London, Asharq Al-Awsat—What is in a name? Didn’t Shakespeare say that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet? So, why is it that the change in the name of the International Herald Tribune has affected me so much? The English-language daily published in Paris has now been renamed The International New York Times. The fact that The New York Times, along with the Washington Post, was one of the two owners of the IHT for decades should make the name change less ominous.
If it does not, this is partly because many fear that the name change may be a prelude to terminating the newspaper’s print edition, leaving readers with only the online option. However, even if the print edition continues for a while longer, it will no longer be the International Herald Tribune that I knew so well from 1980 onwards.
At that time I had just arrived in Paris as a fresh exile suddenly torn away from the hustle and bustle of the daily newspaper which I had edited in Tehran for seven years. Only those who have worked in daily journalism know what it means to be suddenly left without the intoxicating flow of news and views. Playing on words, I joked that I was de-pressed, meaning left without a press to work in. Still in my 30s I could not think of retirement, even if I had the means to do so. To make matters worse, Iranians suddenly lost the privilege of being able to travel in Europe and North America without visas. Before the mullahs’ seized power, everyone loved Iranians and welcomed them with open arms. After that, no one did. I could work in either Persian or English. The trouble was that Ayatollah Khomeini would not let me work in Iran. As for English, I also could not face the humiliation of seeking a visa for either Britain or the US. Although I knew French, I had never written in that language and thus could not jump into the Parisian media pool until five years later when I became editor of a weekly magazine.
A few months later, I did start writing for The Sunday Times from Paris. But that did not cater for all my needs. It was long-distance journalism whereas I loved the intense immediacy of an editorial board and, if possible, the smell of lead in a printing shop. I was an addict, hooked on the magical effect of daily events. A weekly paper or magazine seemed too slow, the publication time-span too long.
It was then that the Trib, as the International Herald Tribune was known to the aficionado, came to the rescue.
First I was rescued as a reader. The Trib was an elegant and yet sober newspaper composed from the best pieces produced by The New York Times and the Washington Post editorial staff. It did not have a reporting team of itself, although Joseph Fitchett acted as a one-man reporting squad. It also had a legendary art reporter in the person of Souren Melikian. Apart from that, the Trib’s small editorial board dealt with one or two pages of opinion and analysis pieces. The editor was Mort Rosenblum, a veteran reporter with the Associated Press and obviously frustrated because he could not do much reporting of his own. He telephoned me one day and invited me for a coffee. When I arrived in the Trib’s modest offices in Neuilly, I suddenly felt better. There was no printing press in the building and no smell of lead. Nor was there any sign of the hustle and bustle of my paper Kayhan in Tehran. Nevertheless, I was in a newspaper’s offices again, after so many long weeks of denial. When Rosenblum invited me to start by writing a piece, “whatever you think needs writing”, I had a moment of fear. As someone who had been used to writing every day, would I be able to do so again after weeks away from the typewriter? Well, I was and the spell was broken.
Over the following years and under successive editors, notably Philip M. Foisie, John Vinocur, and Walter Wells, the Trib offered me space to express my views on a range of issues.
The Trib started publishing in Paris in October 1887 as a condensed edition of the New York Herald, with the ambition of become a global newspaper for English-speakers. Owned by James G. Bennet, the New York Herald was at the time the richest publication in the United States. In the 1920s the paper merged with the Paris Herald to create the International Herald Tribune. For almost two decades, the Trib was the principal source of news and views for a large American expatriate community in Paris, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and Gertrude Stein. Heroes and heroines in some of the novels they wrote read the Trib. The paper, sold in the principal streets of Paris by “criers”, many of them penniless American students, acquired an almost fetishistic status with English-speaking news junkies in the City of Light.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave film Breathless, Jean Seberg is working as one of those “criers” when she meets the small-time crook played by Jean-Paul Belmondo.
By the mid-1990s, the Trib had become a truly global daily with special print editions in Hong Kong and even its original home New York. When The New York Times bought out the Washington Post’s share in the Trib, many feared that the Parisian daily was heading for the axe. That didn’t happen. Instead, The New York Times injected new capital into the venture, enabling the Trib to maintain its status as one of the best newspapers in the world.
The Trib was the first newspaper to use air mail facilities to achieve a wide distribution across the globe. Although its total circulation never exceeded 250,000, the Trib was immensely influential as the newspaper of the international elite. Its name opened virtually all doors to a reporter seeking to meet the “big shots” in politics, diplomacy, business, and the arts. Although an American paper and entirely owned by Americans, the Trib was regarded by the elite almost everywhere as their own. Even those who hated America for a range of reasons, could not hate the Trib, living proof of the fact that a good newspaper is the best bridge across cultural and political divides.