Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-04-21 02:25

Others, the ones with a bit of wanderlust, found themselves studying art in Paris, doing charitable work in Central America, or following their literary dreams in Prague or Budapest.
As for me, my destination was the Middle East, to take a job with an English language newspaper. I had received a fellowship award, one that would place me in an English newspaper in Dubai or Cairo, Amman or Jeddah. The fellowship was administered by the National Council on US-Arab Relations, an organization devoted to building bridges between the Arab world and the United States.
In the spring, I received a phone call from the National Council.
“Mr. Molavi, you will be going to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” the caller said. “Congratulations. Arab News is one of the best newspapers in the Middle East. You were selected directly by the editor in chief of the newspaper. He said he wanted you.” When I got the phone call, telling me that my destination was Jeddah, that the editor of the newspaper specifically asked for me after reviewing the CVs of all the accepted candidates, I had mixed feelings. My first choice was Cairo: I wanted to walk the streets of the Naguib Mahfouz novels I had read in college. My second choice was Dubai, third Amman, and fourth Jeddah. Of course, I was pleased that the editor chose me above all others (it turns out later that it wasn’t my clips or qualifications that impressed him, but something else entirely; more on that later). So, I was off to Jeddah to take a job with a newspaper I had hardly known in a country recently in the headlines for a war that saw 500,000 American soldiers stationed on its soil to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Even in the relatively cosmopolitan suburbs of Washington DC where I grew up, the inevitable questions arose: “Is it safe over there?” “What if Saddam invades again?” “An English newspaper? Do they speak English over there?”
The jokes were also swathed in stereotypes: “Well, I hope you come back with an oil well!” Or the even less original: “Well, at least you won’t need a car, you can ride a camel!” Once, while sitting in the passenger seat of a particularly reckless and speeding taxi driver, facing a near death experience on Pepsi Bridge as his car nearly skidded out of control, I recalled that so-called “joke” about the camels and, for a moment, wished it were true.
As for the Middle East “experts,” they weren’t much more of a help. One specialist told me I should reconsider going to Saudi Arabia at all. After all, he told me, my Iranian background would make me unwelcome in the Kingdom. This turned out to be spectacularly false. Another so-called specialist (who had not been to Saudi Arabia in ten years and spoke no Arabic) handed me a list of all the “don’ts”, all of the things I should avoid doing, which included watching Bollywood movies. Wrong again: I have never seen more Bollywood movies in my life than that summer I spent in Jeddah, watching several at the home of a Saudi friend who worked in the Ministry of Finance.
One expert, however, proved to be a great mentor and a true font of knowledge on the region and its culture, Dr. John Duke Anthony, President of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. After an illuminating discussion that ranged from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Gulf politics, he gave me the best piece of advice of all: “Go with an open mind and an open heart, and you will be embraced by all.”
The embrace began on the runway of Washington Dulles International Airport aboard a Saudia Airlines direct flight to Jeddah. After cracking open my beginner’s Arabic book, my seatmate, a fellow named Mohammad, spent the next few hours teaching me a few key phrases, and showing me the differences between my Egyptian dialect book and Khaleeji Arabic. When we landed, we exchanged phone numbers and over the next few months I was welcomed into his home several times.
On my first day at Arab News, I was ushered into the office of Khaled Almaeena, the urbane and witty editor in chief. He spoke with authority and erudition about the state of journalism, the history of Saudi Arabia, Washington politics, Persian and Urdu poetry, and the latest Western novels. 
Next, I was handed over to Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, a half-Saudi, half-American reporter and editor who was unofficially in charge of the American interns from the Council who walked the Arab News halls (my internship was called the Joe Alex Morris Jr journalism fellowship, named after the legendary Los Angeles Times journalist who died in the line of duty while covering the Iranian revolution). Rasheed was a deft guide to the quirks of journalism in the Kingdom and a gifted writer.  Over the next few months, I grew very fond of my colleagues as we went to battle every day to put out the best newspaper we could. From the chain-smoking, tea-sipping gentleman editor Haydar Kazim to the betel-chewing, back-slapping sports editor Ramnarayan Iyer to the wizened and wise opinion editor P. K. Mohammad and the gregarious Australian local page sub-editor Terry Walsh who would greet me as I entered the door from a reporting trip with two words: “Copy! Hurry!”
I wrote articles on US defense contractors seeking contracts, on Somali expats debating their politics back home, on Afghan shoe cobblers who escaped their civil war to make their life in Jeddah, and forays into the desert by middle class Saudi professionals. 
