Extraordinary stories from the most interesting artists, writers, athletes, and thinkers on the kaleidoscope of Muslim experience.

Season two of This Being Human is proudly presented in partnership with TVO.

YASIR KHAN

Season 2

EPISODE 4 - YASIR KHAN

Yasir Khan has covered wars, revolutions, and has chased camels through the Australian Outback. As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he has worked for outlets including CBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Euronews, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Thomson Reuters Foundation. He talks about lessons from his career, including how he avoided becoming the “Muslim correspondent,” and how empathy may have literally saved his life.

ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Welcome to This Being Human…I’m your host Abdul Rehman-Malik. On this podcast from the Aga Khan Museum I talk to extraordinary people from all over the world whose life, ideas and art are shaped by Muslim culture. 


NADIR NAHDI:

There's a new generation that has a very unique to how they see themselves as young Muslims in the modern world. 


TANYA MUNEERA WILLIAMS:

I am this wide-eyed girl. I'm like, I want it all, I want to experience it all.


GINELLA MASSA:

Everyone has a story. Sometimes you just have to ask and find out what it is.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Like the poem that inspires this podcast, The Guest House, by Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we’re talking to people who seek meaning and joy in work and life…regardless of what the day brings. 


YASIR KHAN: People like you and I should be done explaining why we exist, why we are in a place. We have every right to be here and we should stop explaining ourselves. And man, the power you get from doing that is immense. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: This show, This Being Human, wouldn’t be what it is without YASIR KHAN. A few years back, Yasir was one of the people who helped develop it, knowing that deep conversations about modern Muslim life and culture were largely missing on the podcasting landscape. But he’s not here today because he’s a friend, which he is. He’s here because he is a force in the news industry, and because we always have great discussions about faith and about our place as brown, Muslimish men in the world. Yasir recently became Editor-In-Chief of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charity that produces news about systemic issues around human rights, media freedom and climate change. Before that, he held major roles at places like Al Jazeera, Euronews and the CBC, first as a documentary filmmaker, and later as a news boss. Yasir doesn’t like to talk about himself much. He prefers to be a fly on the wall or behind the camera. And it’s a role he’s perfected, whether that means embedding himself in conflict zones around the world, being the only Muslim in the newsroom, or training the young people who would eventually document the Arab Spring for the world. We started our conversation by talking about those early days when the Museum and the production team were figuring out what this show should be.


YASIR KHAN: You know, one of my pet peeves when people talk about Muslim art, Muslim culture and Muslim contribution to society and to humanity is that we talk about dead people. People who have been dead for hundreds of years. Whereas there are people alive who are Muslims or, you know, quasi-Muslims or whatever, however they identify themselves, who are alive today, who are creating a living culture and living art. And we never talk about them. The other thing, you know, that I was really adamant on was...came from a joke that I heard this comedian Maz Jobrani, who's this Persian American comedian from California when he said, You know, for once I'd like to turn on the television and I'd like to see a Muslim just making a cookie. Hello, my name is Muhammad. I'm going to make a cookie now, and that's all there is to it. And you know that that really stuck in my mind and I said, what I would really like to help make is something where people don't come on and talk about how Muslim they are. Or the role Islam plays in their life. All I want them to be is, they just happen to be Muslim, and they're doing amazing things. You remember when you were first throwing around titles for this podcast, what, what do we call it? We called it the League of Extraordinary Muslims. You remember that? 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: I do. I do. 


YASIR KHAN: Yeah, this is what we wanted to what we eventually gravitated towards, which is, you know, people who are alive today who happen to have Islam in their lives in some way, shape or form, who are doing interesting things and that was all there was to it.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: At the heart of it, you are a journalist who is at the cutting edge of breaking stories, you're running a newsroom whose mission and purpose it is to explore the thorniest, most difficult issues facing humanity. You've been in war zones, you have covered people in distress, you have been around trauma and hurt, and you've made sense of it for your audience. How has your identity fit into that work that you have done and are doing? 


