First Impressions

Last week, The Jewish Journal played host to two Muslim journalists.

Umar Cheema and Utku Çakirözer are Daniel Pearl Fellows chosen by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in conjunction with the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships to work for six months in a U.S. newsroom.

The idea is to perpetuate the ideal of understanding embodied in the life of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by exposing Muslim journalists to America and American journalism. Not coincidentally, most of the Fellows come from Pakistan, where Danny Pearl was kidnapped and murdered.

Çakirözer, a reporter for the daily Milliyet in Ankara, Turkey, worked at the Los Angeles Times. Cheema, a special correspondent with The News International in Islamabad, Pakistan, was the first Daniel Pearl Fellow to work at The New York Times.

The journalists spend six months at a mainstream American newspaper, followed by a week at The Jewish Journal. We hosted our first Pearl Fellows five years ago, and it began awkwardly. One was from Pakistan, the other from Yemen. I was excited to show them my culture, and since food is the way I forge a connection with new people or places, I took them to Canter’s Deli.

The Pakistani stared at the menu for 15 minutes.

“Please,” he said, “you tell me what to get.”

I suggested lox, bagels and cream cheese.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Salmon,” I said. “It’s good.”

When the plate arrived, the man tried his best. He poked at what must have looked like a Matterhorn of cream cheese, draped with a fish-smelling orange scarf, mounded on a roll the size of a bread loaf. It suddenly looked disgusting to me, too.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’ll get a doggy bag. You should just order the chicken soup.”

“What’s that?” he looked at me again.

“Chicken soup,” I said. Was he kidding?

“No,” he said, “What is a ‘doggy bag’?”

The meals have since become stress-free — we stick to shish kebab and pizza — but the thrust of the conversations has barely changed.

Every year for the past five years, at the end of the Fellows’ week, I lead a public discussion with these journalists on stage at the Los Angeles Press Club, in Hollywood.

And for five years now, journalist after journalist has shared what has now become a commonplace truth about how their fellow countrymen perceive America: self-interested, unilateral, bullying.

The Iraq War was a turning point, of course. People sympathized with America following Sept. 11, and Turks and Pakistanis even supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; they understood it.

But the Iraq War turned into a war against Muslims. Turks saw it threaten the stability of the southern Kurdistan region.

“All problems are local,” Çakirözer said. “Your problem became our problem.”

Pakistanis felt the Americans were punishing them for Al-Qaeda.

“The impression is created that America is part of the problem,” Cheema said, “that they don’t want something good for Pakistan.”

This week’s news of President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation after nine years as Pakistan’s leader only served as a reminder, Cheema said, of America’s hand in propping up a deeply unpopular, anti-democratic leader.

Çakirözer said even if he tries to point out that the Bush administration has little support among Americans, and that its own policies have moderated greatly in the last few years, the negative impressions remain strong.

“Who is more popular in your country,” I asked Cheema, “George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden?”

Cheema was silent for a long time. It’s not that bin Laden is popular, Cheema finally explained, just that Bush is so unpopular. “People only like Osama in reaction,” he said.

It’s a question I’ve been asking for five years, and the response is always the same, always sobering. It leads me to wonder — putting all blame aside — how far the image of this country has fallen in the world’s eyes and if we can regain the ground we’ve lost.

The answer came from Cheema. At 32, he is the next generation of Pakistanis — traditionally Muslim, educated, passionate about his country. I asked him what, if anything, he liked best about America.

“The best thing I like in America,” he told the Press Club audience, “that is the First Amendment. I really like it. Freedom.”

“And I tell you one thing, I don’t know what you got from my first negative answers, but I love this country very much. America has the potential, the capability, to rule the world for another century, but what she’s doing in the rest of the world, she is losing legitimacy. Otherwise, American ideals are dreamed of everywhere in the world. The rags to riches, the pursuit of happiness — at least you are in a position to dream of these things, and they are good things, they make you more creative, more energetic. You are lucky enough to be blessed with so many freedoms, so many opportunities. My friends from Pakistan who live here, when they talk they say, ‘Umar, what you dream of you can do it here.’ And these are the things that give us hope.”

That should give us all a little hope.

Then I asked Çakirözer, from Turkey, what he liked best about America. He said it was something he had never seen in his country, and never seen in all the countries to which he’d traveled. Yet it was something that said a lot about the core values of a rich and prosperous nation.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I think you call them, ‘doggy bags,'” he said.

Brad A. Greenberg’s The God Blog covered Umar and Utku’s visit to the weekly editorial meeting at The Jewish Journal