As a fearless reporter and war correspondent, Peyman Pejman witnessed major milestones in the contemporary history of the Middle East: from the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution to the Israeli invasion of Beirut to the two Iraq wars and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now based in Europe and a communications advisor to U.N. and international organizations, Pejman is also a novelist.
His latest book, “The Misfit Radical,” is a timely current-affairs thriller about a young Afghan boy who leaves his homeland for the U.S., then returns to Afghanistan to take up radical causes. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.
Pejman joined Kayhan London for a conversation about his life and his unique career.
Q: When did you start writing books?
A: The first book that I published in 2010 was a novel. It wasn’t fiction writing the way a lot of professional fiction writers would do it. Throughout my years as a journalist, I had so many stories and characters from different places that I couldn’t have written in a non-fiction format. The stories involved [real] people, and it could have been inconvenient if not dangerous for them.
I started writing the second book because of criticisms of the first book. People said, “This doesn’t sound quite like fiction. If you want to write fiction. you have to do a better job.”
In the new book, there’s nothing that relates to my work. I made the book about an Afghan boy. I have lived and worked in Afghanistan. I really love the Afghans. Unfortunately, Afghan news is not being covered worldwide as it should. To the degree that I could bring the Afghan issue back to the forefront, I thought it would be good thing on my part.
Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Iran, in Tehran, and I finished high school education in Iran. I received Persian-language education at the Kharazmi school.
Q: That was a very difficult mathematics-oriented school.
A: Yes. And I have always been a type A personality – very organized. It annoys a lot of the people around me. I had it in my genes, although no one in my family is like that.
I became a journalist by accident – at the age of nine. My father was a bank manager and my mother was a teacher, and we were living in the province of Kermanshah.
They were looking for hosts and hostesses of a children’s TV program, and I applied. I was good enough that they gave me the job. I had that job for three years and then moved into radio at the age of 12. I was part of a youth program. It was a team, it wasn’t just my show. They were fulltime positions, because the broadcast was five days a week. We would go into the studio, two or three days a week for hours at a time, and tape the show for the whole week.
By the time my parents had moved back to Tehran, I was 17 or something. It was the beginning of the revolution. I moved from broadcast to print, writing in English. I wasn’t very good at it at the time. I started working for the Tehran Times. My forte was not just being a good reporter, but also being able to establish good networks and maintaining them and getting good information.
There was a period when I was freelancing for a whole number of Western agencies and newspapers. I was working underground for the Associated Press during the hostage crisis. I was working for the Italian news agency Ansa, for Eric Rouleau of Le Monde, and for Japanese newspapers, because my English at the time was decent. I was a good asset for a lot of Western journalists as a reporter, a fixer, whatever they needed.
Some people warned me that it was risky and that I might be arrested. So I left.
I went to Beirut, because I had worked with the AP during the hostage crisis and already been accepted to American University of Beirut. I thought I would go work for the AP and get my education.
I ended up working for United Press International (UPI). Soon after I arrived, the Israelis invaded Lebanon.
Q: So you witnessed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
A: I witnessed a lot more than a 19-year-old should have. I would go around town with the more senior UPI reporters. We would chase [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat from one bunker to another.
At one point, the Israeli Defense Force attacked our office – the UPI office – with a phosphorus bomb. Ariel Sharon’s government later admitted that they had attacked it on purpose, because they were unhappy with UPI’s reporting. We all escaped within a fraction of a second. There was a fire in the telex room. I still have a picture of that day on my wall. We took refuge in the basement of a nearby newspaper building.
One day, I came home to my apartment. It was completely broken into by refugees from the south who had come to Beirut with nowhere to go, looking for an empty apartment. They had broken windows and doors and basically settled in my place. So I moved out.
During the siege of Beirut, nobody had water, electricity or anything for close to two months. We were all in the famous Commodore Hotel in Beirut.
Q: Did you like Lebanon?
A: I loved working in Lebanon. But I realized that it was not safe anymore to stay in Lebanon as an Iranian. I had escaped Iran to emigrate to the West anyway. I made the final choice and emigrated to the States in 1983.
My first base was Chicago, because my UPI bureau chief at the time and his wife – who had kindly and informally sponsored me – had moved from Beirut to Chicago. I went to stay with them. I did odds and ends work for a few months. Then, eventually, the journalist Jonathan Randall, a father figure to me, found me a job at the Washington Post in Washington.
I worked on the foreign desk, a combination of administrative work but also writing a fair number of articles. I worked there for four years. I went to Lebanon briefly again for UPI, then freelanced for a bit.
My last active journalism work was when I worked for Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Radio Farda and ended up covering the U.S.-led invasion of invasion in 2003.
Q: Why did you give up journalism?
A: Because journalism changed. Very few organizations were maintaining and supporting foreign correspondents. They were closing down bureaus, firing people. For someone who was and is interested in international affairs, I saw my opportunities as being not very good and probably getting worse.
Q: When did you go to Afghanistan?
A: While I was still working with RFE. The Afghan government was looking for a communications advisor for its minister of commerce — to help set up a communications office. I had a temporary contract for a couple of months in 2004, the first time I lived in Afghanistan.
I subsequently lived in Kabul again in 2009-10, working for USAID, and was also part of the U.S. Embassy’s Strategic Communications Unit.
Q: You taught as well.
A: I taught seven years as associate professor of journalism and communications in Dubai and in Kazakhstan. When I was still a reporter, I lived for five and a half years in Cairo. For three of those years I was a lecturer at the American University in Cairo.
Q: You seem to have strong feelings for Afghanistan.
A: I genuinely love Afghanistan and the Afghan people. I have worked in probably close to 40 countries around the world. I find Afghans among the nicest.
I would be more than happy to go back if the opportunity arises.
Q: Wouldn’t that be dangerous?
A: I’ve seen my fair share of danger. If it happens, it happens.
In the last few years, I’ve been working as a communications person for U.N. organizations and international organizations. My last position was chief of communications and public affairs for the special tribunal for Lebanon which was in the Hague. It was set up by the U.N. and the government of the Hague to investigate the Hariri assassination.
Before that I was in Yemen with the International Organization for Migration. I also worked with U.N. peacekeeping on Liberia and south Sudan.
Q: Will your future books be about the Middle East?
A: Not necessarily. It would be a bit lazy as a writer to keep falling back on things that you know. I would like to see if I can challenge myself into things that I don’t really know. I don’t take shame in using experiences or places as ideas, but I don’t think it would be right as a writer to keep falling back on the Middle East all the time.
Q: You have real talent as a storyteller.
A: I do realize that I have storytelling capacity – simply because I have stories. I’m not the owner of the stories.
One of the reasons I hope readers will like the book is because they can identify with it — because it’s part of our daily life. If fiction is completely fictitious, with no relevance to anything around us, that would be less attractive.