Rami Khouri On the Story of the Human Condition
I spoke with Rami Khouri, veteran journalist and Director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut, on a number of topics related to storytelling.
I’m shifting gears today to share a conversation with Rami Khouri, the Director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut based in New York. He’s a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, columnist at The New Arab and Agence Global, and a Director of the Anthony Shadid Archives research project.
In addition to classical Arabic translators, I’ve been motivated to bring in inspiring voices who are challenging traditional boundaries and and telling stories on the human experience.
As someone with my feet in both worlds -- the literary and the journalistic -- pushing for this intersection sometimes feels isolating, so I wanted to bring in expert voices to hear their thoughts. How can we, as journalists, borrow from other disciplines and crafts and what can scholars learn from interdisciplinary research?
Today’s interview focused on how Rami Khouri embarked on his journalistic career, the legacy of the region’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star (RIP), the late journalist Anthony Shadid who passed away ten years ago, and an upcoming virtual workshop on decolonizing the media (in honor of Anthony) and coincidentally but telling in light of the erratic media coverage on Russia in Ukraine.
With thanks and best wishes,
AJN: Your father was a journalist from Nazareth. Did you feel like becoming a journalist was inevitable?
RK: My father was a journalist in Palestine in the 1930s and 40s. I didn’t think becoming a journalist was inevitable although I started at a young age as a journalist in high school in Geneva. My dad worked for the UN eventually but as a journalist he went to New York in 1947 to cover the UN partition of Palestine, then the Israelis created their state and the Palestinians couldn’t come back, so he couldn’t return. He stayed in New York and is lucky he got a job in the UN. And therefore I spent my life growing up around the world as my dad traveled.
When I went to Syracuse University my aim was to study biochemistry but the chemistry was way beyond my ability to understand so I looked around and ended up studying journalism and political science and both of them I liked and immediately took to journalism and have been doing it ever since 1968.
AJN: For many years you served as an editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. In November, the paper shut down after yearslong financial struggle. Over the years, The Daily Star was a launching pad for many prominent Lebanese and foreign journalists working in the region. What did it mean to you when you heard the news?
RK: I started as a reporter there in 1973-74 and then I was a page editor and then I left and became editor of the Jordan Times newspaper and then I came back to Beirut in 2003 when they asked me to become executive editor for a couple years, and then I switched over to the American University of Beirut (AUB) but kept the title as editor at large and kept writing columns for them for many years.
When they folded, which was kind of inevitable given the economic crisis and the loss of advertising and readers—and the paper was never well-managed as a business since I joined in the 70s despite them being really the leading English paper in the region.
Finally when they closed everyone was sad but it was inevitable. There are so many fine publications all over the world that have closed. The newspaper business is a threatened species.
I wrote an article reminiscing about what it meant to me and the region. Hundreds of young journalists—Lebanese, Arabs, foreigners—learned the craft of good journalism there. Things expand, flourish and decline and partly it is their own fault and partly the fault of the environment they are in.
AJN: Many people think literature and journalism are often in tension. Yet there have been many journalists who switched into literature later on. I think about people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Mark Twain and others. Can they nourish one another?
RK: Literature and journalism are part of the same process of people putting words together to make sentences, and then to make paragraphs, and then to make longer pieces of texts of various forms whether stories, or columns, or features or books or poems or plays or whatever. They are all doing the same thing but with different mechanisms and tricks. Their readerships vary here and there. People who read poetry are not the same as those who watch cowboy movies, but some of them are. And people who listen to Bruce Springsteen are not necessarily the people who go to Italian operas. But people who produce this kind of media from Disneyland to movies to sport’s articles are united by the craft of putting words together to convey ideas to the world .
Reporters try to capture something that happened and convey the facts. A columnist conveys an analysis with an opinion. Investigative reporters will go down into deep digging for criminal or unethical activity. Narrative writers, longform journalists, try to bridge the gap between literature and journalism like Truman Capote did like others starting in the 60s.
AJN: What is fascinating is that the core function you’ve described is the same: to convey knowledge and viewpoints to readers or listeners.
RK: The way they converge now is also fascinating: musicians converge with poets with TV producers and doc filmmakers and book writers. They all are encroaching on each other’s territories because they are all essentially doing the same. In the end: there is really one story and it is the story of the human condition. It is about human beings and how they live and how they overcome obstacles and achieve their goals and deal with threats and find joy and all the things that humans do. There is only one story in the world for humans; perhaps there is a different story for elephants.
Journalism and literature and all other forms revolve around that central story.
AJN: As the field has evolved so have the debates around the practice of journalism. I think of a New York Times piece from 2013 titled Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News? There is a debate between Bill Keller who sort of embodied the traditional objective news reporter and the journalist-activist Greenwald who broke Edward Snowden’s revelations of the vast surveillance apparatus constructed by the National Security Agency. Where do you stand on the debate of traditional journalism versus the journalist-activist? How has the nature of media evolved?
RK: All different forms of journalism are valid and perform a function. Historically this function of journalism was to inform the public and then it became politicized and then commercialized. So the function of journalism today for most people who practice it is to make money, which is why you have all this crazy, absurd stuff, but it’s entertainment.
Most people today in public life are in the entertainment business: if they’re politicians, religious leaders, athletes, singers, whatever they are, they basically have to entertain people to get a market and sell advertisements to make money. This is the 1980s legacy of Reagan and Thatcher. They said that free markets should rule the world and this is the consequence: the aim of businesses is to make money and if you can make more money by doing something that is a little more dangerous, well you do it until you get caught.
