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Bittersweet symphonies: the Pearls struggle to find life after Daniel’s death

by Tom Tugend

September 28, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Daniel Pearl with his mother, Ruth, and father, Judea, in Washington, where the elder Pearl was honored by the National Academy of Engineering.

Daniel Pearl with his mother, Ruth, and father, Judea, in Washington, where the elder Pearl was honored by the National Academy of Engineering.

Eight days after Yom Kippur, Judea and Ruth Pearl will commemorate what would have been the 43rd birthday of their son, Daniel. As on every Oct. 10 for the last five years, it will be a day of intensely personal reflection and remembrance by the couple and their daughters, Tamara and Michelle, intensifying their emotions of the other 364 days.
 
By contrast, the date also will be marked by public worldwide concerts celebrating the life of Daniel Pearl, an accomplished violinist, equally passionate about the classical, jazz, country and bluegrass musical idioms.
 
As of a week ago, the master calendar showed 166 different performances scheduled in 24 countries -- from China to El Salvador and Kenya to Egypt -- on and around Oct. 10. It is expected that the numbers will reach last year's record of 300 concerts in 41 countries.
 
Music was Daniel Pearl's avocation, but journalism was his profession. In pursuit of a story on Al Qaeda's financial ties, the then-38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter was kidnapped in early 2002 in Pakistan and beheaded by Islamic extremists.
 


The life and death of Daniel Pearl on HBO
 
It has a handsome, brilliant, fun-loving reporter, who kisses his beautiful, pregnant wife goodbye as he goes off to track down an Al Qaeda financial network in Pakistan. His nemesis is Omar Sheikh, a man not unlike Pearl in background -- intelligent, well educated, but who has become a fanatical terrorist.
 
Sheikh lures Pearl into a trap, where kidnappers abduct The Wall Street Journal reporter and withhold news of him for almost a month, while Pearl's parents and wife, and much of the rest of the world, hold their breath.
 
The Pakistani police search everywhere for Pearl, while the same country's intelligence service apparently shields the terrorist. Finally, the kidnappers release a grisly video in which Pearl is decapitated by a sword.
 
No wonder four different film projects on the case have been announced, although only one is actually ready for prime time.
 
On Oct. 10, the day on which Pearl would have celebrated his 43rd birthday, HBO will air "The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl," a 90-minute documentary, which will be hard to beat for drama and intensity by subsequent movies.
 
The film was produced and directed by Ahmed A. Jamal, a Pakistani, and Ramesh Sharma, an Indian, with the full cooperation of Pearl's wife, Marianne, and his parents, UCLA professor Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl, both raised in Israel. It is narrated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
 
What gives the film much of its emotional impact are lovely home videos of Pearl's childhood in Encino, his passion for music, a makeshift seder conducted on a trans-Siberian railroad train, and the joyous wedding joining him to his Cuban Dutch wife.
 
The life of the secretive Omar Sheikh is, of necessity, less well documented, and at times the directors have to stretch quite a bit to force the two protagonists' backgrounds into parallel lines.
 
There remain a number of yet unanswered questions, both in the film and in the actual investigations:
  • Did Pearl's kidnappers sell him to an Arab gang that then murdered him?
  • What was the role of the Pakistani government?
  • Why has the death sentence, imposed on Sheikh by a Pakistani court in July 2002, never been carried out?
Until such questions are answered, the documentary serves as a riveting history of a case that has gripped the world's attention.
 
"The Journalist and the Jihadi" airs at 8 p.m. on Oct. 10. It will be repeated on various dates in October on HBO and HBO2.

Check www.hbo.com for details.
 
-- TT



Yet the wake of this tragedy is an extraordinary story of renewal in itself. Ruth and Judea Pearl are both high-achieving professionals. He is an emeritus professor of computer science at UCLA and internationally recognized for his pioneer research on artificial intelligence. She is an electrical engineer and for years was a highly paid industry consultant. Although quieter than her more exuberant husband, in the immediate days after the tragedy, "she was the captain and ran a tight ship," her daughter wrote.
 
Both parents cherish their privacy and still shudder each time an inquiring reporter thrusts a mike in their face and asks, "Well, and how did you feel when you first heard that your son had been murdered?"
 
But on the day before Rosh Hashanah this year, sitting in the living room of their pleasant Encino home, they agreed to talk openly about their agonizing experience and how they transformed their lives by transmuting private grief into public good.
 
The story begins on the morning of Jan. 23, 2002, an ordinary day when life seemed especially good for Daniel Pearl. He was a highly respected and popular foreign correspondent for a leading American daily, married to fellow journalist Marianne, and the couple were expecting their first child.
 
That evening, Daniel went to a restaurant in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to meet a supposed source who could provide a break for his investigative story on the financing of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
 
That was the last time his family saw Daniel, except for videos released by his shadowy captors, one showing the journalist in chains with an unknown hand pointing a gun at his head.
 
It was the beginning of 28 days of hope and despair for the Pearl parents, and their six new houseguests from the FBI.
 
Repeatedly during that period, the Pearls were informed their son was dead and his body had been found, and each time the report turned out to be wrong.
 
Throughout the ordeal, Daniel's colleagues and editors at The Wall Street Journal were in touch with the parents, lending moral support and advice. One of the editors' main concerns was that other media might leak the fact that both parents come from an Israeli background, thus increasing the threat to Daniel's life.
 
Judea was born in suburban Tel Aviv in the fervently Orthodox enclave of B'nai Brak, co-founded by his grandfather, and he had served in the Israeli army.
 
