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'Outtakes': Former NPR producer's new book takes readers behind the scenes and around the world

The cover of "Outtakes." (Courtesy of Peter Breslow)
The cover of "Outtakes." (Courtesy of Peter Breslow)

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with longtime NPR producer Peter Breslow about his new book “Outtakes: Stumbling Around the World for NPR” where he shares memories of his 39 years working for the network including trips to Iraq, Somalia and Ecuador.

Peter Breslow is the author of “Outtakes.” (Courtesy of Peter Breslow)

Book excerpt: ‘Outtakes: Stumbling Around the World for NPR’

By Peter Breslow

Afghanistan January 2002

Scott Simon and I left the U.S. for Kabul on the day that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by militants in Pakistan, so we were a bit on edge. The tension increased when we realized that one of our soon-to-be departing housemates in Kabul was the Journal ’s regional correspondent. They were pulling him out for safety reasons.

Scott and I wondered if the terrorists might have already zeroed in on him and his room in our house. Maybe they were planning another abduction. NPR or WSJ, what difference did it make? So, naturally, I let Scott have the WSJ bedroom when their reporter left.

Soon after, an Afghan who said he had helped Pearl showed up at our place. He was fearful that the militants were on to him and was frantic to flee the country with his pregnant wife. I never heard whether or not they made it to safety.

Electricity was in short supply in those days. When it was flowing you could either run the cheap Japanese space heaters that took some of the edge off the Kabul January frost, or you could turn on the lights. Not both at the same time. After a couple of weeks, I had had enough, and I told our foreign editor that I was going out to buy the biggest goddamn generator I could find. He said absolutely not. That wasn’t in our budget. But he was far, far away in Washington.

Sometimes you just had to say screw the budget, like when I was told I couldn’t fly business class on my way to Mogadishu to cover the conflict in Somalia. That was a place where when you stepped off the plane, someone might be trying to kill or at least kidnap you. I needed my beauty rest. Somewhere in my expense report I buried that high-priced seat.

For the generator, I went down to Chicken Street, the spot in Kabul where you could find just about anything you needed. I still have a warm place in my heart for our bright red Elemax SH 6000 that made life much more bearable that winter. Although soon after that purchase, the local electricity guy came by to say that for a small weekly “fee” he would make sure we always had current. He told us just to be certain we closed our shades at night so the neighbors didn’t find out.

One day we headed south to the town of Gardez in Paktia province to report on a prisoner exchange between two rival militias. We interviewed the local warlord, Pacha Khan Zadran, on a windswept plateau. It was absolutely freezing and I lost all feeling in my hand holding the microphone.

After the interview, the warlord’s brother took pity on us and invited us into his nearby hut. It was toasty warm, heated by a wood stove. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that there was a rocket propelled grenade launcher leaning against the wall just behind the glowing stove. “Ah . . . is that safe?”, I asked. The fighters smiled, and the RPG stayed right where it was.

To thank warlord Khan’s brother for his hospitality, I broke out the Double Stuf Oreos I had purchased on Chicken Street. He absolutely loved them, and we spent an hour sipping tea and eating cookies.

Once it was time for the prisoner exchange, the parties quickly realized that they didn’t have any paper on which to write down the names of the mujahideen to be swapped. Scott Simon to the rescue. He offered up his reporter’s notebook, one of those handy narrow rectangular pads that can easily fit into your back pocket while on assignment. But this wasn’t just any reporter’s notebook. It was one from the Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Scott seems to have a lifetime supply of them, gifts for his generous work with the organization.

As the day wound down, the names of the militia men were dutifully inscribed in Scott’s notebook; and off went these grizzled, battle-hardened fighters in vehicles bristling with 50 caliber machine guns and AK 47’s, their leader clutching a notebook emblazoned with the motto, “We’re here. We’re queer. We’re on deadline.”

Probably our most powerful piece from Afghanistan was about Bamiyan in the central part of the country, where the Taliban had destroyed the two giant Buddhas carved into a cliffside. We even found a local Hazara man who had been dragooned by the Taliban to help with the destruction of the 6th-century wonders. But before that, we stumbled upon a poignant scene. There were two men out in a field unearthing the bones of one of the Taliban’s victims. Some years before, one of these men had been forced to dig a grave and dump the poor soul into it, leaving the site unmarked. Now with liberation, the man had returned to give this anonymous person a proper burial.

We were lucky to capture this story. (I can still remember Scott’s beautiful writing, describing a bit of spine that had been dug up as looking like a seahorse.) But afterwards, it was getting dark and cold; Bamiyan sits at over 9000 feet, and we had no place to stay.

We headed back into town where we found a guest house, but the place was full. However, once the owner spotted us, we could just see the dollar signs pop into his eyes and, before we realized what was happening, he started to boot out the guys lying around inside all comfy on their sleeping mats. They shot us dirty looks as they began filing out the door.

Thankfully, before things progressed too much further, a shiny black SUV pulled up to the guest house and in decent English one of the guys inside said, “Come on, you’re staying with us.” They were representatives of the local warlord who had heard there were some American journalists in town and wanted to host us. We ended up in a warm and cozy room padded with carpets and were treated to a delicious meal. Thank goodness, those other guys were able to return to their guest house for the night.

After about a month of reporting in Afghanistan, it was time to return home. We were going to drive east into Pakistan via the Afghan city of Jalalabad and then up through Khyber Pass and on to Islamabad. This was a nerve-wracking route. A couple of months before, the Taliban had murdered four journalists on this road.

We left in a two-car convoy just in case there was a problem with one of the vehicles. It was a cold day, spitting icy rain as we snaked down the mountainous switchbacks taking us out of Kabul. This was a white- knuckle ride for me, but not for my colleague. You see, Scott, who does not know how to drive, is a vehicular narcoleptic. As soon as you turn the key to the motor, he nods off. So, as I peered over the cliffs reconciling myself to our certain deaths, Scott was dreaming about his first cup of Starbucks back in the States.

We made it down intact from Kabul and were humming along the Jalalabad road, when I spotted a gathering of men up ahead. As we approached, I sat on the edge of my seat peering through the rainy windshield.

My God, are they Taliban? No response from Scott, who remained in his caffeinated dreamland. To my great relief, as we got closer, I realized these were just herders with their animals. Once we arrived safely at the border, Scott awoke with something like, “Wow we’re here already?” Yes, Scott.

For the last leg of the trip, we had to travel through the tribal areas of Pakistan, which were home to militants considered dangerous. The Pakistani military insisted a soldier accompany us in our car, but our vehicle was absolutely packed, no room for a guy and his gun. So, before he could pull open the door handle, we sped off and left our soldier screaming at us in the rearview mirror.

Our trip had a literary finale. That evening in Islamabad we walked around the city and wandered into a bookshop. There, sitting on a table was a collection by children’s author and Weekend Edition contributor Daniel Pinkwater. The book featured an introduction by none other than NPR’s Scott Simon. Once the bookseller realized he had a quasi-celebrity in his shop, he quickly organized an impromptu intro signing.

Excerpted from “Outtakes: Stumbling Around the World for NPR” by Peter Breslow. Copyright © 2023 by Peter Breslow. Published by Mojo Hand Publishing. Reprinted by permission.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.