Rabia Chaudry, star of Serial and pioneer of true crime, is ready to tell her own story

Rabia Chaudry fought for the release of her friend Adnan Syed for two decades, and told his story in a book. Now, she tells Richard Hall, she’s ready to tell her own.

Saturday 17 December 2022 15:57 GMT
Rabia Chaudry, who introduced Koenig to Adnan’s case, is convinced of his innocence
Rabia Chaudry, who introduced Koenig to Adnan’s case, is convinced of his innocence (Getty)

For the better part of two decades, Rabia Chaudry’s professional life has been dominated by one thing.

The arrest and imprisonment of her childhood friend Adnan Syed in 2000 set her on a meandering path of courtrooms, investigations, books, true crime podcasts and wrongful conviction campaigns. When Syed’s conviction was overturned this year and he was finally released after serving 23 years — in large part thanks to Chaudry’s tireless work on his case — she found herself at a turning point.

It was good timing, perhaps, that she was about to release a book about something else entirely.

“I decided that’s the story everybody’s heard a lot of times,” she tells The Independent of her work on Syed’s case, “but this is a story that resonates with a much broader audience. It’s deeply personal.”

After so many years travelling around the country and speaking about criminal justice, Chaudry felt ready to tell a different story. The result is a memoir about food, family, and her trials with both.

Fatty Fatty Boom Boom details Chaudry’s lifelong battle with her body image and the cultural pressures of dealing with that struggle in an immigrant family in America, with its unending bounty of fast food outlets.

Born in Pakistan, Chaudry’s family moved to the US when she was just two years old. In these new, unfamiliar surroundings, she writes about how family meals often centered around Burger King, Dairy Queen and other cheap and easy — but unhealthy — spots. Those early years were formative in her relationship with food, and would set her up for a lifetime of struggles with weight.

“For some people, it’s an immigrant story. For some people, it’s a food memoir. And for others, it’s about weight loss. I hope one thing people get from it is that most of our struggles are not based on personal failure,” she says.

Chaudry writes about the pressures faced by Pakistani women from family and extended family, and how those pressures were compounded by her body image issues. Conversations about finding a suitable husband were a common theme of family gatherings back home, she explains.

The book is a journey intrinsically linked to food, and how she finally forged a healthy relationship with it. She says the turning point came when she started strength training. That required a certain amount of energy, which she couldn’t get from the unhealthy food she had eaten for most of her life.

She hopes that by sharing her experience, she can help others.

“It’s not a prescriptive book,” she says. “It’s not ‘let me tell you how to come to peace with your body’ or ‘let me tell you how to lose weight.’ I have just learned things about my struggles and my body that I hope are things people can pick up, so they don’t have to go through something similar.”

This is not a diet book, either — far from it. It serves as a love letter to the food of her homeland, Pakistan. In the back pages, there are recipes for many of the mouthwatering dishes that got her into so much trouble: chicken biryani, ghee, pakoras and paratha.

“The book is full of stories around food. It’s really about me kind of reclaiming my right to enjoy food. I’ve always love food but not been allowed to love it, and so I never felt good about it,” she says.

Chaudry says writing the book was something of a journey of self-discovery. Much like the detective work she did as an attorney, and in the many years she spent trying to prove the innocence of Syed, she found out startling things about herself along the way. One of those revelations was how much of her issues with food were driven by what was going on around her. By any measure, she was dealing with a lot.

Chaudry’s quest to free Syed was the centerpiece of what became perhaps the most famous true crime podcast ever made — Serial. Some 300 million people listened to Chaudry doggedly pursue every lead, and try to guide the podcast’s host Sarah Koenig to the truth.

That popularity shone a much-needed light on Syed’s case, but it also put Chaudry in the eye of a media storm. Looking back now, she can see the impact it had on her.

“There were moments during Serial, and afterwards, entire stretches when I was just kind of in a spiral of working all night and eating as I worked, and not paying attention to what I was doing, just trying to get things done,” she says. “I put myself at the bottom of that list.”

Maryland Killing Serial Podcast
Maryland Killing Serial Podcast (2022)

For most of that time, at least professionally, Chaudry prioritised her work on Adnan Syed’s case. The first season of the Serial podcast, which was released in 2014, focused on the murder of Hae Min Lee, his former girlfriend.

Chaudry, an attorney and an advocate for Syed, was a regular feature of the show. Following its release, she went on to start her own podcast on the case and others like it, which went some way to addressing some of the missteps she believed Serial had made. She also wrote a book, Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial, which became a New York Times bestseller.

The experience of being both a subject and a producer of those seminal true crime investigations has given her a unique insight into the ever-booming industry.

“I think it’s like any other media,” she says of the genre. “Whether you’re talking about books or TV or film, you’re gonna have the really great stuff that brings a lot of value and impact and you’re gonna have junk that’s exploitive — and just kind of fills you up momentarily. But I think generally speaking, the greater trajectory of true crime is moving in the right direction, because growing up, the true crime that I grew up consuming, the central theme was always that the police got it right.”

She adds: “Now I think we have a much more educated, informed citizenry where we’re like, okay, forensic science is often junk science and you can’t always believe the police and prosecutors do railroad suspects. People are just understanding more about the system thanks to true crime.”

On Serial, the podcast that made her name, she has mixed feelings. When asked to explain those feelings on one occasion, she replied: “Imagine you ask someone to help renovate your house. Instead they set fire to it. The story about the fire brings thousands to your aid that rebuild your house.”

Serial was among the first widely popular true crime podcasts, and spawned a thousand imitators. When asked if she thought the podcast would have been handled differently today, Chaudry tells The Independent:

“I wonder if it would’ve been different today if they had people involved in the production who were actually experts on these kinds of issues. Serial was not investigative journalism, it was journalistic entertainment,” she says.

In October, when Syed was finally released, Chaudry was putting the finishing touches to her book. She says seeing his release was like “being in a dream sequence.”

“If you watch the video coming out of the courtroom, I think you can almost see like how much of a haze I’m in. I’m not really smiling. I’m just kind of out of it,” she says. “I visualised that this is how I wanted to happen, and then when it was happening, it felt like I’ve been here before. And that was the way I had hoped and envisioned it.”

Although she was elated by Syed’s release, she says there is still more work to be done.

“I promised his parents I would bring him home and I did my job,” she says. “But for me, I don’t think I’m gonna be completely satisfied until there’s an arrest in this case, and Hae Min Lee’s killers are actually found.”

For now, Chaudry’s book tour is a welcome change from those long years of standing in front of audiences to talk about the suffering of her friend — even if she does get asked questions about Syed at most events.

And her book, despite tackling a serious topic, has an uplifting message.

“I didn’t write in a way that makes the subject really heavy. Of course, there are moments in my life that were dark, related to this issue of weight and body image, but a lot of the stories are very lighthearted and are about family and food,” she says.

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