Rula Jebreal was born in Haifa in 1973, and spent her early years living in East Jerusalem with her family. After her mother’s death she entered the Dar El-Tifel orphanage and school at age five. She remained there until she received her diploma in 1991.After receiving a scholarship from the Italian government, Jebreal left East Jerusalem to study medicine at the University of Bologna. While there she obtained a degree in physiotherapy and then decided to go back to school to study journalism. She began working for Italian newspapers specializing in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
In 2000, Jebreal became the first foreign anchorwoman in Italy to broadcast the evening news on national television. Since 2004, Jebreal has hosted numerous high profile Italian television programs including: Omnibus, her daily talk show during which she interviewed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, and Nobel prize-winner Mohammad El Baradei, among others. Jebreal was recognized by Media Watch in 2004 for her coverage of the Iraq war. She is the author of The Bride from Assuan, which was awarded the International Fenice Europe Prize, and Divieto di Soggiorno, a study of the history of immigration in Europe.
Q: Can we start by talking about you a bit, your career as a journalist, move to Italy?
R: I moved to Italy when at the age of 19 I received a scholarship to study there. I started studying medicine then moved to journalism and became the first foreign journalist to read the evening news. I also worked in the media in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt,
Q: Tell me about some of your most memorable moments as a journalist
R: I began as an anchorwoman, reading news, then wanted something different so I developed my own TV show on politics and foreign affairs. In 2004, I interviewed Berlusconi about the terrorist attacks in Europe. He asked me what my position was. I answered: I am a media woman. If you want to make change, you need to send a wider message about the Iraq war. Obviously there is a connection. Send a wider message that you’re against the war. He said he was, but I said nobody knows it. You must publicize your position more widely. He listened to me. Came on my TV show, declared war to be a mistake, and said he’d tried to avoid it by attempting to convince Bush not to go to war. We sold the interview to 17 networks.
Another moment was while doing a program on the death penalty. I interviewed the governor of Texas and was able to prevail on him to stay the execution of a 17-year-old accomplice of murder and have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment instead.
Q: Let us talk about Miral. Was it your first experience in writing fiction?
R: Yes, it was my first fiction writing experience. Started in 2000 when there was hope and prospects for peace.
Q: There are significant autobiographical elements in the novel.
R: Everything is based on true facts, things that happened to me and friends and family. That’s how novels are written I think. Writers observe their world – as if it were an emotional mirror.
Q: There is an overriding theme that I noticed in the novel – a failure to protect, for example, Nadia or Fatima in the novel. For many of these women characters, society has failed them, not offered them protection. As a result there are willful, powerful women who take matters into their own hands as is clear with Hind and Miral.
R: Representation of different choices in Palestinian society. Each woman represents different options. It is the stratification of Palestinian society and how they react to the conflict with different choices. Hind opens an orphanage because it’s her perspective on life. Fatima turns to violence. Nadia represents the collapse of society, lack of choice. One kills herself, one kills others, Hind turns to love. Pulled in all directions, these different facets, ultimately the question becomes which will win in the end?
Q: The men in the novel are, well, there are some good men, Hany and Jamal and governor Anwar Khatib – but they are not as powerful as the women, or fully capable.
R: True. Less is more. Writing about Jamal who’s humble, strong and powerful through understanding and commitment to the woman he loves. How Western culture sees Muslim culture today as patriarchal and oppressive of women is completely different than how I lived it, what I witnessed. I found religious men dignified and honest. When Jamal tells Nadia how do you want our daughter to grow up, he knew she was self-destructive. But nonetheless loved her unconditionally, despite her fragilities, and was willing to have a daughter and share a life with her.
Q: The biological father of Miral who is a professor of literature, an accomplished worldly man, is absent from the novel.
J: Yes. Men in the book are not weak or marginal. But it is the women who are the major protagonists.
Q: There’s a very feminine quality to the book, in its sensuality.
R: These are the senses of my country; I describe the poetry of living in such a place. How can you see the poetry in a war zone? I decided to look for beauty in the world, in my life. Once you look for it, you keep seeing it. I write about small hopes. It changed my life and saved me. Everyone else writes about war and violence, stones and rockets. I write about flowers, hope and love.
Q: Something very nurturing about the book in spite of pain and catastrophe. Hopeful – small hopes are everywhere. How was it, transforming the novel into a script that is intended to meet visual ends?
R: It is more difficult to write life than to live it. Primarily it was my shared understanding with the director, Julian Schnobel, about how to present each character. In Miral, the film, visually everything is present. The visual aspects are meant to describe relationships, emotions, hate, anger and passion. We needed to gain sympathy of the audience with the characters’ experiences.
The visual transformation is the director’s role. He saw my story through my eyes. It is really moving to see a Jewish director understand my story, our similarities. More than anyone else, Israelis should understand our aspiration for freedom and to have a country and home, to preserve our identity.
Q: Did you feel that the camera accurately captured the complexity of the events?
R: Absolutely. I was present for each day of filming, and during preproduction. Julian was generous to include me in the process and invite my point of view. It’s very authentic as if a local person made it. It was shot in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Tunisia and Ramallah. And the audiences who have seen it are shocked by its authenticity. If the book has touched you, the film is very similar.
Q: What’s next?
R: Working on research for a novel.
Q: Writing in English or Italian?
R: Still deciding. I don’t know where the story will take me. I know the beginning and what will go into it overall. It is different from other novels – about the relationship between media and power. I have always written in Italian. Need to decide if I will write in English this time.
Q: So this is not autobiographical?
R: I was a journalist for 16 years, so of course there is some autobiographical element. Anchormen/women have a daily struggle with power because they tell the truth, against the interests of media owners, politicians, and so on. Our main problem today is that there’s no free media. We’re overloaded with information that confuses public opinion. That’s why no one dared to tell governments anything different or oppositional about the Iraq war, that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Questioning came two years after the war. Why didn’t anyone question earlier? How often does this happen in less high profile issues?
Q: You won an award for your Iraq reporting. What’s your analysis of how the media played along with the war?
R: If you protested the war, you were called a terrorist. I was one of a few journalists in Europe who spoke out. My only agenda was to tell the truth. I didn’t care much about what I was accused of. I was recognized for it two years later by people who came to understand the tragedy of the war and loss of life whether Iraqi civilians or others. I got an award but would rather have avoided the war than won an award. You know, I was born in Haifa, lived in an orphanage from 5 to 19 and I have come to understand that only humans are capable of making a difference, good or bad.
Q: Do you go back?
R: Every year. I love my country. The orphanage where I grew up is still there, still a place of hope for many orphans, especially girls.