When I spent a week reporting in Amman, Jordan, on the Syrian refugee crisis, I was able to have remarkably candid interviews with Syrian families and Jordanians. But none that would have been possible without help from my “fixer.”
As a journalist, when you fly into a foreign country, don’t speak the language or know the culture or laws; when you need special permits and don’t have a clue how drive in local traffic, you hire someone to help with all that.
For me, that was Ihab Muhtaseb.
“I’m considered to be a local fixer for media and press people,” Muhtaseb explains. “Basically, I set up appointments for them, translate, transport, and from my point of view I do whatever it takes to help them get their story.”
"Who wouldn't want to be called a fixer?" I ask him. "The job title says it all."
"Yes," he answers, laughing. "But I can't use the title in Arabic or people will think I fix refrigerators. But journalists, they get it."
Ihab doesn't advertise his services. I found him like most reporters do, through a friend of a friend of a friend.
Muhtaseb nods and admits that how it usually works.
“The one [reporter] that called yesterday, France Chanel Two, she said that Julian had referred them to me, and I said, ‘Oh, Julian, say hi to him for me.’ And she said ‘No, I don’t actually know him,’" says Muhtaseb. “They have a mutual friend who referred me to them."
"So I’m surprised how this network works,” he adds, shaking his head and smiling. “Everybody looks for a good fixer, and if you’re a good fixer, the word will get around somehow.”
Ihab’s not a journalist, but he has a keen eye for news — and he’s worked with reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Der Spiegel, La Monde, Madrid’s El País, and countless international TV crews.
His office is his four-wheel drive pickup truck, which he’s tricked out for film crews with a custom-made platform over the cab.
“Journalists can climb up, stand on top of it and film, take pictures, do whatever they like. And everybody loves it,” he says.
I climb up to take photos in the Zaatari refugee camp and he’s right: The added height makes all the difference.
Ihab’s phone rings softly as he weaves through traffic. “Hallo?"
I hear a few seconds of Arabic pleasantries exchanged and then he hands the phone to me and explains it’s for me. It’s Kertsin, a call I’d been waiting for.
Ihab’s truck becomes my office, too, and he shifts roles easily from interpreter to secretary, answering calls and organizing my appointments as we drive through the city. It’s invaluably time-saving.
Early on in our trip, I tell him that I want to capture what Amman sounds like, so he takes me downtown to one of the oldest parts of the city.
He explains points of interest along the way, and you can tell he spent several years working as a tour guide.
“Amman is a really nice place,” he says. “It’s an ancient place, it used to be called Philadelphia in the old days, so we still have a lot of names, Philadelphia hotels and such. And people go, 'Philadelphia?' In Roman times it was called Philadelphia, so it’s not a new city. The Romans lived here, the Byzantine lived here, there’s a lot of history.”
He eases his truck down a crowded side street and parks in a narrow alleyway behind his brother’s book store.
We walk down a bustling sidewalk pulsing with traffic and blaring horns. An old man plays an oud, an ancient Middle Eastern guitar, in front of a shop, and a small crowd has gathered to listen. I stop to record the sound and the old man nods at me as he sings.
"I've never seen him playing here before," Ihab says, smiling, "You got lucky."
We walk past the musician to the center of the city and stand across from the historic Al-Husseini Mosque. Ihab checks his watch and nods, and within a minute or two, the midday call to prayer echoes across the city.
Ihab is not a native Jordanian, but a Palestinian. The 51-year-old came to Jordan to go to school when he was 20, and says he fell in love with this melting pot of a country that’s home to so many from throughout the Middle East.
He spent nearly 20 years living in California, which is why his English is so good. But he says he didn’t like the pace of life in the U.S., so he moved back to Jordan.
When violence broke out after the Arab Spring in 2011, Jordan’s tourism industry took a big hit.
Ihab noticed the influx of journalists covering the Syrian War, and began making a living guiding them instead of tourists.
"I still remember the first time," he says. "It was James, from the London Times. It was the very beginning of the Syrian crisis, way back in February, 2011, when the protests first began. James' interpreter was sick and I was working as a travel guide. He said, 'Ihab, your English is great, can you take me to meet Syrians near the border and translate for me for a few days?' I said, 'Why not?' and it worked out well for both of us. He started sending other journalists my way, and that's how it started."
“In the past I have not been interested in politics,” he admits. “But now I’m an expert in the Syrian issue, in knowing what happened in the Syrian crisis and how it affected the life of the people, because I’ve been translating every story that I hear. And I’ve heard every single story possible.”
While he loves his job, he admits it’s affected him deeply.
“I got traumatized by the things I’ve heard,” he explains as we walk on the sidewalk back to his truck. “And it was several times that I burst into tears while translating, when I have to stop the interview, because I can no longer speak.”
“There’s a lot of horrible stories that I heard, and it really takes a toll on you after a while.”
We get back into his pickup and he makes his way into traffic. I ask him if there’s one story in particular that’s especially moved him, and he nods. He tells me about a single mother of four who fled first to Lebanon and spent the last of her money to fly to Jordan. She had nothing and knew no one, says Ihab, and was so distraught about how to take care of her children when she arrived in Jordan.
“And even right now, just telling their story my heart is pumping, imagining kids with no food,” says Ihab. "Luckily I was able to find a friend of mine that works in the Gulf, and she’s sending them a monthly salary to pay for food and shelter. I got relieved at that point,” he says.
Ihab admits he’s gotten emotionally involved with many of the Syrians he’s met, collecting used clothing and money for them whenever he can.
In some ways, he’s become a fixer for them as well.
VPR's reporting from Jordan was made possible by the VPR Journalism Fund.