Mona Chalabi: Data Journalist

Mona tells us about the unusual freedom her Iraqi parents gave her as a kid, the meticulous process behind her work, and how she’s dismantling the idea that data journalism is an impenetrable truth.

This episode was produced by Hebah Fisher and Dana Ballout, with editorial support by Linah Mohammad and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Original sting composed by Ramzi Bashour. al empire is a Kerning Cultures Network production. Search ‘Kerning Cultures Network’ to hear other podcasts like this one, and follow @kerningcultures on Instagram to stay in touch!

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Transcript

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[AD BREAK]

DANA: Hey, I’m Dana Ballout

HEBAH: And I’m Hebah Fisher

DANA: And this is Al Empire.

[AL EMPIRE STING]

DANA: Can you just introduce yourself for us?

MONA: Sure. I’m going to start by pronouncing my name the way that I pronounce it which isn’t Mona… Yeah, I’m a Mona. Which we can get into if it’s of any interest to you.

DANA: This is Mona Chalabi. Mona is a British-Iraqi data journalist, and currently the Data Editor at Large for The Guardian. Previously Mona had a column for the New York Magazine. Personally, my favorite thing about Mona is her Instagram account — it’s where a lot of her work is highlighted. 

HEBAH: I love how she publishes these really wonderful infographics and she’ll take this super complicated information and then represent it in something that’s beautiful and also easy to understand — these illustrations that then you’re like, “oh that’s what that trend is.”. She’s so great.

DANA: If you don’t follow her already, do that now. She also co-created a video series called the Vagina Dispatches that was nominated for an Emmy Award and has worked with the likes of Netflix, the BBC, National Geographic, Channel 4 and Vice. 

So, Mona and I called each other — I live in LA, she lives in New York. And, as a disclaimer this episode will acknowledge the existence of male and female genitalia and the existence of sex. Alright, let’s get started. 

MONA: My name is Mona Chalabi and I’m a data journalist. 

DANA: Ok. So, just random questions. What food could you eat every single day and never get bored?

MONA: Tabbouleh

DANA: No way! 

MONA: I love Tabbouleh. I could live on nothing but Tabbouleh

DANA: Oh my gosh. Okay — where were you born and where did you grow up? 

MONA: I was born in London and that’s where I grew up most of my life. Yeah.

DANA: Let’s start with, where are your parents from? 

MONA: My parents are Iraqi. 

DANA: Okay. And, they moved to London, when? 

MONA: So, they actually met in London. They both moved separately before they knew each other. And, I think that my mum moved when she was like 26 and my dad maybe moved in his early thirties. 

DANA: Since your parents are Iraqi, what was your relationship to Iraq like growing up? Did you have any relationship to the country? 

MONA: I feel like I didn’t really know that I was Iraqi for a long time, which I know will kind of horrify my mother. And I think she’ll probably feel like she went wrong somehow. But, yeah. I didn’t really know that we were Iraqi. I think my parents placed a real emphasis on assimilation and I also think that Iraq was a place that they never really imagined being able to ever go back to. They didn’t renew their Iraqi passports, you know? So it’s not that they didn’t feel Iraqi, if anything I’m so shocked like, you know that transition that everyone has from getting to know their parents as purely Mom and Dad to getting to know them as people in their own right? It’s been really surprising to me as an adult to realize how big Iraq is as a part of who they are but that wasn’t — it didn’t feel like that was communicated growing up… it’s weird.

DANA: Did you guys ever speak Arabic at home?

MONA: Not really, no. And there’s a reason for that. So my dad was a pediatrician in quite a deprived part of London. And so many of the kids he saw were doing really badly in school. And the thinking at the time was that growing up with a second language at home will be detrimental to you in school. And I mean it’s still been…  It’s still the case that kids who grow up speaking two languages end up speaking a little bit later on in life. But that was always attributed to some kind of severe developmental delay and he didn’t want that for us. So we went to Arabic school when I was like a little bit older but that was just so bizarre… because Monday to Friday we would go to a Christian school. And then on Saturday we would be learning Arabic, but through the Quran and wearing like… hijabs.

