Thursday, April 22, 2010

35 Years of Arab News — Reflecting the Times With Accuracy, Vision

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News 35th Anniversary Supplement (April 20, 2010)

In 1975, when the Green Truth was launched, the Muslim world was seething with anger against the United States. This anger reached its crescendo four years later in 1979 when deviants, a term that was not in vogue then, seized the Grand Mosque and created havoc. Those were not the days of cell phones and the Internet; therefore, people believed rumors. People had heard of Juhayman, the leader of the deviants, but they believed that he was an American agent. The Muslim world from Pakistan to Indonesia was on fire. The sentiment was heavily loaded against the Americans. There were protests in front of American embassies across the Muslim world. All these were recorded in the pages of Arab News during its first four years. Of course, there was not much independent coverage of the siege of Makkah. Information was difficult to come by, and government agencies were very leery of sharing information with the media. This was evident from the stories that we carried in those days about the siege.

As it turned out, all those responsible for the carnage in Makkah were local fanatics who had twisted the ideology of Islam to achieve their own aims. The year 1979 was also when Iran was undergoing cataclysmic changes. The overthrow of the Shah further increased anti-American sentiment in the region. The editorials of those days did talk about the dangers of anti-Americanism, but the Arab street was by and large convinced that America was out to destroy the Muslim world.

However, as we go through the pages of the newspaper from the mid-1980s, one notes a perceptible shift in the mood of the people. The anti-American clouds had by and large cleared. The focus was firmly on the Soviets who were eying Muslim countries. Afghanistan had become the USSR's target, and Arab News' pages were filled with the Russian atrocities in Kabul and the Panjsher Valley. The stark black-and-white photos gave a complete picture of what was happening there. In Pakistan, Gen. Ziaul Haq had firmly taken the country into the American fold. Most Muslim countries were now arrayed against the now-defunct communist Soviet Union. Pakistan became a front-line state. The United States was now the Muslim world's chief ally. Money and arms and fighters flowed into Pakistan. Zia became a hero, and so did President Ronald Reagan. The Arab News front pages bear testimony to what seemed like an unshakable alliance. The back pages of Arab News also had stories about Rambo movies with Afghan themes.

In the mid-1980s Haj reporting was not noteworthy, but one group which found a special place in Arab News pages were the Afghans. Young Saudis who came back from the battlefront told their stories of heroics in combat, and they were prominently featured in Arab News pages. There was euphoria, and it was obvious from the letters to the editor. The end of Communism was being predicted and seemed a near certainty. The inside pages or the international pages had pictures of proud Afghans on the battlefield with American Stinger missiles on their shoulders. When victory came in Afghanistan, there were cheers in the Muslim world. "Kabul has fallen, and so too will Communism," wrote a letter writer.

The victory in Kabul was the high point of American-Muslim ties. But then Zia was assassinated and the Mujahedeen fighters who played a key role in ending the Cold War fell upon each other. Soon Afghanistan was in ruins, and then the tone of Arab News also became glum. There were appeals in the newspaper from various visiting delegates and government ministers to intervene in Afghanistan and to bring about a compromise between the warlords. All of them were invited to Makkah, and all of them signed a peace treaty; however, that treaty was consigned to the dustbin the moment they landed in Peshawar and resumed bitter combat in Afghan cities and villages. The United States, having achieved its objective of dealing a mortal blow to the Communist Soviet Union, left Afghanistan in shambles and never bothered to look back. It was about this time that the late Kahil was at his sarcastic best. His cartoons captured the essence of what was happening. The editorials struck a very somber note and did warn of what was to come.

And then Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait. The Gulf was on fire. There was uncertainty. The newspapers of that period are full of anxious expatriates streaming out of Kuwait and heading home. There were stories of gas masks being supplied. There was a fear of Saddam using poison gas. The Muslim world, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a massive diplomatic offensive to make Saddam see reason. He wouldn't. His men plundered Kuwait and were issuing inflammatory statements. All these were very ably and aptly covered by Arab News. In the end, the military option remained the only way to liberate Kuwait. An international force led by the US military gathered in Saudi Arabia, and Saddam and his men were driven out of Kuwait. Kuwait was destroyed, and parts of Saudi Arabia weathered Scud-missile attacks. This was the time when Arab News under Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena became the voice of the Muslim world. Arab News stories were regularly quoted by the world media, and the front pages were regularly quoted on world television in prime time. The coverage was impeccable, and almost everybody who visited Saudi Arabia in those days took home a copy of the Green Truth as a souvenir.

