Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Hala Gorani, reporter and host of CNN’s Inside the Middle East, during her latest visit to Saudi Arabia covering the Hajj as a part of CNN’s renowned Annual coverage. The following is the text of the interview:
Q: You have just finished covering the Hajj for CNN. How would you describe the experience?
A: I would say it was the most intense experience for television, as it was a “non-stop” event and there was something happening all the time. We tried to cover the colourful aspects of the Hajj and this meant following the pilgrims wherever they went, whether it was at 2am or 6am. Also, CNN is a 24h news channel which meant we had to be available around the clock. However, apart from the fact that it was tiring, this has been an extremely unique assignment that illustrated exactly what is interesting and colourful about news broadcasting as opposed to print and radio. There is so much interesting and diverse colour in the Hajj, there are people from all over the world and people with different opinions at the same place at the same time which I found fascinating. Furthermore, I think we were able to put together stories that had elements of the religious pilgrimage in it, yet differed slightly from what we have done in previous years.
Q: Do you mean stories such as “Masks and Business” in which you highlighted the socio-economic aspects of Hajj? For example, describing the queues of people waiting outside a K.F.C restaurant near the Grand Mosque as the “Industry” of religious tourism?
A: Yes, we tried to show a slice of life as well as talking about the rituals.
Q: How would you describe your dealings with the Saudi Information Ministry during your time in Saudi Arabia?
A: Well, they call themselves “escorts”. As you know, there are only a handful of countries in the Middle East where “escorts” from the Information Ministry do not accompany you. The way they work is that they accompany you and offer their knowledge and contacts in the regions. Our escort was a resident of Mecca. He knew the area and guided us to the places we wanted to visit. What I can say is that there are some countries where you have slightly more of a presence there.
Q: Do you think that the criticism that “embedded” journalists often receive applies to western journalists covering the hajj? In other words, a journalist agrees to obtain access to a certain location in return for some censorship of his/her stories?
A: I never felt that there was a story I could not cover or a question I could not ask. I also never felt like I was being watched.
Q: It must be very exciting to be a journalist of Arab origin who understands the Middle East and who works in an organization like CNN in this day and age?
A: Well, I believe that the attention of the entire world is focused on the Middle East at the moment, it is somewhat difficult to ask for a better timing because when something happens in the region, everyone watches what you do. I am personally interested in politics, as well as social and international issues. Furthermore, my job allows me to constantly travel to the region and work on stories, and then return to the United States and do some anchoring. I don’t think a better combination can be achieved.
Q: Can you tell us more about your Arab origin? We are well-aware you are an American of Syrian origin but you also spent some time in Algeria.
A: (Laughing). How did you know that? Even my colleague the producer of “Inside the Middle East” only found that out recently. I was born in Seattle to parents who are both originally from Aleppo in Syria. During my childhood, I moved with my family to Algeria where my father was working. After my parents separated, I moved to Paris to live with my mother until the end of my teens. I returned to the U.S. to attend university. I later travelled to Paris and then the U.S. As you can see, I have moved a lot. However, my roots are 100% Syrian.
Q: Have you recently returned to Syria and Algeria?
A: I visit Syria frequently. I was there last month for work. I also went to my hometown of Aleppo and slept in my grandmother’s house. I love visiting Syria.
As for Algeria, I have yet to return. I would like to as I have very colourful memories from my childhood there but I have no plans to for the near future.
Q: I have noted, from reading previous interviews you gave, that you avoid giving your personal opinion about the Middle East and US policies towards it. Why is that so?
A: It is true. But isn’t this better for a journalist? My personal opinion is mine. Many Arab journalists always ask me about my opinion regarding CNN coverage of the region and US policies. Then the discussion between us shifts to a political debate. I have strong opinions but I always stress that my opinions are my own. Speaking about them damages my neutrality as a journalist.
Q: Your visit to Jordan to shoot an episode of an “Eye of the Middle East” coincided with the terrorist attacks in Amman. You immediately shifted to covering the bombings. Similarly, your colleague Christiana Amanpour was in Syria to interview Bashar Asad on the same day that Ghazi Kanaan killed himself. She also turned to covering the suicide. What do you say to those who believe it was no coincidence that CNN was present at those scenes?
A: (Laughing). This is part of the typical paranoia. As you said we were in Jordan doing “Eye on the Middle East” and I may I also add that I was on my way to bed when the Amman bombings occurred.
Q: How proficient are you in Arabic?
A: I am originally Syrian. I can understand Arabic very well and I can speak it.
Q: How about reading?
A: (Laughing). Not yet, but this is my 2006 resolution, in addition to getting into shape.
Q: You present a program on the Middle East and prepare some field reports. At the same time, you are a CNN anchorwoman. Which do you prefer anchoring or reporting?
A: I love both and I like the accompanying lifestyle. I feel that this is a healthy and balanced combination. It would be tiring to restrict myself to reporting fulltime. Similarly, anchoring full time makes you miss the juicy element of what actually happens on the ground. The fact that I travel to the region and then return to anchor the news for a certain period means that the stories I produce are better because I have time to prepare for them. At the same time, I am more aware of what happens when I present the news.
Q: In a previous interview, you said that television is the medium that can best convey expressions such as when a guest is hesitant or unsure. Doesn’t this mean the presenter will also find him/herself under the same pressure since any mistake will be caught on camera?
A: Of course, you are under constant pressure especially if the program is live. We have to remain accurate and in control otherwise everyone will notice.
Q: What is the most memorable interview that you have conducted?
A: In a weird way the interviews that stay with me or touch me the most are those I do with ordinary people in the context of a story.
Q: In an interview with Khaleej Times, you mentioned that 90% of television work depends on logistics (lighting, broadcasting, preparation, communication, transportation) and 10% is related to the editorial process. Regarding your success, would you say that CNN excels on the logistical front?
A: Logistics require considerable time and effort but the result is magical when all the elements work together. This requires a well coordinated team.
Q: You travel frequently and must have observed a lot in the countries you visit. Have you ever thought about writing a book on your travels or writing a column regarding this?
A: I am under severe time constraints but I have my own diary on the internet from which extracts are sometimes published… To answer your question, perhaps I will write a book in the future.
Eight things you did not know about Hala Gorani:
– She was born in 1970 and her full name is Hala Basha Gorani.
– She studied politics and economics at university and believes journalism can be learnt through experience.
– She is also fluent in French and her first step into the world of journalism was actually in print, when she wrote a story for a French newspaper.
– She first appeared on TV aged 24 in a French program.
– Hala loves music and used to sing in a band. Occasionally, she sings in the CNN studio before a live broadcast.
– She loves Arabic food and among her favourite dishes are Tabouleh, Hummos and Kebbeh.
– Among her favourite countries are Egypt and Oman. Her favourite cities are Halab and Beirut.
– She loves to unwind at the beach, especially in the Maldives. Hala would like to visit the Dead Sea again.