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U K Journalist Yvonne Ridley Interview

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  • ummyakoub
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2004
      Eloise Napier, Guardian, 2/24/04

      It was September 28 2001 - just 17 days after the destruction of the
      World Trade Centre. Yvonne Ridley, a 43-year-old single mother, and
      chief reporter at the Sunday Express, had been sent to Islamabad in
      nearby Pakistan to cover the start of George Bush's "war on terror".
      In search of a scoop, she had dressed in a burka and made an illegal
      sortie over the border into Afghanistan.
      It was on the return journey, just two miles from the border, that
      her careful plans unravelled, with disastrous consequences. Ridley
      was passing by a Taliban checkpoint when her donkey bolted. She was
      just attempting to scoop up the reins when her camera slipped from
      her shoulder and into full view of a Taliban soldier.

      Ridley thought she was either going to be gang-raped or stoned to
      death. "I wondered how much pain I could take and prayed that,
      whatever happened, I would die quickly," she says. In the event, she
      was only taken to jail, first in Jalalabad and then in Kabul, and
      held for a total of 10 days. In her diary, she recorded: "They [her
      Taliban captors] constantly refer to me as their guest and say that
      they are sad if I am sad. I can't believe it ... I wish everyone at
      home knew how I was being treated. I bet people think I am being
      tortured, beaten and sexually abused. Instead, I am being treated
      with kindness and respect. It is unbelievable."

      Her capture was to mark a watershed in Ridley's life - it began her
      own road to Islam and her decision to become a committed peace
      campaigner. She quit her job at the Sunday Express and moved to
      Qatar, leaving her only child in the UK.

      "I always wanted to be an actress," says Ridley with a lopsided
      smile. It is now two years and three months since her capture, and we
      are sitting beside a swimming pool in the well-heeled compound where
      she lives in Doha, Qatar's capital. It is midwinter, and the heat
      from the sun is gentle on our backs. Far from wearing the voluminous
      robes sported by many Muslim women in Qatar, she is clad in green
      combat-style trousers and a large black T-shirt bearing the
      words "Don't panic, I'm Islamic!"

      When, last year, Ridley converted from C of E to Islam, some
      commentators suggested that she was suffering from Stockholm
      syndrome - the psychological condition in which captives divest
      themselves of former beliefs and adopt those of their captors. Ridley
      rejects this, saying that at no time did anyone try to brainwash her.
      She tells me that, at one point, she was visited by a cleric who
      asked if she wanted to convert to Islam. She refused but said that
      she would read the Koran if she ever got out. She kept her word, and
      what began as an academic exercise became a spiritual journey.

      It seems ironic that such a strident believer in the equality of the
      sexes should choose a religion that appears to encourage the
      subjugation of women. "On the contrary," she says, "the Koran makes
      it clear that women are equal in spirituality, worth and education.
      What everyone forgets is that Islam is perfect; people are not."

      What has impressed Ridley more than anything else is the sisterhood
      among Muslim women. "They are always helping each other in matters
      such as childcare, fundraising and studying. They want each other to
      do well. I hadn't expected this. In the west we're all too busy
      pinching each other's boyfriends, and criticising each other's
      clothes or weight."

      The daughter of a miner from Durham, Ridley started in provincial
      newspapers before progressing to jobs with the Daily Mirror, the News
      of the World, the Sunday Times and the Daily and Sunday Express. "I
      reached the rank of editor by being one of the boys, although I
      didn't recognise this until much later," she says.

      Things changed when Ridley had her daughter, Daisy - the result, as
      she bitterly regrets admitting, of a burst condom. Suddenly, she
      couldn't do the after-work drinks where all the networking was done
      and deals were struck. For her, motherhood was "like being in a three-
      legged race with a ball and chain on the legs". Her solution to the
      problem was to send Daisy, now 11, to boarding school in the Lake
      District. (Daisy's father and grandparents live close by and provide
      a stable home life for her.) In the holidays, Daisy often flies out
      to join her mother and the two of them take off on travel

      As we wander back to Ridley's villa, with its airy rooms and marble
      floor, I comment that private education doesn't come cheap. She gives
      me a semi-smile. "In my bleakest, blackest moments I look at Daisy
      and I think: 'Porsche Boxster!' "

      Ridley has no zeal to convert the rest of the world to Islam, and is
      happy for Daisy to be brought up a Christian - although "of course,
      it's a very good stepping-stone to Islam." In the background, the
      call to prayer echoes through the windows. I ask her if she prays
      five times a day, as good Muslims are supposed to do. She says she
      tries to, although she hasn't appeared to do so while I have been
      with her - despite having heard the call several times already.