Unbeknown to the journalists, there was something rumbling under the desert. The arrival of Americans in Saudi Arabia did not go down well with a tiny group of conservative Muslims, and they used it to create fissures in society. It was this that led to some angry individuals to plot against the United States, and lawless Afghanistan became a refuge for these disgruntled elements. This anger of this tiny minority resulted in Sept. 11, 2001. And then the world was divided into Muslim and non-Muslim. Arab News played its part in trying to bridge the gap but there were fanatics on both sides. And they fed each other.

After 9/11, Arab News pages display a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose about halting the bloodshed. Almaeena, James Zogby, Michael Saba and Robert Fisk were writing on the Opinion and Op-Ed pages about the disastrous consequences of the so-called war on terrorism. "It cannot be fought only militarily," they were suggesting and were denouncing the collective punishment of Muslims. On Sept. 12, 2001 as Arab News condemned the atrocity in the strongest possible words, it expressed full sympathy for the Americans. Writing from Boston, Almaeena wrote a most memorable piece about how the 9/11 bombers had killed humanity by their act.

That widespread sympathy for America and Americans was to dissipate as George W. Bush launched a series of ill-timed and ill-thought out measures. America was again the most hated country, not just by Muslims but by all justice-loving people in the world. One only needs to go through the editorial and Op-Ed pages of Arab News to understand what the people in the Muslim world were going through. The Iraq War only hardened Muslim sentiments against America. While there was little sympathy for Saddam Hussein, the massive killing of Iraqis fueled unprecedented anger in the Muslim world. The coverage of the Iraq War in Arab News shows that to the fullest.

Arab News — a Voice for the Muslim World

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News 35th Anniversary Supplement (April 20, 2010)

In its 35 years of relentless and proactive journalism,
Arab News has distinguished itself from other newspapers in the region by highlighting issues of concern to the Muslim world. The reason for this was simple. Saudi Arabia is the land of the two holy mosques and the cradle of Islam. The one billion followers of this faith look for direction from the leadership of this holy land. The word of the custodian of the two holy mosques is received with respect, admiration and attention.

In the history of the contemporary Muslim world, 1967 is remembered as a catastrophic year. It was in this year that the Muslim world suffered unimaginable convulsions because of Israel taking control of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

That Muslim defeat led to a rethinking. The idea was to rise from the ashes of defeat. Among the many leaders who were deeply distressed by the turn of events was King Faisal. As custodian of the two holy mosques, the Muslim world was naturally looking to him for direction. That momentous decision came in 1969 with the formation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Arab News was still six years away from being born. There was not a single Saudi newspaper in English to chronicle the events of those tumultuous years.

However, among the local and international stories concerning the Muslim nation that appeared in the first five years of Arab News’ existence were stories about pan-Islamism and the activities of the OIC. There were many expectations from the organization. Its extraordinary summits in Arab capitals and in Makkah received widespread coverage on the pages of Arab News. Editorial comments of those years bear testimony to the newspaper’s unwavering support to all causes Muslim and to the OIC in particular.

As years passed and Iraq and Iran fell upon each other, the unity that later was to become the hallmark of the Muslim Ummah became a mirage. Euphoria turned to depression, and the headlines were an indicator of what was happening. In the 1990s, OIC became the brunt of many jokes. It was reduced to an exclamation. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called it, “Oh I see!” Nobody took the organization seriously. Its press releases and statements found their way into the pages of Arab News occasionally. It mostly appeared on days when there appeared to be a severe shortage of news.

To make matters worse, the OIC leadership itself had little interest in getting the word out. Its secretaries-general were diplomats who saw their appointments as a last stop before retirement. They never entertained the media; they were bureaucrats first and last, and as most bureaucrats they held media persons in contempt. So much so that one OIC secretary-general in the 1990s ordered his media department to keep away from journalists and not to share stories with them.

During the summits that took place in the decades leading up to 2000, OIC coverage in Arab News was confined to what was released by the Saudi Press Agency. In fact, some important stories about OIC, which has always been headquartered in Jeddah, were datelined Cairo, Rabat or Khartoum.

