Anchal Vohra, a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy, now calls Brussels home after years of filing for a raft of prestigious outlets from across the Middle East. Originally from India, she built up a stable of international bylines that would make most jealous and now writes about global affairs touching on Germany, China, India and beyond.
When The Parliament reaches her by phone, however, her central objective is finding a window to talk between her five-month-old baby, who has a habit of handing out rapid-fire, unpaid freelance assignments.
Some people have conventional paths into journalism, some have unconventional paths. Which one is yours?
I had a theatre background and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. As you are when you’re a student, I was involved in a lot of campaigns and activism. I would perform in street plays advocating for clean rivers.
And that’s where the path gets interesting. There was a political satire show called Double Take on [Indian broadcaster] NDTV that was trying to copy Les Guignols de l'info [the famous long-running French political satire show featuring latex puppets as stand-ins for newscasters and politicians].
Because I used to mimic people in theatre, I auditioned to voice [longtime president of the centre-left Indian National Congress party] Sonia Gandhi and I got it.
Somewhere this goes from puppet news to real news.
Well, I also started writing for the show, and I realised that is what I wanted to do: I wanted to write. And I wanted to be a journalist because it seemed like that was a more direct way of addressing the issues I’d seen through activism.
You do street plays and you get a bit disappointed, you end up thinking this isn’t changing much, so maybe journalism will.
And you transitioned pretty smoothly from satirical puppet voice and comedy writer to covering conflict zones and complex geopolitics in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria among other places, filing for Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, Foreign Policy and a bunch of other places that would make other reporters jealous.
The things that got me there were always in the background. My grandfather spoke Arabic and he moved with his family from Lahore during India's partition. When I was a little child, he taught me the Arabic alphabet. And growing up I witnessed the country polarised between Hindus and Muslims, although it’s much worse now.
Then 9/11 happened and made a whole generation interested in the Middle East, including me. I just sort of packed my bags one day and said okay, let’s see if I can cover this region. Being in Syria is how I ended up being a permanent columnist for Foreign Policy.
You wrote last year about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mending fences with several Gulf regimes, notably the UAE, in a hunt for foreign investment to offset the Turkish economic crisis. Where does the earthquake leave those efforts?
The economy is still floundering and from what we've been hearing people are upset to the point where it could impact his chances in the upcoming elections in May. That’s precisely the reason that he's been trying to show his people that he can mend fences and bring in investments from wealthy nations around him.
But he’s also leading a Nato country and of course had enhanced Turkey’s relationship with Russia. He projects a strongman image, but even before this natural disaster, he was reaching out across the Middle East for help. And from what we hear from people on the ground, the first response, at least in terms of rescue and relief, has been inadequate.
Even with his authoritarian tendencies... he is in for a serious challenge at the vote.