Saturday, 12 July 2008

Pearl of Wisdom

Ken Bigley’s gruesome death brought it all back again. “I kept thinking about him. I know what nightmare his family has been through: the waiting, the anguish, the uncertainty.” says Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered while on assignment in Pakistan two years ago. “Bigley’s captors knew they would kill him but drew out the drama for as long as possible; they had no intention of freeing him” says Pearl.

I meet Pearl in a busy café in Paris, on the day she arrives in Paris to organise a concert as part of the Daniel Pearl Music Day, in memory of her murdered husband. I recognise her by her corkscrew curls, her dark skin and almond eyes. With rain beating outside and grey engulfing the streets, at 36, Pearl radiates her own sunshine: fierce, burning, full of energy.
Daniel Pearl was the first Western hostage to be executed in front of video camera for maximal effect. Before his execution he confesses his Jewish roots: ''My name is Daniel Pearl. I'm a Jewish American from Encinco, California, USA. I come from, on my father's side, a family of Zionists. My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I'm Jewish. My family follows Judaism. We've made numerous family visits to Israel.'' Shortly after that his throat is slit and he is beheaded.

Was Danny abducted because of his Jewish roots, I ask her. “They knew he was Jewish from his palm pilot, and Danny never denied he was Jewish, but my impression is that he would have been killed anyway.”

We discuss whether the video of Bigley’s execution should be aired in the media, a vexed question but one which is preoccupying editors across the globe and dominating web-based discussion groups. Pearl is familiar with the issue, not least because she herself is a journalist. When the American television channel, CBS, decided to broadcast parts of her husband’s execution she called president of CBS, Andrew Heyward, and asked him not to screen it. “I said to him ‘give me a reason, a journalistic reason, to broadcast this video’, and he says, ‘it’s newsworthy and will go to show how bad these people are’, but it’s bullshit. It’s not about news; it about rating. If rating wins, we’re in trouble. These terrorists want us to hate the Muslims; they want us to be afraid. They try to kill everything in us – initiative, hope, confidence, dialogue. The only way to oppose them is by demonstrating the strength they think they have taken from you.”

She has never seen the video, but two days before she was due to give birth to their son, Adam, now 2 and a half, she took the phone off the hook, lay down and imagined everything that had happened to Danny before his death: “I had to face what Danny faced. I had to confront the truth. I forced myself to see it all – when they blindfolded him, when they took out the knife, how long they interviewed him before they started killing him”. After two days, she emerged triumphant. “Nothing can happen anymore that I don't have the courage to fight within”.

In July 2002, a Pakistani court sentenced British-born Ahmed Omar Sheikh to death for the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl; three other men received life prison sentences for involvement in the abduction. “After the trial” recalls Pearl, “I asked the person who interrogated Omar Sheikh if he was aware of his act. ‘No doubt about it’, the interrogator told me. I then asked if Omar Sheik had expressed any regrets and the interrogator said no. I looked into my heart and I asked myself: am I looking for revenge? No, I said. Then I made my decision”.

She met Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, and asked him to impose the death penalty on Omar Sheik, declining President Bush’s proposal to extradite her husband's killer to the US to stand trial there. “I wanted Pakistan to execute him and send a clear message to the terrorists,” she explains. Her hopes so far have been dashed. More than 2 years on, Omar Sheikh‘s appeal has yet to be heard, having been postponed on more than 5 occasions, and the Pakistani government appears to be in no hurry to bring it to a conclusion. There have been allegations of cover-ups by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, intimidation of journalists reporting on the case and collusion between the prosecution and the defence lawyers. Pearl doesn’t hold out high hopes any longer. “The government of Pakistan is afraid to hang him” she says, “Musharraf is under a lot of pressure and has had to make a lot of compromises.”
Omar Sheik sent word to Pearl that he wanted to meet her and express his regret but she will not entertain the idea. “I don’t have any incentive or desire to forgive him” she says. “The fact that he is still alive makes me angry”. But, she stresses, her desire to see him executed is not borne out of revenge – that would be against her Buddhist convictions; it is seeking justice: “When I open avenues of dialogue and address the root causes of terrorism, that’s my revenge. Dialogue is the ultimate act of courage. Killing Omar Sheik would take one minute, but it would not be revenge.”

Pearl has been described variously as a survivor, a hero and a fighter. More recently, in March this year, she was criticised when she applied for – and was denied - compensation from the September 11 Victims' Fund. “It wasn’t about money,” she brushes aside the accusations, “I wanted Adam to be part of the fund, part of this group. It’s the same people with the same intention. We all know the fund is related.”

And this is something that comes across clearly when you meet Pearl: she is brutally honest and pulls no punches in speaking her mind. In her book “A Mighty Heart” she settles scores with her husband’s employer, the Wall Street Journal. She was eight months pregnant when Omar Sheikh's trial began and was unable to attend but wanted the paper to represent Danny in court. They refused, telling her it was her case not theirs. The paper’s lawyers maintain that they were advised to keep a low profile so as not to give the impression that behind the trial was a powerful western media, but Pearl doesn’t buy it. “They’ve not risen up to the occasion. They went round saying ‘truth and justice’ and then did nothing about it”.She has warm words for Laura Bush who visited her in Paris for a personal chat, but she leaves no doubt as to her thoughts on Bush’s politics. “I was, and am, against the war in Iraq. No one could say there were no weapons of mass destruction, but I felt that war should be the very last resort, and it wasn’t. They were too happy and excited about going to war.”

She is in a hurry to go. In a few hours’ time she is organising a “Guateque” in Paris, a traditional Cuban peasant feast of food, music and dance as part of the Daniel Pearl Music Day – a celebration of concerts around the world to promote tolerance. This year some 300 concerts took place in more than thirty countries, pulling in names such as Elton John, R.E.M. James Galway, Ravi Shankar and Barbra Streisand. The idea was instigated by Pearl’s father, Judea Pearl, in memory of his son who played the violin and the mandolin and made many friends through music. “I keep the mandolin and it travels with us wherever we go” she says, smiling.

The Guateque de Marita, is also in memory her mother, Marita, who died of cancer a month after she and Danny were married. “It was a true feast of friendship” she tells me afterward. “Danny's friends came from all over the world to be there and share with us”.

It’s easy to picture her dancing and having a good time. Despite her personal tragedy, perhaps because of it, Pearl has an enormous sense of fun; an indomitable joie de vivre. She is, herself, a celebration of life. With a Jewish-Dutch father and a Cuban-Catholic mother; a homosexual grandfather (‘he had sex with a woman friend of his only once – and that was it”) a brother who introduced her to Buddhism and friends of every faith, she is a walking museum of human diversity.

“Danny died as I live today” she says, wrapping herself inside a thick scarf, as we part under the cold skies of Paris. She has clearly won her revenge. And revenge is best served cold.

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