So we just like show up at Arabic school and quickly put on our hijabs. So I didn’t really understand. Yeah.

DANA: How would your parents describe you?

MONA: Difficult. I would say I was always quite focused. So I would always like, work hard in school but was also really disobedient which was a weird mix. And it was strange because my sister was in some ways the mirror image of me where she would show up and she was so polite, and so sweet to teachers, and would never do a single piece of work. Whereas I was rude but would always like, do the work.  So I wonder if this was a part of like my dad’s training as a pediatrician or if it was the fact that he grew up with strict parents, I don’t know. But we had no rules growing up. We like – there were no rules. So when I went to school, I didn’t understand. I just — I didn’t understand any of it.

DANA: What do you…  what do you mean by no rules? 

MONA: All the things that I… that I hear friends talking about. Or that I, I discovered from friends about the limitations that parents placed — or not even limitations — but the way that they were raised, was very foreign to me. So for example, right? A normal rule that I see a lot of parents doing with their kids — even friends of mine now who have kids — is saying like, you can’t have too many sweets or chocolate. We had a cupboard at home and you could see as many sweets and chocolate as you wanted until you felt physically sick. I think the belief was just like, “you guys will figure it out”. And, I remember when – I feel like my mum will be kind of horrified at me telling some of these stories but anyway — I remember when it was time for the class the school photo so everyone would, you know, a photographer would come to the school and take a picture of you, and you and your sibling, if you had a sibling. And I remember the headmistress would bring in a brush just for us. We were like the only kids that looked so feral that she needed to bring in a hairbrush. And it’s because like, I didn’t want my hair to be brushed . So my mom was like, “Ah well, whatever… you know, I just won’t brush your hair then”.

DANA: That’s amazing. I mean it… it is so interesting to me because that’s quite opposite then the… the common kind of upbringing especially amongst Arab parents.

MONA: Yeah. No like I remember, I remember calling up my best friends and being like, Kathy I went and got a tub of paint and painted my mum’s room and I don’t know if…. I don’t know if she’s going to like it. And Kathy was just like, “oh my God you’re gonna be in such bad trouble”, because she was assuming that my mom would read it the same way that her parents would. So she came over and we tried to like, clear it up and her room was completely wrecked, like completely destroyed. And when my mom walked in she was just like, “oh no”. But there was… there was never a question of like, you know… yeah, being — I don’t know–  being disciplined for that.

At the same time there were definitely expectations that were- that were never really said but were kind of clear so… I remember my sister saying to my mum, “I really really love art” and my mom was like, “you know what’s really artistic? Plastic surgery”. So, I think they always wanted us to go into medicine and to — yeah to — so they were Arab in that respect… and like, “go into law or medicine and anything else is dangerous and precarious and not sensible”.

DANA: What was your relationship like with your sister?

MONA: Growing up…  we fought a lot. And, I would say that we were trying to figure things out separately in our own ways. And now as adults, we’re very close. Yeah, and we’ve started to talk about our childhood in a way that I think is healthy and that we never really did when we were younger. 

I feel like I share a lot publicly. I talk a lot about my personal life in ways that make my family very uncomfortable. It’s very, very foreign to Arab culture to talk about personal things publicly. 

I think part of Western culture is to be like, “you do you. You do whatever makes you feel good.” And I think I’ve done that up to a point. But, there also comes a point when I actually just want to respect my family’s wishes and I know that to Westerners listening it might sound like I’m, I don’t know, like passive or weak for doing that. But, I’m…  I’m still trying to figure that out. I think it causes- it causes my family members harm like real pain when I talk publicly about things they don’t want me to.  

DANA: And when you talk about…  when you talk about things that you talk about publicly, do you mean like your personal life or your dating life? Or, maybe like your, like illustrations, maybe? That are a bit more racy than they would want — is that what you mean?