      The indiscriminate bombing of civilians during the war in order to
      destroy Afghan morale affected Ridley more than anything before or
      since. As a result of her disgust, she contacted the anti-war
      campaigner and Labour MP, Alan Simpson. He persuaded her to talk at
      the Stop the War Coalition rally in Trafalgar Square in September
      2002. Since then, she has travelled across the world addressing anti-
      war conferences, meetings and rallies.

      Her retainer with the Sunday Express ended in February 2003 and,
      shortly afterwards, al-Jazeera offered her a job as senior editor of
      its English-language website. Life at the new job was rosy to start
      with but, within six months, a secretary from the office was sent
      round to her home with the message: "You've been terminated."

      Her dismissal has never been fully explained by the news station,
      though a spokesman cites "administrative reasons". Reading between
      the lines, it seems that Ridley was just more trouble than she was
      worth. Not only did she attempt to set up the first branch of the
      National Union of Journalists in the Middle East, but her reports on
      the conduct of US soldiers in Iraq are also said to have angered the
      White House. When al-Jazeera suggested she sign an inferior contract,
      Ridley refused. In retaliation, her former employers declined to
      sanction her exit visa and so, when I visited her, she was stuck in
      Doha, twiddling her thumbs while the lawyers tried to thrash out the

      Unprompted, she reveals that al-Jazeera is sitting on several Osama
      bin Laden videotapes, none of which has been released because of
      White House fears that they will incite more terrorist attacks. She
      then mentions that the UK intelligence services called her in for
      questioning after her business cards were found on terrorist
      suspects. With a certain panache, she refused to be questioned in
      Scotland Yard and, instead, insisted on meeting her interviewers in
      Patisserie Valerie on London's Old Compton Street. With rows of
      croissants and strawberry tarts sitting prettily behind the glass
      counter, she told the officers firmly: "If I was involved in anything
      suspicious, do you think I'd be stupid enough to give my card to a
      known suspect?"

      Next, Ridley brings up the subject of possible sleeping al-Qaida
      terrorist cells in the UK. "My theory is that MI6 knows full well who
      some of the players are," she says. "I suspect there is an unwritten
      agreement that nothing [terrorist attacks] will happen in the UK, so
      long as MI6 is kept in the loop." I ask her how she has come to this
      conclusion, and her answer is simple. "Through talking to people from
      all backgrounds - the intelligence service, the Muslim world ..."

      Later that evening, we visit a restaurant close to her home. The food
      is delicious, although Ridley, now swathed in dramatic black robes,
      eats little and instead puffs cherry tobacco from a large, ornate
      hookah. A few of her former colleagues from al-Jazeera join us. They
      are all British Muslims, bright and younger than Ridley. They have an
      open affection for her and, when the conversation is not centred on
      office gossip, they tease her gently. She entertains everyone with an
      anecdote from her Taliban odyssey. The last few days of her
      incarceration were spent in a Kabul jail, where a group of
      evangelical Christian missionaries were imprisoned. They were accused
      of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, a charge they hotly
      denied. When Ridley made a second trip to Afghanistan the following
      year, she discovered that the Christians' headquarters had been
      located right next door to Osama bin Laden's former house. They had
      had no idea.

      Ridley's first novel, Ticket to Paradise, has just been published in
      the US. Rife with thinly disguised scandal, it is likely to stir up a
      hornet's nest in Fleet Street. More novels and a move into politics
      look likely; she is considering standing for the European parliament.
      She has no regrets about the path her life has taken. The sobriety
      that has come with her new lifestyle has made her realise that much
      of her old confidence was founded on alcohol.

      "I don't know how long my celebrity/notoriety is going to last, but I
      am going to use it for as long as I am able, to highlight injustices
      and atrocities," says Ridley. "Hopefully, it will change perceptions,
      or at least get people talking more about what is happening - and how
      bombs and bullets are not necessarily the answer."

      ยท This interview appears in full in the March 2004 edition of Harpers
      & Queen.



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