Several weeks into our class, an older feature writer volunteered that she liked the story structure I was teaching—feature leads that wind back to a signature ending—and had begun using it. Others agreed, among them Khaled Mohammed Mustafa, a middle-aged reporter who wore fashionable ascots and modestly noted that he had dated movie stars. But writing about famous people was not his passion. His heart is in the occult, and he hosts a show about it for a Gulf television station that often begins with him stepping out of a coffin in a creepy graveyard. One day, he showed up to class with a balding, elfin man. Khaled introduced him as a medium who had come to commune with any spirits who may reside in our offices. As the medium explained his exceptional powers, the class came alive. Some grumbled that he was spewing blasphemy, but most were fascinated, and they grilled him. Everything that I had been teaching about interviewing came together—the questions were aggressive, but still polite. When the medium left, we discussed the interview and how to put the story into a larger context—in this case, the role of mystical beliefs in Egyptians’ daily lives—while keeping the format short and readable. It was one of our best sessions, and I thanked the spirits on the way home.
By June, our sessions were finished, but I agreed to work further with two interns in their late twenties, Mohammad and Shaimaa, on a long feature article. The editors wanted us to tackle a topic that would appeal to Gulf clients, and we decided to explore ways to spend a $10 billion fund that had been set up recently by Sheik Mohammed bin al Maktoum, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai. The sheik had said that he wanted the fund to support “knowledge development” in the Arab world, and that he particularly deplored the state of education for Arab women. Mohammad and Shaimaa decided to focus on female literacy, and the subject required quite a leap in reporting for them. Neither had ever conducted an interview that wasn’t arranged ahead of time, nor done any street reporting. They found women at a literacy program in a distant and poor neighborhood of Cairo, a place they told me they rarely visit. They talked with public-policy experts who say money from the fund should not be disseminated by government agencies because it would surely be siphoned off for other things. They interviewed critics of Arab governments’ lack of support for women in general. The story had details, quotes, and a literary arc that Mohammad and Shaimaa had never attempted before. Three weeks after we began the reporting, we sat down to edit the first draft, and Mohammad told me that this experience had convinced him that he can make a career of journalism. Though shy, Shaimaa made the same point. They worked overtime to finish so we could tackle another story, but my time was running out. I was not around when the piece went out on the newswire, but their editor told me she was pleased that they took on such an important and sensitive topic.
Islam online called. The editors there had heard about my work and the work of my colleague in Cairo, Craig Duff, a contributing videographer to The New York Times, who was teaching videography to students and working journalists via the International Center for Journalists. They asked if we would help train their people. Islam Online, which publishes in Arabic and in English, is one of a slew of Islam-oriented online news operations, but also one of the largest online news sources in the Middle East. It has a large footprint outside the Arab world, too, and its English-language report brings some 40 percent of its traffic. I learned that its funding comes from wealthy Gulf Arabs and that the Egyptian-born Sheik Yusuf Qardawi is its spiritual leader. Among Islam-oriented Web operations, it is considered moderate—but I was wary. I read some of the fatwas that Islam Online had published on its prayer service and decided that they would curl a parakeet’s feathers. I told the editors I won’t help anyone who promotes extremism and violence. They insisted that they believe in moderation and that they intended to weed out the hard-line fatwas, which, in fairness, had been written several years ago. I was still doubtful.