Interview with Anisa Mehdi

Reflections on the journey and the road ahead

By Yollette Merritt
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Anisa Mehdi, Keynote Speaker CSUMB International Week, Nov 13, 2018.

Anisa Mehdi – award-winning journalist, film producer, educator and international champion of civil rights – is the keynote speaker at California State University, Monterey Bay’s (CSUMB) International Education Week on Nov. 13, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. in the Alumni & Visitors Center.

International by birth, educated at Wellesley College and Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a Fulbright Scholar, Emmy award-winning film reporter, producer and director for National Geographic, Public Broadcasting Corporation, ABC and CBS News, college professor, accomplished musician, multilingual speaker, and president and executive director of an international non-profit, Mehdi is the first American broadcaster to cover the Hajj pilgrimage from Mecca. As executive director of The Abraham Path Initiative – a cultural and educational organization born at Harvard University that promotes the success and viability of cultural heritage and unlikely encounters along Abraham’s ancient route through the modern Middle East – Mehdi is using her training and expertise to build bridges. “Anisa offers… a unique perspective from a lifetime championing conflict resolution and understanding in the Middle East,” said Stratfor Editor-in-Chief David Judson. “The scope of her work on both the region and Muslim cultures continues to build bridges and raise awareness of how those issues shape global politics.” Mehdi has a wealth of experience and insights to share, a small sampling reflected in the following Q & A in advance of her upcoming visit to CSUMB.

We will find that no matter what divides us, what we have in common, what unites us, is far greater.

The Lutrinae: What title do you give yourself or would like to have noted?

Mehdi: My title is President and Executive Director of Abraham Path Initiative.

The Abraham Path Initiative (API) promotes walking in the Middle East as a tool for deepening understanding, experiencing cultures, and fostering friendships across challenging divides. API shines a light on the tradition of hospitality in this region, emphasizing how people welcome strangers in honor of Abraham/Ibrahim, the spiritual ancestor of over half of humanity. For 10 years API seeded walking trails in the region; now we stimulate improvement and extension of locally owned national walking trails to encourage job growth and economic development in an expanding tourism sector. API is an international nonprofit that works with local partners to achieve shared goals; the organization is non-religious and non-political. We envision the simple act of walking as a way for people from around the world to connect, and as a creative space for stories that highlight the unique culture, heritage and hospitality of the region. The Abraham Path Initiative invests in projects that shed light on the kindness and hospitality of the people in the Middle East by supporting trail development, storytelling, job creation and experiential tourism.

Of all professional choices – why journalism, why film?
I want to convey important stories about people whose voices are not often heard. It’s terrific to share those stories with their faces and lives seen and heard first hand. Plus I love to travel and learn.

What are three products of your professional life you are most proud of?
National Geographic’s “Inside Mecca” that will be screened at CSUMB on Nov. 13, my columns on Stratfor.com and my collection of commentaries on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Who are the most influential individuals who have impacted your professional work and career and what was the impact?
My father, the late Dr Mohammad T Mehdi, champion of Palestinian rights dating back to the 1960s. He was relentless and courageous as the first outspoken Arab American on this subject. Maurice Mirad, my mentor and the producer for whom I worked at CBS News. William Ury, founder of Abraham Path Initiative for his commitment to resolving conflict through listening and mediation.

Are you generally optimistic for the future? Of the U.S.? Of the Middle East?
I am optimistic. All conflicts end some day. Unfortunately, other conflicts always seem to emerge.

Are you still teaching at Seton Hall, a private Catholic University, and if so, what courses and why?
I taught documentary film genre studies for 10 years and loved the experience.

What call to action, what challenge would you give students at CSUMB interested in contributing to a change for the better in our local, national, and international communities?
I would start with the encouragement to say “hello” to the people encountered.

Looking ahead to your visit to the CSUMB campus, what would you like to have accomplished in speaking to the students, faculty, staff and guests?
In our current sociopolitical atmosphere, it seems to me that fear is being encouraged. I would like to discourage fear.

How?
Again, by saying hello to the person sitting next to one, and discovering a person – someone who get hungry, likes to study and who wants to travel – maybe both like to watch Star Trek, or perhaps the movie Black Panther. We will find that no matter what divides us, what we have in common, what unites us, is far greater. I think we have lost some of the confidence we used to have about introducing ourselves to one another. As a professor when I was teaching, it was important that my students introduced themselves to one another and got to know one another and at times, did projects together, especially with those they didn’t already know. At the university, there are opportunities to get to know others by participating in clubs or playing in an orchestra or going to arts performances. Music and the arts have an important role in life as it helps to develops non-verbal communication skills. And it is good to slow down so we can connect with others. One thing I love about walking is that it slows you down, and it is easier to appreciate the surroundings and stop to smell the roses. It is important to challenge ourselves if we want to make a difference. Look at little children – they smile, they wave at everyone, they giggle, they make eye contact. As we grow older, we learn to change.

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