The scenario changed dramatically with the arrival in Jeddah of Turkish historian and academic
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. A man who had his fingers on the pulse of the Ummah, he understood the importance of Arab News and the English media and most importantly our online edition. He realized how important it was for the OIC to convey its message in English for a global audience. Arab News has had the good fortune of receiving his comments and notes even while he was at the most important of meetings.

He created a media department that focused exclusively on the English media. This was the time that Arab News carried important stories and seminal changes about the OIC. The exclamation mark was gone. People were still cynical about the organization, but they no longer ignored the organization. Western leaders made it a point to visit OIC headquarters in Jeddah and to explain their points of view. Press conferences with world leaders were held at the OIC headquarters, something that was unthinkable. Ihsanoglu actually encouraged media people to ask tough questions.

Arab News was at the forefront of chronicling those changes. Among the most important OIC stories that got front-page play was the organization’s initiative to bring Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites together for a larger cause. This summit was held in Makkah with the Holy Kaaba as a backdrop. Before these meetings was OIC’s relentless but peaceful campaign against Islamophobia in the West. The Danish cartoons that denigrated Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) became the most important issue for the Muslim world. For Denmark, it was merely a freedom-of-expression issue; for Muslims it became a life-and-death issue. Many Muslims were outraged beyond words. Both sides remained firm in their positions.
OIC demanded an unqualified apology, and this was on the front page of Arab News. It was then picked up by all Western news agencies. The Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons in the first place started contacting Arab News. It became a global reaction of Muslims.

In his meetings with Arab News Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena, the OIC chief acknowledged the immense importance that Arab News held on the world-media scene. Three weeks later, Javier Solana, key Western leader, came calling on the OIC secretary-general and explained his point of view. Arab News dutifully gave prominent space to Solana’s statements in which he explained the European governments’ difficulties in bringing the newspapers under government control. Of course, as an Arab News editorial of those days points out, nobody wanted European governments to take control of their newspapers. Muslims only wanted the newspapers to understand that freedom of expression should come with responsibility.

Over the years Arab News has played a key role in highlighting issues concerning the Muslim world with a sense of purpose. Arab News is conscious of the fact that it is read and is seen by a large number of the people, Muslims and non-Muslims, as a voice for the Muslim world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Extraordinary Story of Mohannad Jibreel Abudayyah

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Saturday, November 14, 2009

Despite the loss of a leg and his sight, nothing deters young inventor Mohannad Jibreel Abudayyah from pressing on. The 22-year-old space engineering student at Dhahran’s King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) continues his quest for knowledge and applies his almost limitless imagination to create practical solutions for everyday problems.

As a youngster, his passion was to take apart electronic toys so that he could understand how they worked. “I was notorious for unraveling all toys — so much so that there was a word in the extended family that I should not be allowed to touch anybody’s toys. Whenever I was around, my cousins and elders would prompt others to hide all their toys. ‘He is coming; remove all the toys,’ they would say,” Abudayyah told Arab News during a recent interview. “My idea was not to break toys per se — I wanted to understand the technology behind them. I would unscrew them and would try to put them back together, sometimes unsuccessfully.”

Something that held his fascination for a long time was the transistor. “I would look at it and wonder for hours how it worked. Such was my passion for understanding the mechanics behind it that I saved every halala that I got as pocket money during my childhood days in Jeddah. When I had enough money, I went out and bought a radio. The idea was to open it and to see what went into that small machine, how it worked, how it managed to bring all those sounds from across the globe into my room? I remember asking a cousin: ‘How does this work?’ He took the new radio and pointed at the on-off button. ‘Just press this one, and it will work ... it is that simple,’ he told me. ‘No, not that. I mean how does it work?’ He excused himself saying he didn’t know and that he didn’t care. ‘In fact,’ he told me, ‘no Saudi will be able to help you. Only the Japanese know all that stuff,’” Abudayyah said.

He recalls vividly that conversation of years ago. “I told my cousin, ‘Why do only the Japanese know? Why do we not know?’ My cousin was plainly irritated by my persistent inquiries. ‘We lead a good life. God has given us the money to buy all the technology in the world. They make; we buy. This is what I call a good life. Alhamdulillah.’ I told him he was wrong. ‘Those who are making the technology have a good life. What if they were not there to invent all these things? What use is our money then?’ I asked my cousin. He couldn’t take it any longer and went away, leaving the conversation in the middle of nowhere.”

