London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Turki Al-Dakhil is one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known writers and media figures. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he looks back on his career in the Arab media, how he first got his big break, and his ten years as host of the popular Edaat television show.
Dakhil has written a number of well-received books and is the chairman of the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center and Mdrek Publishing House. He is also an avid Twitter user, with more than one million followers.
In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he gives his take on the modern literary and publishing scene in the Arab world, saying that Saudi Arabia is the new literary powerhouse in the Middle East.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you remember the first story that you covered?
Turki Al-Dakhil: To my good fortune, I fell into journalism through sports, a golden gate that grants you freedom and, at the same time, gives you a greater appreciation of headlines and news. My first story was sports-related, and like every sports story its contents provoked conversation and debate. I still hold the opinion that sports journalism is filled with politics, culture and society, despite the quality of sports journalism today.
Q: What journalists or media figures served as your role model or inspired you throughout your career?
I did have role models so to speak, while it is also true that the media itself inspires us quite a bit in our work; however, I must pause at Othman Al-Omair and Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed. They are widely seen as being exemplary Saudi Arabians, known not for their nationality or that of the owners of the companies they worked for, but instead for their professionalism.
Q: Which job title is closest to your heart: broadcaster, journalist, writer, author or entrepreneur?
All of them are parts of Turki Al-Dakhil, but the title closest to my heart is that of journalist. I write, broadcast, interview, debate and travel under my journalistic identity. Journalism, for me, is accompanied by other activities, ranging from writing to radio and television work to editorial writing and criticism.
Q: You have a diverse experience in the media, between your work with radio, television, and print. Which medium do you prefer?
I love all of these fields, but I love the journalistic world the best because it put me where I am today. Every medium of the media is based on quality journalism. And to my good fortune—or perhaps its bad luck—I love journalism as much as anything.
Q: In your opinion, do you think television has overtaken more traditional forms of journalism?
I once said that the two are extremely integrated: newspaper journalism has been influenced by television and the reverse also applies. One field can’t exclude the other and they are largely complementary. Nevertheless, the ‘wow’ factor and flashiness of the television media can dominate the audience’s impression, making television the emperor of the media, whether we like it or not.
Q: You have framed and displayed some of your articles at home. Which report is the closest to your heart, and why?
My journalistic experience in covering the wars in Yemen and Afghanistan is something that I cherish. I wrote two books about all of my experiences there: A Gem in Faham’s Hand describes my time in Yemen, while I Was in Afghanistan deals with the other trip. I am proud of nine years of dialogue in my television program, Edaat, and the two years before that I spent working in radio—essential experiences that introduced me to the Arab public.
Q: Do you agree with those who say that social media has revealed the comedic talents of young Saudi Arabians, but that they are also confined to this medium?
I have a monthly segment on Edaat called “Youth of Edaat” where I have hosted most of these comedians. It has been a great experience and I hope that it continues. With regard to their being limited to comedy, I don’t agree, as YouTube is a free space that can’t be used to restrict people. I think that the real gamble is whether these comedians are able to expand their work and grow. The public enjoyed this in the beginning, but they will inevitably become bored quickly. Expanding into new fields and exploring a wide range of topics is a must.
Q: What sorts of things do you enjoy the most on the Internet? YouTube? Twitter?
Optimism. I love optimistic trends. Some tweets make you feel like the world is bleak and everything is going to hell; I’m against that type of tweeting. I also detest the amount of hateful and exclusionary posts that are published on Twitter instead of positive or optimistic thoughts.
Q: You founded the cultural Jisd Al-Thaqafa and Majallat Al-Ilqla websites. What is your relationship to these sites now?
I did found them, but both sites will certainly go on with or without me and I’ve distanced myself from them of late. I was sad to hear about the financial difficulties that almost shut down Jisd Al-Thaqafa, so I stepped in to resolve the crisis. These are experiences that I’m proud of, but I feel as though I’m like a poet who writes many verses, but is always searching for the perfect one.
Q: Your program Edaat has just finished its tenth year. Do you plan to continue with the show, or do you have a new project in the works?
I’m going to tell you something that hasn’t yet been announced. . . . This year is Edaat’s last; the program will conclude its journey in a few weeks so that we can prepare for a new program that will be aired on Al-Arabiya.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what this new program will be about?
It’s still in the development stage.
Q: Does the fact that Edaat is ending mean that it served its purpose?
Viewers get bored when what they see something on the screen that doesn’t evolve. Successful television is the enemy of boredom.
Q: What did hosting Edaat mean to you?
Edaat was a passport that introduced me to millions of viewers, and a ship that allowed me to wade into the choppy seas of ideas, currents and humanity. It is difficult for me to fully describe the value of the experience.
Q: How do you come up with ideas for your daily articles and editorials?
Through lots of reading and follow-up. Sometimes I’ll write about a local story and other times I’ll take up a political or literary issue. I may write about what first attracted me to a book. I try to be as diverse and as colorful as possible and I take care to make sure that the content is interesting.
Q: As a renowned author, what are your opinions of the book market and the Saudi reader?
The market is strong. The International Book Fair in Riyadh last year demonstrated this, and in reality, the Saudi book market is the biggest in the Arab world. This goes back to two main factors: one, the large number of Saudi youth and their curiosity, breadth of knowledge and willingness to explore, and secondly, purchasing power. These two factors have allowed Saudi Arabia to become a leader in the field of publishing.
“The old saying, ‘Egypt writes, Lebanon prints, and Iraq reads,’ is not true at all. Saudis today are changing the literary culture, with Saudi publishers being among the most prominent in the Arab world, perhaps because they know what the market needs.
Q: What about those who claim that the purchasing power of the book in Saudi Arabia has led to a decline in literary standards, with Arab publishing houses more inclined to think about profit? What’s your view of this analysis?
In the East and the West and anywhere where reading thrives, there is interest is publishing books that will sell well but which do not necessarily possess intellectual value. For example, Oprah Winfrey’s book sold millions of copies whereas books by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature may only sell in the thousands.
Q: Book fairs in Saudi Arabia are increasingly witnessing the emergence of young authors who are breaking into the literary world. How do you view this phenomenon?
I’m not among the pessimists who do not rate the content of these new books. I tend to believe that the markets and the readers will win with time. “For the scum disappears like forth cast out; while that which is for the good of mankind remains on the earth.” [Surat Ar-Rad, Verse 17]
Q: Who is your favorite author or writer?
I read a lot, but as for journalists, I follow Samir Atallah, Abdul Rahman Al-Rasheed and Hazem Saghieh. As for books, I like to read Turki Al-Hamad, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Mohammed Jaber Al-Ansari, George Tarabichi and Ibrahim Al-Koni. And as for non-Arab writers, I like Borges, Albert Camus and Günter Grass.
Q: What books have had the most impact on your life?
Several books, especially those that deal with heritage and tradition from a modern perspective, or ones that search for the root of these concepts’ flaws like Adonis’ The Changing and the Fixed. The work is a criticism that precedes those of Al-Jabari, Hassan Hanafi, and Nizar Abu Zaid. The book also influenced the writings of Zaki Mubarak and Mahmoud El-Saadani.
Q: What topics do you most like to read about?
I read history, novels, journalistic stories. . . . I particularly like journalistic stories that are written by the innovative Abdullah Al-Maghlooth. He is extremely good at what he does.
Q: What websites or blogs do you read every day?
I read the site 24.ae; it’s well organized and aesthetically pleasing. Twitter, of course, is the source of links to all kinds of sites.