Arab Excellence - A Special Report from London

by Wafaa' Al-Natheema
INEAS News
Fall 1999

This article was published in the Fall 1999 issue of INEAS News. This article's interviews were conducted during a visit to London in June 1999.

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In June 1999, I traveled again to see my brother and mother. As usual, two weeks of doing little to nothing seemed unbearable even if it was supposed to be a vacation, so I decided to interview prominent Arab personalities living in London.

Abdel Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, Ilham Al-Douri, an Iraqi Psychiatrist and Abdul Hadi Al-Temimi, the only Iraqi correspondent at the Arabic BBC were my choice for this report. Three unique characters and rare examples in what they have accomplished, especially considering the fact that they made most of their accomplishments outside of their birthplace.

Born on February 17, 1950, in a refugee camp called Dair Al-Balah, a little town in the Gaza Strip (Palestine). Abdel Bari Atwan is one of eleven children.

His parents were illiterate; they never went to school. “It was a very harsh life. Imagine a father who was suffering from a stomach ulcer, needed to feed all those children plus two uncles, three aunts and my grandparents. It was really a miserable way to start.” Said Atwan. “Then I had my first education in refugee schools in the Gaza Strip in Dair al-Balah elementary school. In 1967, I had to go to Jordan hoping to continue my education. My family believed that I was a good investment. But I could not go to school because I found Jordan to be expensive; I had to work as a laborer in a tomato factory. I needed to work to support myself and send money to my family. I then increased my working hours to 12 hours per day."

Following that, one of Atwan's brothers completed a bachelor's degree in agriculture in Cairo. He then managed to find a job in Saudi Arabia. He convinced Abdel Bari to go to Cairo and complete his studies because it was cheaper than Jordan. "I went to Cairo to finish my secondary schooling. In 1970, I was accepted at Cairo University in the arts department, specializing in journalism and completing a B.A.” continued Atwan.

In 1970, Atwan got a B.A. in journalism. He also completed a diploma in English/Arabic translation at the American University of Cairo (AUC) and graduated in August 1974. His first job as a journalist was working at Al-Balaagh Newspaper in Libya. Then he left for Saudi Arabia writing for Al-Madina Newspaper for about three years. In 1978, he began working for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London and since then he has been living there. He got his M.A. in area studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University in 1983. Due to his dissatisfaction with the environment and politics at Asharq Al-Awsat, he left and rejoined the Saudi Al-Madina newspaper by opening an office in London. He worked for four years with Al-Madina (till 1984) and was the newspaper’s Bureau chief. Atwan was offered a job again at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. Then he became the managing editor of Al-Majallah magazine. In September 1988, he resigned from Al-Sharq Al-Awsat “without knowing where I will go. I was offered a job to be the executive editor of Al-Hayaat and I was also offered to be the editor of Al-Quds here in London. So I chose Al-Quds.”

Al-Hayaat, which was owned by the Lebanese James Mrowwwa, is now owned by prince Khalid bin Sultan. Palestinian Walid and Ziad Abu Zuluf were the owners of Al-Quds newspaper during the critical and crucial times of the Intifadeh (or the uprising). The owners of the local Al-Quds newspaper in Jerusalem wanted to internationalize it. They were ambitious and thought there might be a place for the newspaper in London. So they came up with a limited budget. “I knew it was a limited budget, but I was extremely ambitious. I wanted to produce a liberal newspaper and to challenge these empires, Al-Hayaat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. I love challenges and to produce unique work.”

Al-Quds newspaper began production on April 19,1989. The team of Al-Quds worked sixteen hours a day starting from scratch. Due to its limited budget, Al-Quds did not afford to hire professional employees, which in turn slowed the process.

"In August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, we realized there would be a huge crack, a huge division in the Arab world. Sadly, Al-Quds was the only newspaper against the American intervention in Iraq, and as a result was accused of being funded by Iraq. “The propaganda machine of the Gulf States, Egypt, and Syria is a huge one; we are limited in comparison. They want to smash us.”

Atwan continued by saying “Actually, I never supported or believed in the Iraqi invasion [of Kuwait] and I never agreed with the policies of the Iraqi government. I am against the violation of human rights. I am against dictatorship wherever it is, but the problem was that I knew the Americans wanted to destroy Iraq because it managed to build an advanced military technology which was capable of maintaining a strategic balance with Israel. The Iraqi genius scientists managed to produce these missiles and to hit the targets accurately. This is not allowed in the Arab world. Also, the Americans wanted to impose a solution for the Palestinian problem. So, I had a vision and that is why we were not with the Americans. Actually, we refused lots of money. We were offered millions by American allies in the Arab world to change our position, but I refused.”