YASIR KHAN: What my work has done for me over the course of all these years of covering all of that is helped my own identity to evolve. And also realize that my identity is not stagnant or fixed. The more I see of the world, the more it impacts me, and the more I change. And the more my view of things changes. So, you know, for me, journalism has been part of my growing up as a human being. My journalism is what helped me discover my own humanity, the humanity of others, kicked off my crisis of faith and led me to where I see myself as fitting into this world today, taught me how to love the most despicable people on the planet. You know, it wasn't until I met really dodgy, awful people and I needed to tell the truth about them and I needed to portray them in a truthful light, you know, I would always look for what it is about you that I can love so I can truthfully tell your story. It's very, very difficult to do. But yeah, that's one of the things that journalism has done for me is develop that level of empathy where I can put myself in somebody else's shoes and see the world through their eyes. It doesn't always happen, but it happens more often now than it ever has. I also think it's made me a better parent because, you know, my daughter's eight now, and it's a joy to put myself in her shoes sometimes and to try to see the world through her eyes. And what that's done is it's made me a better listener, a better communicator with her. You know, I don't know if I can tell the story. I remember the first time she said the f-word. She was three, and she probably picked it up from me because I say it a lot when I'm on phone calls. And she knew it was wrong and she'd said it to her nanny at the time. And I was putting her to bed and she says to me, “Baba, I think I did something bad today.” I said, “Yeah, what did you do?” She said, I said the f-word to, you know, Miss Lenny who was the nanny. And I said, “Oh, my goodness.” And she said, “Is that bad?” And I said, “What do you think?” And she said, “Yeah, that's bad.” I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And she said, “I think I should say sorry.” And I said, “Well, look, go to sleep now. And if you wake up in the morning and if you still feel badly about it, you can go to her and you can tell her that you're sorry.” And I thought that was the end of it. And then, she says, “Baba, when can I say…” you know, the word. And I was stumped. Because if I had said to her, you can never say it, then you know it will become a thing. And if I had said to her, Yeah, sure, you can say it anytime you want, then it would become this other thing. And I didn't know what to do, and I think being a journalist helped me put myself in her shoes. And what I ended up coming up with was, I said, If something really, really, really bad happens and you come and ask me, and if I say yes, you can say it once. Because I think, to her, more than anything, this was a mysterious word, right? You know, it had all this power that she didn't understand. And it had all these consequences that she didn't understand. So I could put myself in her shoes and figure out the confusion that she must have been feeling at the time. And I thought, I need to take the mystery away and I need to take the power away, but I still need to maintain some degree of authority on this. And that's the best I could come up with. And hand on heart, it has never happened since. The word has never been spoken from that little mouth.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: It speaks to the tools, isn't it? That journalism and the art of journalism and the skills that grow out of it give us to navigate humanity. But I want to ask you, Yasir, you talk about finding humanity in the dark places. Give us an example of a time you had to find humanity in a dark place. 


YASIR KHAN: You know, there's not a dark thing that comes to mind right now because there's just been a lot of them and I think I filed a lot of them away, but I'll tell you something that being empathetic has helped me with. So, you know, I'm a smoker. And everybody is on my case to quit smoking. I've tried many times to do it. But you know, there have been times where having cigarettes on me has literally saved my life because I understand that feeling, right. So I used to cover the Sri Lankan Civil War. And because of the way I look, I'm dark skinned, I've got a goatee and at that time, I had dark hair, I would be mistaken by the Sri Lankan army soldiers as some kind of a Tamil Tiger official, just by the way I look. And I would always get yanked out of the car and you know, there'll be a gun pointed at me or whatever, and it would be a tense situation. And what I'd learned how to do is keep my pack of cigarettes in my breast pocket. And I would have my hands up and I wouldn't make eye contact. And I'd say, I'm a little stressed right now. Do you mind if I have a cigarette? And they'd say sure. And I'd say I'm slowly reaching for this. I'm not going to make any quick moves. I'd reach for the pack. I put one in my mouth and then I would look them in the eye and make eye contact, and I'd say, Would you like one? Because I know the stress of being at a checkpoint where you don't know if you're going to get blown up. And this happened a few times where I'd say, Would you like one? And invariably they'd say yes, but in order to take that cigarette, they would have to put the gun down. So you know, that level of using that empathetic relationship to make a friend at a tense moment. I mean, I couldn't have learned that in any other profession. 


STING


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You were in the guts of the newsroom when 9/11 happened. I remember that morning I was in a classroom teaching American history, and I don't know if you remember because I didn't reach you that morning. I called three friends at the CBC and you were one of them. 


YASIR KHAN: That's right.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: And I didn't reach you, but I reached a mutual friend of ours. 


YASIR KHAN: Yeah. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: And all I said to him was, “Is this really as bad as it looks?” He says, “Man, this is the realest thing that's ever happened.” 


YASIR KHAN: Yeah.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: How did that event affect your approach to your craft and your calling? 


