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How a 24-year-old San Jose woman became a media liaison for Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
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Halima Kazem holds out a photograph she took in Kabul, Afghanistan, of a gray building several stories tall, built against a steep hill. "This is the hotel my parents got married in," says the 24-year-old Kazem, tapping a finger against a gash running the width of the building's midsection. "A rocket hit it here, but the hotel's still functioning. They just don't walk through that hallway anymore."That's life in Kabul, and as Kazem thumbs through the dozens of pictures she brought back from her summer in the war-torn capital of Afghanistan, her matter-of-fact remembrances could easily be mistaken for those of a tourist. But Kazem didn't go to Kabul to take photographs; she went to arrange photo opportunities for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

From May to August, Kazem, a San Jose resident and recent journalism graduate of New York University, served as one of two media liaisons for the then-interim (and now duly chosen) president. As the only woman working in the Presidential Palace, Kazem played a groundbreaking role in the new government, establishing a media-relations office, developing a handbook on interacting with the press, and teaching government officials how to respond to the media. Although she deliberately stayed out of policy decisions, Kazem wrote news releases, answered phones, arranged interviews, and became the first reliable point of contact for a new government that quickly realized the necessity of using the media effectively.

"When I got there, the journalists were so frustrated -- some of them had been waiting two months to interview the president," says Kazem, who is refreshingly candid when she speaks about her pioneering work in Kabul. "Most of the reporters were parachute journalists -- they were being parachuted into a country where they didn't have the language skills, they didn't know the country, and they're forced to cover it. If there's a system, great, but if there's no system, they're at a loss. They have to just take what people tell them. Everything was spin, and if you can't distinguish between spin and reality, something's wrong.

"There were a lot of reporters who said, 'Thank God you're here.'"

Kazem was born in Kabul in 1977, two years before the Soviet invasion. Shortly after Kazem's birth, her father, then the dean of economics at Kabul University and a co-founder of the pro-democracy Afghan National Unity Party, was imprisoned by Afghan soldiers working for the new Communist regime. He spent two years in jail, where many political dissidents died under the strain of torture, and was released after ostensibly agreeing to help the government's cause. He persuaded officials he could best aid them by working outside the country, and when Kazem was only 2, her family fled Kabul and moved to London, where Kazem's father pretended to work for the Afghan government. Two months later, assisted by former colleagues at the University of Bochum, where he had earned his economics degree 10 years earlier, Kazem's father secured political asylum in Germany. In 1981, the family members were granted status as political refugees in the United States. Kazem and her family eventually settled in San Jose, where her father started a catering business for Silicon Valley businesses while he continued to write and speak about the need for a democratic movement in Afghanistan.

Her background in political and economic discourse drew Kazem to journalism, and she began working for Afghan Radio in Fremont when she was 15. After attending San Jose State, she enrolled in New York University's business journalism master's program, but following Sept. 11, 2001, she rushed to finish her degree in just two semesters because she sensed her knowledge of Afghanistan would be in huge demand. "I must have done a dozen or so panels, a lot of TV shows and things like that in New York," says Kazem, who had a contract to write a children's book about Afghanistan that stalled after the terrorist attacks. "Everything just snowballed after Sept. 11."

In the spring, she received an e-mail from an Afghan-American attorney who was looking for Afghan media professionals to help establish a media office in Kabul. Kazem's ability to speak the language, coupled with her background in business and journalism, made her the perfect candidate. But when she arrived at the Presidential Palace for her first day on the job, she discovered that establishing a media office meant, literally, establishing an office. "I went to my job on the first day and there was nothing there," she says with a chuckle. "It's like, 'Where's my desk? OK, I'll have to lug my own desk in.'"

Soon, Kazem realized her presence in the palace proved too distracting for other government officials. "There were men gawking constantly, because they'd never worked with a woman before," says Kazem, long black hair framing her friendly, bright-eyed face. "It wasn't the most comfortable situation." She set up another desk in a building that housed international consultants, and switched from wearing small scarves that only covered her hair to large ones that draped over her shoulders.

Kazem received between 200 and 300 calls a day on her cellular phone from the 2,000 journalists in Kabul covering the loya jirga, or grand council, where about 1,500 representatives from across Afghanistan convened to elect the new government's officials and debate its direction. The council brought a lot of rural people to a modern setting, and security concerns prohibited journalists from entering the tent hosting the deliberations. It fell to Kazem to take notes on the proceedings and distribute the information as best she could.

"The whole world's attention was on us," Kazem says. "And during one of the sessions, people began to walk out when the sun was setting. So the media reported that 300 people walked out when so-and-so was speaking, implying they weren't happy with what he was saying. Actually, it's prayer time when the sun sets, the fourth prayer of the day, so people were walking outside because they didn't want to miss their prayer time. But because the media weren't in the tent, and because nobody was there to give them the right information in a timely manner, they made mistakes. One wire service would run the story, and it would be in 15 newspapers before I could correct it."

At one point during the tumult of the loya jirga, Kazem was unexpectedly thrust into a new role. "I had to write one of the president's speeches," says Kazem, shaking her head at the memory. "I'm sitting in the loya jirga, my laptop's in front of me, and I'm typing this and that about economic policy. I plug it into the special envoy's printer, I hand it to the president, and within hours, he's saying my words. Luckily, he was very good at improv."

Working closely with so many different media outlets gave Kazem a unique opportunity to judge the differences between American and international media. Unsurprisingly, she found that Western media outlets -- especially the New York Times and Associated Press -- received preferential treatment.

"We'd have the Chinese News Service for all of China, and we'd have the New York Times, and everyone would say, 'Let the New York Times in,'" Kazem recalls. "And I would say, 'No, you have to recognize other countries, too. China has the world's largest population, this is our neighbor who we do a lot of trade with.' But people were more aware of the Western media."

And the Western media, Kazem says, were more aware of the war.

"When there was a bombing somewhere, I'd get a lot more calls from the L.A. Times, the New York Times, CNN, and the rest of the American-based media," Kazem says. "The U.S. media really focused on the violence and war, almost making it seem like a more dangerous place than it really was, to justify their coverage. That was apparent, that was very apparent. Not necessarily in what they were writing, but what they were writing about. The non-American media were around longer -- they were there for the different feature stories, rather than just the war."

A case in point: One evening, as Kazem was getting out of her car and entering her guest house, she heard tiny explosions down the street. A rich warlord had a compound next door, so she wasn't too surprised to look up and see a few bursts of fire at one of the doors.

"I looked, said, 'Glad it's not our door,' and went inside," Kazem says. "The next day, it was all over the papers: 'Rockets fired in Kabul's aristocratic neighborhood.' And they were little fireballs, probably firecrackers. But the media decided to focus on it. So now, when the news says Kabul is becoming more dangerous, I downplay a lot more of the information than I used to, because I've seen it with my own eyes."

Kazem has returned to the Bay Area for an internship at Business 2.0 magazine in San Francisco, but as she flips through her photographs of Kabul, she says she misses the city's contrast between modern and ancient, between the herds of sheep and honking taxicabs that share the downtown streets. One of Kazem's photos shows a group of grinning Afghan soldiers posing with her and a few female friends, and Kazem laughs fondly at the memory, and at the small changes she was able to effect.

"The soldiers were very happy to see women," she says. "So we took off our scarves sometimes, just to set a model and say, 'See? It's OK.'"

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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