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Volume 57, Number 2March/April 2006

In This Issue

Calling Helen Thomas

United Press International correspondent Helen Thomas interviewing US President-elect John F. Kennedy at Georgetown University Hospital in 1960.
United Press International correspondent Helen Thomas interviewing US President-elect John F. Kennedy at Georgetown University Hospital in 1960.

Written and photographed by David Chambers

How many Arab–American journalists are there in the United States? The National Arab American Journalists Association reached almost 150 members in its first three years, according to its founder, nationally syndicated columnist Ray Hanania. About half of them work in mainstream, non-Arab–American media. In comparison, the national Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has some 9000 members.

If pressed to name a single Arab–American journalist, most people could probably only reply, “Helen Thomas.” Now a senior columnist, Thomas has been a White House reporter since President John F. Kennedy’s day. She was the first woman officer of the National Press Club, first woman president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, first woman member of the Gridiron Club and, for decades, entitled to ask the first or second question during presidential press conferences. In 2000, the SPJ created an annual Lifetime Achievement Award—and named it after Thomas.

For Arab–American journalists, she set the bar high. The trouble is, how many Helen Thomases can there be in the future? Where is the next Helen Thomas coming from?

Let’s meet three rising Arab–American journalists and see.

The Correspondent
Anthony Shadid

For Anthony Shadid (pronounced sha-deed), there was never any question about becoming a foreign correspondent in the Middle East—the only question was how. Having written for the high-school newspaper in hometown Oklahoma City, he tried his hand at radio in college. But “I had to be up at 4:00 a.m. to write for the morning show, and I just couldn’t do the hours,” he says. “I got fired after three or four days.”

A summer with the Associated Press (ap) took him back to print, where he stayed after graduation in 1990. There, following in the footsteps of Nora Boustany of The Washington Post, Roy Mottahedeh and his book The Mantle of the Prophet, and Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinki, Shadid discovered his mission: to marry literature with journalism working as a correspondent in the Middle East. As a second-generation Lebanese–American, he did not grow up speaking Arabic. He studied it in college, and to gain fluency he won a fellowship to the American University in Cairo. Later, from 1995 to 1999 he worked at the ap’s Cairo bureau in a time of tumultuous news stories: unrest in Upper Egypt, the US missile attack on Sudan, the embassy bombings in East Africa. His reporting led to his first book, Legacy of the Prophet (Westview, 2001), which he calls “my attempt to understand Islam.”

Dissatisfied after the ap moved him to Los Angeles, he left for The Boston Globe’s Washington bureau, where shortly after September 11 he was assigned to cover the State Department and the Middle East. Reporting the Palestinian “second intifada” from the West Bank in March 2002, one story took him to Palestinian doctors trapped in the Ramallah Hospital by Israeli soldiers.

“I was very excited to write the story, which seemed a microcosm of the entire conflict,” he recalls. Notebook in hand, his flak jacket taped with the letters “TV” in red, he glanced about the street in time to see a soldier take aim—at him.

The soldier “fired once, straight at my head…. I was so lucky to be alive.”

Recovery took some six weeks. The wound, near his spine, still gives him trouble. But it hardly slowed down his career. In fact, it wasn’t long until Shadid was covering Baghdad. There, he fell into discussions with The Washington Post, and as the US prepared to invade, Shadid joined that paper as its Islamic affairs correspondent, and his byline began appearing in the capital daily.

How do you cover a war-torn country? Same as anywhere else, he says. “You have to admit how little you know, first thing. It is hard for some reporters to question assumptions: To me, that’s my first thing to tackle. Always question. Always be modest about what you know. And always listen.”

Post mentors Philip Bennett and David Hoffman liked his work enough to allow him the freedom to pursue in-depth topics for weeks, even months.

Speaking Arabic and being an Arab–American set him apart. Because he worked without a translator, Iraqis trusted him quickly, and he was able to roam almost at will, honing his style at high speed on highly charged material.

Shadid has nearly a dozen reporting awards to his name, capped by a 2004 Pulitzer Prize. At 37, he is the Post’s top Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, on the lookout for news angles that show the shared humanity among countries and cultures.

The Critic


Lorraine Ali

Lorraine Ali says she always wanted to be a writer, and that she always loved music. But not just any music: As an un-Valley Girl, she grew up on punk bands like X, Social Distortion, The Adolescents and Black Flag. So she wrote about them—and she did it well enough to break into LA Weekly in the early 1990’s and expand to GQ, The Los Angeles Times, Mademoiselle and Rolling Stone.

“She has an amazing gift for capturing people’s humanity, bringing her subjects to life in all their complexity. Her coverage of the issues facing Arab-Americans has opened a window on a community that has long been overlooked by the mainstream media. And on top of all this, she’s funny, smart, and a great storyteller.”Recognition came in 1996, when she won “best national feature story” at the Music Journalism Awards, and in 1997 when she was named music journalist of the year. By 2000, she had joined Newsweek, and in 2004 becamea senior writer.

