Yemen Times editor-in-chief and publisher, 29-year-old Nadia Al-Saqqaf won the first “Pulitzer of the Arab region” in December, the 2006 Gebran Tueni Award. The dynamic change maker spoke to SFG about the prize, the realities of the region and profession she works in and her future plans…
Questioning Nadia Al Saqqaf, Editor of Yemen Times
February 12, 2007
How do you feel being the first female chief editor of an English newspaper in Yemen and winning the Tueni prize? What does it represent?
It is a feeling you get when at the end of the day you come home tired and worn out but then someone taps on your back and says that you did a great job. Eventually we do what we have to do, but recognition always makes it easier. I was telling my friends a few days before the award announcement that I was on the verge of desperation. I was asking myself why I do this. I could have taken a simpler job with more pay and less responsibility. I would have had more time for my husband and infant daughter. Then I got the call about the Tueni prize and I knew that I had to go on.
It lifted my spirits but it also made the responsibility heavier. I want to use the paper to focus more on development, gender, and youth issues. I want to educate the intellectual Yemenis about their country and to inform them, especially those working in non governmental organisations and civil societies about the country’s stance and status in the various dimensions of life. I want the paper to be an interactive paper where it belongs to all its readers in Yemen and around the world. After this, I cannot let my performance drop and work a lot harder.
Tell us a little bit about your personal journey, what you see as your identity. What were the things that made a difference in your life and what do you want to make a difference in, your mission?
I was born to an educated family. My father Prof. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf was a man of vision and was known to be ahead of his time. He raised us to love knowledge and to strive towards the best. He used to push the girls even more because he knew they had to face a society and a world that does not give a woman much space. In high school, he used to show me how to work in public life like managing finances, paying the bills and interacting with people of different cultures and backgrounds. He encouraged me to drive and take tuitions to master English as a second language. Studying abroad in India was a major step in developing my personality and self confidence. I was on my own and had to merge with a very different culture. My dad often told me: “if you survive that, you can do anything.” And I believe he was right. I owe it to my family that I am who I am. My talents and determination found a good environment to grow.
I want to be effective in whatever I am doing. My mission is to make a difference. My father used to call us “change agents”. In particular I am interested in bridging gaps between us as Arabs and Muslims and the rest of the world. When I was studying in India I found it hard at times to connect to the people my age I left behind in Yemen and who did not get the same exposure I did. I remember once complaining to my father that I don’t know who I am anymore, I can’t relate to the people in my country and I can’t say I am one of those I went to study with. He said that I was a bridge between the two parts. I liked what he told me and decided to be a bridge between cultures for the rest of my life.
Centuries ago, the golden era of the Arab-Islamic civilization was known for its economic and trade dynamism, with Arab scientists and scholars at the forefront of every field of science, philosophy and art. What are the reasons you attribute to the decline of this tradition and the scarcity of science and technology and knowledge centers in the region today?
The most striking reason in my opinion is that we don’t respect knowledge and we don’t understand the urgency to learn, explore and improve. Although the very first verse of the Quran was Iqra – meaning read – it is furthest from our minds today. How many people read the newspapers daily? How many people spend time reading books, learn new languages or add to their knowledge every day? The worst part is the miserable education systems we have which don’t teach the young generations to wonder and use their minds. Even the religious scholars, most of them do not give their minds free space to think and explore. It is enough to know that the total publication production of the Arab world in one year is less than that of Spain alone... such a shame.
What specific reforms do you think are required to create an environment of plurality, freedom of enquiry, flourishing science and technology and indigenous development projects in the region? Are there examples of this already in the region?
Probably the first place to start working is education and awareness. Especially targeting the youth locally and the professionals abroad. This solution is a four-fold one: education is through schools, universities and other educational institutions whereby the students are encouraged to think and learn. The second would be awareness and here the media is the key issue. This could be through newspapers, internet chat rooms, religious and social sessions and other useful media tools. Then the youth must be targeted. Summer camps, periodicals and newsletters created fully by the youth, encouragement for their initiatives whether it is business or tourism or simply facilitating their internships in good institutions inside and outside the region. Finally, our professionals abroad. They owe it to their nations to give back the expertise and knowledge they acquired abroad. Most of them are excellent in their fields and have learnt how to help the development process.
