what Americans worry about: finding good jobs, educating their children, feeding their families and living under rulers who represent them and their interests.”
The situation in the Middle East, specifically the Iraq war, has been a key issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican competitor John McCain. Allam believes Middle Easterners prefer Obama over McCain.
“Most often, I’m told by Arabs and others in the region that they believe [Obama] has a more international background that would allow some dialogue and fresh negotiations on Iraq and other conflict areas,” Allam said. “However, I don’t think anyone really believes U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East would change drastically, regardless of who ends up in the White House next year.”
After spending the last five years in the Middle East, she is on a leave of absence from McClatchy Newspapers. Following her speech at the Mark of Excellence Luncheon on Friday, Allam heads to Cambridge, Mass., where she will spend the year as a Nieman Journalism Fellow.
During her time at Harvard University, Allam will be able to utilize the school’s resources to improve her Farsi and Arabic language skills and in her study of sectarianism within Islam.
“[Allam’s] work revealed a capacity for keen observation and thoughtful writing,” Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism said. “She is unwilling to settle for the routine or the easy way. She has demonstrated an appropriate empathy for the subjects of her stories without losing the journalistic distance one would expect.
While Allam heads back to academic life she has three pieces of advice to those still writing term papers and dreaming of life as a foreign correspondent: “Learn languages, study abroad and subscribe to The Economist.”