When covering important political stories, some journalists talk to the major players. But other writers strive to let the underdogs be heard. In her new Maisonneuve cover story “We Felt No Mercy,” which appears in Issue 39 (Spring 2011), Naheed Mustafa offers an unmediated look at the lives of Afghan citizens. Neamatullah Arghandabi, a former mujahed who helped fight off the Soviets, opens up about life as a young soldier and the current state of his country.
Mustafa is an award-winning print and radio journalist. We talked to her about the difficulties of foreign correspondence and how to tell personal stories from countries in conflict. To read “We Felt No Mercy,” pick up a copy of our Spring 2011 issue or contact us to order it.
Mick Côté: Can you tell me about the initial contact with Arghandabi?
Naheed Mustafa: It was straightforward. I basically phoned him up and just asked him. Obviously, I had to tell him how I got his number and then I just asked him if he was interested in trying to meet. He said sure. The issue was nailing down a time with him because he was really busy. He comes to Kabul once every few months. The other thing that I found while working in Afghanistan—and not just there—is that people don’t really stick to their times.
MC: Was he reluctant to share his story?
NM: He didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. Not in terms of literally understanding, but he didn’t really “get it.” He didn’t really understand why I was interested in his story and he didn’t really understand why I wanted to construct this particular piece.
The project is actually a lot bigger than this particular item. I’ve been collecting stories for a while, but I’m not really sure what I’m going to be doing with them. It’s an opportunity I take when I’m working on other things over there. He asked, “What’s the point? It’s not really a story. I’m not anyone famous or particularly influential.” But to me, that’s what was interesting. That’s the story I wanted.
MC: In the article, you allotted a lot of room for quotations and very little for narration. How did you make this decision?
NM: This was the first time I’ve tried this type of format. The model for it was Studs Terkel’s book, The Good War. He collected stories of people who participated, in various ways, in World War II. He has these long types of discursive quotes. I’ve seen that style in other places but I hadn’t ever done something like that myself. The point of the oral story is to get people to tell their own story, and that seemed like the most obvious way. I was pretty nervous about using that style, and I wasn’t sure that people would find it compelling.
I’ve done long feature-style narrative from Afghanistan in other ways. I’ve done it in broadcasting, and I’ve done it in other print features. But part of the effort for anybody is: how much of ourselves do we insert into that story? We’re going to insert ourselves in various ways. The most obvious way would be that first-person narrative about who you’re meeting and who you’re talking to and your impressions. The other part of it is really about what we choose to quote.
Obviously, even the way that I’ve done it—even in selecting these particular passages—that’s still mediating his story. But I think it comes closer to an unmediated story than if I had written my version of what he was saying. That’s one of the things that I was struggling with a lot. It’s not always easy to figure out how to quote people because people don’t always just talk in short form. When you look at those kinds of interviews, people have a lot to say about themselves, and they tell you because they want you to hear it.
Part of that discussion for me, internally, is: how much of a duty do I have to report that? If I’m there to talk about people’s experiences, then how much should I keep myself out? I thought it was one way to get a story out, with as much content as I could in the style that he would tell it….more
This interview with Naheed Mustafa can be read in full here on the maisonneuve website.