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Award-winning Arab American journalist writes about her search for belonging


Journalist and now former CNN anchor Hala Gorani has traveled the world covering war, violent extremism, natural disasters and mass migration. She says she feels like she belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Her parents are from Syria. She was born in the U.S. and grew up in France. And a lot of the time, based on how she looks, people assume she's not Arab. That's the backbone of her new book called "But You Don't Look Arab," a search for where she belongs. She takes stock of her own path professionally and personally, and she digs into her family's history, a history of movement. Throughout that movement, there is a clock that stayed in her family's possession for generations.

HALA GORANI: It was the clock of one of my female ancestors who was forced to leave Istanbul when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. And it was on her bedside table in Aleppo, Syria, more than a hundred years ago. It runs, but just too fast (laughter). So we joked and said it's like the Middle East. It has all the right pieces, but it just can't run in an efficient way. And it's an anchor to the memories that our families hold and to the stories we still tell each other.

FADEL: Gorani describes her life as always being on the move and being asked again and again about her background.

GORANI: I think being from one place through my parents, born in the U.S., raised in Europe, living in London - of being always forced into change and displacement - is what made me love this journalistic career as much as I do, because it allows me to try to find myself in each story that I tell. Whenever someone seems out of place I ask them, where are they from? What country do they identify with? Where do they call home? Because so many Middle Easterners' stories are generational stories of displacement.

FADEL: True.

GORANI: And we feel comfortable when we're on the move - I do, anyway.

FADEL: Yeah.

GORANI: And I think the answer to the question where do you feel most at home is, maybe it's in this journey. Maybe it's just better to embrace the movement.

FADEL: I mean, how do you answer that question? When people ask you where you are from, how do you answer?

GORANI: It's a whole paragraph I've rehearsed...


GORANI: ...My whole life. I was born here, I was raised there, you know?

FADEL: Yeah.

GORANI: I count in French, I dream in Arabic, I work in English. Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese French writer, wrote it so well. He said, we recognize ourselves often - I'm paraphrasing now, but in the facet of our identity that is most attacked.

FADEL: So true.

GORANI: And so I really, really dug deep into my family's history. And that's when I realized how so many generations before the wars and the revolutions were also displaced, whether it was during the Ottoman Empire or my parents, and then this latest generation of family members in Aleppo that have had to flee the current war. So it's this kind of perpetual movement.

FADEL: In the book, when we know you in childhood and early adulthood, you're Hala Basha, who speaks three languages, including Arabic, until you try to break into journalism in France and you become Hala Gorani, who speaks two languages, not including Arabic. Why did you make that decision?

GORANI: Because there is discrimination, you know, in many countries against people, I think, who are of a certain ethnicity and origin. And it was my experience. I had graduated from a elite university in France, and I was getting almost no job interviews. So I removed the fact that I spoke Arabic from my resume, added a photo, and changed my name. And that did the trick.

FADEL: Did it feel strange to think, oh, I have to put a picture to show them I'm light-skinned, and I have to change my name and distance from this identity that is me.

GORANI: This is in the '90s. Things have changed. But there was kind of this notion that, well, if you're from the Middle East, can you cover the Middle East? And that would never be asked of someone who's Western or covering their own country, right? But you would ask that of someone whose origin is Middle Eastern or Arab, whether or not they have enough distance.

FADEL: Yeah. And a lot of that, like you said, has changed, this idea that, like, as a Middle Easterner, you can't cover it fairly. But a lot of it hasn't. I mean, when Syria went from an uprising to a civil war, to what it is today, I mean, how did you navigate covering that? Because like you said, you had family in Syria, and this is a government that made no qualms about killing civilians and quashing dissent violently.

GORANI: You know, I lived it like the death of a family member. For me, Syria was always my one connection to my heritage, Aleppo in particular. And when that went up in flames - the old city, the older market, the hammam, the Ottoman hotel that was blown up - it every time was pain as if I was physically suffering. And it's like a family member that is now gone. And now we're at the stage where we can write about it, talk about it, that Aleppo we once knew, maybe with more of a smile on our face than with tears.

FADEL: Being of such a multi-layered identity - mostly raised in France, lived as a child in Missouri, went back and forth between the U.S., Syria - how has that shaped the way you tell stories of people who are often otherized?

GORANI: I think it's given me more of an understanding to understand what it's like to feel rootless and to feel like we are always on the search for who we are. The protagonist in "The Invisible Man" said, when I discover who I am, I'll be free. And there is something to that. There is a natural human impulse, I think, in all of us to want to know where we're from. And it helps us know, for some reason, where we're going. And I think it's a perpetual quest. And in my journalism career, it's really helped me understand, I think, especially if I cover a refugee story - for instance, with what's happening in Gaza right now. I'm not a conflict reporter. I feel like I'm a humanitarian reporter, not in the sense that I'm a humanitarian, but in the sense that I'm interested in the human consequence of conflict and disaster.

FADEL: Yeah.

GORANI: And so I think that's where my upbringing and my internal identity conflicts come into play.

FADEL: Hala Gorani, Emmy Award-winning anchor and correspondent on her new book, "But You Don't Look Arab: And Other Tales Of Unbelonging." Hala, thank you so much.

GORANI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "LAVENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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