Spotlight on Ali M. Latifi

Afghanistan Now
March 12, 2018

Meet Ali M Latifi. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan and raised in Little Kabul, California, Ali is a journalist (and ‘amateur’ photographer) who had the opportunity to cover the country of his birth, in addition to writing stories on Greece and Qatar. Ali has written for the Al Jazeera English, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Vice News, the Christian Science Monitor and more. Ali shared his journey as a journalist, some inspiring stories he has covered in Afghanistan along with photos he has taken along the way.

Q: How would you sequence your journey to becoming a journalist/writer?

A: It wasn't really planned, I had tried a lot of different things when I was an undergrad, and after I had completed my degree at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I briefly worked at an independent film studio specializing in political films (and ironically, Lifetime movies), but it just didn't seem to fit. I also worked at a prominent think tank in DC for about a year and realized that politics, especially US politics, wasn't for me. When I was in graduate school at the American University in DC I started interning at different media outlets (NPR, Al Jazeera and Voice of America) and writing freelance for local DC outlets, and it just seemed to make sense.

There was nothing pre-planned about it. I remember on orientation day for the International Media graduate program at AU, one of the deans of the School of Communication asked us what we wanted out of our degrees and I said I wanted to be a producer at Al Jazeera English. That is literally what ended up happening. I graduated from AU and within weeks I was on a flight to Doha. Things in life just sort of have a way of working out, I guess.

My family also says it was in my genes because my grandfather, Abdul Rashid Latifi, was a prominent writer and journalist in Afghanistan.

Q: Can you tell us what exactly it means to be a journalist?

A: For me, being a journalist means telling the stories of people to the world. Politicians and celebrities and businessmen have plenty of opportunities to be heard, in fact, they can orchestrate those opportunities themselves, but what's interesting, is how what these people say and do impact the average person. I've never believed that anyone is "voiceless," I think that's an elitist view that further disempowers and disenfranchises people. Instead of claiming to "give people a voice" I think the best we can hope for as journalists is to amplify people's voices or try and make it reach out farther than it would normally.

Personally, it's both an advantage and a challenge being an Afghan-American journalist reporting on Afghanistan. On the one hand, you (hopefully) have more access and insights into the situation in the country and you can apply more nuance and context to your writing. On the other hand, it can be frustrating because you have to watch as other people (including some other Afghans) take important issues and complicated topics and break them down into cliches, stereotypes and oversimplifications that distort the actual story.

I know it may sound trite, but you do often wonder how the West would feel if the rest of the world wrote about them the way they write about us. Imagine if people wrote in every article about the United States that it's a "male-dominated society," how would people in the US react? It's certainly true that the US is a highly patriarchal society, but an Afghan journalist could never get away with writing that. Or if, for instance, we called Tennessee the "birthplace of the KKK," in the way people refer to Kandahar, a city with thousands of years of history, as "the birthplace of the Taliban." Or if people wrote about racism in the US the way Western outlets write about ethnicity in Afghanistan.

Personally, it's also frustrating because there's a lot of racism in the media, people may not admit it, but it's there.

Sometimes it seems more subtle, for instance, how often is an (English-speaking) Chinese journalist sent to write about London for a foreign media outlet? But Westerners always come to other parts of the world and write about foreign countries without anyone ever questioning it.

There is also overt racism, knowing you aren't given a byline, being asked for sources, being called a translator or a fixer (when you're not), knowing you are paid less, having someone sitting at a desk in the West telling you, you are wrong in your description or analysis of the country you are from and live in. All of which has happened to me with various media outlets.

There are so many other issues that we have all experienced personally.

What has been one of the more inspiring stories you have researched and written?

I think there are inspiring stories all around. I wrote about Mustafa Mohammadi, a young man in Kabul who invented a solar-powered motorbike made primarily with parts he could find in local markets. I still get asked about that story to this day. There was also the story of Shafaq Ayobi, a player in Afghanistan's Premier League who started out kicking around a makeshift football while tending to the sheep and goats in his home province of Laghman and ended up joining the Premier League. The story was extra special because I got to follow Shafaq around the year the team he played on, representing the eastern zone (where we're both from), win the championship. There's also the story of Ibrahim Amiri, a 27-year-old amateur astronomer who made his own telescope as a teenager and now teaches Afghan youth about a science Muslims played such a huge role in developing.

As an Afghan journalist, what has it been liketo tell the story of Afghanistan to an international audience?

Amazing. Professionally, I hope that I can bring something different to the stories I tell.

Personally, it gave me a chance to return to the country of my birth and do the job that I love every day.

Follow Ali on Twitter @alibomaye.