YASIR KHAN: You know, it was such a strange day. I walked into the newsroom that morning. I'd already heard it on the radio, so by the time I got in, you know, things had already happened. And it was a different newsroom because, you know, journalists are told, especially in our – in places where we come from, journalists are told, you're not the story. And, you know, tell the story of, you know, the victim or this or that or whatever. But you are not the story, don't put yourself in the story. But guess what? We were human beings that morning. We were the story as well as everybody else. We were in a panic. We were scared. You know, my colleagues were scared. I was scared on multiple levels because, you know, and when you're a brown guy with a Muhammad in your name, you know this. You know what I'm talking about. And when stuff like this happen, you always go, I hope it's not somebody with a name similar to mine or, you know, whatever. You go, I just hope it's not a Muslim. But you know, this was a big deal. It was a very strange day. Everybody in the newsroom was scared. I walked in thinking, I just, you know, I hope this is not what I think it is. But, you know, people's minds were made up, right? You know, people's minds were made up. Those passports came out fairly quickly. It always amazes me that a guy can blow himself up to smithereens, but his passport always survives. I don't know how that happens, man. What if they made all of our airplanes with that same material that they make passports with? It would be a whole different world, right? So I walked in and I remember one of the producers coming up to me and saying, “Why do your people do such things?” And you know, it was in the Toronto newsroom of Canada's National Broadcaster. And again, you know, that was one of those moments I had to look for empathy. Right? She was scared. She was very scared because the whole thing was, well, where is it going to happen next? You know, is it coming here? And all I could say to her at that time is, “I'm in no mood to explain anything to you. And you're in no mood to listen. So we’re gonna have to park this and we'll have a talk about this at a later time. Right now, we've got work to do.” And then we got to work. I went off to the Toronto airport and the colleague that was with me, you know, had a complete sort of nervous breakdown. But in the days following, of course, you know what happened that day and everything that came afterwards, the war in Afghanistan and the, you know, the drumbeat for the war in Iraq and all of that really changed us as a community, changed me as a person, because all of a sudden people with a name like mine were on security lists. People who looked like me were suspect. Interesting things happened in the newsroom where all of a sudden, I called myself one of the few Mohammeds in the newsroom, right? And all of a sudden our newsroom realized, Oh my goodness, we've never paid attention to these folks. Or, you know, we only covered them as those strange people who live over there and smell funny and eat funny food and do funny dances and, you know, some of them blow themselves up and et cetera, et cetera, right? But all of a sudden newsrooms around the world realized, at least around the Western world realized we haven't really paid attention to these people. So all at once, there were a few things that happened as a Muslim journalist. You were put into jobs that you were clearly not qualified for. I was asked to be, you know, part of the investigative unit. I couldn't investigate my way out of a paper bag. I was a local reporter. You know, I started being offered opportunities because everybody wanted the Muslim journalist on their team. And there were two choices to make at that time. Either you go that way and your star would rise and you would see lots of opportunity, although I didn't know how long that opportunity would last. Or you could run the other way. I wanted no part of it. I went along for a little while and then I asked to be put at City Hall. Because what I realized at that time was we were also citizens. And I thought the best approach as people with Muslim names, Muslim faces, Muslim backgrounds and all of that was to become participants in the society that was going to otherwise eat us alive. This was existential for me and I chose to cover City Hall. I chose to cover, you know, health care. And I think that was a good decision, because it was a longer game than covering the terrorism stuff and being the guy who…yeah, I did, I did have this interesting conversation where I said, I want to go do City Hall. And somebody said, Well, no, no, we need your help covering these stories. I said, There's no way I'm covering those stories for you. I'll give you pronouncers. How's that? I'll teach you how to pronounce names. And somebody said, and I'm not even kidding, this is a quote. Somebody goes, Well, nobody's going to talk to a Whitey. And I said, Well, Whitey needs to do better then! All of a sudden it was like somebody had just discovered that a whole bunch of people exist, whom they had never really paid much attention to before.


STING


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You moved from Canada and you moved to the Middle East and eventually became the head of the, you know, English language video for arguably the most famed network outside of Europe and the United States and Canada, Al-Jazeera. Where you made some incredible documentaries. And you're right, now that I'm thinking through my mental list of Yasir's documentary work, your work was about a lot of different things. And there's one story which I remember you telling me about, ‘Camels in the Outback.’ 