MONA: I think more about my personal life. So I made a four part video series called Vagina dispatches. I mean… I talked about having an orgasm in that which, I guess lays to rest any notions that I’m still a virgin. I made it very clear that I have been sexually active. And yeah, I think that was really upsetting and our only solace is the hope that maybe family members haven’t heard it. That’s just like the hope. My mum’s definitely heard it.

DANA: Was there a conversation about it? 

MONA: Yeah, she was just like, “I wish you hadn’t.” But she’s also like – she also knows I’m incredibly stubborn and… all she said was, “I wish you hadn’t”. And it made her sad.

DANA: Were you always kind of on the more artistic side, growing up? What were you interested in as a kid?

MONA: I think I was just interested in success. I know it sounds so weird but even just as a kid, I was like, so focused on just trying to do the thing that would mean that I could be independent — be financially independent. And be able to take care of myself. Because I just felt like life was quite scary and you never knew what was going to happen, and I just wanted to be able to do that so I was just always so ambitious.

DANA: Where do you think you got that ambition from?

MONA: I think from my mum. My mum’s just like a powerhouse, yeah. Like she — I think she won’t mind me saying this. She was taken out of school by her dad partly because he said that she was taking it too seriously and so she was out of school for many years. I want to say something like she was taken out of school when she was 6 or 7 and then went back to school when she was maybe 12 or 13… and caught up in all of — all of those years, she just caught up immediately and was just very, very focused on studying medicine which is something that no one in her family had ever done. And it was all about her gaining her independence and her freedom. And she did it. And I just find – she was just so, she’s just so incredible.

DANA: Tell me — where did you go to school and what you studied? 

MONA: So I went to Edinburgh. I started off studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics and something I don’t talk about very publicly, because I still feel kind of weird about it is the fact I dropped out. So I studied there for two years, was absolutely miserable, like just so deeply, deeply unhappy. And then I applied to do a year abroad in France and I really enjoyed being in France. And, so what I did was I dropped out of my degree program and applied for a masters and kind of handed over all of my certificates to the French Secretariat knowing that they might not necessarily understand exactly what they said. And so I somehow got into this master’s program without an undergraduate degree. So I have a masters but no bachelor’s. 

[AD BREAK]

HEBAH: Now, Let’s get back to our story today. When we left off, Mona was telling us about how, by a fluke in the French system, she managed to get a Master’s degree without a Bachelor’s degree. 

DANA: What happened after that? I know you did like a quick stint in Jordan as well.

MONA: Yeah, I studied in Jordan – I think it was my first summer while I was at the University of Edinburgh — because I felt really, I felt really – I wanted to learn Arabic. I wanted to learn Arabic because I thought it’d be great for my career, because I wanted to be able to communicate with family members in a different way. I’d… I’d all of a sudden realized as an adult that I only had access to a certain part of my mum and that constantly speaking in her second language changed things. And I think it was because – so growing up we had no Arabs around us which I think is a big part of my weird Arab identity, that the only Arabs I knew were my parents and my sister. And so when my mum’s brother moved to the UK from Iraq, all of a sudden seeing her speaking in Arabic, I just saw this completely other side to her. And I guess I wanted to access it. So yeah, I decided to go and learn Arabic… Arabic is hard. It’s a hard language.

And I also felt really frustrated. I was like, no matter how good I get at Arabic… when I speak Arabic It will always be like, “oh that’s like – that’s a bit unimpressive you don’t speak it perfectly. If I invested the same time and energy into learning Mandarin people would be like, “whoa! You speak Mandarin that is so incredible”. And I think I’m – I seek out praise — I think that’s part of the reason why I went into journalism, I think a lot of people that work in journalism are a little bit narcissistic. And, so it felt really frustrating to me that no one really cared that I was learning Arabic because it was always just about catching up with what I should have known. I should have always been able to have spoken Arabic fluently and all of my efforts were just invisible somehow because of the color of my skin.

DANA: When you watched your mom kind of flourish in her native tongue – what was that like, how was she different in English than she was in Arabic?

