Natalia Sancha is a Spanish reporter, journalist, writer and photographer, born in Andalusia in 1979. She spent the ﬁrst 10 years of her life in Algeria and has been, ever since, attracted by the Middle East. Her fascination with the Arab World motivated her to pursue a BA in Journalism, which she later completed with a Political Science Masters from Science Po Paris and an additional Masters in Arab Studies as a Fulbright scholar from the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Natalia’s academic background is nothing less than impressive. Also, she is multilingual and is, therefore, ﬂuent in Spanish, Arabic, English and French. She currently is the Correspondent of El Pais newspaper in Syria & Lebanon, the most read and inﬂuential daily in Spain and in Latin America; and has been living in Lebanon since 2008.
Tylia holds a Masters in Political Communication from City University London. Media, Communication and Politics are her main interests. Tylia is also an affirmed foodie and a passionate cook. twitter @TyliaHelou
I met Natalia on an early Tuesday morning in a coffee shop in Beirut. Despite her busy schedule, she was kind enough to share with Kamsyn her experience as a woman journalist, reporter, writer and photographer in the Middle East.
Have you always wanted to become a journalist / reporter / photographer?
Yes, for as long as I can remember ! At ﬁrst, I mostly wanted to be a photographer. Since I was not able to study photography in Spain at the time, I decided to study journalism instead, because I liked writing and I was always interested in covering important events and telling people about it.
How would you explain this particular attraction to the Middle East?
I grew up as an economic immigrant. Spain’s economic situation was not good when I was growing up. The economy was not open in Spain and in Europe as it is the case now. A lot of Spanish citizens had to ﬂee Spain and look for jobs elsewhere. We liked to call ourselves expats but I think we were immigrants, just like the Syrian immigrants; the only difference is that we were immigrants due to economic and ﬁnancial reasons. My family ended up in Algeria, so I grew up surrounded by the Arabic culture.
I used to take a few lessons in Arabic when I was a kid at school. But once I got back to Spain, I must have been 19 at the time, I did not speak Arabic ﬂuently.
So one day around my twenties, I opened my closet and found a notepad ﬁlled with scribblings written in a language I could not understand. I noticed that the scribblings were written in a child’s handwriting. I asked my mom: ‘Mom, was this mine ? Did I write all this ?’ and she replied: ‘Yes, that used to be your daftar !’ (copybook in Arabic). I was so frustrated that I decided to learn Arabic until I was able to understand what was written on that notepad. So, whenever people ask me ‘Why are you so interested in the Middle East?’ I answer: ‘Because the cat was on the window’! This is the exact sentence that was written in Arabic on my notepad: Al kittatou 3ala el naﬁza!
As a woman, do you ﬁnd it difﬁcult to be an active journalist, reporter & photographer in the Middle East ?
No, not really. I don’t know if this is the case in Europe and other regions of the world, but in the Middle East, you are deﬁnitely treated with respect. For example, I have less chances of getting beaten up in the midst of a protest than a male co-worker. I also have more chances of getting a full access to a funeral. Indeed, I can be allowed into the ‘women section’ because I am a woman, and also be allowed into the ‘men section’ because I am a journalist. I am, therefore, privileged with this double-status that does not make me a foreigner or a local. My physique also helps a lot in granting me access to certain places, because of my dark features. In addition, I speak Arabic. So, Arabs really appreciate it when they see that you’ve invested yourself in learning their language, and they deeply respect you for it.
In your opinion, which reportage was the hardest to cover and why ?
Syria was deﬁnitely hard to cover. I covered it for 8 years, but these last 5 years were the worst. I have witnessed colleagues and friends losing everything they had: houses, properties, money, family members, and eventually, their minds.
But, the reportage that shocked me the most was Lesbos. I was there last summer covering the arrival of the refugees. Just minutes before their ships got to the shore, I was able to see on their faces, and in their eyes, what the past years of war did to them. They had to leave everything behind. As soon as they arrived, I saw men in their 50s crying, and that’s the moment I understood how much they have suffered and how much they have endured. It was crazy, It’s not something you see everyday ! Arab men are very tough and do not cry easily !
You extensively covered the Egyptian Revolution. What were the challenges you had to face while on the job ?
I arrived in Egypt on the day of the ‘Battle of the Camel’. It was very difﬁcult for everyone in terms of violence, because there were people on checkpoints looking for foreigners to beat up. It was also very difﬁcult for women to get to Tahrir Square. The protest was massive. Hundreds and hundreds of men were ﬁghting each other and there was like a line of demarcation between them, so much it looked like a World War ! It was really dangerous, a lot of people got injured.
