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Feb / Mar 2013
Shaking things Up

Writer: Raya Jalabi

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin walked into the Manhattan coffee shop we’d planned to meet in with a frenzied confidence. He was fiddling with his iPhone and his hat, his bag and his jacket, as he tried to figure out if he wanted tea or coffee. Or tea. Or coffee. 

A few minutes into our conversation, it becomes clear that these physical hyperactivities mirror the pace at which his mind travels, a pace which occasionally pushes him to the boundaries of coherency but mostly allows him to function successfully within the chaotic industry he’s chosen for himself. “I have a tendency to ramble,” he says, as he sips the latte he finally settled on. “I think it’s because I have ADHD.”

Whilst it’s true that he’s as frenetic as the city he’s chosen to live in, he also exudes a peculiar togetherness – a rather atypical combination of contrasting things. Indeed, Shihab-Eldin is anything but typical. He’s an award-winning Arab journalist, currently working for The Huffington Post and he was recently named one of Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30 in Media. Did we mention he’s only 29?

Shihab-Eldin has a fairly unique confluence of national backgrounds, something he refers to as his “schizophrenic identity”. He was born in Berkeley, California, the son of two Palestinians; one, a nuclear scientist-come-diplomat and the other, an artist. Both of his parents are originally Palestinian, but have long been Kuwaiti citizens.

“I was fortunate enough to grow up in a lot of different cultures,” he says. On his own Twitter bio, he describes himself as ‘Palestinian by blood, American by birth, Kuwaiti by family refuge, Egyptian by upbringing and Austrian by adolescence.’

“To be honest, I do sometimes feel this schizophrenic pull but I actually think this helps me as a journalist,” he says. “I’ve always not really had a home or an identity. The nomadic lifestyle? Nothing beats that kind of training.” This might also explain why Shihab-Eldin has lived in over 24 different apartments in the three years he’s been in New York.

“If I had to prioritise how I identify myself, I think I’d define myself invariably and inevitably as Arab,” he continues. This emphasis on his Arab identity is perhaps a marker of his years spent in America. Shihab-Eldin moved to America at a politically contentious time, less than a year after 9/11. He came to study at Boston University, eventually earning a Bachelor’s degree in Communications and a Masters’ degree in Journalism from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism a year later, where he  now moonlights as an adjunct professor.

“The clinging to this Arab identity [came from] how demonised Arab culture and language and even Islam was. I’ve always found comfort in the fact that I was an Arab. But I also knew there was a certain responsibility to being an Arab in America post-9/11.” 

This responsibility is keenly felt in his work. “Journalism, for me, has always been about human rights and the real collective struggle that is happening across the world. And I feel I am in a position to cover that struggle, particularly across the Arab region.”

His first accolade came in the form of a Webby Award (the internet’s Oscars) for a digital media project produced for his Master’s thesis entitled ‘Defining Middle Ground: The Next Generation of Muslim New Yorkers’. From there, he went from prestigious job to prestigious job, working for PBS, The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and now the Huffington Post, always emphasising and attempting to cover Arab-related and Middle Eastern news.

Shihab-Eldin’s star has been steadily on the rise for the past few years. He first came to international prominence as the host of Al Jazeera English’s ‘The Stream,’ a daily programme about social media that he founded and produced, which garnered an Emmy nomination in 2012 for its coverage of the Arab revolutions.

“The Stream was sort of a dream come true for me,” he says. “I got to combine my two passions: storytelling and social media and broadcast it live to over 220 million homes around the world.”

‘The Stream’ was cutting edge when it was first launched. Al Jazeera English was the first network to propel social media to the forefront of live news coverage, with Shihab-Eldin using it actively to monitor his stories. Nowhere did this prove more useful than when covering the revolutions tearing across the Middle East in 2011.

Perhaps this is where Shihab-Eldin’s frenetic nature comes in handy. His self-professed ADHD could explain how he always remains ahead of the curve on all things technological in the media. His foresight has even allowed him to become the go-to personality to talk about democratisation of the media in the Arab world, at various high-profile conferences around the world, including the Google Zeitgeist Conference in 2011.

It was there that Shihab-Eldin was spotted by Arianna Huffington, the Greek-American founder and namesake of the Huffington Post. Impressed, she got him to leave Al Jazeera to come and work on a startup venture at The Huffington Post. This collaboration resulted in HuffPost Live, the innovative video-streaming network hosted by the Huffington Post, where he is once again a host-producer.

“When I was at Al Jazeera English, whether this was actually true or not, I felt like I was speaking to the world I came from. And as an Arab American, after 9/11, I felt there was a real ignorance in America, especially when it came to the Arab world. So I really wanted to change how Americans consumed media. HuffPost provided me with this opportunity to be part of a new cutting-edge product that would be truly inclusive and global but also very much grounded in U.S. news and I feel incredibly lucky to be part of it.”

Shihab-Eldin was HuffPost Live’s first-ever hire and, he concedes, a risky move for them. “I am Palestinian after all and I have strong views on the Arab world.” But it would seem that this ‘riskiness’ hasn’t prevented HuffPost Live from moving towards the mainstream. It has been described as “the future of journalism” though whether this will actually be the case remains to be seen. All that seems certain now is that he has once again been involved in something innovative. Like his penchant for changing address, shaking up journalism may one day be the trait for which Ahmad Shihab-Eldin becomes best known.

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