YASIR KHAN: Yeah.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: And I had never heard about camels in the outback, and I was thinking to myself, what is Yasir doing chasing camels in the outback? And when you told me the story, it kind of all made sense. 


YASIR KHAN: You know, I've done a lot of important work in my career, but man, sometimes it really grates on me that that's the film that people know me for. Sometimes I get a kick out of it and I was like, you know, I've done more important work, but you know, it was a great story, wasn't it, and I think that's what sticks in people's minds. Basically, there was a newspaper clipping that the Australian government was going on a camel cull and was spending millions to cull these feral wild camels, and there millions of them because they were destroying like, you know, farmland and fences and water points and I was like how the hell did camels get into Australia? And by then I was getting a little exhausted with covering the Arab Spring. I mean, it had been full on since January 2011, and we had done Egypt, we had done Syria, we had done Libya, and we were telling one kind of story. And it was just a harrowing story to tell. And I thought, how can I take a break from this and go as far away from this as possible and still tell a good story? And this newspaper clipping that one of my colleagues brought, you know, about camels in Australia, I was like, Well, this is it. This is the ticket, isn't it? Australia is about as far we can get from the Arab Spring as possible, and we're going to do this story. The trouble was we needed to find a character who could help us empathize with and and think about these camels in an alternative way. Anyway, we took this country businessman, who is a former camel herder and was now a millionaire to Australia to, you know, because he was going there to see, you know, if there's an alternative to flying around in helicopters and shooting camels from them and leaving them for dead in the middle of the desert. And we found an incredible story. The incredible story is that in the mid-1800s and the early 1800s, white people were taking over Australia and they needed to map the country, and open up the country and set up railways and all that sort of thing. And horses were dying because, you know, horses are not built for that kind of arid environment. Cars were breaking down because they were not built for that kind of environment. And somebody said, let's bring in camels from what is present day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. And not only that, they brought in Indians or what they called Afghans to run these camels, and it was fascinating because you would happen upon this small town in the middle of the outback and you would see a cemetery. You walk into the cemetery and you'd see gravestones from the mid-1800s with Arabic on them and names like Jack Abdul, right? When the job was done, when the mapping job was done, the government, Australian government passed something called a Camel Destruction Act, which was, look, the camels have done their jobs. Now you lot who've been running these camels for all this time, just take them out back and shoot them. And of course these folks were like, that's never going to happen, so they'd literally let them loose. And the feral camels that you see in Australia today are the great great grandchildren of those camels. And they're the biggest camels I've ever seen. As big as houses. And yeah, so the film was about following this guy who was trying to figure out, is there a better way of dealing with these camels then than culling them and leaving them to rot? Yeah, one of the most fun films I've ever made in my life. We got to play a lot with a lot of things. And experience a culture, for example, I'd never met Australian Aboriginals before. And next thing you know, I'm in the middle of the outback having a Qatari man make coffee for a bunch of Australian Aboriginal farmhands drinking Arabic coffee in the middle of the Australian desert. It was just fantastic.


STING


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You're running a global newsroom from London. I want to think back to the young person I met at the University of Toronto and became friends with. I know you aspired to go into journalism, even though that wasn't your major at university and you ended up at CNN and you ended up at the CBC and you ended up at Al-Jazeera, and you ended up at Euronews. And now you're at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Wow, Yasir, it's been an incredible journey from those early years of dreaming and imagining. What do you tell your 20 year old self now that you are where you are and went through the struggles that you went through? 


YASIR KHAN: I would tell that 20 year old Yasir Khan, “you are one lucky S.O.B.” Because not too many people get the breaks in their lives that I got, man. Every time things were going wrong, there was always somebody whose hand I could grab onto. You know, there's a story here. I was 18 when I was doing Hajj when I was actually performing Hajj. I filmed the Hajj twice, but when I was 18, before I came to the West, the debauched, crazy West, my dad sent me to Hajj, to cleanse my sins before, you know, I fill the pot again. I was the youngest in this group of people who had gone to the Hajj, and my job was to take care of the oldest person in that group. And, you know, make sure that he could go to the toilet, that he didn't fall, that he had clean clothes to wear and that he was taken care, that he didn't faint, that he had enough water to drink and all that. So I was doing that. But invariably, what happens in places like the Hajj that there's usually a stampede is usually somebody at the front of the crowd stops and the people at the back of the crowd, they don't know what's going on. And there was one such moment where we were walking and then there was a surge and the crowd pushed from the back. Me and this older gentleman got pushed towards this essentially a huge open sewer. And I was about to tip over and out of nowhere, this tall black dude appears across this chasm of just basically human waste, reaches over, with these long arms, reaches over, literally lifts me off the ground and puts me beside him. And then reaches over and lifts the older gentleman up, like, literally picks us up. Like as if we were like, pillows. Puts us on the other side. I turn around to say thank you. He’s gone. I have no idea where he is. And you know, it was an incredible moment. And I always think about that whenever I'm in trouble or whenever things seem untenable. I always think back to that dude and I always look for him in a crowd, you know. Who was that said, was it Mr. Rogers, who said, “look for the helpers.” I always look for that. And you know what an incredible privilege to have found a helper every time I needed one. From my first boss in the media to everything else.