Al-Quds built an excellent reputation among the Arab people. “We managed to build a huge credibility not just among in the Arab world, but in the West as well. Whenever the Western media wants to represent the voice of people, they call me. I am not looking for a job. I am not looking for a house or a Mercedes. I am not looking for luxury. My life is very simple. I am happy and I wouldn’t sacrifice this happiness for material. We are struggling financially with lots of debt.” The owners of Al-Quds Al-Arabi could not afford it, so they left. Now, it is a publicly funded newspaper and Atwan has been the general director since 1993.

The Gulf War highly affected the status of Al-Quds newspaper, negatively on the financial arena and positively by popular support. “Without the Gulf War, we wouldn’t have taken such political lines, which made us well recognized and well respected.”

Atwan indicated that most of the Arab media were with the international coalition. Even the Jordanian press, which started in criticism of the coalition, shifted gears later on, making it the worst defeat and division to ever occur in the history of the Arab world.

Al-Quds has succeeded to challenge Al-Hayaat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and has been selling well in Europe and the USA. It publishes 60,000 newspapers per issue.

In the social arena, Atwan does not seem to be as productive as he is with Al-Quds newspaper. “My life was ruined because of Al-Quds Al-Arabi. I don’t have a proper social life. I am running from one TV to another, from a debate to another, from seminars to travel, and so on and so forth. For example, last year, and for the first time in my life, I took a two-week vacation. So, I went to Tunisia. I love the sea because I was born on the sea. I didn’t even complete a week. Four days later, Bin Laden was bombed in Afghanistan. Suddenly, the hotel was working for me, receiving tons of calls from CNN, ABC, BBC Sky News and others wanting to interview me about the matter. The next day, I woke up at 4:00 am to catch the first flight back to London. So I basically don’t have the luxury to relax.”

Due to Atwan’s courageous one-on-one interview in November 1996 with Bin Laden in Afghanistan, he was approached by the media when the bombing of Bin Laden took place. Atwan secretly met Bin Laden in Afghanistan, where he stayed for a week and had to wear Afghani dress. There was no electricity or running water. Atwan had to drive 12 hours in a muddy road until he reached Bin Laden’s Cave, which was about 3000 meters above sea level at temperature 15-20 degrees below zero. “It was the most frightening trip of my life” said Atwan.

He then continued to state that "Bin Laden is a phenomenon." According to Atwan, Bin Laden is one of the few people who were able break the norms and go to extremes. “I believe Bin Laden is the product of the American and Israeli humiliation of Arabs and Muslims. When you see American troops on Arab soil, when you see corrupted regimes supported by the US, when you see the only Middle Eastern commodity, which is oil, its prices fixed by the United States, when Israel expands its settlements and refuses to implement UN’s Security Council resolutions, of course you will find rebels like Bin Laden who are willing to sacrifice their lives. Bin Laden is a genuine person living a very humble life.”

From my visit to the office of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in London, I equally noticed the modesty, genuine personality and courage of Abdul Bari Atwan. It is evident in his writings and debates on TV and radio. He is indeed an admirable, respected and most popular editor of an Arab newspaper.

Abdul Hadi Al-Temimi was born in 1957 in the Babylon district, Iraq. His elementary and secondary studies were completed in Al-Musayyab school. He then moved to Baghdad in 1972 to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and Languages from the University of Baghdad, graduating in 1977.

I learned about Al-Temimi from an email I received from him in early 1999. When I knew of his credentials and work at the (Arabic) BBC, I decided to interview him during my visit to London in June 1999.

From 1977 to 79, he worked in journalism and translation. In 1979, Al-Temimi came to London to obtain a Master's degree in International Conferences and Translation and a postgraduate diploma in conference interpreting. He completed both the degree and diploma in 1982 and returned to Iraq to work for Al-Qadisiyya newspaper.

In 1985 while in Iraq, Al-Temimi worked as a correspondent for the (Arabic) BBC. "In 1986, I was approached by the Moroccan News Agency as their correspondent in Iraq for one year. From 1987 to 89, I worked as a correspondent for Reuter News Agency's Baghdad office, I was actually covering the Iran-Iraq war."

In1989, Al-Temimi left Iraq for London to pursue his Ph.D., which he completed in 1996. "I started as a producer from that time and I am still working there. I have produced a variety of programs on politics and the arts."

Al-Temimi comes from a large family, four brothers and four sisters, ranking first in order. His brothers' and sisters' careers vary to include medical researching, translating, engineering and teaching. He is the only journalist-reporter in the family and the only one outside of Iraq.

