Sarah A. Topol is a journalist covering the Middle East. Her writing has been published in the Atlantic, Businessweek, EsquireForeign Policy, Fortune, GQ, Harper’sNewsweek, the New Republic, the New York Times, Playboy, Popular Science, and Slateamong others.  


She won the 2012 Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism for her coverage of the civil war in Libya. Her trip to meet the Bedouin tribesmen who kidnap foreign tourists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is featured in Best American Travel Writing 2013. She was a 2013 Nation Institute Investigative Fund grantee for work in the Sahel, as well as a 2013 International Women’s Media Foundation Fellow.

Since moving to Cairo in 2008, she has reported from Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Niger, NigeriaMorocco, Western Sahara, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Ukraine, Yemen, Israel, Gaza and the West BankSarah has appeared on BBC, CNN and NPR She speaks Russian; her Arabic remains a work in progress. 
Selected work:
Tea and a Kidnapping: In the desert with the world’s friendliest hostage-takers (The Atlantic, reprinted in Best American Travel Writing)
Follow her on twitter: @satopol
  • The People’s Assembly: How Egypt lost its parliament (Harper’s)

    Egypt’s domed parliament building, with its white colonnaded façade, sticks out from the gray prefabricated concrete of downtown Cairo as if it had been airdropped in from seventeenth-century Paris. Last winter, the country’s first freely elected parliament in six decades convened there. The 508 members of the People’s Assembly accepted their seats during a half-day ceremony in which they swore to protect a constitution that had yet to be written.

    The day after they took their oath in January, I visited the building. As I approached the front entrance, I passed through a sliding metal gate surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers sporting flak jackets and AK-47s, who directed me down the block to the next entrance, where Zyad Elelaimy, one of the assem- bly’s new representatives, had registered me as a researcher, skirting what he’d heard was a lengthy accreditation pro- cess for Western media. The guards looked at my U.S. driver’s license with suspicion and asked whether I wasn’t indeed a journalist. I shook my head, and after a few minutes of conferring, they waved me through.

  • The Plagues of Post-Mubarak Egypt (Newsweek)

    It’s people like Hassan—millions of them—who pose some of the biggest challenges confronting Mohamed Morsi. Somehow Egypt’s new president still needs to persuade these skeptics to believe in his campaign promises that things will get better. And that won’t be easy. When Morsi faced off against former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in last month’s presidential runoff contest, half the country’s voters didn’t participate, and those who bothered to show up divided nearly down the middle. That left Morsi (who hadn’t even been his own party’s first choice for the presidency) the winner by the barest of majorities over his opponent, Shafiq, who was widely viewed as the military’s favored candidate and a relic of Hosni Mubarak’s ousted dictatorship.


  • Gaza’s Surfer Girls (The Atlantic)

    At dusk, the beach outside Gaza City is packed. Thousands of bodies cram the narrow Mediterranean shoreline, while bellowing touts ply candied apples, cotton candy, and baked yams. Rawand Abu Ghanem and I are sitting by the water.

    The 13-year-old looks up at me from where she has been tracing patterns in the sand. “What do you wear when you swim in America?” she asks. I hesitate before replying, “Not much.”

    Rawand nods sagely. “When you surf in America, do people stare at you?”

    “No,” I answer.

    “They do here,” she sighs.

    Rawand is one of four girls learning to ride the waves of the Gaza Strip. They are the newest members of the Gaza Surf Club, a community of two dozen surfers in the Palestinian coastal enclave of 1.5 million. We were supposed to surf together tonight, but Rawand took one look at the crowded beach and decided against it. “Too many people,” she declared.

  • Young and Broke on the Frontlines (Newsweek)

    After two days of rough seas, the small fishing boat carrying two seasoned correspondents, rebel fighters, and Ruth Sherlock arrived at the besieged city of Misrata. It was the height of the Libyan
    civil war and the seasick passengers were eager to make landfall when suddenly, the boat came under fire. Not knowing if the bullets were from government troops or friendly fire from confused rebels, the journalists dove for cover. This is it, Sherlock thought. She was 24, working as a freelancer, with no one to bail her out in one of the most dangerous spots on earth.

    Their boat was one of the first to land in the coastal enclave where 600 people had been killed in the first few weeks of fighting, mostly by government shelling of civilian homes. Libya was Sherlock’s first brush with conflict reporting—and unlike the experienced journalists she was traveling with, she had no money, no health insurance, no first-aid training, or not even the most basic idea about how to work in a conflict zone.