MONA: So, the most interesting thing was going to Iraq with her. So, it was the first time that she’d been since she left. She hadn’t been in maybe thirty six, thirty seven years. And when she left Iraq she was a young woman. And when I watched her go back and I watched her speaking to her brothers, me my sister were just like, oh my God! She was acting like a young girl. And she was so playful, and she was like, teasing people and she had this lightness to her that – it makes me sad. That’s not, that’s not the woman that I knew, because her life has been so difficult. And, I think a big part of her life in the English speaking world was difficult though she was always so, so serious. Yeah, she never joked around. 

DANA: Yeah…

MONA: She had a really hard life, yeah. Anyway.

DANA: What was your first gig and how did you make your first, I don’t know, 100 pounds?

MONA: [laughs] My first ever job… My first ever job was working — I used to work in um a British, like what was it they sold like CDs and sweets and candy — it was a place called Woolworth’s. And then after that I worked in a lady’s clothing store called “Bling”. Yeah… which was interesting. But, yeah that’s how I made my first… my first money. So I didn’t like working in “Bling” because I felt like I didn’t fit in there. 

DANA: Why Not?

MONA: So it was interesting. I remember… I remember the woman who owned the store kept on pressurizing me into buying some of the clothes to wear them so that I could like, you know, show off the merchandise. I remember feeling like, that’s not right, but I couldn’t really speak up. And I didn’t feel comfortable wearing those clothes because I felt like they weren’t really for me. 

I would say that… My family aren’t exactly white passing, but they’re very fair skinned and I think they always get asked kind of like where are you from. You know. And that question maybe comes from an assumption that maybe they are from Turkey or from Greece or from somewhere that’s like… not super offensive. Whereas, for me, because I’m dark skinned — I’m the dark skinned person by quite a long way — there’s no doubt that I’m not a white person. No doubt for a second. And I think that for a long time I didn’t realize that. I went to a school in East London that was so diverse that honestly, like I know it just sounds like such an awful awful cliché but, as a young child, I was just not aware of my skin color. And then experiences like working at “Bling”, there’ve been a few really formative experiences me where I’m like oh wow I’m not white. And working in this clothing store where all of the clientele were white, I was just like, oh like these clothes aren’t for me. And I don’t really belong here. 

DANA: Was that the first time that you realized that you weren’t white?

MONA: No. The first time I realized I would say was when my mum took me out of this very deprived state school that we went to that, at the time, I think was like, maybe the second or third worst primary school in the entire country. And… and channeled all of her money into putting me into a  private school for two years.

And I walked into this private school and I just knew I didn’t belong. And all of those other kids knew that I didn’t belong. And I remember someone asking me, “are you his sister?” And I was like, no… why would you — oh, he’s brown and I’m brown, so you think we’re brother and sister. And I was like, whoa!

And yeah, and I experienced a bit of bullying there. I remember a girl telling me to go back home, meaning like, whichever country she assumed that I came from. Yeah, I — I didn’t fit in. I did not fit in at all. And I didn’t speak the same as them. I had a little like, real Cockney accent at the time that I kind of lost. It was really difficult actually.

DANA: And how did you respond to that?

MONA: I definitely spent more time alone. I don’t really think I had a choice about that. I think I became quite angry. I think… I think yeah, I was angry about a lot of different things, but I think that made me quite angry. And I just became really focused on getting out of there. You know, like all the things that — I think it still lives with you — all of the things that make you feel less than. My school uniform was second hand, no one else’s was. My school uniform never felt like, as clean or as pristine, partly because my mum was like, working her ass off and so she didn’t have the time to like iron all of my things… and I just felt less than.

DANA: Has that kind of feeling of being an outsider, or the only brown person in the room, has that continued throughout your life as an adult?

MONA: I think it depends on… on where I’ve been. I think… My secondary school I went to — thank God — was very, very diverse, which was great. But it was a very weird experience to me moving to the US because my first job here was working in a very, very, very white space and I had a similar feeling of just, oh my god I don’t fit in. I remember walking into — we would have these meetings — and the head of the organization would have each person walking in and he’d be like, “hey man, hey bro, hey man, hey man, hey man”. I mean it was also the masculinity of the place. It was just the feeling that I did not belong. 