Abdul Hadi worked for about a year at the BBC Arabic television which ended its broadcast in 1996. Many of this TV reporters and anchors began working for Al-Jazira Satellite Channel in Qatar. Dr. Al-Temimi stayed in London and continued reporting and producing for the Arabic BBC radio. His reporting trips include Arab countries, Greece, the United States, Turkey, Spain and Israel.

About his trip to Israel, Hadi indicated that it was "very educational." When asked if he would go to report again in Israel, Abdul Hadi confidently replied, "Yes, yes before I can go for a visit." He is the first Iraqi reporter to ever set a foot in Israel since its creation in 1948.

Al-Temimi is perhaps the only Iraqi reporter who is working at a major radio channel airing outside of the Arab world and in a country that was very hostile to his home country, Iraq. Therefore, reporting about the Gulf war was very tough to do. "I was numb all the time" said Dr. Al-Temimi. " How you would behave in a situation when your country and people are being bombarded every day, and you have a job that requires you to be professional on air. It is a split between two different personalities."

Dr. Al-Temimi suffered racial discrimination at the Arabic BBC, which he took to court in 1997 and won the case.

Ilham Al-Douri was born on December 22 , 1952 in Mosul, North of Iraq. She completed her schooling from elementary through college in Mosul. In 1976, she graduated from the Mosul Medical College.

Ilham has two sisters and one brother. The elder sister is an English high school teacher; the younger sister has a B.S. in biology and the younger brother has a B.S. in business.

Following her graduation, Ms. Al-Douri completed one year internship of medical training at Mosul University Hospital. Like all doctors in Iraq, Al-Douri had to serve in rural areas. "I was assigned to Heet in Ramadi" mentioned Ilham, "I worked there for one and a half years. It was a very difficult period having worked away from home and my mother. I was particularly attached to my mother. Also, the whole getting used to living in a village was not easy at all."

Ms. Al-Douri chose internal medicine to be her area of specialty. In medical school, students learn psychology and psychiatry in the fifth year. "I was fascinated by the subject at that time. So while I was doing internal medicine, I decided to take up psychiatry as my specialty. I think deep down I was more artistic than scientific. There were many doctors in my family. All my cousins were doctors. My family really wanted me to be a doctor, but I was more scientifically oriented than artistically."

In 1979, she applied to the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Her application was accepted and left for training in 1980. Ms. Al-Douri was accepted at Maudsley Hospital, which is regarded as the best training place in England. When two and half years of training at Maudsley were completed, she worked at Guys Hospital from 1982 to 1985. During these years, she also obtained a Diploma in Psychological Medicine (DPM) followed by a Diploma in Psychiatry (DIP) In 1986, Al-Douri completed an MRC-Psych, which is equivalent to Ph.D.

It really amazed me, as I was listening to Ilham, how one can study continuously for twenty-eight years without a break and work for about half that number of years and still want to accomplish more. Although this is, in general, the norm for most medical doctors, it is not the norm for women doctors in exile. Getting an MRC-psych was still not sufficient for her ambitions. From 1987 to 1990, Dr. Al-Douri obtained an SR (Senior Registrar) training to prepare her for consulting. "At that time, there were 200 senior jobs available in the entire country. So it was extremely difficult for a foreigner to obtain an SR position," said Al-Douri.

She finished training in 1990 and was successful in finding an SR job in March 1991 at the South End Community Care Services (SECCS) and the National Health Services Trust. Unprecedented is the fact that she was an Iraqi and found such a job right after the Gulf War. Since 1991, Dr. Al-Douri consulted in three different hospitals; Runwell, Rochford and SECCS. She has been also working privately in Priory hospitals such as Duke's Priory Hospital and Groveland Priory Hospital.

There were many problems and obstacles in the path of such accomplishments. Dr. Al-Douri recalls that "psychiatry has close ties to culture and practicing in a foreign country where you don't know much about its culture is very difficult because, as I said, psychiatric problems are very much intermingled by culture. At some point, I wanted to change to general medicine because it is easier to practice. It does not require dealing with culture when treating chest infections, pneumonia, or things like that. Also, although I was fluent in theoretical English because I come from a country where English is taught at the elementary level and because my sister had a degree in and taught English, I found it very difficult when I came to this country to speak to people in English. This in addition to the culture differences."

Dr. Al-Douri also pointed out that the other difficulty was her being a foreigner especially from the Arab world, "One has to be a hundred times better than the English candidate to be able to make it to the top. I never thought that I would really make it to the top, but I regard myself as very hard working and I don't give up easily. If I decide to do something, it means that I will achieve it no matter how many obstacles I find in my path. Also as a woman to make it to the top has been very difficult."

© Copyright by Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 1999