November 20, 2018

Face to face

I asked Aatekah Ahhmad Mir, a journalist from Lahore, Pakistan, and Emal Naweed Haidary, a journalist from Kabul, Afghanistan, what sights they wanted to see while in Los Angeles.

I fully expected them to ask to go to Disneyland, Universal Studios … Venice Beach.

“We want to see Daniel Pearl’s grave,” Mir said. “Is that OK?”

Every year since 2003, The Jewish Journal has hosted two Daniel Pearl Fellows for at least a week. They are all young, ambitious journalists who come from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, regions where freedom of the press is not a given and where Pearl, an Encino native and Wall Street Journal correspondent, lived and reported from before his kidnap and murder in Pakistan in 2002.

Mir, 30, has an advanced degree from the London School of Economics and is an editor at The Express Tribune, a partner of the International Herald Tribune. She could be mistaken for a young Christiane Amanpour, and she has a relentless curiosity and an explosive laugh. Haidary is a reporter for the Bokhdi News Agency and is the first ever Pearl Fellow from Afghanistan. He is quiet, serious and has the look of a man more along in years. That’s understandable: Born in 1980, he has never known a single year of his life without war.

The fellows come to America to work for six months at a mainstream newspaper like The Wall Street Journal or the Los Angeles Times, then, as a requirement of their fellowship, they spend one week at The Jewish Journal, or, as we like to tell them, “a real newspaper.”

The idea, according to Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, is to expose journalists whose native media is often hostile to, or ignorant of Jews, to the “real” Jewish community.

As in years past, it’s an understatement to say we learned as much from these two fellows as they did from us. It’s clear to us all that the veil of ignorance and misunderstanding that many have worked to lift since 9/11 is still in place — both here and in their homelands.

“People don’t even know where Pakistan is,” Mir said when we asked her what surprised her most about Americans. “They think it’s in the Middle East.”

“If I were an American,” Haidary added, “I’d want to know where all my money is going.”

And, they reported, in their countries, even after we’ve spent billions in aid and lost thousands of American lives, America is still scorned, viewed with suspicion, reviled.

To most Pakistanis, America is represented through accounts of military actions and drone strikes, Mir said. The imams and madrassahs still teach hatred of the United States, and the Pakistani media fail to give balance to all that propaganda. America doesn’t help itself either: it allows the faltering and corrupt Pakistani government to take credit for aid projects, including such achievements as new schools funded by American taxpayers.

In Afghanistan, Haidary said the perception is not much better.

Immediately following the American invasion of his country, there was a period of calm.

“The Taliban disappeared from the cities,” he said. “But the Americans never stopped to ask, ‘Where did they go?’ ”

Now the Taliban has returned to Afghanistan’s rural areas and made life in the cities even more unpredictable than before.

“Before, I knew which neighborhoods were safe,” Haidary said. “Now, the suicide bomber can be walking right beside me.”

He is engaged to be married, but hasn’t set a date. “It is difficult to know when you go to work in the morning if you’ll be back at night,” he said.

Afghanis see Americans almost solely as soldiers, barking at them to stop or stay away. He said President Barack Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops and their high-tech weapons have only exacerbated the problem.

“He sent 30,000 more targets,” Haidary said. “Why didn’t he send 30,000 engineers and architects? America is trying to solve 14th century conflicts with 21st century technology.”

“You need people-to-people contact,” Mir said. “I know this is strange to say as a Daniel Pearl Fellow, but Americans need to visit Pakistan as tourists. You need better PR.” If people see that money coming from the United States is being used to enhance their quality of life, and not just for military purposes, the perception of America will change, she said.

Mir came to America having been told that people here hate Muslims — especially Jews, who, according to the Pakistani press, control American politics and media. She found that even though many American Muslims also believe such hatred exists, in fact the Americans she met were warm, open, accepting.

At the end of her visit, Mir arranged to go to Daniel Pearl’s grave. Before her visit, she had done some research and learned that Jews leave stones at cemeteries, not flowers. She arrived at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills after closing, the day before she was to leave for home. But the cemetery staff, after hearing of her dilemma via the intercom and contacting their director, opened the gates and escorted her to the gravesite. 

On the side of a hill overlooking the Valley, Mir stood over the gray marble marker. She read the inscription:

In one of the stars
He is still living
In one of them
He is still laughing
Perhaps in foreign places
He is still lighting the path of our world.

Mir knelt down and placed a stone on the marble. Then she returned to Pakistan.