The Glory Days

What it was like to work at Newsweek at its best.

Tina Brown, the founder of the Daily Beast and editor of Newsweek, announced this week that the print magazine was headed to the morgue file, dead after nearly 80 years. A digital offering called Newsweek Global will take its place. Those of us who worked at Newsweek through the turn of the century wish the new venture well, but we can't escape the feeling that there's been a death in the family.

Until the Washington Post Co. sold the magazine in 2010, I qualified as a "lifer," a concept that no longer exists in the American workplace. Over nearly three decades at Newsweek in the pre-tweet era, I was the magazine's media critic and later a columnist. I interviewed and wrote about five American presidents and authored more than 50 stories, almost all of them on domestic affairs.

I was never stationed abroad, and I stand in awe of legendary bureau chiefs like Chris Dickey, Melinda Liu, and Ron Moreau who still write for Newsweek and still can set the pace in covering the world. They and many others were (are?) in a league of their own.

But during the fat years, when Newsweek had a readership of 15 million, my indulgent editors let me pretend to be a foreign correspondent for a week or so a year. I got to parachute into some of the biggest stories in the world without having to uproot my family and move. My international reporting, the luxury of a bygone age, was not especially distinguished, but it sure was fun.

From the start, I was too chicken to dodge bullets. The only battlefield I ever saw was when I stood five feet away from President George W. Bush on Sept. 14, 2001, as he spoke through a bullhorn atop the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.

But the beneficence of a world-class news organization allowed a homebody like me to get a piece of proxy wars in Central America, the fall of communism, the emergence of China as a world power, U.S. recognition of Vietnam, President Bill Clinton's Mideast peace efforts, and the run-up to the Iraq war, among other international stories. I was Walter Mitty in a trench coat.

Newsweek opened doors. For decades, mentioning my affiliation carried more weight abroad than had I worked for the New York Times or the Washington Post, which -- before the Internet --circulated in foreign capitals only through the International Herald Tribune. Like my colleagues, I could land in a country and within a few hours arrange important interviews that would be impossible at the same level in the United States: The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, the top general in Guatemala (a man responsible for mass killings of civilians), the soon-to-be president of Nicaragua. All talked. And when they came to New York, I had no trouble sitting down with leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev (by then out of office), Hugo Chávez, and Ehud Barak.

My global jaunts began in 1983 as a form of good-natured hazing shortly after I joined the magazine. I was 25 but looked 19, and my role as special assistant to the editor-in-chief, Bill Broyles, subjected me to charges that I was a spy for management. (I'd been hired in the office of Katharine Graham, CEO of the Post Co., which didn't help.) When a vacationing Broyles learned that I had no place to sit my first week, he told his secretary to have me settle in his office. This did not exactly endear me to my new colleagues.

A few weeks later, President Ronald Reagan delivered a prime-time address to the nation in which he used aerial reconnaissance photos to accuse the Soviets and their Cuban allies of building a secret airstrip on the tiny island of Grenada. Mischievous editors -- wondering whether I knew how to report at all -- told me to fly to Grenada, find the secret airstrip, and file a story within 48 hours. Mission Impossible, they thought.

But fortune was smiling on the rookie. When I got off the plane, my chatty cab driver told me that the airstrip under construction on the other side of the island wasn't a secret at all. In fact, there was a picture of it on the cover of local telephone book. He took me there immediately, and I used my high-school Spanish with Cuban construction workers to confirm the story just an hour after arriving in the country. The following day I easily arranged an interview with Grenada's president, Maurice Bishop, who seemed more interested in tourism than communism. ("An ad we placed in Glamour magazine is returning 30 reservations a month!" a Marxist minister exulted). After I filed my story by telex from the Western Union office, I could find no flights off the island. Ensconced at a beautiful inn with exquisite food, I was compelled to stay for Easter weekend and enjoy some (unexpensed) water skiing and snorkeling. After I returned to New York with a sun tan, one of my jealous colleagues -- also a domestic writer -- was able to score an overseas assignment of his own ... in strife-torn Suriname.

Six months later, Bishop was killed in a communist coup and the United States invaded, an event that became one of the signal events of Reagan's presidency. Our reporter embedded with the Marines developed a severe case of writer's block. As the seasoned Grenada hand in New York, I talked to her on the phone briefly and wrote a stirring, first-person account from more than 1,000 miles away of storming the beach and "liberating" the country.

Newsweek in the 1980s and 1990s was edited by Rick Smith and then the late Maynard Parker, both former foreign correspondents in Asia. Their successor, Mark Whitaker, also had experience abroad. They all invested heavily in foreign coverage (the magazine boasted several international editions) and imbued the staff with the idea that foreign news was important for readers.