Ruth was born in Baghdad, when one-quarter of the Iraqi capital's population was Jewish, and emigrated with her parents to Israel in 1951. She and Judea met as college students at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
 
In a rare display of professional solidarity in the competitive media, no one raised the Israeli angle until after Daniel's death.
 
During the torturous waiting period, Barney Calame, a Wall Street Journal editor, phoned the Pearls daily with a situation report. "He was a slow, deliberate speaker and each time our hearts kept sinking until, at the end, he would report that there had been no new developments," Judea recalled. "We finally taught him to open each conversation with the sentence, 'I have no news.'"
 
In the last days before Daniel's death, the Pearls were fairly hopeful.
 
"Danny was a careful professional, not a Don Quixote type, and he had always gotten himself out of any trouble before," his mother said. "Besides, his goodness shone through, and we couldn't believe that his kidnappers could live with him for weeks and not be affected by it."
 
Adding to the hopefulness was the history of other journalists abducted in Parkistan previously, who had always been returned after a few days in exchange for enemy prisoners or ransom.
 
On the morning of Feb. 21, 2002, the last glimmer of hope was extinguished. "We were having breakfast when three FBI agents, two women and a man, walked in," Ruth remembered. "One woman had tears in her eyes, and she asked me if I had anything cooking on the stove. Then she told us that she had bad news and that Danny had been killed."
 
After the previous false alarms, the Pearls refused to believe the report. They phoned the American consul in Karachi, who confirmed that he had seen the gruesome video showing the decapitation of their son.
 
Pakistani police did not find Daniel's mutilated body until May 16, and it took another three months until the remains were returned to the United States. Hours before the funeral, the FBI stopped the proceedings on the grounds that the agents needed four more days to perform an autopsy.
 
Finally, after the burial and the memorial service, the Pearls were left to ponder their loss and their future.
 
"I felt that my life was over," Ruth said. "We would never again have a normal life. I still cannot comprehend it; I try not to comprehend it; there's a mental mechanism blocking it." Added Judea, "As human beings, we don't have the software, the computational machinery, to comprehend the logical contradiction that such a beautiful person, who tried so hard to explain the Muslim world to the West, would be killed by people who elevated their grievance above all norms of civilization."
 
But rather than the sad ending that might have happened, this is where the story takes a surprising turn. The Pearls faced three obvious options. One was to retreat into their private grief, another to resume their professional lives as best they could, and a third to do whatever they could to exact revenge on their son's murderers.
 
They chose a fourth way. "We refused to accept the idea that Danny's contributions to the world as a journalist, as a musician, as a gentle human being was ended forever," Judea said.
 
"We decided on a different kind of defiance," he added. "We would fight hatred with everything in our power, but we wouldn't seek physical revenge -- that's what his murderers wanted."
 
The parents found the vehicle to turn thoughts into action a few days later, as a steady stream of condolence cards, flowers and envelopes with $20 bills and other small donations arrived at the house.
 
"We didn't know how to cope with all that," said Ruth, so The Wall Street Journal arranged for a team of lawyers to advise the family.
 
The first decision was to set up a trust fund for Marianne and her soon-to-be-born son, Adam. As the discussions continued, all agreed that the most relevant way to honor Daniel's life and death was to establish a foundation to perpetuate his work and ideals.
 
Exactly one week after the FBI agent reported Danny's death, the legal papers establishing the Daniel Pearl Foundation were signed by Judea Pearl as president and Ruth Pearl as chief financial officer.

Three Generations of Pearls

Three Generations of Pearls. back row: Tosha Pearl (center) is flanked by her daughter-in-law, Ruth, and son, Judea, during a Tel Aviv family reunion. front row: Tamara Pearl and her brother, Daniel Pearl. Photo courtesy Ruth and Judea Pearl

"We wanted to fight the tsunami of hatred engulfing the world and we had a powerful weapon -- the memory of Danny, respected by millions of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and through the three fields in which he excelled, journalism, music and dialogue."
 
Working with a miniscule staff and a $400,000 annual budget, raised mainly through small contributions ("We don't get any celebrities," Judea said), the foundation has transformed Daniel's legacy and the parents' vision into reality.
 
In journalism, reporters and editors from Muslim countries annually travel to the United States for six-month working fellowships on American newspapers, including The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
 
Through the Web-based World Youth News, students at 20,000 high schools in 109 countries develop professional skills, unbiased reporting and respect for cultural differences.
 
In music, World Music Days will be celebrated this year Oct. 6-15. Among the hundreds of performers and performances will be Sir Elton John, world premiere of Steve Reich's "Daniel Variations," symphony orchestras in five different countries, neo-soul artist Nya Jade, Bo Diddley and Friends, Hollywood Interfaith Choir and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
 
Judea Pearl and professor Akbar Ahmed, a leading Islamic scholar from Pakistan, have engaged in dialogues before multiethnic audiences throughout the United States and in the British House of Lords.
 
"We have only two rules," Pearl said. "No topic is taboo and both speakers and audience must maintain civilized tone."
 
The foundation has promoted publication of books of Daniel's own writings and about his beliefs. Among a number of projected films, HBO will air "The Journalist and the Jihadi" on Oct. 10.
 
Somewhat to their own surprise, Judea and Ruth have become accomplished and passionate public speakers and are constantly busy promoting and running the Daniel Pearl Foundation. They have also evolved into skillful interviewees, with Judea as the more animated and gesticulating responder, while Ruth is quieter on the surface and occasionally corrects her husband's recollections.
 
But, Judea said, "I resist the idea that I'm doing all this for therapeutic reasons. If I didn't believe that our work makes some difference, I would quit tomorrow." Added Ruth, "Some days we are encouraged and on other days we are down. But we are doers and we don't quit."
 

 
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