Then, you had the threat of sexual harassment. I remember that there was a TV presenter that was raped in the middle of Tahrir Square ! A lot of women were abused, touched or molested at some point. Every time you would see a guy lurking in a dark corner, you would think to yourself ‘I better hurry and move to a safer place’. All in all, the whole experience in Egypt was chaotic and very intense. Nevertheless, it was beautiful to see people from different generations and from different social classes, working together towards the same goal. It was this trans-class and trans-economic status that was beautiful to witness. These ﬁrst days in Cairo were the true representation of the Egyptian Revolution.
While covering the Egyptian Revolution, which scene or memory impacted you the most ?
There were many memorable moments, but I think the one that impacted me the most was the day we thought that Moubarak was stepping down (the ﬁrst time around!). Tahrir Square was packed and the masses were chanting ‘Erhal! Erhal!’ (Leave! Leave!). Everybody was kissing each other and hugging each other. Every single person was elated. It was really nice to be a part of it!
Was it hard for you to work in a climate of political tension and uprisings ?
I think it is hard for everyone, because we are not used to this level of violence. Also, trust me, it is really not fun when you risk being beaten up! At that moment in time, you cannot function rationally. You’re neither a man nor a woman: you’re a journalist and therefore you’re a target. So, if you think that you can reason and talk, you’re mistaken. You have to run and run fast!
Have you received any training in war reportage ?
I just did ! I thought it was about time after 10 years ! These courses are very expensive, especially if you’re a freelancer and you get paid by article, because you have other important expenses to meet, like ﬂight tickets, insurance, equipment etc. This kind of training is a necessity, in my opinion, but the catch is that you need to take additional courses over the years (like once or twice a year) to refresh your memory and learn about new techniques and practices. Before taking this training course, you could say that I only relied on my instincts and common sense, obviously!
On your twitter account biography, you mention that you are based in Lebanon. How would you describe your connexion to this country?
This relationship I have with Lebanon is like a marriage. You keep wanting to get a divorce but you stay married ! It is really a love-hate relationship. I have been living in Lebanon for 8 years, so I went through different phases.
First, I fell in love with this country. Then, somewhere down the road, I started hating it because of the electricity, water and trash crises. Currently, I think it is safe to say that I’m in a stable relationship, but in like all relationships that does not mean we do not have our ups and downs ! It’s a beautiful country of contrast and chaos. It’s both exciting and exhausting. You give a lot to the city and yet the city never gives back as much – it can feel ungrateful. In addition, living here is as expensive as living in Paris ! But, you know, since I’m still living here, it must mean that I’m still in love!
What is the importance of El Pais covering the region, knowing that Spain plays an important role within the UNIFIL and stands historically next to Lebanon for promoting Peace-building and Stability ?
El Pais is a prominent newspaper in Spain and is widely distributed in South America. You can deﬁnitely ﬁnd it in Venezuela and Brazil, as well, where a lot of Lebanese and Syrian
expats live. Moreover, the Spanish people are very interested in the Syrian war, the Palestinian conﬂict and especially the UNIFIL, since Spanish soldiers are based there.
Also, Spain is 14 km away from the Maghreb and is located on the Southern border of Europe. Its interest in the Middle East is therefore justiﬁed. More importantly, the Spanish and the Arabs are neighbours due to historical reasons. Arabs were in Spain for over 7 centuries and so it is natural for Spain to be interested in the Middle East.
Are there any future plans or projects you would like to tell us about ?
I am currently waiting for my visa to go to Yemen. It will only be a two-week trip because it’s very expensive to go there and it’s very heavy on the brain ! I went to Yemen last summer and I would like to go back to follow up on what is going on there, because the Yemeni conﬂict is poorly covered by the media. Firstly, because of the embargo on the media, so it is very difﬁcult for journalists to enter the country. Secondly, because it seems that somehow the world is not interested in this country.
Would you have a piece of advice for aspiring young journalists in the Middle East who wish to pursue this career ?
My ﬁrst is: work very hard. Take your time because media nowadays is focused on immediacy, which is not necessarily a good thing. The good reportages and stories take time. Dedicate enough time to your stories and allow yourself to go in-depth on whatever project you’re working on. Do not think that if you’re in Syria and that you’re risking your life that you will automatically be an acclaimed reporter and that you will get a ton of job offers. It does not work that way ! The minute you step out of the ﬁeld, you are irrelevant. Consequently, make sure you get to work on things you like and are passionate about. Also, do not accept to work for free for a very long time. Do not let the industry exploit you. If you cannot live off this career, or make ends meet, try having a job on the side.
Most importantly : stay objective. In Syria, for instance, people kept asking me ‘On which side are you ? The Government or the rebels ?’ and I kept answering: ‘I am on neither side. The only side I take is the civilians’ side’.
Follow Natalia on twitter: @NinaRev