    When I met the petite blonde in the Libyan city of Benghazi in February 2011, she was filing stories for a Scottish news- paper and tagging along to the frontline

  • Libyan Tycoon Husni Bey Tells All (Businessweek)

    Bey cuts the figure of a self-confident man who’s made good. His tan and rounded features make him look younger than his 62 years. He is stylish in an understated kind of way; his curly silver hair is always slicked back and he often wears his pressed striped collared shirts with the top button open—like he’s come back from a day on a yacht.
    These days, though, he isn’t doing enough business. Banking is still mostly shut down, and the flow of goods is small. Libya is in transition, and the important questions include not only what role a man like Bey will play in the new country, but what role he played in the old: How did someone who portrays himself as an enemy of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime also manage to build, during the Brother Leader’s four decades in power, what may be Libya’s biggest private business empire?

  • War by Other Means (Popular Science)

    The rebel forces that deposed Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi in August were supported by some of the most advanced militaries on Earth. But they managed to win most of their battles by themselves using small arms fashioned in makeshift workshops. Insurgent armies, drug cartels, terrorists and other state- less combatants have long used home-brewed weaponry to harass
    more-powerful forces.

    Armed groups in Iraq, for instance, figured out how to fire 240-millimeter rockets into U.S. military bases us- ing car jacks, and engineers for Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers converted a Zlin-143 four-seat passenger plane into a bomber. But in Libya, the fight- ers were waging a conventional war, and battles were fought to seize territory and vanquish their enemies, not simply harass them.

  • Tea and Kidnapping: In the desert with the world’s friendliest hostage-takers (The Atlantic)

    My host, the 37-year-old Bedouin tribal leader Sheikh Ahmed Hashem, had served me so many glasses of sweet tea that I had lost count. It was a hot afternoon in early July, and we were sitting on the floor of his compound in Wadi Feiran, a remote village deep within Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A single electrical cable connects the settle- ment’s squat cement houses; a single road runs through the surrounding mountains to the outside world. Every- thing felt unhurried, including Hashem’s explanation, via a translator, of his people’s complaints against the Egyptian government. But when I asked why the local Bedouin had started kidnapping tourists, he was quick to correct me: “It isn’t kidnapping. It is a tourist safari.”

    The sheikh’s brother Mohammed, a wiry drug runner, nodded vigorously: “Tourists come to Egypt and pay for this kind of experience,” he said, beaming. “Now they are getting the same thing
    for free!”

    During the Egyptian revolution last year, the country’s beleaguered security services mostly pulled out of the Sinai,

  • The Bulletproof Palestinian Stock Exchange (Businessweek)

    During the Israeli siege of Nablus in 2002, Mohammad Hijaz hopped fences, hid behind walls, and snuck ambulance rides to get to the Palestinian stock exchange. Operation Defensive Shield shuttered the market as Israeli tanks took positions inside the West Bank city, but Hijaz frequently stole into the office to finish reports.

    The Palestine Exchange, known as the PEX, had rented a hotel nearby for employees who live outside the city. Hijaz, who oversees relationships with companies listed on the exchange, would go the week without seeing his wife or children, returning to his home only on weekends. Commuting every day through the multiple Israeli military checkpoints would have been impossible. “We were challenging the occupation at that time for national reasons and to work,”

  • As the War in Libya Winds Down, Enter the Consultants (Businessweek)

    Want to do a deal in post-Qaddafi Libya? Head to the Cafe Oya in the back of Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Al Mahary, where visitors without proper ID must check their AK-47s at the hotel door. Diplomats, reporters, businessmen, and representatives of the National Transitional Council (NTC)—the rebel government set up in February—sit at a dozen small tables discussing the country’s volatile future through a haze of cigarette smoke. Conversation over strong coffee flits between the fighting around Sirte, who will hold positions in the soon-to-be-created interim government—delayed by bickering between Islamists and secular Libyans—and who gets the billions of dollars of still-frozen Qaddafi assets.

  • This is How You Start a War (GQ)


    Ahmed Sanalla sent his first tweet at 12:38 a.m. on Saturday, February 13, from Benghazi. He'd never tweeted before, but he figured out the language. @AJEnglish would alert Al Jazeera's newsroom; #Feb17 was the hashtag for protests scheduled for the seventeenth. At the time he wrote it, two days before the protests that would engulf the city and shortly after ignite a civil war, the med student was studying for his end-of-semester forensics exam.