But I think this idea of like, Arab identity. Are you Arab?

DANA: Yeah I’m Lebanese. 

MONA: …Being complicated is — I don’t know maybe people already know that — But like, I feel like my, my friends… so, I would say that part of the way that race and ethnicity operate in Britain is by the denial of it. So everyone just assumes it’s not a big deal. It’s not necessarily a big part of who you are, and then we can all get along quite nicely, or at least that was how it felt five years ago when I lived there. And coming over here and being Arab is a word I’m more and more willing to use. And I feel like some friends back home, I mean they’ve even said it – that they find it weird that I never ever describe myself as Arab. And I think…  I think some of them might even see it as like me trying to cash in on some I don’t know positive discrimination or affirmative action or something like that. 

And I think the idea that your identity changes as you get older, and that you can feel one way and then feel a different way — because I think people understand that it can change depending on the context or the room that you’re in — but actually the idea of evolving with, with age is something that feels quite bizarre… but it’s just – it just feels very, very true in my case. I don’t know. But for me, so I mentioned I didn’t know any Arabs, and then when I was like 26 I went to this workshop about… about the Middle East, that was led by this wonderful friend of mine called Tamara Ben-Halim, and she became my first ever Arab friend. And it was so… it was, I don’t know. There was something so joyful in it, in her referencing all of these things that I knew. Whether it was like her talking about the way that her mom cleans her kitchen and how she’s so obsessed with hygiene or her saying all of these Arabic words in the conversation that were still in my household, even though we didn’t, we didn’t grow up speaking Arabic. That was so beautiful, to discover that.

DANA: I know that you said, you know, you wanted to be a journalist because, you know, you were ambitious and you wanted people to hear what you had to say. But… but what are the other reasons why you, you got into journalism.

MONA: I’ve always liked telling stories. That was a big part of my childhood. As I said, I went to a church school from Monday to Friday. And so like, on Mondays, you would write this weekend diary thing about what you did over the weekend and I would often talk about hanging out with Jesus. Because like, I found these old books, yeah and I’d just be like — and, and, the teachers notes is so sweet. They’re like, “this is really lovely Mona but like, let’s try to stick to the facts here”.[laughs] I would just say that like me and Jesus went to the duck pond. Me and Jesus went ice skating. [laughs] And I’m sure that if my parents ever had had the time to read, read those books — which they definitely didn’t  — they too would have been horrified. Yeah but I… yeah, I was pretty tight with Jesus back then. But anyway, I really enjoyed writing. I enjoyed the process of writing. And I actually really enjoyed art when I was younger as well. But that’s something that kind of fell by the wayside when this idea of being sensible and focused and driven came in. So, I didn’t draw anything from when I was a young child right up until when I was at FiveThirtyEight when I was starting to lose my mind and I drew as a way of… kind of finding calmness and serenity.

DANA: Is that the moment that you became this thing called, called a data journalist?

MONA: No. So my whole career in journalism has always been in data journalism, which I think is kind of weird nowadays… most people kind of transition into it. But yeah, my first job was on the data journalism desk at The Guardian.

DANA: What about it do you enjoy?

MONA: I enjoy the process of kind of finding context. So I enjoy someone telling me a story and me having compassion and empathy and interest in it, but also wanting to understand that bigger picture. So, you know, if a friend tells me — I don’t know. Tell me something that happened to you recently, that you… you wondered if you was alone or if it was a freak occurrence or it made you feel… yeah, just something that happened recently.

DANA: One of the things I always wondered about that I always wish you would — I’m just going to tell you right now — I wanted to save it but, I might as well just tell you. I always wonder about if there are three stalls in a bathroom, which one gets used the most? 

MONA: Oh, I think about that all the time! Yeah, I keep on meaning to write about that, you know. And I think I even looked for data on it once. Yeah, I’ve definitely, definitely thought about that. So yeah. That’s the kind of thing that could totally be answered by data. I will also say is that preoccupation, I would say to a certain extent, is quite an Arab thing. This is something I’ve only realized as an adult, that part of my obsession with hygiene is Arab. I never realized that was a part of my cultural upbringing but it is, right?