It is not that the nature of the media is evolving so much but the purpose of the public sphere is to allow people to make money and the people who make money will use the media, the churches, the synagogues, mosques, sports, education, any means possible including newspapers, tv, radio and the internet which allows you to reach the whole world.
Certain kinds of journalism -- from investigative to traditional to muckraking -- are a pretty minor difference but they are all trying to do the same thing: get the facts and get them to the world. As long as they produce accuracy, that’s fine but if they start to produce fake news and lies which we’ve had lately mostly from the right wing but also a bit from the left, then it’s worrisome.
There is a common transition happening in that most of the things in the public sphere are being put into entertainment in order to generate income. The private sphere—what happens in people’s home, the farm, the backyard—that is still different and is something every country is grappling with. Are we all going to become just consumers? Are countries that used to have citizens and nations now just becoming receptacles for billions of consumers? These are some of the questions people have to deal with and I don’t think our media is doing a good job raising these issues.
This is disheartening but the neo-liberal legacy in the merciless pandemic world I don’t think is surprising for many. I believe Anthony Shadid’s work, who is celebrated as one of the greatest journalists of his era, stood out because of its focus on the individual experience. We most recently passed the ten year mark of Shadid’s death, You were quite close with Shadid. What about his character made his reporting stand out? What is the sort of legacy that he left behind?
Anthony was different. He was a rare correspondent who actually cared about the region he was covering and he reported it from the perspective of ordinary people rather than from the corporatized, politicized, commercialized and globalized political leadership. He wrote what the political leaders said but mostly what the ordinary people told him. He saw himself as someone whose job was to witness and chronicle what happened to the lives of ordinary people whether it was during the invasion of Iraq or the Israeli occupation of Palestine or Lebanese fighting the Israelis or some things happened in the other Arab countries during the uprisings. He thought ordinary stories mattered. And he is being proven right because now you have masses and masses of people in uprisings trying to overthrow governments, to change their systems. And Anthony was unusual in that he insisted on doing this and he was lucky to have great editors like Philip Bennett at the Washington Post who allowed him to do it and it proved to be very popular with readers.
He got two Pulitzer prizes and dozens of other prizes because his peers recognized that he was doing something special. He was doing what journalists should ideally do, which is to chronicle their world rather than reflect an ideological viewpoint of the powerful elite in different countries.
Many journalists seem to think that Ukranians are more deserving of sympathy than Afghans and Iraqis. These correspondents know the region; more than one of them actually reported from there. They also contribute to shaping the vision of the region. Yet their comments point to a pernicious racism that permeates today’s war coverage. Tell us about your upcoming workshop on decolonizing the media.
We are just on the verge of launching in late March a five part series, we are calling it a seminar, and it’s free and sponsored by my office at AUB with five different speakers. Of course what Ukraine has shown is that this colonial racist mindset is very common all over the world and our hope is to start a discussion. We need to decolonize the media that looks at the world from the perspective of ruling elites from London and Washington and Paris and now Moscow and they feel they can do anything they want because they have nuclear weapons and lots of battleships. But the lesson of history is that they can’t – they can for a while but then people rebel against them. It is much better to have media like some of the Scandinavian countries and not media that reflects the government thinking which is mostly driven by lobbies and special interests and donors to political parties. And this is part of the problem of this cycle of money and commerce and income and power in a society that has become an entertainment theater.
We are trying to show that colonial media has bad consequences which is that it creates massive discontent, generates wars, supports huge ideological polarization and confrontation and makes it okay for people to say ‘let’s send our army and bomb this people or overthrow this country.’ This has been going on since the end of World War II and it’s not going on very well. The world is a bit of a mess. It is getting much worse now with terror groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, narcotics gangs, sex trafficking, and all kinds of things and massive refugee flows including now from Ukraine. All these things are linked, they are not isolated incidents but reflect a certain power structure that is repeating itself in different countries and different forms but all leading from the same place.
People that are in authority with the guns and the money they feel they can do anything they want including conquering and colonizing and jailing and besieging others and can ignore law and morality. They get away with it for a while until people who are colonized and oppressed start fighting back.
Anthony thought journalists couldn’t change this but they needed to chronicle the consequences, what do ordinary people feel and this is what he did. He traveled all over the Middle East and his books and notebooks and draft stories and emails are in the archives at AUB and I went through it and giving courses on his legacy and how he used narrative techniques.
The workshop starts by appreciating the enduring relevance of the craft of Anthony in addition to his legacy, which you’ve just discussed. What about his craft stood out?
In our five part series, we are talking about how his work mirrored the work of so many different kinds of creative artists. This was told to me by many of the 50 of his colleagues that I interviewed. They would say that Anthony wrote like a novelist, he worked like a filmmaker, his words were like a poet, he was like a painter of different scenes. They kept using analogies of other creative artists and I thought about that and we decided to include that in our five part series. One speaker is a photojournalist; another is a drama expert; and another is a specialist in videography.
Anthony is still the only person who has done this on a full-time basis. Other journalists do terrific work but usually on an occasional basis. He went out every day and walked the back streets of cities that people never heard about outside their country in Iraq and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and listened to stories and transmitted their views to the world. He thought there was a story in every street in every city of the world. Wherever there are human beings there are going to be some great stories. This is the universal story that Anthony understood and captured better than anybody else that had ever done it.