INTERVIEWS

Geraldine Brooks

Arabian Woman Magazine
Azher Information Technology Group Ltd.
Cyprus

Dec. 2001 (pages 31 - 33]

A VOICE FOR OTHERS

Prize-winning journalist Geraldine Brooks talks to Rebecca Ponton about the six years she spent as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and the book that she wrote as a result of her experiences.

"I [was a] member of the last generation of Australians who grew up knowing that one day we would have to go away. For those who had ambitions, Australia in the mid-60s looked like a very small place," writes Geraldine Brooks in her memoir, "Foreign Correspondence" (Anchor Books/Doubleday 1999).

If, growing up in Sydney, Australia, Geraldine believed that the excitement and drama of life were going on everywhere but in her country, she more than made up for it when, in her early 30s, she became a foreign correspondent.

In "Foreign Correspondence," Geraldine describes her childhood living on the ironically named Bland Street during the "bland years of Australia's history." From a child's viewpoint, life was happening somewhere else and it was passing her by.

"MY LIFELINE TO THE WORLD"

All that changed at the age of 10, when she began corresponding with other children. "The yellow mailbox became my way to find out [about the rest of the world]." Her first penpal was another Australian girl; later, the letter writers would span the globe from the Middle East to America to France.

Her penpals and their stories of life outside Australia only served as fuel to fan the fire that was burning inside Geraldine. She was already entertaining thoughts of going to America at the tender age of five, when she, along with much of the world, watched on television as John F. Kennedy became President of the United States. "Australian Catholics loved Kennedy," she says. "We considered him one of our own." No doubt the fact that she wanted to know more about the country where her father was born and raised played a big part in her desire as well.

As Geraldine puts it, her father became an Australian "by accident." Lawrie Brooks was a big band singer. On tour in Australia in 1938, he found himself stranded when the bandleader absconded with his pay. He grew to love the country and would later become a bigger patriot than many native-born Australians, with absolutely no desire to return to the country of his birth. The mystery surrounding her father's life in America would continue to intrigue Geraldine throughout her childhood.

FROM FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE TO FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

After winning a scholarship to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York in 1982, Geraldine found herself in America at last. Two years later, in France, she married American Tony Horwitz, a fellow student at Columbia. Their first eight years of married life were spent as foreign correspondents; for nearly six of those, Geraldine was The Wall Street Journal's Middle Eastern correspondent.

Her book "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women" (Anchor Books/ Doubleday 1995) grew out of the experiences she had as a journalist in the Middle East from 1987 to 1993 - a period that included the intifada, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the end of the civil war in Lebanon, and the Madrid peace conference.

"I wanted to set down some of the extraordinary experiences I'd had with women in Palestinian refugee camps, in royal palaces, in Iranian madrassas, among the first women soldiers of the UAE," she explains. "I wanted to write about the women we didn't much hear from in the West - the women of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the still-secluded women of traditional Gulf families - rather than the more accessible western-educated elite intellectuals who have written their own elegant and engaging books."

"While I was not a specialist when I went to the region in 1987, the rigors of the job - covering so many widely differing Islamic societies - meant that I had to learn a lot very quickly," she continues.

"I was fortunate in that my Egyptian assistant went through a personal transformation as we worked together, adopting hijab and attending women's study groups to get deeper into her faith. She shared many things with me that might otherwise have been difficult for an outsider to comprehend. My one regret, in retrospect, was that the book was written entirely out of my Middle East experiences. Now that I have got to know Muslim women activists in the US, I could write another chapter about the flowering of "Muslim feminism," if you like, when the faith is allowed to flourish separate from restrictive cultural traditions that sometimes needlessly restrict women's roles."

When asked about her worst and best experience as a foreign correspondent, Geraldine replies that they are one and the same: covering the Kurdish uprising following the Gulf War, and then seeing that uprising brutally crushed.

"The story started as the best kind of reporting adventure," she says, "rafting across the Tigris River into northern Iraq to witness a truly historic moment of oppressed people snatching their freedom. It ended a week later in a flight under fire over the mountains into Turkey, with people whose hopes had been utterly shattered. The most shattering thing [for me] was losing a colleague - a young photographer - and my beautiful young Kurdish guide, who both were killed by Iraqi gunfire."

IF I HAD THREE WISHES . . .

During her time as a foreign correspondent, Geraldine interviewed some of the world's most prominent figures - among them the late King Hussein of Jordan and his wife, Queen Noor, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani - but there are still others she would like to have the chance to talk to.

"I would love to interview Sheikh Zayed," she says. "I wrote about him while working for The Wall Street Journal, but I never had a chance to meet him. His life spans the modern history of Arabia." Her journalist's wish list also includes Sheikh Zayed's wife, Sheikha Fatima. She has entertained thoughts of writing a biography of Saudi Arabia's Queen Iffat, the wife of King Faisal. And she says she would like to write about the situation of women in Afghanistan, one country she never managed to "visit," as she puts it.

JAILED IN NIGERIA

Geraldine had her share of harrowing, and sometimes life-threatening, experiences while covering the Middle East - dodging bullets, running as helicopter gunships hovered overhead - but she was never arrested. Her only arrest as a foreign correspondent came in Nigeria in 1993, while researching the behavior of Royal Dutch/Shell towards the Ogoni people from whose traditional land they were extracting oil.

Geraldine, who is passionate about environmental issues throughout the world, says Ogoniland was, at that time, an environmental and social disaster, largely because of Shell's and the Nigerian government's irresponsible behavior and greed. She was held in an interrogation room for three days by the secret police in Port Harcourt for investigating the aftermath of a massacre of peaceful protestors.

