When Christina Lamb, one of England’s best known foreign correspondents, started out in 1987, there were few women reporting from abroad. Her book, “Small Wars Permitting: Dispatches from Foreign Lands,” which recounts her adventures from Pakistan to Zimbabwe to Iraq, is a reminder of how much that has changed.
After landing a summer intern job at the Financial Times (FT) more than two decades ago, Lamb said she wanted more than anything to be part of the “camel corps,” those foreign correspondents who “would waft in with the smell of the desert or tang of the sea, dressed in crumpled linen suits, their tanned faces making the people in the office look washed out and gray. They covered wars, revolutions and insurgencies, and they spoke on the phone in exotic languages.
“They were all men and to me they were all gods.”
Her first assignment was in Pakistan writing about the wedding of Benazir Bhutto; many years later she would be on the campaign bus when a bomb exploded killing many bystanders, narrowly missing Bhutto, and splattering blood on Lamb.
Lamb’s career path, like so many of us in journalism, wasn’t shaped by intense planning. She was an intern in the FT’s newsroom when she got invited to a lunch and was seated beside a representative from Bhutto’s political party. He told her Bhutto was in London if she wanted to interview her. That interview led to “a large gold-inscribed invitation that landed on my mat” and that, in turn, prompted the FT to agree to “rent me a Tandy word processor and pay for whatever they published.”
Her editors, she said, let her know that they were more interested “in Russian occupied Afghanistan than Pakistan.” And, as she headed up to Peshawar near the Afghan border, she said, “my first night there someone tried to sell me a multi-barrel rocket launcher.”
Lamb was hooked. She didn’t mind the “shiny born cockroaches” in the hotel given the breathtaking “dark serrated ridges of the Khyber Pass.”
Being a woman in the field can lead to some odd situations, such as one she recounted, which involved an often-maddening part of the job: applying for a visa. She was in Amman, Jordan in the mid-1990’s, desperate to get a visa to Iraq. While waiting in a roomful of journalists, “most of whom were male,” in the Iraqi consulate she was singled out, to the envy of others, to proceed into an inner office. But there a consular official, “far from stamping the precious visa into my passport, proceeded to invite me to dinner.”
She accepted. Then the roses arrived at her hotel—along with the note that he wished her to stay in Amman forever. Lamb said she told him that the Sunday Times, the paper she was then working for, would pull her home immediately if she didn’t get a visa, but if she did get into Iraq, she could then come back to Amman. A problem nicely finessed.
More and more women are joining Lamb in reporting from war zones and on foreign assignments. Currently 10 of the 24 foreign correspondents at The Washington Post are female. The bigger issue now confronting our editors is how to deal with the challenges that those of us who are married, and especially those with children, face. It seems as though we are always juggling road trips with children’s first steps, school concerts, soccer games, and birthdays that somehow seem uncannily to coincide with a news event or must-do assignment. Lamb, who married fellow journalist Paulo Anunciacao from Portugal in 1999 and has a son, continues to go abroad, often for weeks at a time.
Yet despite the cost to her family life, Lamb keeps getting on a plane to head to the next story, and she does her job so well that she keeps winning awards. Only one day after being released from the hospital after giving birth to her son, born 11 weeks premature in an emergency Caesarean, Lamb was still “high on morphine” when she went to interview General Augusto Pinochet. It was 1999, and Pinochet was living in a luxury estate south of London. Another time, while other families wrapped Christmas presents and attended holiday parties, she was out on a long stint on the road, just making it back to her son and husband on Christmas morning. And, in 2003, after two months in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, she decided to go with her husband for his 40th birthday to Marrakesh, while her mom stayed with their son. The two flew out Friday. On Saturday morning, a phone call woke her at dawn. There had been a series of al-Qaeda attacks in hotels and clubs in Casablanca, her editor told her, and since she was already there he asked her to go check it out.
“One of the most important qualities for a foreign correspondent is managing to be in the right place at the right time, but now [that] I was a wife and mother I was starting to wish events wouldn’t keep following me around. Fortunately we were staying in a beautiful old riad and Paulo felt he could survive a day alone lounging in the courtyard by the turquoise pool, reading and sipping gin and tonics, while I drove to Casablanca at top speed to wander round shattered nightclubs and hotels and interview bloodied survivors.”
Some will surely read Lamb’s book and second-guess her choices. All working mothers face difficult decisions, but these are amplified for women whose workplace is a war zone. Whether Lamb has found the right balance in her life is for her—and her family—to judge. For many of us in the field, the bottom line is that Lamb is out there, bringing a woman’s critical eye on world events to a field too long dominated by men.
Mary Jordan, a 1990 Nieman Fellow, is co-bureau chief in London for The Washington Post, a position she shares with her husband, Kevin Sullivan. She and Sullivan have been co-bureau chiefs in Tokyo and Mexico City. They shared the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Mexican criminal justice system.