But even before blogging, deadline pressure demanded quick takes on the news. One week in 1989, it looked as if Gorbachev was beginning a crackdown. "Fly to Moscow tonight and file by Friday whether glasnost is working," Parker ordered. When I resisted, he added: "It's only journalism."

On that trip and others, I was always struck by the importance of an American newsmagazine in closed societies.

In 1984, a young Chinese dissident, anxious to obtain a copy of Newsweek, asked me to walk past him quickly on a darkened Shanghai bridge as if we didn't know each other and hand off the contraband magazine.

In 1987, the KGB followed me and Newsweek photographer Peter Turnley as we chronicled the lives of outré punk rockers in Latvia, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. When a goon approached us in a café and demanded our film, Turnley used his magician's hands to reach into his camera and then his vest and turn over an empty cannister, after which we hustled out of town. The publication of the story and photos shocked American readers accustomed to drab Soviets with bad haircuts and cheap shoes.

In 1989, I was in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague as Vaclav Havel declared the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. When I joined students in the streets to celebrate the peaceful "Velvet Revolution," they all were eager to talk to "Noose-week."

So were American ambassadors. I remember visiting Chris Hill, later ambassador to Iraq, when he was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, in 1999. With tens of thousands of refugees from Kosovo camped nearby and his embassy badly damaged by demonstrators, he still had plenty of time for Newsweek. The same went for American military officers at Guantánamo Bay and other bases I visited.

About the only person who wasn't so happy to see me was the captain of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf at the end of 2002. After I landed in a small plane -- an experience in itself -- a naval officer boarded and shouted a question but the noise was too loud to hear. I was traveling with a distinguished-looking AP reporter and a Canadian admiral, scheduled for a high level visit to the carrier. The officer confused the reporters with the admiral and escorted me and the AP man off first. We were saluted by dozens of sailors lined up on the flight deck and smartly saluted back.

"And you are?" the captain asked me with a puzzled expression.

"Newsweek, sir!" I answered brightly.

"Well, you just got an admiral's welcome," he said.

But once aboard, I had the run of the place. I interviewed navy pilots returning from secret missions bombing Saddam Hussein's radar and anti-aircraft installations in advance of the U.S. invasion, still two and a half months away.

The Iraq war has already begun, I wrote in Newsweek, before beating a hasty retreat to New York.

My war stories can't compare to those of the scores of Newsweek correspondents and photographers who struggled -- and in a few cases, died -- trying to bring global news and perspective to an American audience. For decades, Newsweek magazine helped sustain an important tradition of vigorous international reportage. Let's hope it lives on.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Ladyboys in the Gulf

The riches of the United Arab Emirates hold promise for transgender sex workers, but also danger and unspeakable cruelty.

Mya makes no bones about what she does for a living. Her website is frank about the services she offers as a transgender sex worker; they range from the "girlfriend experience" to the "VIP treatment" and everything in between.

"We are not criminals," she says adamantly in a Skype interview from San Francisco, where she is currently working. "When people come to see me, I take the appointment seriously. I do my best to make them happy. We're all legal adults; my customers are not bad people. Sometimes they're having trouble with their marriages; sometimes they just want more spice in their lives."

Unfortunately for Mya, prostitution is illegal in the United States -- though not in Canada, where her website is registered. Because she is so easily found online, her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Slim and full-lipped, Mya is Thai-Chinese, though she was raised in Java and speaks English with an Indonesian accent. She says she travels across the globe for her profession, and it was on one of these trips that she decided to go to Dubai, where she knew she could make a lot of money in the transgender sex trade.

"The men there love me," she says. "I don't know why. Religiously speaking, it's forbidden. But culturally, it's among them.… When I walk in the street or in the mall, boys are all over me."

Although there is very little data regarding this phenomenon, activists and lawyers who work with transgender sex workers say that the thriving sex trade in the Middle East, especially in Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, and Bahrain, is attracting hundreds of transgender sex workers, mostly from South Asia and the Pacific Islands. All these Gulf countries abide by strict Islamic law, outlaw homosexuality, and forbid gay foreigners from entering the country.

Transgender individuals in particular have a difficult time traveling and residing in Gulf countries -- if they are caught with documents identifying them as members of the opposite sex, they're immediately detained and deported. If they are arrested for sex work, they could be jailed for even longer periods before they are allowed to leave the country.

