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Alumnus in Turkey: Olaf Koens

War, love, hate, death. Olaf Koens wanted to experience the big themes in literature for himself. As a correspondent in the Middle East, his wish has been granted.

Koens is walking along Istiklal Street
the Kalverstraat of Istanbul, as he explains over the phone. He is on his way back to his apartment, which he shares with his Russian wife, his daughter (6) and his son (3). ‘The top floor of the former Prussian embassy. Magnificent views. An enormous privilege to look out over the entire Bosphorus.’

Photo: Olaf Koens
Photo: Olaf Koens

At the start of this century, Koens (34) was too restless to complete his philosophy degree in Groningen. He wanted to leave after two years, to explore the big wide world. By way of Antwerp and Brussels, he ended up in Russia, where he became a freelance reporter for various media organizations. Koens is currently employed by RTL and is the Middle East correspondent for RTL Nieuws.

Istanbul is the ideal base for him. It’s a good place for a young family to live. And only a 90-minute flight on average to all of the other exciting countries in the region. ‘History is being made in the Middle East right now, we’re right at the heart of things.’

There’s almost nowhere he hasn’t been. When prompted, he reels off a list: ‘Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar.’ He’s currently working on the topic of Idlib, the last bit of Syria to be captured by Assad. But he won’t be going there. ‘Chances are you’ll be kidnapped. Plus, there’s the risk of bombing.’ Danger plays a role in his work, but not a predominant one: ‘if things get too dicey, I go home.’ In fact, home in Istanbul was the most exciting place to be in the spring of 2017. The Netherlands expelled a Turkish minister from the country and relations between the two countries were explosive. ‘I started to worry about my own safety and that of my family. Suddenly, there were all these strange characters hanging around outside my apartment. There were reports that we had to watch our step. I moved my family somewhere else for two weeks.’

Koens is always ready to jump in a taxi to the airport. A bag with clean underwear close at hand, his devices all charged. But in this digital age, there’s little point racing to be the first to get to where the news story is. He can’t keep up with the pace at which eyewitness pictures and stories pop up. He sometimes tells his stories from home via a live link, with the Bosphorus as a backdrop, giving his interpretation of events. Or he travels to the hotspot, accompanied by his regular camerawoman, and explores the background to what is happening.

‘War, love, hate, death. The big themes that literature deals with. I wanted to experience them for myself. Well, my wish has been granted.’ Koens also finds time to write books. Last autumn, he published his third collection of stories, Paarden vliegen businessclass [Horses fly business class]
true stories about zoos in the Middle East. He’s currently working on his first novel. He describes it as a reckoning with Friesland, the province where he lived from the age of two to 17 and where he always felt like an outsider.

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek

Last modified:03 April 2020 12.09 p.m.
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