Talking to my family
Foreign correspondents, give to know the country they cover, but they are nothing to do with it, very different for those who are from the patch they cover…. Journalists at the BBC world service facing lots of dilemmas. Today we hear from Diloram Ibrahimova who has been working for the BBC Uzbek service for the last eight years.
I left my country a decade ago, after being granted a fellowship to Oxford University to study Muslim minorities in the USSR, but by the time I arrived at Oxford, the USSR no longer existed – my country was now Uzbekistan. The BBC heard about me, when they were in the midst of setting up new service for Uzbekistan in the Uzbek language – I was first person they contacted, and one of the first people they hired.
Unlike British correspondents who broadcast about far-flung parts of the world they have no connection with, the stories we report on are often about people and events close to home, close to our families and our lives. About a year ago I arrived at work and logged onto the computer, scanning the news agencies for stories for that day’s programme. I saw the headline ‘FBI discovered human trafficking network” “the arrest of a couple from Russia”. Great story for our audience – there are so many women from my part of the world who get caught up in prostitution and trafficking. But as I scrolled down the computer screen the names of the ‘Russians’ looked familiar – very familiar. Sardar and Nadira –arrested for illegally bringing women to America as lap dancers. But… Sardar was doing cancer research at Texas University. I felt shocked, desperately embarrassed and ashamed – Sardar was married to my sister who died ten years ago. Now he and his new wife – arrested for human trafficking? I thought about how the story would sound to our listeners in our capital Tashkent, where half of them know either my family, or Sardar’s family. Then, I stopped thinking of myself and my thoughts turned to my nephew, my sister’s only son –Timur. Where did he fit into all this – where was he, in custody with his parents? In an American jail? He was fourteen and had only joined his father a few months ago to play his part in the American dream.
This story was no longer a news item; it had turned deeply personal. I had to act, to find where my nephew was. He needed me. I remember feeling uneasy when I first discussed my predicament with my colleagues. But when I told them the whole story, they gave me their total support. After a few phone calls I established that Timur was in Texan child protection agency care awaiting a court case in El Paso, Texas in a week’s time which would establish his fate. I’d never been to America before, but I knew I had to be at that court case, and evolve a strategy to help him. I decided to adopt Timur. The only way to guarantee he would remain within our family – for the sake of my dead sister and for the sake of my nephew. Time was against me as over twenty documents needed faxing, translating, endorsing. I got my US visa, two hours before the flight, which arrived in El Paso at midnight, on the eve of the morning court hearing. There were five lawyers sitting there in the courtroom facing me, I was representing myself. At that point I was acting only as a caring relative not as a journalist. But my profession helped me to establish the true facts; there was no network and no human trafficking or "modern form of slavery" as the prosecutor put it. All my ex-relative did was to invite three women from Uzbekistan on false pretences – claiming they had jobs at Texas University when in fact they went on to work in a night club.
The hardest thing for me to do in the courtroom was to establish where my family comes from – and this was important as I was negotiating with the lawyers on where the child would go. It took me an hour to explain that the child came not from Russia but from Uzbekistan, and if they wanted to send him back, he would return not to Moscow but to our capital, Tashkent. I was lucky – there was a globe in the courtroom, which I spun round to show them. With an Uzbek name and an Uzbek passport I felt the name of the BBC helped a lot – at least they had heard of that. The court agreed; and with the reluctant backing of the boy’s father, I was allowed to adopt him.
But I couldn’t relax yet – I only had a week to get Timur’s new travel documents, so he could enter Britain. I had to report to work back in London the following Monday morning. I felt a sense of extreme urgency that week as I negotiated with British and American and Uzbek officials. I have to credit the BBC for teaching me to work to a deadline. I was able to take my American Airlines scheduled flight and arrived in London with my new son. The following day, as the tragic events of September 11th unfolded, I realised how lucky I was to have left on time.
I was relieved to arrive back in Britain; it feels safe, secure and a good place to bring up my two boys. But If I think that I will spend the rest of my life in England it makes me feel uneasy. I came to this country as a person with my world outlook already formed, not as a child, and I had already passed many major life events– childhood, getting an education, falling in love, getting married, having my first child, and witnessing death, burying both my husband and my sister. If you want to replant a mature tree, sometimes you are not sure if it will adjust itself to the soil, but a young tree is easier to transplant – The realities here are just so very different to those I have grown up with.
When I first started working at the BBC Uzbek service eight years ago, one of the hardest things was finding a school I was happy with for my son Akbar then aged seven. And as a single parent, it was a search I had to do alone. That’s when I realised that I lacked a well-established circle of friends to guide me. Back home in Uzbekistan, my family are from the intelligentsia; I might have lacked summer holidays at the seaside, or an automatic washing machine. Yet our parents sent us to best schools in Tashkent. But arriving as a newcomer to London, I found myself lost, uncertain, on the same boat as poor Kurdish asylum seekers. And I didn’t just want any English education for my son, but the very best. The only school I was able to get into was many miles from our house, built in a Soviet style concrete block with thirty six children from different ethnic backgrounds in the class. Yet inside, the education was anything but Soviet. For a whole year Akbar seemed to do only singing and dancing. Where was the learning I was lucky enough to benefit from at that age – brought up in an old Soviet school – with grammar rules, memorising long poems and reciting my multiplication tables every morning?