This is one of the more extreme challenges faced by the Arab Gulf countries as they struggle to adapt to the changing cultural norms brought on by globalization. With the discovery of oil, these countries have been catapulted to the forefront of the world economy -- but massive wealth has brought huge social changes as well, as foreigners have brought their own cultures with them, sometimes shocking the deeply conservative populations. This is most evident in emirates such as Dubai, where migrants make up 90 percent of the population. These communities have long grappled with the sale of alcohol and foreigners' scanty clothing -- but the presence of transgender sex workers is dealt with not through compromise, but brute repression.

According to activists, while awaiting deportation in Gulf countries, many migrant transgender women are subject to all manner of abuse and degradation, including beatings, public floggings, and sexual violence. There have been instances of transgender migrants murdered in the Middle East, most famously when Sally Camatoy, who was featured in the Israeli indie film Paper Dolls, was found bludgeoned to death in Dubai.

In a January report, Human Rights Watch documented abuses committed against transgender people in Kuwait. In addition to extensive physical abuse, the report stated that every one of the 40 transgender women interviewed "suffered some form of sexual abuse at the hands of police, most of them unreported due to fear of reprisal."

Mya says that on April 28, 2010, the second time she went to Dubai to work, she was caught by undercover police who pretended to be clients. According to Mya, she was released in August, after spending three months in solitary confinement at Al Awir, a men's prison in Dubai.

"They really treated me like a dog or an animal," she says. "There are a lot of big criminals -- drug dealers, things like that. Those big criminals were allowed to pay to come to my cell. The guard would open the gate and let them enter my cell and rape me whenever they wanted."

Her tone is matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing what she had for breakfast.

"The harder I fought, the tougher it was for me," she says. "The first one was the hardest. I fought like crazy. But after the second month, I realized I couldn't do it anymore, so I tried to be nice and cooperative."

Officials at Al Awir prison said they couldn't confirm that she was held there and refused to comment on her accusations, but because Mya is a Canadian citizen, she says she made a complaint to the Canadian Consulate in Dubai while she was imprisoned. Although an official at the consulate couldn't provide details because of Canadian privacy laws, she did confirm that they had a case matching this description during the time period that Mya reports being jailed.

Mya says that after she decided to cooperate with the prison guards, they eventually released and deported her. "They just let me go," she says. "When they decided I had suffered enough, they released me, just like that. No court, no nothing."

Diana, a Filipina transgender woman, says she was also arrested for sex work in Dubai. In a telephone conversation, Diana says she went to Dubai to be with her boyfriend, but after they broke up, she turned to sex work.

"I found it very enticing as a way to generate income, because the men there love transsexuals," she says. "The ratio of money you can make is times 10, if you are able to maintain just one regular client. If you have a working relationship with a guy, you can practically become a millionaire."

After working in Dubai for two years, using a fake visa and female passport she bought on the black market, Diana says she was arrested in a sting operation similar to the one Mya describes.

"There were five Filipina ladyboy escorts, one American and one Malaysian, with me," she says. "We were all captured together. We were invited to go to a hotel by some men who turned out to be undercover police, and when we went, we were all arrested."

When asked about what happened after she was arrested, Diana's voice takes on a slightly frantic edge.

"I said, 'Don't rape me, please,'" she says quickly, in a whisper. "They raped me.… Some things are too bad to remember." Later in the conversation, she goes into more detail.

"The head of the police took me into another room," she says. "That's where it happened. Then all of us were put in a room together and forced to get naked, and they took pictures. There was terrible verbal abuse.… I think that was worse than the rape thing."

According to Diana, she was only detained for three days, while the others she was arrested with were jailed for one to three months.

"In exchange for my freedom, I was asked to give them the names of other ladyboys who were coming over," she says. "I gave them the names. You can't blame me."

LGBT activists from the Middle East and South Asia say what happened to Mya and Diana is a common occurrence.

"The reports that we're getting from transgender women who successfully make it home to the Philippines from the Middle East say that they have been very inhumanely treated when they are apprehended by the police," says Bemz Benedito, a transgender woman and leader of Ladlad Partylist, an LGBT political party in the Philippines.

Why do these transgender women risk their lives to work in the Middle East? The simple answer is money. Mya says she was making thousands of dollars in just a few days of work. But Johnny Tohme, a member of Helem, an LGBT rights organization based in Lebanon, says that it's more complicated than that.

"Getting a good job for transgenders is hard because of discrimination," he says. "Most of them begin to experience the hardest conflict related to their gender and sex during puberty, so pursuing a solid education wouldn't be a priority. Therefore, by the time they become adults, it gets hard for them to pursue a career. Another option presents itself, which is sex work, and what might facilitate that is the fact that sex work in the region pays a lot. There are a lot of clients, so it sounds like the next best option."