    Like most Libyans, Sanalla spent the previous weeks watching Al Jazeera's coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. At the beginning of February, while Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square, he logged onto Facebook and found a page calling on Libyans to take to the streets on February 17 for their own Day of Rage, demanding basic freedoms and human rights. It did not explicitly call for Qaddafi's removal.

    Sanalla was convinced that one of the reasons Hosni Mubarak hadn't fired on protesters in Egypt was the presence of the entire foreign press corps. But journalists had long been shut out of Libya, allowed to enter only on stage-managed junkets. So he called his brother Anas in Manchester, England, to talk about creating a Twitter account with the purpose of courting media. They decided that Anas would set it up from the UK—that way it wouldn't have a Libyan IP.

    Before this, Twitter seemed like bullshit to Sanalla, a place to post that you were listening to Gaga or were the mayor of Quiznos, but now he had a reason to use it. The handle Sanalla wanted, EndTyranny, was taken, so he settled on EndTyranny01. (He's since upgraded to EndTyranny101.)
    At school the next day, Sanalla told some friends that they should all go out on the seventeenth. Most told him to be quiet, keep his voice down. This wasn’t Egypt or Tunisia—it was Libya. In Libya, suspicious activity is observed and reported to a Revolutionary Committee; Qaddafi loyalists are promoted for the zeal with which they report on their neighbors. “They know where you live, the plates on your car, your SIM registration,” Sanalla says. “It’s easy to pick you out and find you.” Being a member of the Revolutionary Committee means preferential treatment in exams, training, and postings. In exchange, you are expected to vigilantly quash dissent.


  • Texts From Hell (Newsweek)

    Roni Keidar’s house is close to the Gaza Strip—so close that when the border heats up, she hears the attacks from both sides: the thud of Israeli missiles hammering targets inside the Hamas-controlled area and the whoosh of Palestinian rockets being launched into Israel. When the fighting began again a couple of weeks ago, the 69-year-old Israeli took extra precautions. She moved her bed to the bomb shelter adjoining her kitchen, so she and her husband wouldn’t have to get up when the sirens wailed at night. “He has a bad hip, so it’s hard for him to move quickly,” she told Newsweek last week at the home where they’ve lived for nearly 30 years. She said goodbye to her grown children as they relocated north to get their own children out of the line of fire. And then Keidar did something unusual for most Israelis: she texted a Palestinian friend in Gaza.

    The friend, who asks that we call her Mimi Ibrahim, opened the conversation on the second day of the fighting, as Israeli airstrikes shook homes throughout the crowded enclave. “Hi Roni,” she wrote. “I hope you and your family are well and safe. What’s happening is really insane. Please take care and stay safe. Love, Mimi.” Keidar felt the warmth of the gesture but also the sheer weirdness of the circumstances. Rockets fired from Gaza—maybe even from Ibrahim’s neighborhood—were raining all around Keidar’s tiny farming town, Netiv Ha’asara. “Thank you for your concern,” Keidar replied. “I’m thinking of you since it all started and I hope you and your family are okay. If only our leaders would talk. Take care.” It took only a minute for Ibrahim to respond: “Our leaders don’t care about us. The situation is really bad and I expect it to get worse. I hear bombing everywhere. We are safe so far. Take care.”

  • Egypt’s War on NGOs (Newsweek)

    Just after noon on Dec. 29, Julie Hughes, the Egypt country director of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), got a phone call saying police were raiding the group’s office in the south. Thirty seconds later, over a dozen men, roughly half of them armed with AK-47s, burst into her Cairo headquarters, while other teams assaulted the NDI’s offices in Assiut and Alexandria. “It was impressive logistically,” Hughes recalls. As the officers piled in, she immediately called the NDI’s local lawyer, then the American Embassy. A man in dark glasses commanded her to hang up. Hughes told him she was an American citizen. “Hang up the phone or we’ll take that too,” he snapped. They wouldn’t tell her who ordered the raid, only that they called him “Mr. Prosecutor.” NDI staffers were herded into the office’s conference room as men rifled through everything in the office, loading up files, computers, and phones. They took cash from the office safe and Skype video-conferencing equipment. The raid lasted six hours. Afterward, the police asked Hughes if she had any big boxes to help them cart the stuff away.


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