STING


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Who or what would you invite into your guest house? 


YASIR KHAN: That's a really good question. The first film I ever made, I made it in a Paris bookstore, I went and slept in this bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, and I slept among the books, and it was one of those places where very famous people like Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs, you know, came and before they were, you know, authors of note. William S. Burroughs did all his drugs on this bench that I eventually ended up sleeping on and read the medical textbooks that were surrounding this bench. And I made this film and basically the whole idea of that film was the main character of that bookstore, who was the owner of the bookstore, an old gentleman named George Whitman. And George basically had created this bookstore and let all these people sleep in his bookstore because he didn't want to go travel the world. He wanted the world to come to him, right? And he opened his doors for the world. My guest house would probably not have a front door. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Yasir Khan, it's been a trip, man. It's been great to have you here on This Being Human. 


YASIR KHAN: You know, this is a completely undeserved opportunity. But thank you for making the space for me. 


CREDITS


Thank you for listening to This Being Human. You can find more resources related to this conversation by clicking on the link in the show notes.


This Being Human is produced by Antica in collaboration with TVO. Our Senior Producer is Kevin Sexton, with production assistance from Dania Ali and Abhi Raheja. Our Executive Producer is Lisa Gabriele. Mixing and sound design by Phil Wilson. Original music by Boombox Sound.


Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica. Katie O’Connor is TVO’s senior producer of podcasts. Laurie Few is the executive for digital at TVO.


This Being Human is generously supported by the Aga Khan Museum, one of the world’s leading institutions that explores the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations around the world. For more information about the museum go to www.agakhanmuseum.org


The Museum wishes to thank Nadir and Shabin Mohamed for their philanthropic support to develop and produce This Being Human.

Yasir Khan has covered wars, revolutions, and has chased camels through the Australian Outback. As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he has worked for outlets including CBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Euronews, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Thomson Reuters Foundation. He talks about lessons from his career, including how he avoided becoming the “Muslim correspondent,” and how empathy may have literally saved his life.


In this episode, Yasir talks about:


  • His role in developing This Being Human 
  • How his identity has been shaped by covering traumatic events and difficult issues
  • Finding the humanity in despicable people
  • How seeing more of the world has changed his personal views 
  • How empathy has played a significant role as a parent 
  • Why learning to empathize with others has been a life-saving tool in his journalistic toolkit 
  • Navigating the events of 9/11 as a Muslim journalist 
  • Learning to deal with racism during a time of sociopolitical tension
  • His work on the documentary Camels in the Outback 
  • What he would tell his 20-year-old self
  • The importance of accepting help from others 


Quotes


“Journalists are told ‘you’re not the story’…but guess what? We were human beings that morning [of September 11, 2001]. We were the story.” – Yasir Khan, 16:05


“It always amazes me that a guy can blow himself up to smithereens, but his passport always survives.” – Yasir Khan, 17:02


“Not too many people get the breaks in their lives that I got, man. Every time there was something going wrong, there was always somebody whose hand I could grab onto.” – Yasir Khan, 27:28


To learn more about this conversation, AR recommends:

  • Thomson Reuters Foundation: https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en.html 
  • Yasir’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/khanundrum?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor 
  • Yasir’s Bio: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ykhan/?originalSubdomain=ca 
  • Watch Yasir Khan’s documentary Camels in the Outback:
  • www.aljazeera.com/program/al-jazee…s-in-the-outback
  • Yasir’s podcast and film consultant firm, StoryStan: https://www.storystan.com/ 
  • Watch Yasir’s first film about Shakespeare & Co.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCPKuRAHu1o 
  • Watch Yasir’s coverage of the Canadian Hajj: https://vimeo.com/4006844