Richard Engel began his reporting career when he flew into Cairo in 1996–a young college graduate sporting two suitcases and a belief that the Middle East would be the story of his generation. Seven years later, he snuck into Iraq to freelance wearing $20,000 strapped to his ankle. Now, 10 years after leaving the United States, he has taken NBC back to Beirut.
Amid criticism of the media's declining foreign reporting, NBC News has established a Middle East bureau in Beirut. Engel, a leading figure in NBC's Iraq coverage for the past three years, is the bureau chief.
Engel started his new job shortly before war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. He believes Beirut serves as an ideal location for NBC to expand its international coverage. Speaking from Beirut at the end of June, he says today's Lebanon captures the pulse of the region. "If something happens in Israel or Iran, it is felt here," he says. "It is a small country with a dynamic population where you can gauge prevailing trends and intellectual currents."
Logistically well-positioned, Beirut also provides access to a critical region of the world. "The war has expanded beyond the border [of Iraq]... The entire region is going through a historic transformation," Engel says. "In order to track these changes, you need to live here. You need to understand the region from the ground up. You need a face that is trusted and known, and you need to speak the language."
At 32, Engel has made a career out of reporting from this volatile part of the world. He's not only fluent in Arabic but also speaks several dialects, and he reads and works in the language daily. "He's also aggressive, smart and enterprising," says NBC News President Steve Capus, who calls Engel "one of the rising stars of journalism."
Within the region, NBC also has bureaus in Baghdad, Cairo and Tel Aviv, as well as a logistics bureau in Amman. (CBS has maintained bureaus in Amman, Baghdad and Tel Aviv, and ABC has had bureaus in Baghdad, Cairo and Jerusalem and producers in Amman and Damascus.) NBC is the only broadcast network that now has a bureau in Lebanon, and Capus remembers Engel's reaction when the idea to reopen the Beirut bureau first arose two years ago. Engel, he says, fervently drew sketches on the back of a restaurant menu to illustrate the interrelated aspects of the region. His "passion for that part of the world," Capus says, "makes him the logical choice."
Nightly News Senior Foreign Producer ML Flynn works directly with Engel and says his curiosity and knack for "reading the street" make him an ideal candidate to lead NBC back to Lebanon, where it last had a bureau in the 1970s. "He literally felt the pulse of Baghdad when he was there, always ahead of the news curve, ferreting out stories before other reporters got on to them," she said via e-mail.
A New York City native who as a frustrated child got into frequent fistfights and struggled with dyslexia, Engel latched onto reporting while he was in college at Stanford University. Journalism, he says, "continues to change, and keeps me thinking and learning all the time." After graduating with a bachelor's degree in international relations, Engel went to Cairo with a one-way ticket and a "desire to try something a little different." He enrolled in language school, then dropped out a few weeks later, opting instead to learn Arabic in the broken-down neighborhood where he lived. He worked for a local English-language paper and freelanced for a number of international publications.
Engel depicts his four years in Egypt as an "exciting, formative time," in which he witnessed a revival of militant Islamic fundamentalism. "I was struck by the power of their movement," he says, "and their absolute conviction in their ideals." He spent the next three years in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He was there when the Oslo Accords were falling apart, and he vividly remembers friends going deaf in cafés as suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby.
In early 2003, with Iraq on the brink of war, Engel was one of the first journalists to arrive. "I had been preparing for seven years and thought, 'This is it, a major moment,'" he says. He crept into the country illegally, working as a stringer for ABC until joining NBC News in May 2003. (See The Beat, June 2003.) Engel says he feels privileged to cover the country's transition from dictatorial regime to fragile democracy. "I get to cover the creation or destruction of entire states," he says. "This is the best assignment."
Engel once hid in ramshackle safe houses to report on the Iraq war, and he "has spent a lot of time getting tear gassed," yet he dismisses the bravado attached to the war correspondent mystique. "I am not a daredevil person. I don't rush into danger. I take calculated risks because I don't want to risk getting hurt," he says. "You need to follow the saying, 'Only fools rush in.'"
Engel is also realistic about the sacrifices he makes to lead this kind of life. A failed marriage two years ago and the death of several colleagues attest to the struggles involved in working as a war correspondent. "I have no normal life," he says. "The idea of going home at night and watching a movie and eating Chinese food is not in the realm of possibility."
As an outlet, Engel has taken to blogging about his experiences on NBC's Web site (www.baghdadblog.msnbc.com). He says the more intimate format is cathartic, as was writing his 2004 book, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During & After the War."
Throughout his reporting, Engel has emphasized Iraqis' perspectives on the war. "There is often this perception that journalists live in the Green Zone and that we are isolated," he laments. "In fact, we are in contact with people in the streets, and almost no reporters live in the Green Zone."
As Beirut bureau chief, Engel continues to cover Iraq, but the new position gives him more mobility and flexibility. He now reports on the broader Middle East region, has expanded his entries on NBC's "Blogging Baghdad" and plans to stay at the forefront of documenting history. "It is not a job," he says. "It is a life."