To make matters worse, there were no books to guide Abudayyah. “I would spend all my time just thinking about technology. What makes the refrigerator work? How does that clock sound an alarm exactly at the hour it is set to? What technology is at work bringing those images live to our television screen? How does that airplane glide in the sky? They were all simple questions. But nobody had the answer,” he said. “People would get irritated by my questions. When I got no answers from my parents and cousins and friends and uncles and aunts, I decided to search for answers in books. Those were not the days of Google and Wikipedia. Unfortunately, there were no books on science and technology in Arabic, or maybe they were there but not available in Saudi Arabia. I decided to take the time-tested trial-and-error route. I removed one part and then another and used different permutations and combinations till I succeeded in getting the radio circuit right. Since then I have dreamed of nothing else but to be an inventor — to make a qualitative difference in the lives of people through my inventions.”

Abudayyah once convinced his brother to hand over his car to him for certain experiments. “You will not believe it, I told my brother, ‘Give me your car, and I will turn it into an airplane.’ My poor brother — he agreed. The end product was neither a car nor an airplane. It was a piece of junk. That only confirmed the worst idea about me: Mohannad simply destroys things.”

Over the years he has succeeded in turning ordinary toys into useful items. “You must have seen those chimpanzee toys hanging in corner shops. You just clap close to the soft toy and the chimpanzee starts clapping. It is available for SR50. What I did was to use that technology for a different purpose. I made a coffee-and-tea-vending machine. One clap and the machine pours hot coffee; two claps you get a hot cup of tea. It is very simple but interesting. So I am into modifying simple technology to suit our needs,” he said. “I have created or invented many such useful gadgets.”

Beyond the novel inventions of his youth, Abudayyah now is developing new type of deep-diving submarine with a university research grant. “A prototype is ready. I have conducted experiments in the lab in a simulated environment. This involved a lot of money. Initially I used my own money, and then KFUPM helped me. I am using the university lab. I am working out of the university budget. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has complimented me on my work. When I met him in Jeddah sometime back I was delighted beyond words. The king’s words still ring in my ears: ‘You are the Kingdom’s pride.’”

Abudayyah lost his eyesight and one leg in a freak road accident a year ago. “I had a flat tire and was trying to fix it. I had parked my car far off the road but a young, guy slammed into my stationary car. I was fixing the front tire. The whole vehicle fell on top of me. I went unconscious. What happened was I was taken by ambulance to an ill-equipped hospital. There, they wanted permission to operate on me — and they needed the money before they did anything. My father was in the United States at the time, and I was unconscious. They just amputated my leg rather than repairing it. When I woke up several days later, I realized I had not only lost my leg but my eyesight too.”

His whole life changed after the accident, but the passion to invent only got more insistent. “Now I was conscious of the needs of the people with visual impairments. I enrolled at KFUPM and started studying space engineering,” he said.

Abdulrazzak Al-Turki, who suffers from visual problems and who is a successful businessman, has been a mentor to Abudayyah. “He will be the first space engineer with visual impairment,” Al-Turki told Arab News. “I see myself in him. This accident and tragedy has only strengthened his resolve to do better. He has huge potential, and I would urge businesspeople to come forward and help such exceptional young men in realizing their dreams. Corporate houses have a duty toward society. He is a role model for youngsters, and his success will spur a whole new generation of young Saudis.”

Since his accident, Abudayyah has delivered 100 lectures, telling young inventors how to get started and how to keep going in the face of adversity. “I have trained more than 600 people in the process of invention, and I have taught more than 300 engineers and students how to become professional inventors,” he said. “I have got certificates from Europe, and I am doing a book on how to be an inventor. Nothing is impossible in this world. You just require determination to pursue your passion.”

Abudayyah praised Al-Zamil Group and the South Rub Al-Khali Company (SRAK) for their generous monetary assistance to his projects. He thanks his professors and especially KFUPM Rector Dr. Khaled S. Al-Sultan. “He helped me lot and if it were not for him and other professors, I would not be at this university.”

