Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

In Search of ‘Mizag’

Posted by vmsalama on June 26, 2005

by Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt  

 

CAIRO: This is the story of one man’s search for his mizag – the Arabic word to describe that little something that turns us on to life. 
            But summing up Abdallah Schleifer’s journey on that road to ultimate mizag will never do it justice.  The former New York City hippie; former communist Cuba revolutionary; Jewish to Muslim convert; former newspaper reporter/editor; former NBC newsman; and now, soon-to-be retired Distinguished Lecturer in Mass Communication and Director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo says, now is as good a time as ever to satisfy his craving. 
            Born Marc Schleifer to a non-practicing Jewish-American family in New York, Schleifer was raised at the height of the “Love, not War” campaign, where hippies, as they were called, would roam the streets singing songs and spreading anti-war slogans.  Schleifer’s journey would draw him to communist Cuba, which in the early 1960s was at the height of a revolution. 
            The experience was disillusioning, Schleifer himself calling it “Stalinized.” He left.  After briefly returning back to New York, Schleifer’s travels would take him on a very different journey, to a place luring so many of the “beat generation” of his day:  Morocco, attractive to many for its cheap, friendly and exotic charm.
            “I’m in Tangier having this spiritual crisis and here’s this extraordinary environment and I’m overpowered by its beauty and its truthfulness,” he describes.  “While I was kind of an agnostic, I did believe there’s a thing called truth – two and two is four.  Coming out of a communist experience, where they say, two and two can be three, maybe five, depending on the revolution and its requirements, you can see how that can lead to the most criminal possibilities.”
            It was Islam, and the commitment and dedication of its believers, that drew Schleifer to explore the culture deeply.  Everything from the art, to the people to the atmosphere itself left him in awe, discovering a side to life he had not known.  Schleifer was enlightened, and following a second year-long visit to Morocco, he returned to New York, married a woman with children, and the whole family chose to take on Islam. 
            Having now adopted this new faith, the next logical move for he and his family was to try living in the Islamic world.  The next question was where to go.  Cairo was still reeling politically from the fall of the monarchy, so the Schleifer family chose to move to Jordan.  Schleifer quickly built up contacts and was offered a job as reporter and editor for the Palestine News, formerly the Jerusalem Star.  The job would quickly open more freelance opportunities with the New York Times. 
            “I’d cross the green line everyday when I went to work,” Schleifer recalls.   “I was young and adventurous.  If you’re meant to be a journalist, you just accept for adventures and pay for difficult situations that would normally turn people off.”
            One Israeli newspaper referred to Schleifer as “Agent of Hussein,” raising suspicion of his loyalties to King Hussein of Jordan and the Muslim world.  He is giddy as he recalls the headlines, treating them as tabloid, not fact and not in any way threatening. 
            His notoriety would grow, and by 1969, Schleifer would relocate, this time to Beirut which was on the brink of a civil war.  Now shifting from print to broadcast, Schleifer would eventually become producer and fill in reporter for NBC News from 1969 to 1974.  Over that five year period, the network offered him several opportunities to reopen their bureau in Cairo, which had closed down due to constraints on reporters.
            “Things were very difficult until 1974,” he explains.   “Before that you couldn’t leave the bureau, everything was closed.  If you were a foreign correspondent, all you could do was cover the parliament, not any day, but when the president spoke, or cover the president arriving at the airport, and that was about it.  Half the roads were banned.  On the roads you could travel on, like the road to Alex[andria], it was forbidden to stop on the road and talk to a falah (farmer), that was considered espionage.  It was incredible.”
            It wasn’t until 1974 that Schleifer saw new potential for journalism in Cairo.  Accompanying Henry Kissinger as he traveled back and forth from Cairo to Tel Aviv negotiating Suez Canal withdrawal in what would later be called the Kissinger Shuttle, Schleifer tasted, for the first time, the savory energy of Egypt, during an evening outing with the Patron Sheikh of Cairo. 
            “By this time I am thinking of leaving Lebanon,” he admits.  “I went to do a sidebar on Kissinger’s visit.  I had read about these things… when I got there, I was intoxicated.  It was so dazzling.  It was lit by the love that everyone had for the prophet.  I remember thinking, this is what it’s all about; this spiritual grace that lights you up, that lifts you up that gets you high.”
            Schleifer saw an endless array of story potential for the ancient city, and so with one phone call to NBC’s foreign desk, the Cairo bureau was back in business, under the leadership of Abdallah Schleifer.  The years would pass and Schleifer would lead NBC Cairo for 9 years, from 1974 to 1983, with one year spent back in Beirut covering the civil war.  His interview portfolio during those years would include the names of leaders such as President Hosni Mubarak, the late President Anwar Sadat, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the late King Hussein of Jordan, the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the late President Zia El Haq of Pakistan, and countless other influential leaders of politics, culture and religion. 