I recall some projects like the CHF initiative for future leaders in Yemen where young men and women were given professional training and put in touch with the business sector. Another example is the Sunna alhaya group launched by Amr Khalid and their marvelous work in 2005.
Your observations on Arab Youth today? How do you involve them in positive reform initiatives? Your hopes and fears for the young people of this region.
The youth today are starving for fulfillment. They are lost and confused without clear objectives or missions. The first most urgent thing to do now is to find practical modern role models. We keep telling ourselves how great our ancestors were, but in reality the current generation needs role models they can actively relate to. These role models should be nurtured and encouraged to pioneer projects in their country. Prophet Mohammad understood this fact and this is why he sent many of his Sahaba to the various regions of new land to become the reference and focal points for the mobs.
My greatest fear, which is already materializing is that with the lack of local and adequate role models, our youth would be pushed to seek them outside in the western world. They would copy anyone, and thanks to TV and globalization, a character from the Mafia for example, could be the hero for a young boy in our region.
A few gulf countries have surplus revenue of over 300 billion dollars a year due to high oil prices. How will you persuade these nations to create economic and development assets in neighboring nations like Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, which do not possess such natural reserves and which are fighting difficult battles against poverty, illiteracy among other economic problems?
They need to understand what Dr. Mahathir of Malaysia meant when he said that rich countries are those with rich neighbours. The gulf countries have started to realise that the security and stability of Yemen directly affects them positively, and because poor and struggling countries export their problems to border nations. It is not out of charity that oil rich countries should help poorer countries; it is in fact for their own good. A sense of unity should be encouraged. Unfortunately, Arab countries though they have so much in common, do not feel one. Otherwise why would Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and Lebanon go through what they are going through today?
Explain the role of media persons like yourself and media organizations in reforming the region? What are steps yet to be taken by the Arab media?
Yemeni minds, for instance are quite sharp but if you limit them to routine and deprive them of the basic resources to do their work creatively then you get turn them into what the majority of Yemeni reporters are today. They barely make a living, covering workshops in a tedious fashion, repeating themselves. They are shoved aside, humiliated while trying to do their job, especially by the security people. How do people under these conditions get basic information then? True journalism needs space and facilities; without these two then there is no true journalism. In the Yemen Times for example, the first thing we do is remind ourselves and our staff of our mission statement: which is to provide objective, accurate and constructive information to promote freedom and human rights. Then we investigate the issues of our community and the concerns of our readership and provide them with a platform of knowledge. This is about a mission, about space, freedom and facilities.
What are the exciting positive developments you are witnessing in the region? What are you optimistic about? What gives you hope?
The most exciting issue is that we are trying new things and testing new boundaries we never thought of in the past. I feel very optimistic about the fact that I am able to connect and communicate with almost everyone around the globe. I am so glad there is something called Internet. Otherwise I would not have been able to have this interview with you easily. We are constantly evolving and learning. In a way, I think it is a positive thing that we are not the pioneers of today and that we try to develop and build on the successes of the developed world. At least this way we have the opportunity to see where we are going and become smarter in our choices. With limited resources and time, we don’t have the luxury of trial and error.
You have described some of the interesting developments from a global communication and internet standpoint. As the editor of Yemen Times and from a journalistic standpoint, what are a) the specific developments and examples in the Arab region that you personally have noticed, that you find interesting and will result in a positive outcome.
I like it when I see more women driving cars in Yemen. I like it when I see more people going to internet cafes and it brightens my day when I hear Yemenis speaking good English or other languages.
My ambition for Yemen is to join the rest of the world in its development. I feel so cut out of the race and isolated from the evolution taking place around us. But whenever I see people reading, when you travel, while having coffee or in the park, is when I know we are heading in the right direction. Until Yemenis learn to love and appreciate knowledge, we would remain where we are.
Your parting message/advice for the Middle East/ the world...
I would like from the heart of my heart to plead with our people not to be deceived with the way things look. We are being brainwashed that we are not strong or worthy. The truth is that we are. We just need to look within ourselves and find the energy to stand up and struggle.
I will leave you all with a story. Imagine a small ant trapped in a box with an open lid. Imagine that the ant does not know how to look up and keeps walking around and around in the same area. Every time the ant hits the box wall it turns and continues to walk in other directions again. What would happen if the ant learned to look up? I think it is time for us to look up and find our way out.