Illustration: Lauren Tamaki
Rukmini Callimachi didn’t intend for her career to go this way. The Romanian-born writer initially thought she’d be a poet — but through a series of events, her career ended up taking a sharp turn. Now, she’s a foreign correspondent at the New York Times and a terrorism expert. Her latest project at the Times is Caliphate, a fascinating podcast that seeks to help us understand ISIS. Callimachi lives in the New York area with her husband. Here, how she gets it done.
On mornings: I wake up when my alarm goes off and the first thing I do is I check email. I then check the DMs I’ve received on Twitter, and then I go to Telegram. This is the encrypted app where ISIS chat rooms are located. I scan them to see if there’s been any major attack or development. A lot of the rooms that these people are congregated in are being suspended every couple of hours so I’m looking for the links to the new rooms so I don’t get frozen out. That takes up probably the first 30 minutes of my day. I then take my shower, feed my two dogs, and make myself a smoothie. It’s always the same thing: a pint of blueberries, rice milk, and protein powder. Then I head to the office. That’s my routine when I’m here. If I’m on the road, my read-in is the same everywhere I am, but my go-to breakfast is two eggs sunny-side up with a salad.
On being an outsider: I moved away from Romania as a child. My family was given political refugee status, first in Germany and then in Switzerland when I was 5 years old. We were there until I was almost 10, then we moved to California. That shaped me in a number of ways — I have always felt like an outsider. Everywhere I go, people see me as somehow not being from there, even in the States, where I’ve been the longest of any one place. People ask me, Where are you from? That sense of otherness has always been with me. It has at times been a source of strain in my personal life, but it’s also something that has galvanized me to report, because a lot of the people I report on have a similar sentiment. ISIS is the ultimate manifestation of that — in an extreme form.
How she got into journalism: I always knew that I wanted to write. Initially I made the mistake of thinking that writing is this profession that I would do in a solitary form. Very early on, I thought that I was going to become a poet. I got somewhat down that pipeline. I was able to publish over a dozen poems in various national and local journals, but I realized that I didn’t like being completely by myself in a room — when you’re a poet, it’s you and your inner world. What I really loved to do was talking to people and traveling, and it really didn’t fit into place until I was in India as part of my graduate studies. I was at that point studying Sanskrit at Oxford University. There, I realized, Oh my god, journalism puts these three things together. So I dropped out of my graduate program in late 2000, and in 2001 there was a major earthquake in Gujarat, which is a state in western India. I was able to get on one of the first flights going from New Delhi to Gujarat, and I was able to file my first story as a contributor on a Time magazine article about the earthquake.
On becoming a terrorism expert: I got into covering terrorism in 2012. At that point, I was the West Africa bureau chief for the AP. I was in Senegal, but I covered a stretch of 20 countries in the area, including Mali. In 2012, an affiliate of Al Qaeda took over northern Mali and did what we later saw ISIS doing in Raqqa and Mosul. That became an important part of my beat, and in 2013, I was able to get into Timbuktu right after it was liberated. There, I found thousands of pages of internal Al Qaeda documents which pretty much blew up my world and opened this beat to me.
How a typical work day goes: The only thing that’s typical is when I’m in the office, which is a minority of the time. In the morning, I get into the bureau. I have meetings and interviews throughout the day. I typically leave at 7:30 p.m. Several days a week, I then go to my gym or my bootcamp, where I work out with my friend Heather Murphy, who’s also a Times reporter. Then I get home typically around 9:30 or 10 p.m. at night. I have a really late dinner and then I try to unwind by reading or watching Netflix.
As for when I’m on the road, for the last couple of years, I have always tried to put myself in hotels that have gyms. I’ve realized if I don’t work out, I get tired much more quickly and my ability to be effective goes downhill from there. If I’m doing a military embed in Mosul, obviously there’s no gym. But in the downtime, if I’m staying in a place like Baghdad or Erbil, which is the town in Northern Iraq where I spend the most time, I make sure I’m staying in a hotel that has a gym and I work out every other day.
On dealing with jet lag: My main tip for jet lag is choosing an outgoing flight that gets me to my destination around 3 or 4 p.m. — if I can do it. So typically that’s the red-eye going out of JFK. That way, I can go to sleep straight when I get in, meaning I’ll get to my hotel by 5 p.m., by the time I unpack it’s 6 p.m., and then I go to sleep and can typically wake up at 7 or 8 a.m. the next morning and be on a normal schedule. I get really thrown off if I land at like 10 p.m. and I’m not able to have a long recovery.
On podcasting: In text, we usually write stories in the third person. Rarely do we break into the first person and if we do, it has to be for a good reason. What it means is that, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to readers the process from which you got a specific story. With audio, you’re able to explain process much more clearly. The most clear example of that is when we were reporting on Yazidi rape victims. If you’ll recall from chapter nine, we found two women who had just been released from ISIS custody three days earlier after years of captivity. The second we stepped into their tent, we saw that they had essentially fainted. We realized in that moment that it would be inappropriate to interview them; it would just be abusive and cruel of us to try to ask these people who are barely conscious to answer our questions. So we left. That’s the kind of detail that would never make it into a print story. But in the podcast, you hear Andy Mills and I turning to each other and going, “Oh my god, we’ve got to leave.”
On dealing with stress: Number one, I work out. When I’m in the States, I’ll try to push myself to go to these hour-long bootcamp or workout classes. When I’m traveling, my only goal is to get on the treadmill 20 minutes. The second thing is, I talk to my husband every day. He’s always been my biggest cheerleader and a big supporter and that’s my routine at night. Then I have a set of silly TV shows that I chain-watch on my computer when I’m overseas and want to go to sleep and can’t. I’m embarrassed to say, because you’re going to see that my taste is very lowbrow, but I love watching Modern Family and Vanderpump Rules. I saw Katie’s wedding from Mosul.
This interview has been edited and condensed.