DANA: [laughs] It is. Yeah, I always wonder which is going to be the cleanest stall. Like the further one is the one people usually shit in and then like the furthest from the door. But then the first one I feel like maybe most people go into so, is it the middle one? But the middle one always feels like it’s dirty. I don’t know.

MONA: Or, is everyone doing the exact same calculation and thinking that the middle one is gonna be the cleanest… in which case they’re self-sabotaging because that’s everyone’s calculation. And then it’s not the cleanest. Anyway, that process of kind of… of, of finding the information is really exciting for me. It feels like a bit of a treasure hunt. And what I really enjoy as well is the fact that so often this work has been done, it’s been done by other people who are far more qualified than me, who – like for example that would have been answered by a behavioral economist somewhere. And the fact of the matter is very often the way that they’re writing and publishing their findings is a way that’s inaccessible to the general public. And so very often I kind of see my role as being a translator to dig into those studies and take this brilliant work that has been done by someone and try to translate in a way that feels honest and true to the original findings and doesn’t, doesn’t compromise the accuracy but just makes them accessible.

DANA: And somehow you… you’ve managed to create this niche for yourself, you are telling us the numbers, but in a way that is so amusing and so relatable. And how did that, how did that process even happen? 

MONA: I really think my background is a big part of it. I… yeah like I said, I’m a bit of a narcissist. I care about like, reaching as many people as possible, because it makes me successful in some way. But also I really care about the people in my life. So like when I come up with a draft illustration I send it to like four or five friends who have got nothing to do with journalism. Nothing to do with the writing or the media and I ask them if it makes sense to them, and very often they’re like, “no”. Like, “this does not make sense. This isn’t good”. And that’s such crucial feedback to me because if it doesn’t make sense then I don’t want to publish it. So I think, yeah that… that like, informs a big part of what I do. 

DANA: Can you then like, walk me through the process of — from the very beginning to the very end — of how you create a particular illustration? A graphic. 

MONA: Yeah. Let me try and come up with one… can you think of one that you would like to know that process or that you might have seen? 

DANA: Well, the first one that comes to mind is just, the curvature of the penis. But maybe that’s not the best [laughs]… maybe that’s not the best one to do. We can do the flood levels — the Donald Trump and the flood levels. 

MONA: Okay, the curvature of the penis one, the… the research ideas started from one very sad evening as you can imagine… [laughs] and then being like, I wonder how many more men suffer from this. So anyway, let’s shelve that one and do — yeah. So this was… which, which, which hurricane was it where Trump like stood on top of a truck and started throwing toilet roll out into the crowd? 

DANA: Oh my God. Jeez. 

MONA: Yep, just so awful… so, so awful. Anyway, I wanted to contextualize, for people, just how extreme this flooding was. Because the problem is, is that on the one hand, numbers feel like such an exciting language to me because they’re like…. as digits they are accessible: they traverse cultures and countries and they’re so accessible. I mean my, my, my Arab parents use the same digits that I do but they’re also not. Because the problem is, is that when you hear a number like three thousand five hundred sixty four, what does that even mean? Is that a lot? Is it a little? Every single time I hear something about billionaires, I have no frame of reference for understating that amount. And the same thing goes with floods. Like every single time they talk about how many inches there are, it’s very difficult for me  to actually visualize that. And so, for this one I wanted to contextualize this flood damage in relation to previous very bad floods in the US. But I also wanted to show those measures with something that feels tangible and relatable and so I used an image of Trump. I think this was an image of him just before he started to throw out those toilet rolls and because he’s 6 foot 2 — and people I think, generally have a sense that he’s not necessarily a short guy — I just showed the floodwaters in relationship to him. So it’s just an illustration of him, with the floodwaters of various recent hurricanes drawn against him. And, you can see that, I think it comes up to like his, his chest or something or maybe his waist, the most recent flood. Yeah 

DANA: Yeah.