"I slept on the floor and didn't eat anything, because I was concerned about contracting an illness since I had no idea about the food handling standards," she says. "I was denied access for the first two days to my anti-malarial drugs, which was a concern there in the delta region where mosquitoes carry a devastating form of the disease." She had further cause for alarm not only because of the poor communications in the area, but because she had told her news desk that she would not be checking in as usual. "I feared it would be a long time before they started looking for me. As it happened, some astute nuns who worked in the region became alarmed when I missed an appointment, learned of my arrest, and notified the paper."

HOME SWEET HOME

Ironically, Geraldine, 45, now lives in America, the country her father turned his back on. She certainly hasn't abandoned her homeland of Australia; if anything, she feels an affinity for it that she never did as a child.

"I am still an Australian citizen, and I love it there," she proclaims. She and husband Tony, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, are trying to find a balance between his desire to be near his family in America and her longing to be in Sydney. "We compromise by spending some time in each place," she says.

They have recently returned to America after living in Sydney for a year and a half. Her five-year old son has a cute Australian accent, but will probably lose it when he starts elementary school in the fall, Geraldine says, managing to sound wistful even via e-mail. "I hope he will grow up loving both places, but I think it's especially valuable to see the world from something other than an American point of view."

A NOVEL APPROACH

Her foreign correspondent days behind her, Geraldine now concentrates on novel writing, although she did some coverage of last year's Sydney Olympics for The Wall Street Journal, including a feature on the first women competitors from an Arabian Gulf country - a swimmer and a runner from Bahrain.

At press time, Geraldine is on an extensive tour of the US, UK, and Australia for her latest book "Year of Wonders: A Novel About the Plague," (Viking Press, 2001), a fictional account of the British villagers who voluntarily quarantined themselves in 1665 during the Bubonic Plague, told from the viewpoint of a young widow named Anna.

Geraldine is working on her second historical novel, which is expected to be published in 2003. With a working title of "People of the Book"

(Viking Press), she explores the close and fruitful relationships between Muslims and Jews in Medieval Spain and the Ottoman Empire - a reminder, she says, of better times between two peoples with much in common, including shared persecution at others' hands.

As a young girl, Geraldine wrote to others to expand her own horizons. As an adult, she writes to open the windows of the world for others.

"Journalism, for me, is an opportunity to bear witness and to give ordinary people a voice, so that their experiences, hardships, losses, and triumphs don't go unnoticed in the press of large events and the often self-serving statements of officialdom."

SIDEBAR

WHERE THERE IS HOPE . . .

"I was driving alone through the West Bank in a hard, icy rain when a chunk of concrete burst into fragments against the windshield," writes Geradline Brooks in her article, "Arms and the Boy," which appeared in the Washington Post newspaper on February 14, 1999. In it, she details her first meeting with Raed, a stone-throwing Palestinian youth, whom she later befriended and eventually ended up sending to the Palestinian-run Bethlehem University.

"Arms and the Boy" made such an impression on retired Palestinian-American academic, Fahim Qubain, that he started a charity called the Hope Fund, to send Palestinians from the worst of the refugee camps to college in America. Geraldine, who serves on the board of the US-based charity, calls it "a very ecumenical organization, with a Quaker, a Jew, a Muslim, and an Episcopal priest on the board of directors!"

In its first year, the charity is supporting three students: a girl from a family of 12, and a boy from a family of 10, and a third boy who is scheduled to come in the December term. Here, Hanan Dahche, 19, one of the first recipients of the Hope Fund, now majoring in Computer Science at the Roanoke College, tells her story.

I came from a Muslim family of 12 people, including my father, mother, six sisters and four brothers. My father is a lathe operator and my mother is a homemaker. We live in the Ein-El-Helwa refugee camp near Saida (Sidon), Lebanon. I went to the UNRWA school at Ein-El-Helwa and graduated at the top of my class this past June.

I found out about the Hope Fund through the Amideast office in Beirut. They contacted the three UNRWA schools: one in Beirut, one in Saida (Sidon), and one in Tyre. A total of ten students, who were regarded as the best [in their classes], were selected from the three schools. Amideast then selected the top three students from among the ten - and I was one of them.

The Hope Fund selected me at the advice of the Amideast office in Beirut, [and] was instrumental in [my] obtaining a full four-year scholarship, including tuition, room and board. The Hope Fund also pays for all my travel expenses, including my [airline] ticket from Lebanon to the US, my health insurance, books, school supplies, and all other personal needs.

Life in the US is completely different from what I was used to. However, the change was made much easier with the Qubains, as well as other Arab-American families helping me and Khaled [the other Hope Fund recipient] adjust to the new life. Khaled and I are spending our Thanksgiving vacation at Dr Qubian's home, and fasting for Ramadan. We will also spend two days [with] a Muslim Palestinian family [in another town] and will go to Friday noon prayers at the mosque with them.

I have not experienced any difficulties since the September 11 tragedy. On the contrary, everyone has been very kind to me. Dr Qubain treats us as if we were his children and we spend most of our weekends at his home.

For further information, please contact:

Dr. Fahim I. Qubain
The Hope Fund
752 Forge Road
Lexington, Virginia, USA 24450

Telephone: (540) 261-7232; Fax: (540) 261-1164
E-Mail: qubain@ntelos.net

Copyright 2001 Rebecca Ponton. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.

Article available for reprint. Contact: rebecca@rebeccaponton.com

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