Khaled Almaeena — the Man Behind the Green Truth

By Siraj Wahab

Arab News turns 35 on Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A newspaper literally consists of ink and paper; the inks come from dyes and the paper from wood pulp. If a newspaper comes alive for its readers and becomes a trusted friend, it is because there is an editor who understands how to breathe life into it and make it a living, vibrant thing. In my years at Arab News, I have heard many times from many different readers that Arab News is such a creature — more than ink and paper — a trusted friend. We can all thank Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena for bringing Arab News to life. He is a tireless champion for the truth and for Saudi Arabia, a tolerant man who preaches tolerance and loves to debate those with opposing views, a friend to both the poor and the powerful, but, first and foremost, a newspaperman.

To him, each reader is more than a valued customer; each reader is a one-man or one-woman opinion poll, and each reader will get the best possible newspaper seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. His is a tough job that requires a mix of a passion for good writing and photography and a quest for perfection — all for each and every reader of Arab News. He is unsparing in his criticism of editors who commit mistakes and let typos in. Everybody dreads it when he is poring over the pages at 10:30 p.m., not too long before press time.

“His eyes take him straight to the mistake,” rues one senior editor. His command of Urdu stands him in good stead when he is unleashing those four-letter words at the Subcontinentalwallahs who “write in pidgin English and commit horrible mistakes.”

The other thing that is like a red flag to him is bland headlines.

“Don’t write so-and-so visits such and such place... Give me a quote in the headline,” he screams and yells depending on what mood he is in on a particular night. He is a hands-on editor in chief. His is an open-door policy. You can just barge into his room and discuss anything, but he doesn’t suffer fools lightly; though, he has never mustered the courage to say no to anybody. And he always treats his readers as kings. He has never left a reader’s e-mail unanswered, and quite often you will see him picking up a phone to call an odd reader to know about his or her opinion about the newspaper.

On many occasions when he liked a particular article from foreign publications, he will immediately write to them if the e-mail address of the author is available. He loves interaction and is always open to suggestions. He is particularly fascinated by young writers and personally ensures that their stories are there in the newspaper.

For him, Arab News is a passion. He lives it. He breathes it. And he gets mad when anyone messes with it. If you have been an editor in chief for more than 25 years of a newspaper that turns 35 on April 20, 2010, what else could you expect?

Know the Competition

On Jan. 8, 2004, a cool Thursday afternoon, Arab News staffers were greeted with an important e-mail from their editor in chief. It contained a 33-page article titled “The Kingdom of Silence.” On top in a bold font was written: “Interesting and a must-read. — KA.” The word “MUST” was in all capitals for emphasis. Nearly 30,000 words later the editors indeed found it to be a very interesting article written by Lawrence Wright for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. The article dealt with Wright’s three-month experience in early 2003 at our immediate English-language competitor, The Saudi Gazette, where he was hired to train young Saudi reporters.

The job offered him a way of getting into the Kingdom after more than a year of, what he described as, “fruitless attempts to get a visa as a journalist.” Wright described in delightful details about the inner workings of an organization that we take on, day-in and day-out in thousands of newsstands spread across the Kingdom. It gave the editors a valuable insight into how Arab News was being perceived in the opposition camp. This was always a mystery to the editors, and Wright was unraveling it for them.

Later that evening, Almaeena acknowledged The Saudi Gazette is a good newspaper. “Don’t underestimate the competition,” he told his staff. “I want you to know full well who you are dealing with. Wright has given us good clues. This will help us build on the empirical data that we have on our competitor. Newspapers are a 24/7 ball game and a little complacency can prove disastrous,” he said with an air of firm authority.

The next day on the bulletin board, he wrote with his favorite blue marker and in his inimitable long hand: “Let’s push the opposition to No. 3.” The message from the head honcho was clear: We just can’t lower our guard. The leader has to guard the reader.

‘The Green Truth’

He loves corporate battles. And when he is battling for Arab News — “the Green Truth,” as he calls it — he is at his warrior best.

When he came back to Arab News on March 1, 1998, for his second stint as the editor in chief of the newspaper, he had made his intentions loud and clear.

“You will see many changes in the newspaper in the next few years,” he wrote in the front-page editorial that became the guiding light for the new millennium. “There are new parameters of relevance needed, new influences on our lives to be addressed. As readership interests shift, and loyalties fluctuate even faster, we need new tools to track and respond. The print media could very well be one of the losers in the next century if it doesn’t respond to this challenge. It is, therefore, clear to all of us at Arab News: Get with it or get out of it.” That set the tone for his second inning.