Week after week, she writes about the big names, from U2 and the Rolling Stones to Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Eminem—as well as about theater, television, film and even circuses. As one of few women in music journalism, she says she tries to avoid statistics and jargon and write “much more about the feeling and the music itself, the album, being with the artist.”

MTV? She prefers the written word: “You can get more across,… more nuances, more breathing, more bits and pieces that mean different things for different people.”

Ali says her Arab–American heritage injected itself into her writing after her father’s death in 1989. Although she had read immigrant stories by Amy Tan and even Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz, her only encounter with her father’s native Iraq occurred in her early teens on a one-time visit to Baghdad. Self- ignorance, she says, compounded growing political frustration. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, she says, “I was so angry that Arabs got blamed… and about how Arabs are portrayed.”

She began to refer to herself as a “secret Arab,” and at Newsweek, her early work was full of personal declarations. Speaking through another Arab woman whom she quoted, she said: “My goal is to learn about where I came from, then educate people as to who I am. God willing, I think we could change things.”

Her increasing awareness also led her to new subject matter. In a seminal 2001 article, “West Bank HardCore,” she used Palestinian rap and hip-hop music to help understand life under occupation. The tunes, she observed, are but a new, raw language of young poets, today’s Samih Al-Qasims and Mahmud Darwishes. “Hip-hop is also a way for them to connect with Palestinian culture, using rhymes to describe the conditions endured by their Arab countrymen.”

Last year, the rock critic kept rocking for Newsweek by spicing her mainstream cultural reporting with a critique of Fox TV’s series 24, a review of two Palestinian films, a major article on Islam in America and a cover story on Muslim women. Arab–American identity had come to mean a different viewpoint: “I am able to look at Arab culture and American Muslim culture. It’s not foreign to me. I know it. It’s in my blood.”

She has also, she admits, matured. “I used to blow up [over prejudiced articles]. Now, I think, ‘What can you do to present a more balanced view?’ And then I go find that opportunity.”

What’s next? Daily life and its secrets, she says. “Whenever I do an everyday story, it’s always about how interesting people’s everyday life is, what they’ve been through. It never ceases to amaze me. It’s all there, but it’s all secret, right inside them.”

The Witness

Hoda Kotb is a correspondent on Dateline NBC. She is host of Your Total Health. She appears on NBC News.

She grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia, where being Egyptian–American, she says, had its ups and downs. It started on the first day at school each year, she recalls, when the teacher would come to her name and say, “And this next name is, well—a typo, I think!” But she also remembers kids asking her, “‘Have you ever seen the pyramids?’ And of course we had, every summer.”

Hoda Kotb
“Hoda Kotb is a spectacularly tenacious, intelligent, and caring correspondent. More than anything, what distinguishes Hoda is the way she connects with those she reports on. Her fascination with, and compassion for, her subjects virtually bursts through the television screen.”

Each evening, her father, who taught at West Virginia University, would grill the family on the day’s news at the dinner table. “‘What’s happening with the Egyptians and Israelis today?’” he would ask. “We had to learn.”

At Virginia Tech University, Hoda studied political science and, drawn to the immediacy of television, broadcast journalism.

In 1986, she started anchoring, moving from Greenville, Mississippi to Moline, Illinois to Ft. Myers, Florida, then up to WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans. There, reporters helped decide what they covered, and for Kotb, that meant a story in Egypt. “I have a great aunt, Mufida Abdulrahman, one of the first women lawyers in Egypt. I interviewed her on the steps of the courthouse, bouncing down the stairs in her beret, people calling out to her. She was like a rock star, yet so well respected,” she recalls of her series. “Suddenly, I knew where I came from.”

In 1998, NBC hired her and moved her to New York. From there, she has covered many global stories. Arriving in Baghdad, she says, “I did not see 10,000 Saddam Husseins: I saw people who looked like my uncles and aunts. Others saw Iraqis as possible enemies: I saw them as family.”

Covering the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, she recalls: “What blew me away about the tsunami was its magnitude. I remember being in the Thai countryside, sitting on a pile of, well, stuff. An old woman saw me and handed me an orange. She had nothing, and she handed me an orange.”

She won a 2002 Edward R. Murrow Award, a 2003 Gracie Award and a 2004 Headliner Award, but much of her success she credits to her heritage. “When you have a connection with a place, you see it through different eyes. The Arab world is a second home for me. Sometimes, when you have lived in a place, you talk about it much more knowledgeably.”

Getting Into the Game

George Hishmeh, head of the Washington Association of Arab Journalists, believes it is vital that Arab–Americans be part of the American press, just as every other hyphenated ethnic group has been, because they have special knowledge to contribute and special experiences to draw on. “This is how to get the story straight; this is how to educate American people on the issues there,” he says.