MONA: I like… I see something that’s happening in the news. I feel like maybe people are… maybe people who are looking at it have a set of questions, maybe they’re asking themselves, “is this really something new?” Maybe they’re asking themselves, “who does this affect? Does it affect men more than women? Does it affect one particular racial group? One particular age group?” And so numbers can help me to do that. So, I literally just start researching — my go to sources are very often government numbers which people sometimes think of as being quite unreliable and quite skeptical but they remain one of the best sources that we have and they are by and large incredibly impartial depending on which country you’re looking at and which data set. Anyway, so I look at government numbers. I look at Google Scholar. I look for academic pieces. I look at numbers that are published by NGOs. 

And then — what I very often do is — I will get those numbers and do them into a very classic chart type. So, I’ll literally be sitting in excel or even Google Spreadsheets sometimes. And I will just look through the different chart types, I’ll take that same data and look at it as a bar chart, a pie chart, a line chart, and I’ll see which of those feels like it communicates the data the best. And then think about the subject I’m talking about here. If I’m talking about… men in tech, can I show these bars as penises? If I’m talking about pantyhose sales can I draw this as like a line chart which is actually just a woman’s leg, like bent and extended? And it’s really important to me that the subject is inherent in that visual. I think that means that the visual itself is more memorable because you saw a chart about flooding that looks like a flood. But I also think… it, it sometimes has an emotional power that I think should be inherent in data journalism. I think some people like a lot of people aspire to this idea that they are producing perfectly objective work that has some kind of moral purity because of it. And that’s just not the case. Like these numbers have an emotional weight to them. And I want to be honest about that, and I also want to be honest about the fact that I — as a person — have made decisions when I was looking at those data about what it was that I wanted to show and my own biases as a, as a human affected my understanding of where the story was. And I think that by creating hand drawn illustrations, you don’t forget that it was a human that made those decisions.

DANA: Yeah… it’s interesting you bring up this topic of bias and I… I know that you’ve spoken about this before but maybe you could tell me a little bit more about this inherent trust that people have in you and in journalism. And, and what are the… what are the dangers and what are the beauties about it? About you know, about that trust.

MONA: Yeah, it’s an enormous responsibility. And I hope that people don’t trust me too much… like the skepticism that people have, to me, is so healthy. But, I do think that there’s something about data journalism and maths in particular that can make a certain questioning part of people’s brains switch off. And that comes, I would say, from a place of fear. So most people have a fearful relationship with mathematics, they have a fearful relationship with finances. It’s something that they think they are somehow not capable of, they’re not good at it. They want to leave it to other people to do. And I don’t… I don’t want people to feel that way. I think that’s really dangerous, because the consequence of that is very often people look at a chart and they assume it was created by someone who’s smarter than them and just kind of like, not question it. There feels to be like a truth that is impenetrable or it’s difficult to, to dismantle a chart and to ask the right questions, to figure out the truth in it. And I really love my Instagram comments. People call me out all the time. They ask brilliant questions about like… about the composition of that image and how it was created. And I think all of those questions continually make me better at what I do. 

DANA: Yeah… How do you know… how do you know that you’re done with an illustration? How do you… what’s the moment that you decide to post or publish it? 

MONA: Yeah, that’s a great question. I feel like sometimes I’m done when my deadline comes. And I just kind of have to send it off. But… I feel like very often I’m done when…. So, I recently posted an illustration, an animation about women in the arts. And, actually I finished that three weeks ago. And I spent another two weeks continually, continually, continually changing it. And I knew that I was done. When I looked back at the early drafts and I could see how much – it worked- how much better it was than these later changes that I was making. There was a purity of simplicity to the earlier draft. And so when I can compare and contrast various drafts, and see that the earlier one was much better, that’s kind of an indication to me that I was done.

DANA: From what I see on your Instagram — or any kind of — you dress really colorfully and really stylishly.  Is there a relationship between your illustrations and also the way you present yourself? 