If his enduring legacy in the first tenure (1982-1993) was the introduction or expansion of the Letters to the Editor column, his second term will go down in the annals of Arab News history as a period of Glasnost and Perestroika — a period in which he introduced to Arab News readers a combination of brilliant young and old, men and women, Saudi and Arab writers and columnists who discussed issues that were only a few years ago considered taboo.

Bridging the Gap

“In the chaotic world of post-Sept. 11, everything had turned upside down,” he said. “There was ignorance all around. Arab News found itself in a unique position to counter the attack on Islam with a series of brilliant essays by some of the top Saudi writers. We threw our doors open to our counterparts from the United States and all the Western countries. At times, the Arab News newsroom resembled one big railway platform where people alighted and boarded trains at the same time.” He himself wrote extensively in his bid to bridge the gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States. “I love batting for my country,” he would repeat ad nauseam.

Tackling Terrorism

“We all need to get rid of this scourge of terrorism,” Almaeena wrote in one celebrated article. As “we stood together in the fight against Communism and the fight against Saddam’s naked aggression, we need to stand together in this fight against terrorism. The worst thing about terrorism is that you don’t see the enemy: He is invisible. That makes the fight against terror all the more difficult. We need all our wits about us; we need every help we can get. This requires patience and understanding; tanks and machine guns are important but so is the marshaling of human resources against this menace. As somebody rightly pointed out, with extremism, radicalization, terrorism and militancy — as with the Death Star — you have to get straight to the core. And the core is not killing or arresting those terrorists. They are just the leaves on the tree. The core is the hearts and minds of the people of the Muslim world.”

When we were being blasted with hate mail, he immediately set up a task force to reply to those e-mails and to try to convince those people against abusing Islam and Muslims. He himself engaged them in dialogue and, on many occasions, won their hearts with his logic and reason.

Subcontinent Ties

He is also passionate about India and Pakistan, and this is reflected in the newspaper. This passion may be because of his education in India and Pakistan in his early years. When something goes wrong in those two countries, he picks up the pen immediately. In this day and age he still writes in long hand. And he loves cricket. When the two archrivals decided to resume cricketing ties in 2004, he sent our seniormost editor, L. Ramnarayan, to cover the matches in Pakistan. Ram’s selection was not without reason. Ram became the first non-Muslim to represent a Saudi newspaper in Pakistan. That was a coup of sorts and created quite a flutter.

“The idea was to promote ties between the two countries. There was no one better than Ram to do justice to the cricket series,” he recalled later. And Ram lived up to his reputation as a delectable sports writer. His diaries became a rage, and he came back with great memories of Lahore and Multan and Islamabad.

The Leader Guards the Reader

Whether you’re from Makati or Piccadilly, from Bali or Bombay, Sharafiya or Bani Malik, Karachi or Kala Bagh, or Jeddah or Japan makes no difference — they all are important to Arab News. From laborers to business leaders, from housewives to historians, all will always be No. 1 at Arab News. You can thank the editor in chief for that. In his view, his “Green Truth” is your “Green Truth.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sania Mania

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, February 24, 2005

Who is Sania Mirza? If you put that question to Indians living abroad, you’ll get a frown because they’ll think you should know all about her. Ask an Indian in India, and after the eyes stop rolling, you’ll be handed just about any newspaper or magazine that’s handy. And there she is, peeking out of every publication and every TV screen as writers and anchors gush “This Lass Has Got Class” or “She’s the Belle of the Ball.” It’s called “Sania Mania,” and advertising agencies are working overtime to cash in on it.

Well, to the answer then. Sania Mirza is an 18-year-old Muslim girl from Hyderabad, India, who has caught the attention of the world of tennis since Feb. 12 when she became the first Indian to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title — and the $140,000 prize that went with it. She was given a wild card for the Hyderabad Open event, which she won by beating ninth seed Alyona Bondarenko of the Ukraine. That victory came after her amazing exploits in the Australian Open last month where she became the first Indian to reach the third round of a Grand Slam event. Sania lost to Serena Williams. By her superb display she jumped from a 400 ranking last year into the Top 100 this year. She is on No. 99 in the latest world rankings.

