I was honoured to be invited to speak at TEDxENSAT’s conference in November 2015. The video (below) is only now available.
The students’ conference, in Tangier, Morocco, was themed ‘Turning Ideas Into Reality’.
It was an impressive conference. One line that stuck out most for me was: ‘We do it, not because it is easy, but because it’s hard.’
Well, in my talk I tried to speak passionately about striving to act to confront injustice. I said we must work from our hearts, push ourselves to do whatever we can, and not look back. As always, the speech was like my latest manifesto.
The talk is also on YouTube.
Below is the original script for my talk:
Bismillahi-al-Haq (in the name of God, the Truth).
It’s a great privilege to be here today at TEDx in Tangier.
I spend most of my time in the world of television news, working as a correspondent (a reporter). And I love it — working in alternative media, capturing different perspectives, and checking power.
I’m here in beautiful Morocco on holiday. And travelling always helps you put things in perspective. I just turned 26 and recently worked out that I’ve travelled to just over one country for every one year of my life.
Well, I’m going to share some parts of my journey with you, how I’ve acted on my outrage and ideas, and valuable strategies that I’ve picked up along the way.
But first: this is how I see the world today…
So, the TED platform globally is all about sharing ideas that matter. A lot of ideas we appreciate here are often very complicated ones.
But sometimes: the most important truths are the most simple.
Think of the noisy world of TV news where ‘I live’, and public political life, international affairs. Think about what’s ‘in the news’ at the moment. As American (biologist) Edward Wilson put it: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom”.1
Take the recent atrocities in Paris. Some of us were ‘Je Suis Paris’. What about our selective outrage? The victims of terror in Beirut and Baghdad became, among others, in comparison to Parisiennes, ‘un-people’.
As humanitarian Paul Farmer once put it (famously): “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”2
Simple truths apply to our individual lives, too.
Where there is no love, put love.
Where there is ignorance, instill knowledge.
I was recently (really) touched by the story of a young woman doing just that. 20-year-old American student Lamia Arafa – a Muslim, a hijabi – whenever she sees someone staring at her in public, she’ll approach them and kindly ask, ‘do you have any questions about Islam or the hijab that I can clear up for you? Anything you saw in the news that you want to talk about?.’3
Here is a beautiful way of engaging with the world – so simple yet subversive; brave; genius even; it feels kind of revolutionary. It’s apparently her humble jihad (struggle) to spread truth and confront hatred.
For me, an important part of my life (off the TV) is on social media, trying to breathe truth… into people’s timelines and newsfeeds… into a world full of war and hate mongering and injustice.
And that effort all began, in part, for me in my late teens, when I was becoming politically aware and passionate. I remember one night when I was watching a succession of videos online documenting the suffering from the invasion of Iraq. The deaths; casualties; destruction; humiliation; PTSD. Watching the videos at that moment was an experience that crescendoed, to make me explode with pain and anguish. And I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I sobbed in my bed. Not specifically over our foreign policy, but almost in a moment of grim enlightenment—that I was waking up to a simple image of reality of the world that was so cynical, chaotic, nonsensical and painful.
And during that period, I’d sometimes find it hard to sleep, staying awake asking myself: what is wrong with this society? that we carry on life as normal, after what we’ve done in Iraq. I just didn’t understand how people could keep calm and ignore all the suffering in the world?.
And it was that kind of pain and passion and outrage that drove me, when I was 22, to first go to the Gaza Strip. (The same passion drives me today, to be here with you today.) But to be honest, looking back, I almost can’t believe I took the step to go to Gaza. Part of me now asks myself, what were you thinking?!.
I mean in a good way, quite literally what were you thinking?. Because it was quite a bizarre thing to have done. But as journalist Chris Hedges once said: ‘The more futile, useless, irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the more potent hope becomes. Hope is action – it’s doing something.’4
So, I went to Gaza, alone, on an (independent) campaigning journalism trip.
(As Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi put it ‘straight up’: ‘Palestinians are the only people on earth required to guarantee the security of their occupier, while Israel is the only country that demands protection from its victims.’5 So I tried to capture the stories of Palestinians; the more demonised the better.)
