Labelled as the 'Muslim journalist' by Western media, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin has grown into a media personality that battles bigotry with the untold stories of a misrepresented culture. We meet the media star to talk identity, making it big, and why he doesn't keep a job longer than a year.
He’s a media star, part of the ‘new journalism’ wave of critical, fast-paced, and digitally savvy journalists who immerse themselves – their own voice, their own tone, and their first-person account – into the stories forsaken by mainstream media. But Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is too disruptive to just fit into that category – or any other, for that matter.
We’re heading towards a Downtown Cairo ahwa and as we recklessly attempt to dodge the racing cars that sweep across Tahrir Street, he nonchalantly tosses comments in polished Egyptian 3ameyya dialect, yet at the same time questioning Egypt’s societal change. It is this unruly, inquisitive mind that has taken him across media giants from The New York Times, to HuffPost Live (which he co-founded), to VICE, where he merges two things deemed incompatible by traditional media: news, and the implacable, digitally voracious youth culture.
Last year he was named as one of the world’s 100 Most Powerful Arabs by Arabian Business, in 2012 he was listed as one of Forbes' 30 under 30, and nominated for an Emmy award for an episode of The Stream, an interactive talk show on Al Jazeera where he delves into Bahrain’s political crisis. He also co-edited the book Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions, and teaches at Columbia University as an Adjunct Professor. He is often invited as a commentator on CNN, NBC, and BBC, and was at the center of the spotlight when American news outlets questioned the “responsibility of Muslims” after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
But more critically, he is an example. An example for those who believe that at the core of journalism lies not the pursuit of objectivity but a genuine, earnest attempt to re-discuss, unsettle, and ultimately alter the subliminal substance that underlies the world's 'balance of power'.
“There are too many people who are afflicted and a small minority elite who are very comfortable; so journalism to me is about making the afflicted more comfortable and afflicting the comfortable,” he says as we sit in an ahwa tucked away on a dust-ridden side street.
Born in California to Palestinian parents, Shihab-Eldin grew up amongst the dichotomist realities of a dusty, rowdy Cairo, and the freezing winters of Vienna. Palestinian by blood, American by birth, Egyptian by upbringing, Kuwaiti by nationality, and Austrian by adolescence - as he defines himself - his convulsed identity, profoundly Arab but permeated with a Western mindset, was often a challenge - but also one of is his greatest assets. “There is a sense of fear and suspicion these days - the vague idea that you are a threat - and that has been a defining part of my life and my career. It worked against me but it also made me stronger and made me have conviction and confidence,” he says.
As he immerses himself – bulletproof vest and all - in the struggles of young Palestinian revolutionaries and follows the Syrian refugee trail for his HBO series on VICE, Shihab-Eldin reports on a reality that resonates with his origins. “Both my parents are originally Palestinian, so this idea of being refugees is something really personal to me, because my parents were forced to flee their homeland and in a sense, when we were unable to return to Kuwait from our summer vacation after Saddam Hussein’s invasion, they became refugees again,” he says.
His career, which took an unexpected turn when his advertising teacher told him he “sucked at it,” began at the school paper, where he got addicted to writing and eventually applied for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “The media industry was going through this new media kind of evolution and I was really geeky,” he recalls, a combination that led him to land a first job doing documentaries PBS and later The New York Times, who were lured by his mastery in both Arabic and English and his digital skills.
“Maybe I got lucky, maybe I worked hard, or it was the combination of the two. But six months later I quit. I haven’t held a lot of my jobs for more than a year so I guess I am impatient. I am a curious person, and I really don't know how I got to this point but honestly I feel like it’s just the beginning,” he says and just a few days after the interview joins a new digital revolutionary outlet in a bid to have more freedom to tell stories. "I'm joining them because it's an innovative platform that creates content that has context, is unapologetically candid, and is not afraid to take a point of view," he says.
What was the best decision you ever made?
I like to take risks by nature, and I think that helps you as a journalist. Maybe the best decision I made was to apply for a job in Al Jazeera on a whim. It was still somewhat controversial in the US, but I think moving back to the Middle East a few years ago opened a lot of doors for me, because I started working for the Doha Tribecca Film Festival and I learned a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have, because I was never one of those people who wanted to be on camera, or wanted to do television.
I had a lot of friends who always knew what they wanted to do. I didn't. All I knew was that I wanted to travel and I wanted to tell stories. People tend to want stability but for me it was the opposite; I want to change all the time. So even when I was working on Al Jazeera on the website, I would take the weekends and travel, do stories on my own and pitch them to other networks. When I launched the TV show The Stream, which was all about social media and interactivity, it was a scary decision, but it really taught me a lot in a really short amount of time. It was at a time when there were a lot of tensions that led to the uprisings, but I was well positioned because I had worked in the West and the Middle East. So perhaps the best decision I ever made was to not stay in one place for too long and to always try new things.
How has coming from this part of the world affected your view on news?
A big part of being Arab means that you are aware of the Southern’s hemisphere's perspective on the world. It's given me a more realistic sense of what life is about outside the media bubble. So much of journalism is about parachuting into a place and then leaving, and I've been fortunate enough to really understand the social fabric of this part of the world, which is so complicated but also so rich culturally.
In the Arab world there are also a lot of rich stories that aren't necessarily told and I always look to find a way to bring these stories into a mainstream audience. In media, there is this tendency to cover things in a certain way, and we kind of overlook the nuances of the culture. This region is really complicated and has a lot of problems, but if you keep covering the same problem over and over, are you really going to bring about a better understanding?
Because as an Arab I felt often misunderstood, as a journalist, I look at stories that can potentially change perceptions because I look for people that don’t have the platform to tell their story. That has been the guiding force in my career.
What’s your biggest struggle?
My biggest struggle is not having a home. I grew up in for Egypt nine or ten years, but I also grew up in a lot of other countries. When I moved from Egypt in 1999, I was 14 years old and I went to Austria, where there was this neo-Nazi in power, and he changed the country to be very racist. Those first months when I moved, there were kids who would spit on me on the train, or sing songs about Muslims. There was a lot of racism that was very in your face. It's not easy to be reminded every day not only that you are different but also that you are not welcome.
What kind of things surprise you when you come back?
Egypt is one of those places that doesn't ever change to me. In a sense, it's kind of sad because there was opportunity for change. Every time I come to Egypt, it's chaotic, it's tiring, and people love to complain - but they are some of the most lovable people in the world.
It's a huge country, there is so much poverty, but everyone - even this guy shining shoes here, who probably makes a dollar a day - is smiling and making jokes. That's what I love about Egypt; no matter how bad things are there is always the ability to look at the bright side, and that's something very rare. I think that's something I've carried with me wherever I go.
You haven’t mentioned Palestine…
I've reported on Palestine and Israel most of my life because I see it as one of the world's most shameful injustices. I reported from inside Palestine on two occasions, most recently for VICE on HBO, focusing on the disillusioned Palestinian youth. Unfortunately, being originally Palestinian makes it more difficult to actually go there. It's been really difficult to convince others that it is a story worth covering. I can't tell you how many times I've pitched a story about Israel and Palestine that was critical of Israel's government or the occupation and editors immediately dismissed me as a Palestinian propagandist, a 'Hamas sympathiser' or 'an anti-Semite', which is odd because I am Semitic myself technically. So this whole notion of allowing the idea of objectivity - that you must always tell 'both sides of a story' really pissed me off. The world is much more nuanced and complex than that, and in this particular story, a big part that is missing from the media narrative is just how disproportionate the power dynamic is and how resistance against oppression and demanding dignity is regrettably equated to 'terrorism'.
Palestine is one of those places that on a personal and professional level is very important to me, but I think it also deserves more authentic and honest coverage. People on both sides of the wall are frustrated with the situation, but the important thing is to reframe the story through the lens of injustice and dignity. Too often people make it about history and the land, but let's address the status quo first -- the dehumanization of an entire population -- and then we can find ways to move forward towards peace. The nostalgia for the past hasn't proved productive. This is a human rights story, at its core. There is no solution, because quite frankly, Israel (and segments of the elite Palestinian population) who benefit from the occupation and status-quo, are protected from consequence, because of American support and protection. Sadly, the people suffering are not a priority. The politics is. Israel has been allowed to occupy Palestinians with almost complete impunity. The world has shamefully watched as one people use their own harrowing history as a persecuted people to occupy and oppress another, all the while somehow portraying themselves as the victims that can defend their right to exist at all costs, even at the expense of an entire population’s freedom.
Especially after 9/11, being Arab puts you in a position where you feel like you have to apologise for this vague association with this horrific event.
In this context of racism and bias, how are you not constantly pissed off while living in the States?
In the States, if you are Arab a lot of people want to cast you as 'the angry Arab', the scary Arab. They want you to be that persona; they want you to be angry in a way because that's how the Arab world has been cast; through this lens of terror; as barbarians; as inherently violent. It's just beyond frustrating. Of course it pisses me off, but I don't want to be pissed off, because it's not productive, and I don't want to fall into that trap. I'm a lot of other things. I'm not just Arab. When I'm on mainstream media and they book me to talk as 'Ahmad, the Muslim journalist,' I say: and what's a Christian journalist, what's a Jewish journalist? How am I a Muslim journalist? So I am very mindful of not falling into that trap.
But living in America as an Arab American is really frustrating, because there is so much unnecessary hate propagated by extremism on both sides. Daesh needs people like Trump. People keep asking, "Where are the moderate Muslims?" First of all: we are here; and more importantly, stop focusing on the extremists and stop giving them a platform. Every time I pitch a story about the Arab world, the answer is: "What does this have to do with Daesh?" For me, this is boring, how many more stories do we want to give them? And why do we give them a platform?
That’s not to undercut the problems of the Arab world. It’s also easy to blame colonialism and the past, but that doesn’t interest me; what interests me is to look inwards and tell our own stories. That’s the beauty of social media and all these platforms, even CairoScene or Mada Masr; people telling their own stories really forces mainstream media to cover them because they are starting to get attention. They are more interesting, they are truer, and a more authentic portrayal of what life is like here.
In the mind of anyone who wants to change the world, there’s always the dilemma: do you change it from within or you go abroad?
Generally, I think change is best when it comes from within. That said, I’ve struggled at certain points in my career because I saw what was happening in the Arab uprisings, and I felt I desperately wanted to be here. It was an opportunity for change that seemed impossible for decades. But I took a step back and realised that maybe I could be more useful in the West, where there is this misperception. So because I speak English like a native American, I thought I could represent the Arab world and identity in the West, which would be more effective in terms of bringing about change.
I receive hundreds of messages from young people, especially in the Arab world, who remind me that where I exist, between East and West, is inspiring to them, because perhaps it negates those who want to propagate this idea that there is an Us and a Them. I want to be part of the "We". Hearing from people who are inspired by what I do is humbling and empowering because it makes me feel connected to them. It gives me hope and makes me realise that I am doing good being in the West primarily; however, it is hard to stay there for too long because this is where my home is.
There is so much unnecessary hate propagated by extremism on both sides. Daesh needs people like Trump.
But where is home? On a plane?
I wish I was more efficient with my frequent flier miles (laughs) because I should have an endless amounts of miles. Home for me is the Arab world. The sad thing here is that there is a lot of division within this country and in the region. There is a shared culture, there is a shared identity, and even if that was not true, the perception that exists about the Arab world is that it's scary, dangerous, aggressive, and incompatible with the West, so I think we have to unite and find what unites us in order to have a stronger voice and bring about change.
Do you feel there is an identity crisis in the Arab world?
I think there is a trauma that a lot of people in the Arab world are experiencing as a result of the hope that came, that was really squashed and repressed. It’s impossible to ignore that now people are trading their rights to express themselves for security and stability. It’s forcing some people to leave and give up, and I totally get it. But change doesn’t come easily. I can be negative, but inherently I am a positive person, and what’s inspiring to me is that there are young individuals and musicians like Mashroua3 Leila, who are having their first huge tour in the US, bringing the Arab culture to the West in a way that is so authentic and palpable.
It’s disheartening to see what could have been, but living in the past is not going to move you forward. No matter how dismal it may seem, no one would have expected what happened five years ago, so who knows what we can expect for the future. That’s why I am always inspired by people who never give up.
Photography: @MO4Network’s #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Islam Jericho