You might have read Ben Taub's New Yorker cover story about teenagers who join ISIS or the humanitarian crisis in Chad. As a staff writer at the magazine, Ben’s beat ranges from in-depth reporting on the war in Syria to the impact of Hurricane Harvey. We spoke to him about how he got into journalism, about the summer he spent on the Turkey-Syrian border, and the most important lesson he learned there.
You graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Princeton in 2014. What was it that led you to thinking about a career in journalism?
When I was a sophomore in college, I followed a girlfriend to Cairo. She worked for a refugee-rights organisation, a few blocks from Tahrir Square, and over the course of several weeks I became totally overwhelmed by the feeling that, for the first time, I was witnessing something that mattered. It was the summer of 2011; Mubarak had been deposed, and the Arab Uprisings were reshaping the region. I had no sense of whether these events would turn out positively or negatively, only that they were historic. I couldn't speak Arabic, and I had no excuse, as journalists do, to pull aside locals to ask about the changes in their neighbourhood and their country. After returning to college, I started taking journalism classes, to try to make sense of what we had seen. The next year, I took a year off school, worked on a music project, and travelled back to the Middle East, to learn about freelancing in difficult environments.
That summer, you went to the Turkey-Syrian border, supported by a grant from Princeton’s Council of the Humanities (and the stipend you received from being a contestant on The Voice). What piqued your interest in travelling to Syria in the first place?
My first journalism professor was Deborah Amos, a Middle East correspondent for N.P.R. She guided me to the Turkish-Syrian border, and put me in touch with a few people she knew, to help me navigate these areas without taking uncalculated risks. My intention was to try to understand how foreign correspondents work by spending time on the fringes of the Syrian war. I lived in shabby hotel, in a small Turkish town called Kilis, about three miles north of the Syria. Although Kilis is shielded from most of the violence by the international border, from my window I could hear bombings, and see airstrikes on the horizon. Ambulances sped up the border road, carrying injured Syrians to Kilis’s hospitals and clinics. It was impossible to not get swept up in the stakes of this war, seeing civilian casualties and their families cross the border each day.
Although Kilis is shielded from most of the violence by the international border, from my window I could hear bombings, and see airstrikes on the horizon.
You returned to Kilis a year later, and met two Belgian fathers on the hunt for their jihadi sons. What was the most important lesson you learned while there?
Because Kilis is a major crossing point for Aleppo, there were many journalists, aid workers, jihadis, and weapons smugglers passing through it in one direction, and refugees passing through it in the other. My initial plan was to learn from professional journalists about how they protect their sources, and how they navigate logistical and security considerations for working in war zones. Instead, as the weeks progressed, ISIS infiltrated both sides of the border, and I became enmeshed in the hostage crisis, after an acquaintance was abducted. By the end of that summer, I had learned about security practices in the worst possible way: by watching people get killed for their mistakes.
Instead, as the weeks progressed, ISIS infiltrated both sides of the border, and I became enmeshed in the hostage crisis, after an acquaintance was abducted.
In 2015, you completed your Master of Arts in Politics from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. That year, your thesis – Journey to Jihad, a 9,000-word piece investigating European jihadi pipeline – ran as a cover story in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker. What was your dominant feeling once you saw it published?
Utter terror. I remember thinking: ‘This is it. I’ve peaked at twenty-four. It can only go downhill from here’.
At the Festival, you will be speaking about the role of storytelling in a time of ongoing conflict. You often write first-person experiential journalism (I’m thinking of ‘We Have No Choice’). Is that an intentional mode of storytelling?
It’s more of a tool to help guide the reader through disparate geographies or timelines. That piece took me through four countries and a rescue boat in the Mediterranean, and the chronology was a mess, partly because I met Blessing, the trafficking victim who became the focus of the piece, in the moment that she was rescued at sea. After disembarkation, I went to Nigeria and found her mother, and set off along the path Blessing had taken across the Sahara—but six months after she had done so. (She had spent several months in detention, in Libya.) And so I had to ground what had happened to her in the stories of traffickers, smugglers, migrants, and captives whom I met in her wake. Then, when I had finished reporting in Africa, I went back to Sicily, to search for her in migrant camps. By that time, she’d been in Italy for two months, and she was beginning to grapple with the reality that her life in Europe would never be how she had imagined it. Today, more than a year-and-a-half after the rescue at sea, she still lives in a camp, and the Italian government hasn’t processed her application for asylum.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I’ll never get over the fact that it allows me to seek out the people whom I find most interesting, and that they’re usually willing to talk to me...