(When I saw the aftermath of a drone strike for the first time, I almost fainted.)
Yeah, there were barriers to doing it, to getting there – bureaucratic; financial; but sheer will, determination and help overcame them.
(Now, later, that all led on to doing what I’m doing today, working as a full-time reporter for ‘RT’, a global news network. Our beginnings, though, never know our ends.)
So, I spent less than a month in Gaza when I first visited, but when I returned to the UK I felt empty inside. I was no longer doing something that felt worthwhile – that felt as though I should give my life’s time to it. I had a lot of energy and passion to channel. I wanted to touch people’s lives and hearts.
So I shortly went back to Gaza, that winter, on a crowd-funded ‘people’s foreign correspondent’ assignment. At the time, there was not much sense or strategy to it, but I felt like I was trying my best, and trying to write a good story of my own life.
(I saw that there was a need for more English language video reporting in Gaza. There was a gap, which I could help fill. Simply, I had a blind belief in intending to fill it, and in acquiring whatever skills I needed to do the job – to complete the objective. And I was able to do that; I turned my idea into a reality: some of the reports I made constituted the only English-language video reports of particular events in Gaza.)
As for: where I learned to film or make a news video; well, I taught myself.
As a kid I’d developed the skill of coding and programming a handful of languages, by learning through doing… website design. By looking at sites I liked, I could simply look at their code and work out how something was made. And that mentality of deconstructing and reverse engineering — I honestly think it’s a really powerful tool we can all use. It’s stayed with me until today; and it’s served me well instead of fulfilling traditional academic or vocational routes.
So I had picked up video-making… by learning on the go… a couple of years before Gaza, in 2010, when I spent about a fortnight in South Africa, there for a charity, commissioned to make a fundraising documentary video. I worked out how to film, edit, present; by learning on the go.
I sought inspiration and tried to hunt out best practices by critically analysing and quality maximising. For example, I had to work out how to subtitle interview clips. But what font do you use? For how long are those closed captions visible on screen? I took a collection of examples from TV and film and worked out why they worked (and reverse engineered my favorite styles), and then built my own style from that.
In my journey, I’ve tried to push myself to engage in totally new environments and challenges; to strive to acquire new skills and experiences.
We’re at our most potent and powerful as individuals when we follow our heart and instinct; when we give our all in the moment, and don’t look back.
As Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud was launched in winter 2012, I didn’t think twice about (myself) ‘launching’ a humble live stream to relay breaking news and a soundscape of Gaza City. (I wasn’t to know that my pro bono work experience in setting up, managing and directing a live stream a couple of years earlier, would be a skill that I needed 2 years later. That investment in a skill and experience was, in a sense, like ‘making my own luck’ for later.)
We never know what our heart-led work might achieve, but we should hold onto hope. That Ustream channel went viral and was watched by half a million people, including Professor Noam Chomsky.
Forget video, with 25 frames per second. We all have mobiles (in this audience); one photo (one image) can change the world. Think about that photo of Syrian baby Aylan Kurdi on the beach.
When you see something, take out your phone, capture, interview, understand and share. That is something we really can all do. What is ‘Humans of New York’6 but a camera, keyboard and an intention?
To achieve what you want, you have to know what you want, for which you have to know yourself, for which you have to be yourself. For which, you have to listen to your heart.
When we’re in tune with ourselves, believe in our capacities to learn and do, we can engage our own unique ‘personal genius’ (as some psychologists 7 call it). We can build productive momentum in fulfilling our God-given talents.
Part of being able to do that is to ensure we’re surrounded by the right people. In Gaza in Palestine, I am eternally indebted to those who guided me. In the West Bank of Palestine, another key person appears in my head: Nuha, a Palestinian mom of 2, and my producer-fixer last summer.
Nuha takes ‘having a can-do attitude’ to another level. She can convince practically anyone to give any journalist an interview; through sheer self-belief, will, determination, and engagement, she’ll get anyone to talk to you — yeah, it’s her job, but she’s the best at it.
