On a Podcast with Declan Walsh, Foreign Correspondent

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A scene in Chitral, Pakistan ( Umer Abdul Ghaffar / Getty Images)

For many years, I have read and cited the reporting of Declan Walsh. Last week, I did a Q&A with him, here. Walsh is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. Until recently, he was the Cairo bureau chief of that paper. Now he is its Africa correspondent, based in Nairobi.

And he is the author of a new book: The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State.

Declan Walsh is an Irishman, as the name might tell you, and he grew up in Ballina, County Mayo. Recently, this little town — population 10,000 — has been in the news: It is the ancestral town of Joe Biden.

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On Sundays, Walsh’s parents would buy a bunch of newspapers, and Declan would devour them. For a while, he was especially taken with photography. A turn to reporting and writing came later.

In Ballina, not a lot was going on. But a teacher told her class something interesting — very simple and very interesting. She said something like, “If you want something in this life, you can go and get it.” This made an impression on Declan Walsh.

As he got a little older, he found he had a taste for things foreign. He went to cover the Kosovo War. Soon he was in sub-Saharan Africa. He was off and running as a foreign correspondent.

Was his family in County Mayo proud of him? Nervous? Both? Yes, both. His mother would call and he’d tell her that everything was fine. Then she’d read his dispatch the next day. Busted.

His years in Pakistan came to an end when a vanload of police officers came to his door at midnight. They gave him 72 hours to leave, for “undesirable activities.” Could have been worse.

In Cairo, Walsh covered, among other things, the death of Giulio Regeni. The deceased was an Italian Ph.D. student. He was tortured to death by Egyptian agents. Death by torture is routine in that country. Sometimes the names of the victims make the news; most often they don’t.

For a while, the Italian government made a fuss over Regeni’s murder. Then things got back to normal, as they always do.

Declan Walsh wrote about the Regeni case — displeasing the Egyptian government. One of his editors in New York heard from a contact in the U.S. government. The Egyptians are really unhappy with Walsh. Would they expel him? Arrest him?

Walsh did not wait around to find out. He called the Irish embassy, whose people drove him to the airport to make sure he got there okay.

Egypt has become a “fear society,” to borrow a term from Natan Sharansky. By tradition and reputation, Egyptians are a hospitable, warm, talkative people. But now they are afraid to speak to foreigners, understandably.

In our podcast, Walsh gives me an example. Mohamed Salah is pretty much the No. 1 hero in Egypt. He is a soccer player. During the World Cup, Walsh went to some coffee shops, to watch games with local people. At halftime or afterward, he’d ask a few questions — the most innocent questions: “Do you love Mo Salah? Or do you really love Mo Salah?” That kind of thing.

It struck Walsh that, even with these, Egyptians were very, very cautious. This is a huge departure from the past.

Lately, Walsh has been reporting on Ethiopia. Last year, its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize (for good reason, actually). Today, the country is practically in civil war, and there are fears of genocide.

In our Q&A, we have dark topics and lighter ones. Toward the end, I ask Walsh about his favorite places. Could he give us a little list?

He obliges. Purely for vacation purposes, he says, there is a place called Lamu, in Kenya. In Afghanistan, there is Kandahar — a much-abused city (like all places in Afghanistan), but with extraordinary people. In Pakistan, way up in the mountains, there is a place called Chitral, where a version of polo is played.

In any event, Declan Walsh has a lot to impart, from his years of reporting and travel, and he imparts a little of it in this Q&A. Again, here.

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