MONA: Wow that is very, very kind, I really don’t think of myself as doing that. I would say actually the way that I dress has a lot more to do with my ethnicity than anything else, you know? Most of my extended family are incredibly religious and they spend a lot of their time in black abayas. And when they grieve they wear black for a year. And so, black to me is a very, very… it’s just a very heavy color. And I try to avoid wearing black as much as possible. After, after, after we lost someone, I tried to wear black for a while to just for just for a little while, I think just to try and respect it but it was just so hard, the weight of it… yeah.

DANA: What are some of the things that you love in life… besides your work?

MONA: So my work is really, really, really big part of my life, and I feel very privileged that it’s something I enjoy. And my friends are really, really big part of my life. I think this is partly the result of having been single for so many years of my adult life, that my friends figure so heavily. And I think it’s really beautiful and wonderful. Yeah, my friends are really, really big part of my life. 

It’s funny, I literally just got a new therapist and she was like, “describe yourself”, and I was like, I love my friends and I love my work. And she was like, “is that it?” I think that’s kind of all I’ve got. I don’t know… I don’t know what else. I’ve started to exercise, for the first time in my life recently and that feels quite good, although I’m quite upset about the fact that I have lost my ass – I had a big Arab ass. [laughs] And I’m sad that I’m losing it. I mean, I know that I should focus more on being fit and healthy. But yeah, anyway. [laughs] 

DANA: You can get it back. 

MONA: I’m sure… I’m sure I can, yeah. Just a week in Iraq and it’ll be back in a second.

DANA: Yeah, exactly.

You are a little bit of like, a celebrity in the nerd-geek-journo world, which I love. You’re like a famous person for nerds, which is like one of my life goals. Anyway, I wanted to ask, do you ever get stopped in the street? Like, do people recognize you? 

MONA: Occasionally, and… I really don’t like it. I really, really don’t like it. Like it’s sweet, like the people who follow my work like, I’m not actually famous and I’m not actually like, I don’t think people like… Like, I don’t know, like it’s so nice — they just want to stop me to be like, “hi, I just wanted to say I like what you do” and it’s beautiful but, I really hate it because I feel so… part of the reason why I love living in cities is because I really want to be invisible. I really, really want to be invisible and that feeling of like, someone coming up to you… I don’t know, like I remember, I was eating… I was eating dinner by myself at this bar and like, I don’t know, maybe I had like food around my mouth. I was on the phone, at one point, and God knows what I was saying to my friend, while I was on the phone, like personal stuff, and then the person next to me was like, “oh, I just wanted to say like, I know you are, and like, I’m a big fan. I was like but then, what did you just hear me say… you know?

DANA: this is a really dark question and I’m sorry but — what would you want your first- the first two lines of your obituary to say? 

MONA: [laughs] Oh wow. A good friend. She was a good friend. 

And she was a good person…. is that –? I don’t know. She was a good person. I only wanted it to say one thing. She was a good person. That’s it. 

HEBAH:  If you’re looking for more of Mona, follow her on Instagram and Twitter @monachalabi. That’s Mona, C-H-A-L-A-B-I. Seriously, do it. You can thank us later. She’s also happy to answer any questions you might have, so get in touch at mona@monachalabi.com

And this episode was produced by Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher, with editorial support by Linah Mohammad and Alex Atack. Sound design by Mohamad Khreizat, and fact checking by Zeina Dowidar. Our original sting was composed by Ramzi Bashour, and Al Empire is produced by the Kerning Cultures Network. A huge thank you, of course, to Mona, for giving us her time for this interview. All of our guests on Al Empire are extremely busy people, and so it means a lot to us that they trusted us with their time. Thank you, Mona. 

And next week on Al Empire… 

JOY: I just woke up one morning and I remember very clearly I looked in the mirror and I said, do you wanna live or do you wanna die? And I looked in the mirror that day and I remember it very clearly and I said, I wanna live. And I never looked back. And then from that day forward, I made a conscious decision to really look at myself and understand what I had to offer the world and to live in authenticity and no fear. 

That’s in 1 week. 

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