Woman Around Town: Robin Wright—Fearless Historian

Robin Wright has reported from more than a 140 countries on six continents for such prestigious publications as the Los Angeles Times, The Sunday Times of London, The Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.

Wright, who thinks of herself more as an historian than a reporter, covered the wars in Angola, The Congo, and Rhodesia. “I lost a great love of my life in the Rhodesian Civil War. People don’t understand the risks taken by foreign correspondents.”

But for a generation of television viewers the part of the world where Wright is best known for her reporting is the Middle East, where she’s been an eyewitness to extraordinary transformations. She covered Middle East wars as well as the first phase of peace between Egypt and Israel. In the 1970s, Wright covered the Shah of Iran as well as the revolution that ousted him. And, she covered Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980s, and with Kuwait in the 1990s, and then flew into Baghdad weeks after he was ousted in 2003. Along the way, Wright has talked to thousands of people, gaining perspective and insights about the region and its complicated history.

Today, Wright is especially sought after for lectures and appearances to opine on the region. She is also preparing to launch her latest book, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World. She offers, “I’ve been covering the region now since the 1973 war, and I’m normally pessimistic about it and therefore normally right. But what I found in going back and spending a year going to all 22 countries, was that there is, within societies, a budding culture of change.”

Talking with Wright was particularly relevant given the “Arab spring,” which really caught the attention of most in the West with the crisis in Egypt. “Egypt is the heart and intellectual center of the Arab world,” Robin says, adding that you need to categorize the region in three different tiers: 1) the Egypt/Tunisia tier where you have strong militaries who played a decisive role early on in their respective crises; 2) a middle tier such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, where the militaries at least initially sided with the regimes ; and 3) a third tier, such as the Gulf states, which in most cases have the money to “buy-out” their public with economic perks such as housing and jobs.

Ever the historian, Wright gives a great primer as background for the current situation, stressing that the Middle East is not really one place, so “change will have many faces.” The peoples, histories, religions, political systems, and economies actually differ widely among countries, even within them. It’s the world’s only bloc spread across two continents—spreading from northern Africa to western Asia. Saudi Arabia has strict Sunni religious rule, while Iran is a Shiite-dominated Islamic republic with a constitution that draws on European law. Syria and Libya are secular states based on socialist ideologies. Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco are still ruled by traditional monarchies. Languages and dialects differ too. Wright refers to an occasion where using English and French, she translated between Moroccans and Saudis who could not understand each other’s Arabic because of different dialects. And, most Iranians speak Farsi and “ haughtily note” their Indo-European rather than their Arab roots.

The largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel is also in Iran, which still has kosher butchers, Jewish schools, synagogues, and a first-rate hospital favored by many of the ayatollahs.

I mention the near fear-like view among some Americans toward Islam. Wright blames the fear on ignorance and misunderstanding. “Islam embraces Judaism and Christianity, including Abraham and Jesus and the only woman mentioned in the Koran is the Virgin Mary.” A better understanding of Islam is critical as Wright believes that the “only way we’re going to win [the war against terrorists] is by aligning ourselves with moderate Muslims against the extremists.”

When I ask Wright if there is any particular leader she finds impressive, I stereotypically use the pronoun, “he” to which Robin quickly retorts, “Youth and women are the engines for change. They are developing a voice and using it,” adding that “they are the ones taking on the world’s most difficult leaders.” She also ascribes much of the Arab spring momentum to technological changes, especially the Internet and social media, allowing for quick communication and the power to organize. She cites as an example the effect of technology in Iran in 2009 and its impact on the current situation in Egypt. The wide-spread Egyptian sentiment was: If a society as rigid as Iran was daring enough to take to the streets, we can too. Wright also points out that the Arab spring of 2011 shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. “It’s been in the cards for six years.”

And, what about the U.S. government’s response to the Arab spring? Wright is far from complementary. “For 60 years, both Democrats and Republicans have given lip service to democracy but haven’t done much. Policy makers on both sides of the aisle have long believed that the issue was stability with autocrats or instability with democrats.” She believes that because the U.S. sided so long with autocrats, such as Mubarak, we’re likely to face greater uncertainty in parts of the region where there are often no obvious successors and few, well-organized opposition parties. But in talking to Wright, you sense a certain optimism despite the uncertainty. Patience is important along with a long-term view. As she rhetorically asks, “How long did it take blacks and women to get the right to vote after the Civil War in this country?”

Given her nomadic life, it begs the question: Why did a woman coming of age in the 60’s embark on a career that took her away from the comforts of home and family. Wright, who’s never married but admits to two great loves, cites spending time in boarding school in Europe as a teenager as initially spurring an interest in foreign travel and affairs. A stint as a sports reporter for the school newspaper at the University of Michigan also peaked an interest in journalism. Besides, her books are “her babies.”

Recently, she was invited to speak at the commencement of her alma mater, the University of Michigan, where the focus of her address was fear. Given that this petite (barely five feet tall) woman has traveled all over the world covering revolutions and wars, it seems like an odd choice of topics for someone like Wright. But, she recalls as a little girl growing up in Michigan that she was afraid to even walk to school by herself. Having covered wars and revolutions, she certainly has cause to know fear well. So what is her message to Michigan’s class of 2011: “Listen to your heart and head, don’t let your fears dictate what you do.” Robin Wright is clearly testament to that message.

Click to Pre-Order on Amazon Rock the Casbah, Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World

Other Books by Robin Wright:

Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Asia Nora, which is now closed, alas.
Favorite Place to Shop: Whole Foods or the Internet. No time for real thing.
Favorite D.C. Sight: Hard to choose in Washington, but I have a special fondness for the giant Einstein memorial. The sculpture is big enough that kids sit in his lap. It’s a hidden treasure.
Favorite D.C. Moment: After covering a dozen wars over ethnic, racial or religious tensions, the inauguration of Barack Obama for the symbolism of a nation that, finally, is becoming a melting pot.
What You Love About D.C.: I’ve traveled to more than 140 countries, lived in Rome, and been to Paris and Jerusalem dozens of times, but Washington is an exquisite place to come home to. I see the skyline and feel the history every day in a capital city that can still feel like home.
What You Hate About D.C.: The downside is Pepco. In the world’s mightiest country, my electricity has gone out a half dozen times in the past year.

About Robin Weaver (53 Articles)
Robin Weaver is a lawyer with over 20 years experience in strategic communications, government affairs and tax planning with a Fortune 100 company. She enjoys reading, especially history and biography, traveling, and movies. A life-long Anglophile, she also enjoys Jane Austen, George Eliot, and trips to London. Having grown up in Pittsburgh, she remains a loyal Steeler fan. For Woman Around Town, her stories focus on careers.