Those are cold statistics and are for the record books. That still doesn’t tell us what sort of person she is and what her background is. “She is a deeply religious girl who prays five times a day and tries hard not to play during the holy month of Ramadan. She reads the Qur’an every day,” her father and coach, Imran Mirza, told Arab News in a telephone interview from Hyderabad this week. “She doesn’t want to miss out on college, so she recently enrolled herself for a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, having completed her higher secondary course (Plus 2) last year. She went to Nasr School, an English-medium school which is a typical Muslim one.”

So she wants to be a journalist? “Having answered hundreds of questions from hundreds of journalists after winning the hearts and minds of a multitude of Indians, she probably knows the right questions to ask,” said the doting father.

Sania had already learned the nuances of journalism when someone asked her what’s it like for a Muslim girl to wear short skirts and slug it out on court. She quickly replied: “I don’t wear miniskirts on the streets.”

Imran Mirza himself was a sports journalist once. He ran his own sports magazine called “Sportscall”. “It folded a long time back,” he said, “but my heart was once into journalism.” The father thinks that the whole family has contributed in a big way to Sania’s rise to sports stardom. “My younger daughter Anam, who is 11, probably missed a lot of time with us because we were busy with Sania so much.”

Here in Saudi Arabia, old-timers recall one of Sania’s great-uncles coming for Haj many times. “He was my Phuppa Al-Haj Mirza Shakoor Beg,” confirmed Imran. “He performed Haj 31 times and died at the age of 96.” Sania’s grandfather was an avid sportsman.

“My father, Muhammad Zafar Mirza, played university-level cricket. He also played club cricket for Middlesex in England. But his first love was hockey. Then he went into academics,” said Imran. Sania’s mother also is a sports lover. “She never played organized sports though, but she played badminton a lot,” said Imran.

How did Sania get into tennis? “It was natural for her to pick up some kind of sport. Cricket was not an option for women, and we discouraged her from getting into swimming so tennis became the best option,” said Imran.

“We knew she had talent when she picked up the racket for the first time at the age of six. We knew then that she was destined for big things, but we didn’t know she’d reach the Top 100 ranking at 18. Now she wants to be in the Top 50 by the end of 2006 and the Top 25 by 2007.”

Imran says finding corporate sponsors initially was tough. “GVK Industries did a lot to promote her. Now we are deluged with offers from sponsors.”

Anirban Das, senior vice president of Globosport, which handles Sania’s commercial work, told Outlook news magazine that he spent the last few months “persuading people, trying to convince them there was something special about this girl.”

Now they have seen the light, and he is flooded with offers since Sania’s appeal extends beyond the demographic of tennis-watchers in that she is an icon for all young people — particularly women. As she was walking back after losing to World No. 7 Serena Williams in that celebrated Australian Open encounter at Melbourne’s Vodafone Arena, Brad Gilbert, coach of the likes of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, told her: “You have a bright future. I would like to see you in the Top 50 in the next 12 months.”

That’s what she’s working on now. Sania Mirza possesses a simple, wholesome charm that comes from sheer earnestness. There is a down-to-earth quality to her which goes beyond the transitory appeal of models. And, unlike actresses, Sania is real.

Sania’s rise to the top also has given a shot in the arm to the morale of the country’s Muslim minority. In his much-acclaimed article, Praful Bidwai hit the nail on the head when he said: “Sania has come to embody a number of aspects of modernity, freedom and rationality — the very opposite of the stereotypes that Indian Muslims are straitjacketed into. Many conservatives, especially Bharatiya Janata Party sympathizers, believe Indian Muslims are irredeemably backward, illiterate, overly religious, bigoted... In their view, Muslims are somewhat inferior, under-socialized human beings who deserve pity or sympathy, not equal treatment or respect. The Hindu nationalist, as well as the middle class pseudo-liberal, is deeply uncomfortable with the modern, liberal, educated, well-informed Indian Muslim who has an open mind and cosmopolitan outlook. The discomfort is all the greater if the person is a woman. Sania Mirza represents all of those modern attributes. And yet, she has become an irresistible, irrepressible icon by dint of her talent and her transparent charm. This is a major transformation of the Indian Muslim stereotype.”

So who is Sania Mirza? If you’re one of the Top 100 in the world of tennis, the answer might be “Trouble.”

End of an Era: Dr. Majid Kazi Is No More

Dr. Majid Kazi is no more By Siraj Wahab in Jeddah Friday, November 8, 2019 Dr. Majid Kazi, the personal physician to the late S...