UConn alum authors book about travels
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 22:09
Heather Murdock breathed a sigh of relief. In a part of Yemen where the government does not welcome journalists, Murdock and her cameraman had worn burkas and posed as a Yemeni family to interview rebels from the Southern Movement, a coalition of groups seeking independence from the north.
“If anyone had asked us to speak, we would have been caught,” Murdock said. “If I had opened my mouth, no one would have thought I was Yemeni.”
It had been a risk, but they had returned safely from the countryside to the city of Aden and checked into the hotel where they would be spending the night. They were in the clear.
Or at least, Murdock thought they were, until a man came along and confiscated their passports. A second Yemeni, who said he worked for the immigration office, then approached Murdock and asked her where she had been in the country.
“I thought at first he was trying to be my friend,” Murdock said. “Then I realized what he was trying to do was see what I was up to.”
The following morning, hotel staff escorted Murdock and her cameraman, Adam Reynolds, to political security where they were interrogated in separate rooms. She said it did not sink in until later that they were going to be kept overnight.
“I was so freaked out, I didn’t eat at all,” Murdock said. “Just basic water and cigarettes.”
After nearly three days of detainment in a hotel next door, U.S. embassy officials appeared ,and Murdock and Reynolds were released. They were told their pictures had been entered into a database and they were forbidden from entering Yemen ever again.
With only ten days of rest back in America, Murdock flew out to Ethiopia mid-May and resumed reporting. She also started writing a book about her experiences, later published in April, entitled “Everything Is Possible in Yemen: The Misadventures of a First-Time Journalist in the Middle East.”
Despite always having an interest in Middle Eastern politics, Murdock did not always know she wanted to be a journalist. After attending performing arts schools in New York City, Murdock traveled around the United States, appearing in shows and touring with various theater companies.
“I definitely wanted to be an actress. There’s no question,” Murdock said. “Though as life went on, I became more interested in news and real stories than fictional stories.”
Murdock was a professional actress for six years before returning to school, this time at the University of Connecticut, to study journalism and political science.
Tim Kenny, Murdock’s advisor and now a retired professor, trained journalists in Kosovo and reported in numerous countries in Europe and Asia before teaching at UConn.
“She came in knowing what she wanted to do and that’s half the battle,” Kenny said.
Wayne Worcester, a professor at UConn for 25 years, said he remembers Murdock vividly.
“She was a stand-out, I have to say,” Worcester said. “Her intelligence was obvious. She was also mature, but she didn’t flaunt it. She didn’t try to beat people up with it. She was just a sharp person.”
Three months before graduation, Murdock had two job offers and a decision to make: accept a position as a staff writer at The Valley News in New Hampshire, a newspaper she had worked for previously and loved, or intern at the Yemen Times with a starting salary of 400 dollars per month.
Professor Gail MacDonald said that some of her colleagues in the journalism department warned Murdock that going to Yemen might not be such a “judicious decision.”
“I tried to talk her out of it,” Kenny said. “It’s an unsafe place for Westerners – for Americans. Even if you try to fit in, you don’t.”
Kenny said Murdock did not show it if she found it surprising that he, who had traveled all over the world and had often put himself in dangerous situations, advised her against going.
“She’s an actress,” Kenny said. “She hid it well.”
Despite Kenny’s recommendation, Murdock turned down the job at The Valley News. Murdock said her mother, “who always worried about stuff incredibly,” sealed the deal when she said to her daughter “Are you crazy? You can go to New Hampshire any day. Go to Yemen.”
“With somebody as strong-willed as Heather, you can’t simply say ‘you can’t do this, young lady,’” Worcester said. “That’s what good journalists do. They don’t run away from trouble; they run to it.”
Murdock reported on the Arab Spring in Egypt and called it “by far the most exciting story [she’s] ever covered.” This month Murdock signed an agreement with Voice of America, a U.S. news agency that broadcasts all over the world, and she will report in Nigeria for at least the next year. Murdock said that Nigeria is a little different than any place she has been before.
“The people are really smart. In Nigeria, everyone knows what’s going on. Even those who can’t read, because then they listen to the radio. A homeless man on the street can tell you details about the Minister of Finance,” Murdock said.
Murdock strives to write “stories that people simply don’t hear otherwise” but has learned to think twice before diving into risky situations.
“I thought I was invincible and would never be arrested,” Murdock said. “I am way more cautious now. Or you could say way more scared, depending on how you look at it.”