I couldn’t imagine what Umar Cheema was experiencing. Before leaving his native Pakistan, he’d heard much about the Jews. They were wretched, wicked people. They couldn’t be trusted. They were, in the words of those teaching the Quran, apes and swine. And here he was, in the den of the lion, seated above Wilshire in the editorial office of The Jewish Journal.
Joining the staff yesterday for our weekly meeting, Cheema, 29, and a fellow Muslim journalist, Utku Çakirözer of Turkey, first stepped into the office Monday. This was no trip to the zoo. Cheema and Çakirözer had been chosen for their journey into the parallel universe of Jewish journalism.
Both were selected by the Daniel Pearl Foundation to spend four months learning from American journalists; until last week, Cheema was training at The New York Times and Çakirözer at the Los Angeles Times. The program was created to honor the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered five years ago largely for being Jewish. His Karachi kidnappers refused to believe that a Jew in Pakistan hadn’t been sent by Mossad. Because a mission of the fellowship is to breed interfaith understanding, it mandates fellows spend their final week in our office, learning that Jews aren’t really out to steal their land. (This has, as you can imagine, has made the fellowship a bit less competitive.)
Both Cheema and Çakirözer have fascinating life stories and career histories, which will be on display tonight at the L.A. Press Club during the annual reception for Pearl fellows. Moderated by my editor, Rob Eshman, its a well-attended event and currently has a waitlist.
If the discussion that followed our staff meeting is any indication, attendees are in for a treat. For more than an hour, mostly over kosher pizza, writers and editors asked Cheema and Çakirözer about their experiences reporting at home and what they had learned during their fellowship.
“I have found the epicenter of my life because the whole world is revolving around America,” Cheema said.
He talked tough about terrorists in his own country, who only the day before had killed 14 in a bombing, saying these people hated not just America but the whole world. But he was also critical of the “Land of Bush,” which he believes is becoming much more isolated in the world.
“Even the places America considers its allies,” Cheema said, “they are friendships of necessity.”
In Pakistan and Turkey, two integral Muslim countries in the United States’ war on terror, anti-Americanism is incredibly common and in no small part because they perceive American efforts as a war on Islam.
But both journalists said they were surprised to find that Americans are not only incredibly diverse people, but increasingly critical of the current administration. As for Jews, well, I guess that’s why Pearl fellows have to spend a week at The Jewish Journal.
“I’d never met any Jews before coming here,” said Cheema, who didn’t realize there were a few Jews at The New York Times. “For me, the first face I see when someone asks me about Jews is Rob.”
“The more you learn about people, the better,” he added. “Ignorance creates suspicions and suspicions creates hatred.”
That’s a lesson I think Daniel Pearl, heard on the video after the jump, would agree with.