Working in the West Bank and Jerusalem is interesting because you quite often have to go through checkpoints between Palestinian and Israeli administered zones. Nuha is quite clearly a Palestinian Arab woman. But she was able to, last summer, make Israeli soldiers think she was a settler by simply acting like one – and with no visible change other than wearing a hat. So, she’d put on a straw hat before approaching the checkpoint, say ‘Shalom’ and temporarily ‘believe she is a settler’, and they’d believe it too, give her no grief, and wave her through.
Someone’s sheer will temporarily hacked (overcame) the absurdities and barriers that the Israeli occupation put in the way of our work. Nuha’s one of the most extraordinary I’m amazing people I’ve ever met.
Someone like that inspires you to be better, to compete ‘against yourself’ and continuously improve.
And I’d like to think it’s a kind of humility when you’re never satisfied with yourself and always try to push yourself to be better; when you judge yourself, not by what others do, but by what you should have achieved with your ability.
These are some of the philosophies I’ve learned on my journey. Needless to say, I am still continuously learning.
Following your gut, though, being productive, filling gaps (doing what others don’t), trying to make the world a smaller place — it’s not an easy game. Some of the best things I’ve done have been the most-criticised things I’ve done.
If you are successful, people may accuse you of being selfish and having ulterior motives. You’ve gotta continue being productive anyway.
If we find our ‘personal geniuses’, some may be jealous. But continue fulfilling yours anyway.
People will tell you what you’re trying to do can’t be done. Prove them wrong.
The good you do today might be forgotten tomorrow – yes. But do good anyway, it’ll (somehow) live on.
Seeing the Palestinian casualties in the Gaza war zone. Seeing Egyptian police ‘hit and run’ protesters. Talking to Afghan and Iraqi refugees who’ve tried to commit suicide while they’ve been locked up indefinitely in the UK’s immigration removal centres. Witnessing the unstoppable flow of refugees enter Europe from the Middle East.
These experiences definitely change you, yes. And if you let them change you in the wrong way, sure, they could make you so miserable you’d break. But you have to survive, so you keep going, without any easy answer on how to process these terrible things you see.)
My cameraman colleague Adam and I recently went to one of the miserable refugee camps in France. The thousands there are fleeing what the Pope correctly calls, “a bad and unjust socioeconomic system, in everything, throughout the world.”8
Well, we were really lucky; we managed to film everything we needed and more, just before it started raining. We ran back to the car and missed the worse of there rain. There we were, sheltering in the car, while hundreds of refugees were barely coping to stay dry. We returned to our hotel in Calais to dry off and warm up, while the thousands in the camp sat in flimsy tents and structures.
We’d seen some of the refugees had open lacerations (cuts) on their ankles, from trying to scale and subvert the razor and barbed wire the UK and French authorities have put between them and their desired destination (of mainland Britain). There they were with lacerations in the name of trying to realise freedom. There I was driving quite smoothly back into the UK… under the ocean — even, indeed, without my passport, which I’d left on my desk at home in London!!
We live on the same planet… with the same human needs… but we live in different worlds.
When I first returned from Gaza, I’ll never forget – I was in the lift at London’s Heathrow airport. I was aware of a kind of frustration building. Again, I felt: here are people staying calm while injustice is ongoing. How can you stay calm? How could people go about complaining about the taste of their caramel latté when innocents are falling victim to drone attacks in Gaza?
Over time, though, my understanding of this frustration has changed.
As the British Red Cross asks rhetorically in its promotional videos: ‘How do you compare… blood… and a tear drop?’9
‘The answer is: you don’t.’
It’s simple: with suffering everywhere, we all need to do our bit to act.
(It might be going to Gaza, as I did; it might be reaching out to those who stare you down, as that American hijabi student did.)
The crazier the act of rebellion, the better.
We’re at our most contributive (to society) when we find and ignite our power stations of passion and talent within us.
We can acquire skills as we go. We can embody a can-do, objective-orientated, go-to attitude.
And we never know what seeds of hope we may plant, or whose lives we might touch.
Here’s part of a poem by a Somali writer called Warsan Shire:
“I held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere.”10
But in the face of that:
Anything that draws the good to the good, that nourishes our souls, and that holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the lives of others11, is what we must do.