My Friend James Foley: 'I Just Love Being Where the Story's Happening'
The term “social media” didn’t even exist when I met Jim. Without it now, the first I would have heard about him in nearly a decade would have been an email that he was taken prisoner in Libya. But instead, thanks to this newfangled medium, I had reconnected with Jim on Facebook just over two years ago—no easy feat, since no matter that he’s a unique person, he’s one of many James Foleys in the world. Since we had been in Teach for America together, I qualified the search, and lo, there he was, looking practically the same as when I had last seen him eight years earlier. I sent him a friend request, adding a note that I had been thinking of him recently, having found some photos from our trip to Napa—me in green plaid pants that I thought were so cool, and he and a friend, Rich, toasting with champagne flutes like children playing grown-ups. He wrote me back immediately.
“Sheila,” exclamation point. “I remember that afternoon. The beauty was all around, and you were such the snob trying to mock school us on the finer points of wine tasting, and I remember your ridiculous pants!”
“Yes,” I replied, “the pants and I were equally absurd!”
For the next year we corresponded via Facebook. Jim was now an embedded journalist in Iraq, “getting in some good writing” and witnessing history firsthand. As 2009 was ending, Jim recognized that things were getting increasingly unstable and said he was ready to move on to Afghanistan. “Baghdad is slogging towards an end. Huge bombing on Sunday,” he wrote. Always the pragmatist, he noted, “Supposedly banned sale of alcohol in international zone. Yup it’s time to go.” And then he signed off, as he did on every email to me, “Thanks for checking in.”
We made a plan to meet up when he was back in January and then, mid-January, without notice, he walked into my clothing shop, “What’s up, Sheila?” he said, and hugged me like no time had passed. It was a snowy afternoon and so I used it as an excuse to close up early. Over dinner and a few drinks it was like old times: easy conversation, laughs and thoughtful pauses. Shortly after, he was back in Afghanistan.
“Pretty fascinating right now, beautiful and kind of hopeless at the same time,” he wrote. While the war was equally frenetic there, he managed to find inspiration, as well as the occasional absurdity, in his situation, “Going out to some school the Americans say they’re gonna open in September. In meantime it’s serving as Taliban target practice.”
We started reading each others blogs; it struck me that he still enjoyed the levity of my commentary on popular culture while his blog told the heartfelt stories of the trauma of soldiers and locals alike engulfing him. As he was set to leave Afghanistan last October, he was just as courageous and committed to his job, no matter how questionable the circumstances, “Going on one last patrol- seriously, 6 platoons surround a town....good idea?!”
We met up for dinner this past November with another Teach for America alum, Don, and his wife. This time, Jim called first. After catching up over pasta and wine, I grilled Jim a little on why he was planning to take another job sending him back to Afghanistan, what I could only see as a chaotic and frenzied war zone. He pointed out how tough the journalism market is, but it was clear he wasn’t going just because it was a job; it seemed almost like unfinished business, there were still stories left to tell.
“It’s not that bad,” Jim said. “It’s no more dangerous than living in New York City.”
“Rats don't carry guns, my friend,” I said, as if this was even the real debate.
After dinner Don and his wife headed home and Jim and I went for another glass of wine or three, talking for hours, still trying to wrap my head around what he was doing, our conversation interspersed with the past, present, politics, and religion. When I accused him of being addicted to the adrenaline, he admitted that he would get upset if he missed out on the “action” no matter how sad or violent. Though ultimately he said, “I just love being where the story’s happening, taking shape and being able to tell it.”
When he was embedded before, he said, maybe he had gotten too close to the soldiers to be objective, but it was hard not to; maybe next time, he could work on being more of an observer.
We talked a few times before he left again. Happy Birthday (to me). Merry Christmas (to both). Safe travels (to him). In February I wrote to tell him about my trip to Costa Rica. He told me had been wondering how it was when he saw my pictures. As always, he thanked me for checking in and added, “You’re a real sweetie Sheila.”
I took longer than usual to write him back, distracted by my daily life, when I noticed on his Facebook page that he was now reporting from Libya. I posted one of his stories that struck me as so objectively compassionate, somehow he’s at once an unbiased journalist and friend with his subjects. Jim immediately “liked” it. I followed up with an email that I was proud of him and that, maybe just maybe, I was wrong about his going.
A week later on April 5 I received an email from another former Teach for America member that Jim had been taken hostage while reporting in Libya. His blog that used to reflect such passion and turmoil had become a mere signpost, “James Foley Currently Detained in Tripoli.” The same social media that brought Jim back into my life and kept us connected has now become a lifeline to any updates on his condition, status, and the community that had formed around his absence.
Struggling to remain hopeful and positive, along with countless family and friends, I remember our conversation that same November night after a few too many glasses of wine. Sitting on my couch, assessing my apartment, Jim said, “I like that print.” I had a framed print of a painting of pastel mountains with block print that said “Everything is Going to Be Okay.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s kind of silly,” I said, “But for some reason, I just always believe that. One way or another, it works out in the end.”
“I know, I believe that too,” Jim said.
To sign a petition for his release, or check on updated for James Foley, go to, freefoley.org
Sheila Sharma, a former lawyer and Teach for America member, is an aspiring writer who owns a clothing boutique, POP, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y., where she resides.