Thursday, March 24, 2005

Good Women of the Times, part 2

Yes, the reporters in the New York Times whose work most speaks to me are women. Not that there aren't male reporters whose work I admire: Eric Lichtblau on the Justice Department beat comes to mind, perhaps because he interviewed me about our "no fly list" case. His stuff is solid, workmanlike, and that's a complement, given the sloppy repeating of transparent official fictions that too often passes for journalism. (Think one of my least favorite women reporters, Judith Miller, for example.) But Nina Bernstein and today's subject give the news a precisely detailed, visual, and humane vitality that few others match.

sengupta Somini Sengupta

While Bernstein delves into the dark corners of welfare offices in Queens, Sengupta travels the world. Since I've noticed her work, she's has reported from West Africa, Iraq and now South Asia. Considering the long route that led her to the Times, perhaps that should not be surprising:

Somini Sengupta was born in born in Calcutta, India. She lived in midwestern Canada for three short years, then was raised mostly in Southern California. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1988 with B.A. in English and Development Studies.

Sengupta worked as a radio producer, a cocktail waitress, and as a community organizer for a few years before joining the Metpro minority training program at the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1992. She was employed at Newsday on Long Island for two years and came to the New York Times metro section in October 1995. She served as West Africa bureau chief based in Dakar, Senegal, until moved to New Delhi in early 2005.


Sengupta's reporting from Iraq caught my eye because it highlighted how living with the horrendous mess the US has made there feels to ordinary Iraqis. In the summer of 2004, one of her stories was headlined "In Iraq, the Most Coveted Item is Now a Passport." This story not only reports the frustration and anger of Iraqis who hope to emigrate to escape daily violence and chaos under occupation, but also the quiet desperation of young people whose only hope of employment is abroad. Just as poor South Asians and Filipinos brave the dangers of Iraq to take menial jobs for the conquerors, Iraqis are attracted to brokers who claim to offer jobs in Malaysia.

That promise brought three friends, all trained in Iraqi universities to teach Arabic, to the passport line this morning. One of them, Sami Jabbar, 29, was almost certain he would receive a two-year contract on a timber plantation in Malaysia. It would be his first trip out of Iraq.…

The company making the arrangements for Mr. Jabbar has already arranged to send 750 men from Nasariya, its chief, Abdul Rasoul Hussein, said in an interview in his office. In August, an additional 700 Baghdadis, all men in their 20's, are scheduled to be shipped off to Malaysia. Most are to be hired as loggers and drivers.

"If we found work here, we wouldn't be leaving," said Mr. Jabbar's friend, Sabah Abdul Hussein.


Brave as her reporting from Iraq seems, I found her accounts of West Africa even more audacious. Sengupta actually seemed to believe that her calling as a journalist was to communicate to ignorant readers in the United States what was behind the complex civil war in the Ivory Coast. For example, this article certainly helped me get a sense of the deadly social stew resulting from residual French meddling in its former colony mixed with indigenous greed for property and local concern for "pure bloodlines."

Now that Sengupta is in South Asia, she again is giving us a picture that mixes sociological analysis with telling detail. In Pakistan Is Booming Since 9/11, at Least for the Well-Off, she introduces readers to one of the boom's beneficiaries:

Umar Sheikh, 31, British-born, New York-trained and married to a woman from New Jersey, long dreamed of running his own restaurant. London was too expensive. New York was too risky. Karachi seemed just right.

His gamble, in this restive port city better known for its religious radicals than its ravioli, has worked so far. Limoncello, Mr. Sheikh's cozy Italian-inspired fine dining spot with lemon-colored walls and a kebab-free menu that features arugula and Norwegian salmon, is thriving.

… The well-off, at least, are living extremely well. …"I'm getting a lot of corporate heads, a lot of nouveau riche, people who come from abroad who are not necessarily wealthy but are educated about cuisine," said Mr. Sheikh, the son of Pakistani immigrants to Britain. "People want high-end products."


For some reporters, the emergence of Pakistani "yuppies" might have been enough, but Sengupta makes sure her readers know that there are other Pakistanis for whom the boom means little.

Kaneez Gazar, a housemaid in her 40's who came to Karachi to escape the grinding poverty of her own village, offered a smile when asked about her country's economic growth. "We earn, we eat," is how she put it.

Between her own earnings and those of her two daughters, also housemaids, the family brings in about $100 a month. Half of that goes to rent. The prices of sugar and butter have gone up. She must buy water from a private tanker. With her heart ailment and her daughter's chronic cough, there are medical bills to pay. Hanging over her head is a $420 debt for an older daughter's wedding.

Still, she says, life in Karachi has meant a measure of dignity. "At least I'm feeding myself," she said. "At least we get clothes and shoes."

It is Pakistan's deeply stratified society that makes some analysts skeptical of how and when the spoils at the top will filter down to those among the 150 million Pakistanis who still barely scrape by. A study last December by the Social Policy and Development Center, a Karachi-based research institute, reported that of every rupee of economic growth, 34 percent went to the richest 10 percent of the population, and only 3 percent to the poorest 10 percent.


This is the kind of reporting that makes checking out the Times every morning worthwhile.

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