BookBrowse Reviews I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

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I Was Told to Come Alone

My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad

by Souad Mekhennet

I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet X
I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2017, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A compelling memoir by a Washington Post reporter as she navigated the frontlines of the clash between the West and the Islamic world.

As a teenager, German writer Souad Mekhennet saw the movie All the President's Men, an American film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as journalists who exposed criminal activity that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. "Look at this," she thought, "Journalism can change things." Inspired, she cut out a photo of the actors standing in the newsroom and hung it on her bedroom door, determined to emulate the real-life reporters they portrayed. She achieved her dream, becoming a well-respected journalist and eventually working for the Washington Post. Her memoir, I Was Told to Come Alone, describes her life from childhood through her recent assignments in territories controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mekhennet realized early on that she was in a unique position. Although she was born in Germany, her parents were immigrants from Turkey and Morocco. She spent several years of her childhood living with her paternal grandmother in Morocco and upon returning to Europe went to a Catholic school, where she was exposed to Christianity. She learned several dialects of Arabic as well as German, French and English. This diverse upbringing allowed her intimate knowledge of Western culture as well as Islamic traditions (both Sunni and Shia), making her a valuable asset to her employers. Her reputation for fairness and trustworthiness, combined with her background as a Muslim, allowed her access to the communities that gave birth to what would come to be described as Islamic extremism. She was permitted to interview young men who had traveled from Europe to fight in Syria as well as the families they left behind; religious leaders who frowned on the struggle – and those who encouraged it; and through exhaustive research and with the help of informants was the first to discover the true identity of "Jihadi John," a masked man with a British accent who was shown beheading captives in ISIS propaganda videos.

The first part of Mekhennet's memoir deals with how her ideals were formed, including how she was exposed to multiple cultures and developed her belief system. She encountered discrimination and xenophobia even as a child; one nun, for example, told her that all the nice princesses were blonde while all the bad people had dark hair, like her. Even her parents discouraged her career, telling her it was more suited for "German Germans" – i.e., those not born to immigrant parents. Some of her contemporaries allowed the prejudice they encountered to make them bitter, but Mekhennet took it as a challenge which only made her more determined to achieve her goal.

Much of the book details various situations the author found herself in as a reporter. These passages are nail-biting, and makes one wonder how she has survived. Through her network of informers Mekhennet was alerted to plots to kill her as well as others that sought to silence her by kidnapping her and forcing her to marry various high-ranking members of ISIS. At one point, while covering demonstrations in Cairo, she was even arrested by the Mukhabarat (the Egyptian intelligence service) and threatened with torture because they thought she was inciting revolt. Her courage under pressure and knowledge of the Muslim world were all that saved her life under several circumstances.

I was surprised at how balanced Mekhennet's opinions are throughout. While she blames Western attitudes toward — and actions in — predominantly Islamic countries as largely responsible for the rise of jihadism across the Arab world, she also criticizes Muslims who promote violence against Christians and practitioners of a different sect of Islam. Mekhennet points out that there's an essential rift between the Western understanding of the concept of democracy, and how those from other cultures might view it. Where we may see a system that guarantees protection to all (or tries to, at least), the democratic movement in Egypt or Syria seems to be more about majority rule, where the winning party uses their mandate to justify their blatant oppression of the losers - generally women and minorities.

I Was Told to Come Alone works on many levels. Mekhennet's life and experiences are fascinating in their own right, but her take on the current political and social issues facing our world is enlightening. While her condemnation of Western attitudes may alienate some readers, most will find that this book gives them much to think about and it may possibly provide new insight into the problems we face as we seek peace with the Islamic world. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in August 2017, and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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