I began a series called “One Day in the Life of...” where I profiled taxi drivers, cooks, teachers, even a group of street cats as they made their daily rounds of the trash bins. I joined a basketball team and played games at the Ittehad Club. A Saudi friend brought me into his tennis circle. I even went snorkeling for the first time in my life and, to this day, every other snorkeling experience pales in comparison to the Red Sea.
I was troubled, however, by what I saw as the second and third-class treatment of South Asian laborers, the supreme arrogance with which they were often dismissed by both Saudis and Western expatriates. So, I went undercover. I dressed as an Afghan shoe cobbler and walked the halls of the Intercontinental hotel, several shopping malls, and up and down the Corniche. I was booted out of stores, rudely dismissed, and insulted openly. Later, I went back to some of those same locations, clean-shaven, my American passport snug firmly in my back pocket, and it was all smiles and “welcome, my friends.”  
After I wrote about the experience, I received some hostile letters from Saudis, but the overwhelming response was positive. A Saudi tennis partner told me that he had a hard time reading the article, but it spoke the truth, and he never saw South Asian laborers the same way.
Equally troubling to me was the lack of coverage on Saudi society. Our newspaper was called Arab News, but our local pages were mostly filled with expat news. At the time, we had a few Saudi sub-editors, but not a single Saudi staff reporter. It seemed odd to me that the majority of the population  — Saudis  — were largely uncovered in our newspaper, beyond the comings and goings of kings and princes.
When my internship came to an end, I was offered a staff contract. I stayed on, eager to learn more and write more, but I chose to work in our Riyadh bureau. With a taste for politics and Middle East regional issues, I thought Riyadh made the most sense for me.
Over the next year, I spent less time doing “man on the street” reportage, and more time at embassy receptions, and official press conferences of visiting dignitaries. The experience was more sanitized, somehow less satisfying, but extremely valuable. I also had the pleasure of working with the inimitable Javid Hassan, the meticulous and gentle soul who was the bureau chief, and with M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, who opened his home to a homesick American reporter on many occasions. During my stay in Riyadh, I lived in an apartment near the Mustashfa hospital. My neighbors were a group of eight Syrian laborers who lived in one apartment, a middle-class Indian hospital workers, and an Egyptian mid-level bureaucrats. Between the Syrians, the Indians, and the Egyptians, I never lacked invitations, and when I put up a satellite dish that received international soccer games, I never lacked visitors. 
When it was time to leave Riyadh almost a year after I landed in Saudi Arabia, I went back to Washington to attend graduate school, but the Arab News web held me close. I opened a Washington bureau for Arab News, and covered the State Department, the White House, and the growing ranks of Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations in the United States.
When my Arab News season had passed, I found myself writing for a wide range of publications over the next decade: the Financial Times, Reuters, the Washington Post, Businessweek, Newsweek. I wrote a book on my travels across Iran, and now spend my days at a Washington think tank working on US policy toward the Middle East, occasionally commenting on CNN and the BBC. But none of those experiences were as enriching or gratifying as my work for the “green paper.”
When I returned to Arab News for a visit three years ago, on assignment for an American magazine, I was delighted to see the newspaper still in the capable hands of Khaled Almaeena, transitioning well into the new Internet era of journalism. I watched as a group of tech-savvy Saudi reporters probed Saudi society and took on subjects that were considered taboo in the newsroom in my days. This new generation of Saudi reporters represent the most significant change to the Arab News and will ensure that it remains the first choice for both expatriates and English-reading Saudis alike.
One of the things I missed most about leaving the Arab News was reading the paper every day. Today, however, I no longer have that problem. From my desk in Washington, I fire up my computer every morning, and read my favorite green paper, my coffee cup in hand, and fondly remember the small role I played in the growth of this extraordinary Saudi media institution.
Occasionally, while I’m on the tennis court, I also remember Arab News and my journey of the road less traveled that has reaped for me a lifetime of friendships and rewards. You see, when Khaled Almaeena chose my CV above all of the others who were part of the fellowship program, it was not my article samples or essays that clinched the deal for him. At the bottom of my CV, I listed my work as a part-time tennis instructor in the summers. I almost struck it out at the last minute. After all, what does that have to do with journalism?
“I needed a tennis teacher,” Khaled Almaeena told me many years later. “So, your CV stuck out from the rest.” And so I went to Jeddah, tennis racquet in my bag, and a lifetime of experiences awaiting me.
— Afshin Molavi is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington D.C. where he specializes in US policy toward the Middle East region.

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