Story 12

Keep your minds and hearts open for every story. Even when it’s not yours.

Hi, I’m Nabeelah, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. I’m a conversation editor at The Correspondent, a transnational media based in Amsterdam. As a British-Pakistani journalist, I was primarily a tea drinker before I started to meet journalists and human rights defenders who broadened my perspectives and taught me the myriads of ways that you can prepare a Turkish coffee. 

I have still not mastered the art of the ratio between water and coffee; the amount of times a Turkish coffee should rise on the hob; or how long coffee grains should be left to settle once a coffee is cooked. One of my favourite memories is of a Bosnian colleague spluttering out the grains of his Turkish coffee as we sat around a table in Vienna (I didn’t realise it was so short). I remember thinking, but you of all people should know.

I think part of the reason why I am resistant to learning how to make Turkish coffee in a particular way is because a grandmother in Ribnica, Slovenia, might make it completely differently to a young woman in Banja Luka, Bosnia or a father of two in Istanbul, Turkey. 

I want to stay open to these possibilities. And so I train my mind to behave in an eternally flexible space where everything is possible, and where everyone can prepare a coffee, but in a different way to someone else. It honours tradition, quirks, family, similarity, but also difference. 

If we all made Turkish coffee in the same way, it would taste very boring indeed.

In Naples, my colleague Mario took me on an improvised local tour of suspended coffee spots. The custom was, you buy someone less fortunate a coffee when you order your own. The coffee house becomes a place where everyone truly is welcome, and it doesn’t matter if you can afford your own drink or not.

I remember walking down the Neapolitan streets with Mario; we spent hours strolling or in the car, chasing two different stories about marginalised people. There were these young men in juvenile detention who were learning to play rugby together, or who were enrolled into pizza-making traineeships. 

One afternoon, before heading off to our next interview, Mario heavily criticised the amount of coffee that I had put into the Italian coffeemaker. He added double the amount of coffee from the soft bag, which slumped back against the tabletop, and he cupped his hands around the grain into what looked like an impossible peak atop the cafeteria.

“You have to make like a Vesuvio of it,” he said earnestly.

I was in Naples with a team of journalists from a magazine called cafebabel. We wrote our stories about the “Arab heart” of the city, its independent music scene, its rough neighbourhoods and its changing industrial seaside districts. We came from all over Europe. Mario had created this local hub of fixers and storytellers. And so we could not have been five internationally-minded people learning about Naples, without the goodwill, energy and love for this city as Mario and his team of journalists had. 

I went on this kind of reporting trip at least twice a year, or spent my time organising them for others. I visited cities or towns in the EU, Turkey and the Balkans, learning about locals by speaking with locals, widening my horizons. All of this was made possible by fixers. And so we learned from each other, from walking side by side in foreign cities. 

We connected over ideas, we learned about the other’s customs, we learned about ourselves in the process. Injustice united us, and home was always somewhere else. 

Language brought us together. I remember my surprise when Mario uttered a sentence or two in Hindi to me; he had lived in India (my origins are in Pakistan). Mario was also superstitious and held on to an Italian amulet, a red chilli which warded against evil. When it rained, Mario lost his good spirits. When we got a good quote for one of our stories, Mario was joyous—he did not want Naples to be known only for its crime rates or street garbage collection problems. The young men in detention who we met spoke only Neapolitan. They smiled broadly as they spun their delicate pizzas high. They teased me for speaking a tiny bit of Italian, but no Neapolitan. 

They were reinventing themselves and finding their freedom.

I consider this to be a part of the work that I am still doing today at The Correspondent, a transnational media based in Amsterdam. As conversation editor, I want to do more to give a voice to the traditionally marginalised or ignored, to think outside of my comfort zone, to build a transnational platform and start listening to more stories about our world that we all live in. We do this by writing against the news grain and analysing the systems which define us universally.

I missed Mario in Amsterdam earlier this year; had I known he was visiting the city, I would have jumped at the chance to catch up. For years we have been contacting each other at Christmases or on birthdays; it was a chance to offer the other a ciao, followed by an attempt at a meeting or a phone call, always to be postponed for the future. Mario was working as a monitor for the fragile peace process with the United Nations mission in Colombia. 

Mario Paciolla was murdered this summer. We don’t officially know yet by who. 

Mario was 33. He is not the first colleague taken by sinister forces. I worry he will not be the last. Some friends told me they can’t imagine what it means to be in my line of work; but I sit behind a computer in a rich country in the west, connecting to people online, all day long. I did not think I was at war, even though I knew the lives of journalists, environmental and human rights defenders were being taken more than ever. 

I can’t remember where the little plastic red chilli amulet that Mario gave me has got to. I now use a jezva instead of a torrefactorio. I carry on with my professional life with the same gusto that Mario had: to connect people, to try and understand difficult problems, to insert yourself in a country which is not your own, to not so much spread yourself thin as thickly, as you learn about what unites us all as human beings, and go deeper into the knowledge about who we are and the worlds we live in today. 

Sometimes, you can feel like you haven’t learned anything. But we are all defending our human rights when we stand by our own families, neighbours, communities, regions, nations, environment, and digital worlds. We stand by what is right and what should be cherished.

I am so lucky to be working in journalism with a community of members who fund our media organisation, and who believe in progress. We try to listen to each other. We know that the complexity of the world we live in is greater than we could imagine. I was trained in journalism as a way of speaking truth to power and of helping others understand the world that we live in. There is fear and hate in this world here, but there is also healing, and a deep passion for changing the systems which hold so many of us back, or cost us our lives. 

After I left Naples, Mario met the owner of the bar where I had bought a suspended coffee alongside my own macchiato. Mario told me it had been drunk by a homeless man called o’Baron, who we had met on our first day in Italy. 

There is a fragile beauty to the world we live in, if only we can stay connected to the unexpected, to a connection that you may not have been looking for.

With an open heart,

Contributors of this story: Nabeelah Shabbir wrote this story, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.

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