An Afghan entrepreneur and his firm smooth the way for a reporter making her war zone debut. He hopes someday hell be escorting sightseers rather than journalists through his troubled country.
By Jessica Wanke
I was sitting at my computer for the fifth consecutive hour, a stack of printed-out country guides, close to a foot high, by my side. I was about to head around the world, on my first trip to Afghanistan, on an independent reporting trip funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and I was compiling enough information to give myself a crash course in Afghan history on the plane rides over. This combination of excitement and anxiety is familiar to a lot of journalists before they take off overseas: You know your assignment, you know the big picture story, but you have little to no clue when it comes to the terrain, the language and the sources on the ground.
It was in this pre-departure flurry that I stumbled onto Afghan Logistics & Tours. A simple Google search turns up the company's slick Web site, a highly-designed advertisement, complete with Flash slideshows, for the myriad of services they offer journalists. The company advertises itself as a one-stop shop for the reporter flying in visa assistance, airport pickup, accommodations, driving services, security, translation, you name it. Any skepticism about the company's legitimacy is combated in the "Client Testimonial" section, filled with glowing reviews from The Economist, Sky News, DPA (German Press Agency), Getty Images and Amnesty International.
What the heck. I e-mailed the headquarters office in Kabul. Within a few hours my midnight research session was the middle of the day in Afghanistan I got a friendly e-mail from Muqim Jamshady, the founder and president of the company. After a quick back-and-forth about rates, which were reasonable enough for my small budget ($100 a day for a car and fixer), we were set. I kept my fingers crossed that it would pan out. Fortunately, it did. Our reporting team of three moved around Afghanistan with incredible ease, accompanied almost around the clock by fixers supplied by Afghan Logistics & Tours.
Fixers are no new phenomenon. As long as there have been foreign correspondents, there have been industrious locals ready to offer their knowledge and services for a fee. These individuals have been both a gift and a strain on the journalism profession. They can give priceless assistance and leads on juicy local stories. But they can also be undependable or, worse, extortionist. Since they are often independent actors, found through word of mouth, they typically do not have much accountability, and contracting with one is often a leap of faith. Heading into a conflict zone, that's not particularly comforting.
When his home country was thrust into center stage of the world's attention as U.S.-led coalition forces invaded in October 2001, Afghan entrepreneur Jamshady understood this problem and realized that it was also a lucrative opportunity. He viewed the flood of journalists arriving in Afghanistan as a growing customer base. He approached the situation just like any other business: He learned what his customers needed and found out how he could meet those needs better than anyone else. In the ensuing years, Jamshady has developed Afghanistan's best-known fixing agency.
The Jamshady family has always had an eye for business. Jamshady's father was an automobile importer. And Jamshady started off his own career as a carpet salesman. Peddling one of the country's most popular handicrafts was making him a healthy income. "I had a good business," he says, "but I was not interested in this business."
His search for a career change co-incided with a political upheaval and a potential commercial windfall. Jamshady spoke English, so when the invasion began, his friends encouraged him to go to Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel and offer his services to the journalists who now filled the hotel's rooms. He certainly was not the only one with this idea. The fees doled out by Western news agencies were enticing for anyone who spoke the languages of the visiting journalists. But Jamshady's business was brisk, and he made a name for himself. He saw a chance to expand and began to take on other fixers and contract out his journalist clients to them.
"I didn't know anything about journalism," Jamshady says, but "God created different people, with different visions and ideas. My head is really designed for business. So I made this business out of fixing."
As with any of his other family businesses, Jamshady knew that a quality product would be the key to sustaining his customer base. So he recruited the best local journalists to be his fixers. He chose those who not only knew the area, had connections and spoke the dialects, but also those who know how a journalist thinks.
Shoib Najafizada is Jamshady's man for Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, not far from the Uzbekistan border, where we were going to be doing the bulk of our reporting. Fixing is Najafizada's side job. He is a journalist himself and has worked with a number of foreign news outlets. He is now based in Kabul as the main Afghanistan correspondent for the German news magazine Der Spiegel.
Najafizada is one of a small pool of professional Afghan journalists journalism is not a common career choice in Afghanistan. He started working as a translator for American and British forces during the invasion, when he was still a teenager, and he slowly made the transition into fixing and reporting, since they share many of the same skills and require the same kinds of connections as his jobs in translation.
Najafizada is the ultimate insider in Mazar. He knows everyone from the provincial governor to the downtown store owners, police officers and schoolteachers. He also has the kind of access a Western journalist could never hope to have. After picking us up at the dusty Mazar airport, he brought us back to our hotel and, over tea in the hotel's lounge, showed us photographs he had taken for various stories of farmers in the middle of the province's lush, problematic, hashish fields; in the home of a local couple who had recently engaged in a controversial contract marriage; and at a party he managed to sneak into at the home of a local Mujahideen warlord. His leads and contacts seemed boundless. If we had only been there a few extra months, we would have had a bounty of stories to cover.
So our first reporting trip in Afghanistan was a success. In the small amount of time we had to gather information, we packed in more interviews than we were able to use and saw more places than we had expected to see. I could certainly envision adding my enthusiastic recommendation to the growing list of positive "Client Testimonials" calling out to those nervous journalists surfing the Internet, about to embark on their first trip into a war zone. But while his fixing business has been a success, Jamshady is eager to see it end.
"I say to the journalists, 'I want you to go and come back as a tourist,'" he says.
He is already transitioning his business from fixing to tourism, in the hopes that one day soon, the bomb blasts that attract journalists will subside and the country will be stable and secure enough to bring in enough sightseers to sustain it. That is not to say that he has not appreciated the foreign reporters who have brought him success. They have not only benefited him financially, he says, but they have also positively affected his embattled country. They have shed light on the problems within Afghanistan, Jamshady says, and they have inspired a generation of Afghan journalists.
"Journalism is an atomic bomb," he says. "It is really, really strong. A journalist can bring a lot of change in a society."
These days Jamshady mostly works as a manager, staying within his office in Kabul and overseeing operations. But he reminisces fondly about the days when he worked in the field alongside foreign journalists. He tells a story about flying by helicopter to a remote region near Bamiyan Province. Jamshady, from an upper class family in Kabul, encountered people in this rural village unlike any he had ever met.
"I found out that there are people in this 21st century that don't know what a car is. They don't know what a road is. They don't know what a clinic is," he says. "Until that time, I didn't know that such people existed in my country. But journalism paved the way for me to know it."
He has already supported programs to teach Western journalism techniques to local would-be reporters. As new government and civil institutions emerge, he hopes to see a new army of Afghan journalists there to cover them.
Jamshady also hopes these up-and-coming reporters take away the message he did from working in this business: "The pen of a journalist," he says, "is much stronger than the gun of a soldier."
Jessica Wanke (email@example.com) is a writer based in New York. She is a former reporter for the Arizona Republic.