            Most notably are the ironic circumstances surrounding coverage of the assassination of President Sadat that would earn Schleifer and his team great recognition.  Rumor has it that Schleifer missed the story, and later, lost his job at NBC as a result.  The first part is true.  He did miss the story.  It is a move that would eventually earn him the TV Digest Award for reporting, and Schleifer tends to believe, it was an odd coincidence that may have spared him his life. 
   This is an interview with Schlieffer done by an English-language Egyptian TV program
            “It’s a story on one hand where I got an award even though I missed the story – the only story I missed in my life,” Schleifer clarifies.  “The reason why I missed it is because we were beating the opposition on another story.”
            With the help of NBC’s Tel Aviv correspondent, Schleifer and the NBC team rushed to Suez on the infamous day, to break a story on Saudi Arabian – Israeli military tensions.  An Israeli military submarine, having withdrawn its position from a Saudi restricted zone in the 11th hour of tense negotiations, was set to pass through the Suez Canal on its return to Israeli waters.  On the morning of the military parade that would eventually be the scene of great turmoil, Schleifer, who normally would take a seat very close to Sadat since they were well acquainted, watched the event on television. 
            “Suddenly I hear a shot, then the screen went blank,” he recalls.  “We rolled the tape and see the planes going up, up, up, you hear machine guns, the camera wobbles and then goes to black.  I said, ‘Get a phone line to New York!  [reporting] There has been an attack on Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Gunfire can be heard on Egyptian television, the camera wobbled.’  – I just told them what I saw – ‘It is not known whether the president has been injured or killed.’  We broke the story on radio, ironically, because we weren’t there.”
            In the end, NBC had to credit the other networks for fair usage of video from the assassination itself, a move Schleifer admits hurt them within the industry.  However, in the days following the assassination, many foreign reporters would flee the country in fear of a coup d’etats.  Even more ironic, since NBC had its Tel Aviv staff in Egypt to report their exclusive military story, the entire group was on hand to contribute to NBC’s post-assassination coverage.   
            “In the end, our coverage was incredible even though we missed the story,” he laughs.  “And in the end, we got the TV Digest Award for coverage even though we missed the story!  If you weren’t in the business, you thought we had the story anyway, because we rolled on the others’ footage.  So one of the best stories I ever had was a story I missed.  If I hadn’t missed the story, I might be dead!”  
            Time would plunge on for Schleifer, some times busier than others.  Prior to Sadat’s assassination, Schleifer had already expressed interest to take on new endeavors, but got caught up in the heat of the moment.  In 1983, after suffering from what he calls “battle fatigue,” Schleifer accepted an offer to join the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) faculty as an Honorary Senior Fulbright Fellow and as a full professor, with the title Distinguished Lecturer.  He remained a consultant to NBC for several years. 
            “[In Beirut] a car backfired and I hit the pavement,” he recalls.  “I thought it was guns firing.  I lost my nerve.  I just covered too much of this stuff.  I knew that’s what was happening.  So I said I’ve got to get out of this business.” 
Schleifer is hailed by those who worked with him at NBC.  “Abdallah Schleifer has been a scholar in reporter’s clothing, even though he’s probably covered more wars, revolutions, hijackings, assassinations and general chaos in his region than anyone else I know,” wrote Tom Pettit, NBC News Executive Vice President in a testimonial. 
            Busier than ever, Schleifer embarked on new career challenges in his role at AUC.  Charged with the mission to establish a TV news-training center, he opened the Adham Center for Television Journalism, hailed as the best broadcasting school in the region.  After 18 years, the Adham Center graduated its final Masters Degree class.  Schleifer speaks highly of his experience as a lecturer.  However, as with most journalists at heart, he has grown restless of the routine, and hopes that now, as he prepares to enter into retirement, he can focus on the joys in his life which were shelved for so long. 
            “Islamic art is my mizag,” he says.  “Journalism is interesting but I find we are sort of vultures.  My mizag kept me here.  When you cover the Arab world, when you cover Latin America, it’s catastrophe coverage.  The peace initiative of Sadat was the one that disproved the rule.  I’ve always felt bad.  It would have been nice to do something good, something that would encourage people to do good.”
            We will continue to see Abdallah Schleifer out and about as he has always been.  However, instead of catching him in the classroom or in an edit bay, he hopes that the next time we run into him, it might be around the track, or at the museum finally experiencing some mizag.
 
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