Good news, Helen Thomas: There are more like you out there, most of them barely entering their prime years, many still in school.

For her own part, Helen Thomas says that, while she’s glad to see Americans of Arab descent winning journalism prizes, she would prefer simply to see more bylines with Arab names.

So she has one instruction for newcomers: “Get into the game!” she says.

The Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship
Jack Shaheen
“Jack Shaheen has long been a voice of clarity and sanity. While media images routinely set us apart, we always face the challenge of remembering our common humanity.”

In the mid-1990’s, Jack Shaheen was worried that Arab–Americans remained “the invisible Americans.” Author of the classic The TV Arab and of Reel Bad Arabs, a comprehensive survey of Arab stereotyping in Hollywood, he is professor emeritus of mass communication at the University of Southern Illinois.

“As Americans of Arab heritage, regrettably, we do not shape our images—but others do,” he says. As a result, “there is an increased awareness by Arab–Americans and American Muslims that they can’t sit back, but must help shape those images themselves.” Shaheen knew that this takes, as Helen Thomas put it, “getting into the game.” Still, many Arab–Americans encourage their children to join “classic professions like lawyers or doctors.”

Then Shaheen’s wife, Bernice, suggested a program of $1000 scholarships for young Arab–Americans to encourage them to get into journalism. Thus was born the Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship, now in its ninth year and, to date, funded solely by the Shaheens; it is administered by the Research Fund of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Each winner, Shaheen promises, “will be a boon to whoever employs them.”

Here is a sampling of just three of those promising scholars.

Kera Abraham

Reporter, Eugene Weekly, Eugene, Oregon

Kera Abraham

With a bachelor’s from University of California Berkeley and a master’s degree from University of Oregon, joined Eugene Weekly in 2004 as investigative and environmental reporter. Covers issues from logging and pollution to national politics and civil liberties. Wrote chapter on Arab Oregonians in Oregon Mosaic, forthcoming this fall from Oregon State University, alongside author Diana Abu-Jaber and former state governor Vic Atiyeh. Expanding into blogosphere through SierraClub.org, Truthout.org and other “alternative” media. Looks forward to first gig at a big-city paper. Take on Arab–Americans in US press? “Arab–Americans—particularly assimilated third- and fourth-generation citizens such as myself—are a largely invisible demographic in the United States. Although we are everywhere, working as teachers, doctors, politicians and business owners, we seldom wear our heritage on our sleeves. Now, as American media turn a spotlight on the Middle East, it is time for Arab–Americans to speak up as neighbors and citizens, so as to dispel the notion of Arabs as shadowy ‘others.’”


Producer, Rumanni Filmworks of Sherman Oaks, California

Eyad Zahra

Currently contracted to develop segments of Salaam MTV, soon to air on the Show-Time Arabia channel. Short film Distance from the Sun played at some 20 film festivals across the us, including screening by the Directors Guild of America. Looks forward to directing his first feature-length film. His take on Arab–Americans in the US press? “The only thing holding us back is ourselves. I think it’s our generation that finally realizes this. We know that as long as we give 110 percent, we can succeed in anything we set out to do.”

Leila Fadel

Staff Writer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Leila Fadel

Recently back from her second tour of Baghdad with Knight-Ridder; her stories were picked up all over the us. Now on the public safety and crime beat, but wants to return to the Middle East for longer-term assignments. Her take on Arab–Americans in the US press? “Often Arab–Americans are drawn to careers such as engineering, entrepreneurship and medicine. They keep their heads down, make an honorable living and silently live in America…. My goal is to find the missing voices, the ones I heard on the streets of Beirut and Saudi Arabia but which were often missing in American media…. Great journalism is the ability to capture moments in time, weave them together, and tell the story of all people without condescension, without judgment and without an agenda.”

Winners of the Jack G. Shaheen Mass Communications Scholarship 1998–2005
Stephanie Abraham
Lail Al-Arian
Emann Allebban
Tarik Elseewi
Heidi Saman
Stephanie Teegagy

Jehan Agha
Leila Fadel
Joslyn Massad
Zaynah Moussa

Kera Abraham
Mary Ann Azevedo
Omar Tesdell
Eyad Zahra


Dina Ibrahim


Rania Chryssis
Nasri Zacharia


Nadine Cheaib


Abdullah Al Maaini


Annemarie Jacir

David Chambers David Chambers is a strategic management consultant specializing in media and entertainment in the Middle East. He has served on the White House Arts and Entertainment Task Force and now serves on the community advisory board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts ([email protected]). Photo courtesy Alex Krassovsky.

This article appeared on pages 34-39 of the March/April 2006 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2006 images.