By Mariane Pearl

23 December 2013 - 12:23

'Hands across the divide’ sculpture in Derry~Londonderry. Photo (c) Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau, used with permission.
'Hands across the divide’ sculpture in Derry~Londonderry. Photo ©

Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau, used with permission.

Mariane Pearl was five months pregnant when her husband, the US journalist Daniel Pearl, was captured and beheaded by a militant Islamic fundamentalist group in February 2002. She is best known for her related memoir 'A Mighty Heart', which was made into an award-winning film.

In November 2013, Mariane was interviewed by Mike Patterson of BBC Radio Foyle during the Teaching Divided Histories conference in Derry~Londonderry, the UK's inaugural City of Culture 2013. As the city celebrates the end of a successful year, we are sharing this interview below.

Mariane Pearl: When all of this happened, I decided to share my experience early on, because I feel that, in history and the way we convey events in the media particularly, we take a lot of shortcuts and there are a lot of mistakes. It’s going to be very difficult to win any conflict if we don’t connect people to people. I could sit with someone who’s gone through a lot here in Northern Ireland and there’s much we probably have in common, even though the circumstances of our lives are very, very different. There’s a lot we can share, and there’s a lot we can learn from each other, and I think doing so gives back power to people to own their story.

Mark Patterson: So you find common ground here. I’m intrigued how someone who has been on the receiving end like you and your family is interested in the other side, the divided history. Have you any time for the aggressors, the guys who harmed you?

Yes. I mean, I have complex feelings, but being a journalist and having gone into the aggressors' territory and having talked to them and knowing a lot about their circumstances helps a lot, because the people who killed Danny are individuals, right? At the same time, I have no pity for them because I think they knew what they were doing, and whatever label you are, if you’re an extremist, you’re an extremist. But on the other hand, if I hadn’t been to these countries, if I wasn’t a journalist, I probably would have much more hatred right now because I would be unable to understand.

What happened to Danny is absolutely horrible and the people who have done it are absolutely horrible. They’re the same people who did the attack on the Twin Towers. They're terrorists, that’s what they do. That’s what they are. Now, judging an entire people, because that’s what you’re talking about... Do I hate Pakistanis, do I hate Muslims? No, I don’t. Why would I? If you hurt me, Mark, on a personal level, am I going to hate the whole Irish people? No. And so that’s power, because the act of killing Danny is meant to provoke hatred, but I resist it. I’m not saying that I don’t fight anger on a regular basis, but my only claim to freedom is to not be manipulated.

So you’re on the other side of revenge.

In some ways - with all the self-control in the world that that entails. I'm not a saint, but I understood early on what intentions they had when they killed Danny, and that they didn’t care about him specifically. What they wanted to affect was the American people, Jewish people, journalists, everyone who could relate to him. So the only thing you can do in response is to say that you can’t claim my feelings, my heart, my sentiment or what I’m going to do with my life.

On reflection, was it wise for him as a professional journalist to find himself in that environment?

I think at the time he was fine, because there was an unspoken understanding that journalists were a neutral party. So that’s something that we all relied on, all the journalists who were in the zone. I was in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, when the war in Afghanistan started and we were maybe 300-400 journalists from every denomination. After Danny was killed, things changed for the journalists and everyone started receiving war and kidnapping training. We’d lost that impunity or that protection that comes with being a neutral party. 'You don’t shoot the messenger': that was over.

Terrible stuff has happened here too. As you leave the city today, how will you reflect on our situation, having been here and engaged with people here? What are your thoughts?

My thoughts are complex, because I look around and I look at people and, again, it’s that frustration about the way we deal with our world. Everyone is still talking a lot about post-conflict, but people are still caught in that story without the attention of the world right now because there’s no fighting.

I feel like it’s a big challenge because war is only half the story. And when the fighting ceases, you have to rebuild and that’s the hardest part. In a way, peace is much harder than war, right? And the challenge is huge because – the way I feel – the challenge is hope. The struggle that I have with myself is extreme, because one side is a despair of living in that kind of world that a man who is innocent could have been killed that way and that those things happen to us, but I match it with a bigger hope that there is a way to get out of this, as well as a vision of the world that I represent, which is multicultural, which is together. It's the opposite of what Al Qaeda represents, which is a clash between civilisations. You have to fight that, and I can only do what I can. I’m just an individual, but I do it.

The conference was presented by the Nerve Centre and the British Council, two of the partner organisations behind the Teaching Divided Histories project. The project itself will run over three years and introduce new approaches to the study of conflict into the school curriculum in both Northern Ireland and internationally.

This interview was conducted on 19 November 2013 and appears here in edited form.

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