It was at that time that my work became more demanding. I started doing nightshifts. A succession of childminders wondered in and out my home, they came from all over the world, from Turkey, Poland, Russians who tried to convert my son to Christianity in my absence. I realised I was losing him. What was the purpose of furthering my career if I was losing my son in the care of strangers? I had to act; yet I was very reluctant to threaten my new BBC job. In the end I found a weekly boarding school, it was private education, and my family helped. I felt it was somehow shocking that I had to pay for a decent education, and even today I feel a little embarrassed as deep in my heart I am a socialist.
As an academic in Uzbekistan, my father has been listening to the BBC for over 30 years – during the Soviet times he listened secretly under his pillow. Because our service is relatively new – we are not perfect. When I talk to my father over the phone, and there is a pause in the conversation, he says: ‘do you want to hear what I thought about today’s broadcast’ – ‘no’ I scream inside, I want to speak to you because I want to share things– like how my garden pond is flourishing, and I’ve managed to keep the fish alive, – on his last trip to UK he said “please I beg you don’t forget to feed them” – but all my father wants to talk about is the story on the Russian economy ‘It wasn’t balanced, one of your producers expressed his own opinion and he shouldn’t – we are clever enough to make our own judgment. Don’t treat us like primitive listeners, when you broadcast about Russia you give us background kalinka music –don’t put this clichéd music in the background to introduce us to a Russian story’. I often agree with my parents, they make good points – and I listen carefully. But when I speak to them over the phone what I really want is to be praised wholeheartedly without a grain of criticism. I’m still your child, I need to be loved just for me not praised or criticised as a representative of the BBC.
And yet my parents are also great sources of news and programme ideas. I sometimes feel awkward mentioning my parents as a source of information during our editorial meetings and discussions- but also I know they speak their mind, when a lot of other Uzbeks are silent and prefer not to discuss what’s really important with their children. I think their open-mindedness in a culture of reticence is an inheritance – My maternal grandfather was an Afghan trader who was arrested for being a foreigner and accused of spying. My father’s father spoke out during Stalin’s purges. In 1937 my grandfather was exiled to the Far East where he was shot – we still don’t know where he is buried. After that my father’s whole family was branded an enemy of the people.
There are days in our calendar, when our broadcasts highlight my own stake in the stories which I present to our listeners. Every year on the 9th of May, Russia celebrates Victory Day, victory over the German army in the Second World War. Uzbekistan recently decided to change its commemoration to ‘Remembrance day’ a different tone reflecting official reluctance to mark what many see as a victory by Russia, the imperialistic power. But my family always saw things differently. Three of my uncles were veterans – fighting in Berlin, in Budapest, and the Baltics – and their struggles and adventures during the war were something we digested with our mother’s milk – carrying wounded soldiers under German air attacks, blinded after surviving a tank explosion, and the part they played as liberators of Europe from Nazi Germany. I know their stories so well it’s as if I had lived their lives myself.
I am aware that my mother always listens carefully to the BBC on that day, with the memories of her three veteran brothers at the front of her mind. The way we present the day – matters to her. I feel personally that I have to give my uncles recognition for their suffering, especially as the national mass media always chooses to downplay the veterans. In our meetings when we discuss how we are going to cover ‘Remembrance Day’, my colleagues want to give a different perspective, one where the soviet veterans are mocked because of the piles of medals weighing down their chests. Not that there are many veterans left. I feel the pressure of my emotions and of my family’s past, yet I am aware that I have to keep my emotions from overwhelming me – after all I am a professional.
Being at the BBC, I have learnt to appreciate the values which lie at the heart of our broadcasts – balance, impartiality, challenging those in authority. These are values which were alien to the Soviet media that surrounded me as I grew up. But I’ve also learnt that while it may be great radio to do a Jeremy Paxman, you have to be careful about protecting a vulnerable interviewee – especially if he happens to be your father.
Two years ago a strong earthquake hit Ismit in Turkey. And as usual, my colleagues hunted round for an Uzbek speaking expert to interview – as you can imagine they aren’t too many Uzbek experts who are willing to speak! I was out from the office traveling, and they tracked down my father who is a seismologist. During the interview he explained how plate tectonics work and he also mentioned that his team had prepared a map of possible hazardous earthquakes and included Ismit as a high risk area. My colleague pressed my father – ‘why wasn’t it published, why you kept it secret’, my father was forced to reveal that the Uzbek officials had stopped him releasing his findings – in order not to strain Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey.
After the interview was broadcast, my father was summoned to the office of the director of the institute of seismology. The director was furious, worried that what my father had said would harm Uzbekistan’s relationship with Turkey. My father was forced to resign. My mother was angry with my father too, for being so outspoken. There were many family rows and sleepless nights. When I found out I felt awful that my work had placed my father in the middle of a scandal, but also frustrated with the authorities – after all he hadn’t committed any crime – only asked to give his expertise –, which he always does willingly – he’s an earthquake pundit. Now I am very careful to protect my father and try and ensure that my colleagues don’t go anywhere near my father’s phone number.
I realise that I have had a more ‘eventful’ life than many of contemporaries – but I have learnt to accept my life as it is – I don’t need sympathy or pity from other people. My role as a translator and broadcaster of happenings in my home country has made me appreciate these stories through my perspective as an insider outsider. My personal story and the story of my country are intermingled, and I look with an openness and optimism to the future, telling my country stories about it.