From the Sydney suburbs to interviewing the Taliban: The rise of Yalda Hakim

Australian journalist Yalda Hakim made world headlines after interviewing the Taliban live on the BBC as Kabul fell. She tells Dateline how her career got to that point and her own history with Afghanistan.

Yalda Hakim is a BBC journalist and former Dateline presenter.

Yalda Hakim is a BBC journalist and former Dateline presenter. Source: BBC

It’s summer in Australia and Yalda Hakim is home for the first time in years.

Having been prevented from returning until now because of the pandemic, it’s a relief to see family and nice to watch her two-year-old enjoy his grandparents’ backyard, with a hose, in the summer heat. Just like she remembered as a kid.

“It's nice to see him experience what we had as kids here in Sydney, ” Yalda said.

“It's really nice to be home in Australia after so many years and to have my two-and-a-half year old experience the kind of childhood I had.”

It is a well-earned break for the journalist and broadcaster, who was the subject of headlines herself in 2021 during the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

It was a moment that captured the world’s attention. The Taliban was regaining power in Afghanistan after the US and their allies withdrew forces after 20 years in the country. The capture was more swift than most predicted.

Yalda was born in Afghanistan, it’s where she made one of her first documentaries, and has since developed strong ties in the country, even fronting a women’s education foundation in the region.

As well as reporting the news of the Taliban’s takeover, Yalda was already helping evacuate students.

One weekend as the events were unfolding, Yalda was at home in London, barely sleeping.

“I kept thinking that by the time I wake up, the government might have collapsed,” she said.

It was Sunday, Yalda’s day off, but an early morning call from an editor at the BBC confirmed the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul.

“I remember sleeping at around four o'clock in the morning for a couple of hours, and waking up to a call from my editor, saying, ‘looks like the Taliban have arrived at the gates of Kabul, we need you to come in’.”

The editor said Yalda should be the journalist to cover the story at the news desk.

On the way to the BBC office, Yalda had put out calls to contacts in Afghanistan, including the spokesman for the Taliban. All while managing her own devastation at what was happening in the country of her birth.

Yalda had her phone on her desk as she presented rolling coverage of the unfolding events. Midway through an interview, she saw her phone ringing. It was Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen.

“I looked down and I saw that it was the Taliban on the phone and I thought ‘I have to take the call'.”

Without skipping a beat, Yalda narrated what was happening, not only to viewers but to producers. Rolling live coverage does not give a moment’s pause to brief those behind the camera.

Yalda simply put the phone on loudspeaker, as the crew arranged the microphones to ensure the audience could hear, and began an that would bookmark the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

“I just thought, this isn't about me, this is about asking the kinds of questions that the world wants to hear, that the Afghan people want to hear, especially Afghan women and girls who are so concerned about their future.”

At that moment and even afterwards, Yalda didn’t realise the interview was a landmark moment that would make headlines in its own right.

“I didn't realise that it was a big deal. At the time, I think, I just was so focused. There was something much, much bigger happening, the country was collapsing.”

Behind the breaking news, Yalda’s heartbreak that people were suffering in Afghanistan and leaving the country for a safer life was tied to her own history. She was only six months old when her architect father and midwife mother, with their two other children, decided to leave Afghanistan. It was the 1980s, during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, and her parents wanted to build a life in a more stable country.

The family left on horseback, her mother in her 20s and her father in his 30s, and crossed the border into Pakistan. With help from a contact, Yalda's father applied for the family to come to Australia, and then “ambushed the Australian High Commissioner in Islamabad every chance he could get”.

“I think [the High Commissioner] was impressed with my Dad’s tenacity.”

Eventually, the family would come to Australia and set up roots in Sydney’s Hills district.

Reflecting on that journey, Yalda muses whether she inherited that same tenacity that would later propel her into journalism, a vocation she grew interested in as a young girl when the family would sit around the TV and watch SBS.

“I’ve got diary entries my parents have kept from when I was about seven saying that I want to be a journalist like Mark Davis.”

As well as watching the news, Yalda’s family attended human rights rallies in Canberra and she went to Afghan school on Saturdays. Like many young people, Yalda says she wasn’t thrilled to wake up early, but it armed her with language skills and a passion for human rights, especially for women.

Yalda Hakim and the Dateline team in Afghanistan, interviewing President Hamid Karzai and filming on the streets of a snowy Kabul.
Yalda Hakim and the Dateline team in Afghanistan, interviewing then President Hamid Karzai and filming on the streets of a snowy Kabul in 2012. Source: SBS

Women’s education was often the subject of high school assignments, as she tried to tell others what was happening in Afghanistan. And at 15, Yalda’s parents encouraged her to write for the local paper and do work experience at a radio station.

Meanwhile, Yalda was fluent in Dari and Farsi, as well as Hindi and Urdu which she picked up watching Indian movies.

“My oldest sister loved Bollywood films and I picked up Hindi from that.”

Hindi would come in handy when Yalda, a journalism cadet at SBS, decided to use her leave savings to travel to India and then Afghanistan to film her own documentaries for Dateline.

“When I went to India and I could speak Hindi, it was really weird because I think I've just picked it up from these movies.”

She was 23-years-old, told her parents the trip was endorsed by SBS (it wasn’t, no-one knew about it), and travelled to India to film a story about surrogacy.

After India, Yalda planned to travel to Afghanistan to document a personal journey back to her birth country, and when she told her parents from Delhi, they “freaked out” and jumped on a flight to Kabul. It was the first time the family had returned to the country.

Yalda admits she had no idea what she was doing. Her Dad became her assistant, all the while unsure if SBS would accept the footage.

“I was quite stressed, I’d dragged my parents here…What if I went back to SBS and they didn’t want it to go to air.”

Yalda needn’t have worried. The story was broadcast and the episode on Afghanistan was the highest-rated episode of the year.

From here, Yalda’s career took off. She continued at Dateline, eventually hosting the program with Mark Davis, and was then offered a position at the BBC at 28-years-old.

Yalda moved her life to London and is now a household face not only in the UK, but around the world. In addition to her reporting and presenting work, she hosts her own program, Impact with Yalda Hakim. The live interview with the Taliban was the accumulation of over a decade’s work as a journalist, reporting on the world’s toughest stories.

Back in Australia on holiday, the 38-year-old reflects on the year that was, with her Mum and Dad as they spend time with their grandson for the first time in years. While it has been a difficult year for Yalda, it has also been tough for her parents, who had been watching the turmoil in Afghanistan unfold on TV.

“As young immigrants coming to Australia, they probably never really dealt with whatever trauma they went through almost 40 years ago, locking up their doors, leaving their home behind, and not knowing if they're ever going to return,” she said.

“I think those scenes at the airport were quite shocking for my parents. I've really realised that they're probably dealing with a lot after seeing another set of people going through the same sort of thing as what they did, almost 40 years ago.”

Afghanistan’s future

After the withdrawal of international troops and the collapse of the Afghanistan government, the country is now facing a terrible famine, with the UN chief warning millions are on the verge of death.

This is compounded with the whittling down of human rights, especially for women, across the country.

When Yalda pauses to think about the assignments she wrote on women’s rights, it’s strange to think how it has come full circle.

“I was writing assignments about girls’ education under the Taliban as a kid, trying to make my classroom understand, and now I'm doing it on a global level. It's sad to me to think that another generation may be impacted.”


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9 min read
Published 20 January 2022 at 6:10am
By Emily Jane smith
Source: SBS