Amin’s Beautiful Family

Amin’s Beautiful Family
Amin Maalouf and I.

Amin Maalouf and I.

The idea was to start our Arab Artists adventure with something extra special, with someone that could get us moving on the right foot, and that person turned out to be celebrated author and journalist Amin Maalouf.  So before flying down to Tunis, Chris and I met up in Paris for 2 days of preparation and conversation. 2 days during which, it turned out, we would get to spend some quality time with a very wise man and his inspiring family.

We were scheduled to meet for a morning session; a long interview covering the middle east in the present, recent past, and much more.  We hoped to talk history, arts, politics, and enjoy the life stories Amin might bring forth.  But instead of waiting for that morning appointment, the night before Chris tells me “we should just go over there, drop by, say hello, and see if we can’t get some ideas out for him to sleep on.”  My immediate reaction, even though I should realize Chris has been doing this very many decades, was to remind him that people are busy on Saturday nights, and he won’t be home (or he doesn’t want to see us until our agreed appointment).

We arrive at the address and sure enough realize we didn’t bring that essential Parisian tool, the door code. We stand at the door, periodically crossing the street and looking up at the window as if someone will look down and yell — “Oh its you guys, come on up!” – Right around then a neighbor opens the door and invites us in, “who are you looking for?” — Mr Maalouf, I explain. The woman doesn’t hesitate as she points me to the appropriate hallway. 30 seconds later, we’re warmly greeted by the sweetest couple that must have been a little shocked at this inter-generational journalist duo that just wandered in off the street. In his relaxed around the house clothes, Amin sat with us in the living room and immediately began to talk about a projects he is working on, people we have in common, and the latest updates about the US election race.

Not 12 hours later we are back in that same living room. This time Mr. Maalouf is sitting in the living room dressed nicely as I’ve often seen on BBC programs where he is interviewed.  He’s been thinking about some of the things we talked about, and just as I figure out the ins and outs of Chris’s recorder, off we go on a 2+ hour journey through time and space. I kept expecting him to run off needing water or to answer a phone, but instead he stays with us and considers every question carefully.  It was both exciting and exhausting as I reviewed in my head, every idea he put forward.

After those hours of holding the microphone and resisting the urges to comment, ask a question, or speak up in any way, Chris grabs the mic and puts me in his seat “Your turn Mark… time for you to let loose.”  To his credit and my surprise, even after such a long discussion, Amin looked at me with interest. As if to say, “yes, you’ve been sitting there nodding and almost talking for a while.. Id like to know what you have to say.”

The whole discussion was already a massive success in my mind. But just when i though it couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Maalouf comes to get us, to make a plate and join the family for lunch. Now we’re launched into conversations and creative back and forth idea sharing, as the rest of the family is just as kind and engaging as the man himself. It was as if I was speaking with old friends who have long been working on similar ideas.  Combine that with the best Lebanese food imaginable, and you get an afternoon that I hoped would never end.

The Energy of Beirut

The Energy of Beirut
Photo by omarsc / flickr

Photo by omarsc / flickr

Ask Katherine Maher to describe the Beirut that she loves and you get stories of a place that sounds like Brooklyn, Berlin, London and Rio de Janeiro crumpled up and dropped onto the map in a region filled with anxiety, trauma, and uncertain futures.  A place where life is lived to the fullest, by day and by night. And if you want art, you’ve come to the right place.

On one fine October afternoon in Amsterdam, Katherine sat down with me to tell me of Beirut and the things a visiting journalist seeking storytellers and artists should keep in mind along the way.

“Now is a very interesting time… there is an incredible level of activity and activism among civil society that I have not seen in any comparative form in the last ten years.”

How to See and Hear Egypt

How to See and Hear Egypt

Since the revolution began in 2011, many a foreign journalist has gone to Egypt filled with good intentions and enthusiasm. And while some have done interesting or inspiring work, there are still many in the international media that consistently get half the story or hardly any of it and go home proclaiming that they know what’s what.

With our upcoming journey to Tunisia and Egypt, our challenge is to get past those tendencies and see beyond our own natural limitations. To best do that, we turn to our Egyptian friends in-country and from the diaspora, and ask about their experiences and what they most wish journalists would take note of and stay open to while doing their work.

Today on the podcast I speak with a new friend of the program, herself an Egyptian living abroad and living-breathing the revolution everyday even if she isn’t on the streets or in the square; Hanna Yousef is my special guest as part of a conversation to learn her beautiful story and ask what advice she would give to a outsider-journalist like myself, heading to her beloved country for the first time, in search of stories. In many ways this is the preparatory conversation that every journalist should have yet we rarely get to hear as its considered unworthy for your ears; too candid and imperfect. exactly the type of conversation that makes me love podcasting.

Fresh Eyes, Ancient Place

Photo by Fin

We are a little over two weeks from the beginning of the North Africa/ Middle East journey lovingly titled “Arab Artists in a Revolution.” As with any great journey, the preparation also raises questions about how to approach our conversations and media creations in the best way possible.  The term “best way” is particularly tricky in an era where it’s difficult to capture and retain the attention of any audience, though Im pleased to be starting off with you my listeners and readers, not to mention the Radio Open Source audience who have clearly shown their desire to see this project become a reality.

But here’s another aspect that makes missions like this one a special challenge. My history as an independent, make-it-up-as-I-go-along blogger turned journalist turned media producer or whatever I’m defined as these days. I’ve been working on topics that interest me (and hopefully sometimes you) for more than 10 years now, and throughout my tenure I’ve only occasionally stopped to look around and ask – what do the people want? That was, for me, the major point of being a personal media- citizen journalist type, I don’t just try to entertain or capture your attention, I first follow my heart and learn about topics, people, and places that capture my attention.  With any luck my interests intersect with yours, that’s when it feels extra special.

This particular journey begins with a unique partnership, two guys from different generations with different experience, setting off for a land they have -until now- only read and talked about. A region the entire everyone seems to have an opinion about after it re-captured the world’s attention last year. So the question I have for myself is, how do I make sure this one is not only a pleasure for me, but exciting for you as well? To what extent should I be listening to the opinion and experience of others, as opposed to doing what Ive always done, following my nose and relying on my global network to guide me to the fantastic stories of real life?  How do you keep your mind and your heart open when you’ve done something one way for so long?

One thing I realize beyond any of these questions, is that it is good to try something new and challenge my own traditions. Thankfully I set off next month with someone who’s work and friendship have taught me a lot about what is possible and what I’m capable of.  And of course, I set off with all of you along for the ride, via this daily noise machine known as the internet. So all in all, the fundamentals are in place. Everything else, as always in life, we will figure out and make it great.