Azher Information Technology Group Ltd.
Dec. 2001 (pages 31 - 33]
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.
[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
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.
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
"MY LIFELINE TO THE WORLD"
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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 . . .
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.
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
JAILED IN NIGERIA
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
A NOVEL APPROACH
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.
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.
is working on her second historical novel, which is expected
to be published in 2003. With a working title of "People
of the Book"
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.
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.
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."
WHERE THERE IS HOPE . . .
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
2001 Rebecca Ponton. No part of this article may be reproduced
without the express written consent of the author.
available for reprint. Contact: