By Jason Lemon
We’re excited to announce that each week moving forward, StepFeed will be bringing you a feature profile on an Arab influencer and game changer.
We’ll be talking to some of the biggest names in media, culture, politics and business who are making an impact on the world and challenging inaccurate stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world. Each interview will focus on an individual, their work and who they are outside of the public eye.
To launch this new initiative, we talked to Emmy-nominated journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin. You’ve probably seen his videos on AJ+, where he works as a correspondent and producer. He has also worked for VICE on HBO, Huffington Post and Al Jazeera English.
Ahmed describes himself oh-so poetically on Twitter as “Palestinian by blood. American by birth. Kuwaiti by nationality. Egyptian by upbringing. Austrian by adolescence. Curious by nature,” presenting himself as a truly global citizen firmly rooted in the Arab world.
We talked to him about his personal experiences with xenophobia, being an Arab journalist in the time of Donald Trump, how he loves to dance, his favorite places in the Arab world and the new thing he wants to try in 2017.
You travel all over the world for your work, but what are some of the places and stories that have stuck with you the most?
Cuba. It is painfully inspiring. I just came back from a last-minute 4-day trip to Cuba. It was meant to be a vacation, but I ended up reporting the whole time, even unintentionally.
With all the stories, and layers, and complexities, there was no way not to. I’m drawn to the collective human struggle for dignity, and the people I met in Cuba reminded me of this, but also of the simple things in life. The simple joys. The simple struggles.
The fact that Cuba is in many ways stuck in the past forces you to be disconnected and completely present. So the everyday trials and tribulations as well as the broader collective struggle the people there face on a daily basis is inspiring, and conjures a reflective energy that is distinctive.
I also went to the Philippines to shoot a documentary for VICE on HBO last year about children being forced to perform cyber sex shows for a few dollars paid for by foreign men.
This is a billion dollar industry and growing rapidly in the Philippines, where even if entire communities have no basic services like running water, in the last few years internet connectivity has skyrocketed. To see thousands of kids exploited, oftentimes by family members with almost complete impunity, left me feeling a certain type of helplessness I’ve never known.
What are your favorite places in the Arab world to hang out and relax?
If you asked me a few months ago, I might have lazily told you Beirut! You know, the whole mountain-beach thing, which as cliche as it may be, is undeniably true. But I also like to feel free when I’m relaxing and superficially certain freedoms are easier to indulge in when you are in Lebanon. But this year, I traveled to, or I should say, got lost, in Oman.
After visiting Wadi Shab, the Old Diving Center, I realized I was as relaxed and enchanted as I had been in a long time. So I just might have found myself a new escape.
I find it inspiring and uplifting how they have somehow managed to preserve their tradition in a way that is more palpably authentic.
You were barred from entering Lebanon last year. Will you reattempt entry? What happened?
Yes, and sadly I’ve been banned ever since. It is a long and disheartening story, since Lebanon, even with all its problems, is one of the places in the world that I love the most, perhaps because of how complex and resilient it is.
The short version: I traveled to Palestine/Israel to shoot a documentary for HBO about Palestinian youth, specifically the growing frustration among Palestinian youth with both the occupation and their own leadership. I flew to Lebanon a few months later (where my family owns a home and where many of my dearest loved friends live).
I am still trying tirelessly to resolve the misunderstanding and explain to authorities that I traveled there as a reporter to shoot a documentary and that while they found a paper saying I had entered Israel, I never had a stamp in my passport. But as I always remind myself, where there is a will, there is always a way.
I know you’ve faced personal discrimination in the U.S. I read about your Uber incident. Do you believe things are worse now in the U.S. than they were a few years ago? Or is it just getting more attention now?
Oftentimes in life, things have to get worse before they get better. As an Arab-American who moved back to the U.S. at the age of 17 (one year after 9/11), I can assure you things have gotten worse. There is more division, more tension, and a lot more anxiety.
That said, because of how polarized the population has become, and how politically toxic the messages of the president are, many people with extremist ideologies now feel galvanized and empowered by President Trump’s antics.
While I’ve experienced discrimination in one form or another constantly since moving here more than 15 years ago, even if it doesn’t happen to me as often as it once used to, it is far more belligerent than it ever has been. But at the same time, it’s clear to me that people are a lot more aware of all this, and that is a good thing, because people are questioning their own misconceptions and challenging their thinking in critical ways that hasn’t happened, at least in my lifetime.
With a president and an administration that has spouted so much anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric, and now is trying to implement that rhetoric into policy, how does it affect the way you work as a Muslim/Arab journalist?
All journalists have had to change how we work in the face of a Trump presidency. Specifically, I’ve been approaching storytelling in a much more adversarial way. He has racialized so many minority groups, exploited divisions and is propagating misinformation and fear-mongering in order to assume more power and support, and ultimately it seems to be backfiring.
But as an Arab journalist in particular, I’ve had to endure what I would call hateful distractions, in which people I’m interviewing often mirror Trump’s own vitriolic behavior. I’ve been told to go back to where I came from live on air (to which of course, I answer, “Where? Brooklyn?”).
But in all seriousness the biggest adjustment has been to broaden my own horizons in terms of the limited way I used to view civil rights and discrimination and stories of inequality. I’ve learned so much about other groups’ struggles and my own compounded sense of identity.
I may be an Arab with a Muslim name and brown skin, but I’m a lot of other things. It has informed how I approach my work.
What would you say to young Arabs who want to make an impact and combat stereotypes, whether its through journalism or another way? What insight and advice can you give from your own experience?
Start with your own. It is so easy to point the finger at others, when we too are often guilty of the same things, just from another perspective. Only when we are authentic and self-aware enough to be honest with ourselves, about our own perceptions and stereotypes, can we start to combat others.
Spend time understanding what the motivation is behind why you want to combat stereotypes or why you want to have a particular kind of impact. When we investigate the motivation behind our own beliefs and aspirations, the path to achieving them becomes more clear.
The last thing would be to be proud of your failures, just as your are proud of your successes. It is so easy to point the finger and blame others for our problems. If you want to make a real impact – the easy route often is the least impactful.
The best and perhaps only advice I would give is to spend time with yourself, interrogate your perceptions and don’t ever lose touch with your inner child.
As someone who has firm Arab roots and grew up throughout the region, and still spends a significant amount of time in the Arab world, what positive or not so positive changes have you seen from when you were young until now?
Sadly, I’ve noticed more regressive trends than I’m happy to admit. I wish I could say the traffic is better, or that people gossip less. But then I’d be lying.
So, in the spirit of being constructive: the startup scene is a positive change that is only beginning to reveal all the ways in which it is helping move us forward. There is a thriving scene with each startup inspiring another. It is inspiring to me to see young Arabs transform innovative ideas into viable businesses, especially when it involves solving a problem that the state or institutions have failed to properly address.
The Arab world needs innovation to lift it from many of the protracted problems that plague it. It is inspiring to see more young people taking the lead of this space. The entrepreneurial spirit is being fostered across the region but particularly the investment coming from the state in the Gulf.
It is encouraging. Though the youth should be further empowered. Technology and social media networks have allowed for small and medium enterprises to pursue aspirations that previously would have seemed like dead-ends or nonexistent.
You’re an advocate for LGBTQ issues in the West. What would you say to young LGBTQ individuals living in the Arab world? Do you feel progress is being made for greater legal acceptance and in society?
Yes. Progress is being made, but it’s hard to perceive.
It used to be that these issues were strictly taboo. Now, as a result of the internet, the slow decentralization of information, as travel becomes more affordable, you are starting to see a willingness to at the least acknowledge, if not discuss, LGBTQ issues. That said, the fundamental patriarchal religious structure of our societies makes it almost impossible to feel as though there is any real progress on this issue.
But anecdotally, if you look at how people within this community in the region interact with each other, as well as certain role models in the field of music, which is transforming the Arab world [by changing] the worn-out formula of romantic ballads to socially aware original music that tackles relevant social issues – such as Hamed Sinno, Mashrou Leila, and other emerging LGBT personalities – with or without coordination, people who previously felt they had no voice, are now singing.
As for legal acceptance, we’ve seen small steps in Lebanon in the judiciary, and elsewhere, but unfortunately society still pretends that LGBT is an abnormality, a perversion. And change has yet to be profound or meaningful.
Changing subjects, what do you like to do for fun? How do you like relax?
Dance. There is no greater joy or way to release stress than dancing the night away. Like travel, it also connects you to our universal humanity. So, what better way to dance, than on a tarmac landing in a foreign land, ready to explore, heart open.
What’s something new you want to try in 2017?
Skydiving. Because I’m an adrenaline junkie and … lesh la2?