Migrant transgender sex workers are particularly attracted to the large, cosmopolitan cities of the United Arab Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where rich businessmen of all nationalities mingle.

"Dubai is considered the Las Vegas of the Middle East because of the night life and partying," says Abdulla, a leader of the group LGBT Rights in the UAE who would only agree to have his first name published. "It is more open than Saudi Arabia or places like that, so it's a haven for the sex industry. There is a high demand for transgender sex workers."

The comment thread on a transgender Filipina's blog entry about traveling to Dubai provides some information about the clientele these transgender sex workers attract.

"i like ladyboys .. i live in dubai alone any ladyboy wanna frenship wid me in a secret way add me," writes one of the commenters, including an email address. Email requests for comment sent to this and other email addresses of those looking for transgender escorts were not answered.

"Most of my customers are Westerners, but Emiratis pay more money," says Abdullah, an Emirati transgender sex worker who lives in Dubai. The clients are rarely punished if they are caught, according to Abdullah, and if they are, they usually just have to pay a fine.

Pardis Mahdavi, a professor of anthropology at Pomona College and author of the book Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai, says there's a thriving market for sex workers of all types in the UAE. "There's a sort of hierarchy of demand, and it tends to be very correlated with race," she says. "Iranian women, Moroccan women, Russian women -- they're sort of at the top of the food chain there. They get paid the most.… Then you have the darker-skinned women, Indian, Pakistanis, and Southeast Asians, who form the middle class of sex workers. The lower classes tend to be from sub-Saharan Africa."

Mahdavi says that Emirati officials are doing their best to cope with a great deal of change in a short period of time.

"There are so many competing discourses in Dubai, but I think that compared to other Arab countries, they are actually pretty progressive," she says. "Emiratis have set up shelters, so if women have been abused, they can go there. If one of these individuals wants to go home, there's a method for them to get there."

By all accounts, however, LGBT individuals in the region have to cope with a great deal of discrimination and abuse. "I had to seek asylum in Canada because my family discovered that I'm gay and wanted me to go through forced hormone treatment," says Abdulla of LGBT Rights in the UAE. "When they arrest LGBT people, they think that if they force them to go through testosterone treatment, it will fix them and stop them from being gay. When my family found out, they wanted me to do that. Of course, it doesn't fix you."

Transgender sex workers also face a strict law concerning foreigners who contract HIV in most Gulf countries. Fouzia Janahi, a lawyer who represents many transgender clients in Bahrain, says that these laws often cause many migrant transgender women to avoid seeking medical care.

"They immediately get deported if they have HIV or some other contagious disease," she says. "Bahrainis have health care and clinics, but foreigners are immediately deported. Before every foreigner is given the card to stay in Bahrain, they have to be examined."

In August, Panida Somao, an official from the Thai Embassy in Oman, told Bangkok's the Nation that the embassy has seen cases of transgender women arriving at its doors desperately sick and in need of medical care. Ignorance of the danger they face as transgender sex workers in the region could be another reason so many of these individuals make their way to the Middle East. According to Janahi, many transgender foreigners fail to understand the severity of the laws against them in the Gulf.

"They come to the Middle East and think that it's as free as where they come from," Janahi says. "In Asia or in Europe, they can walk dressed as women and carry male identification. They come here thinking they can do that. Once they get here, they realize that it's really a very closed society.… Sometimes they can be very disrespectful of our traditions."

Mya cautions other transgender women against traveling to the Gulf as sex workers -- but says if they do, they must be as discreet as possible.

"In Dubai, they can catch us in the middle of the mall," she says. "The mistake that girls make is that they dress to catch the eyes of men when they go out. I would never do that. Wearing high heels, short skirts -- that's not appropriate at all. It just calls attention to you."

After leaving Dubai, Mya says she recovered from the experience at her sister's house in Indonesia and then traveled to Canada before embarking on her trip to the United States.

According to Mya, all the money she made in Dubai wasn't worth the way she was made to feel by the guards and other prisoners after she was arrested.

"They would throw hot water on me from outside of the cell," she says. "They would spit on me. It was awful and degrading. They didn't even look at me as a human being.… They call us haram, which is something really bad or forbidden. That's what they call animals that they think are dirty. They saw me like I was a pig or a snake."

She says the guards placed a hanging rope in her cell to torment her.

"If I wanted to, I could just hang myself," she says. "Nobody would care. But I told myself I never would. My life is too beautiful and too exciting to die in a jail cell."

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images