YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Worlds collide -- then, murder

October 10, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

In "The Journalist and the Jihadi," a documentary airing tonight on HBO, the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl quickly becomes "Danny" -- inquisitive and good-looking, raised in Encino, accomplished violinist as a teenager, Stanford-educated. He is the ponytailed rising star at the Journal who was sent overseas, earning the nickname "Danny of Arabia" for his many trips to Iran, an image of Ayatollah Khomeini hanging in his cubicle at the paper's London bureau.

Pearl, eventually a Bombay bureau chief, was killed in a farmhouse outside Karachi, Pakistan. He apparently didn't feel pulled to head to a war zone; instead, among the stories he was pursuing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were investigative features on outlawed extremist groups in Pakistan and the murky commingling of the country's official security force, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and Al Qaeda.

On Jan. 23, 2002, Pearl went to the Village Garden restaurant in Karachi for a scoop -- to interview, he thought, Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, leader of a local Islamist sect and the reputed spiritual mentor of the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard C. Reid. About a week later Pearl was beheaded, on camera, his abduction and killing orchestrated by a "crime syndicate united around Pearl's body in life, and then his cadaver in death, as it has never gathered for any other," Bernard-Henri Levy writes in his fascinating book "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?"

Levy, the French journalist-philosopher-raconteur, is among those interviewed in "The Journalist and the Jihadi," which juxtaposes Pearl's life with that of Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, the London-born Pakistani convicted of masterminding the kidnapping, having befriended Pearl through e-mail and wooing him to the Village Garden. Omar Sheikh, in another life, was a London School of Economics student (an "all-English gentleman," as he is described by a prep school teacher), radicalized as an adult, beginning with the slaughter of Muslims in the Bosnian war. It's a descent into extremism that would bring him to Pearl. "They were on separate paths that would later collide," intones CNN's globe-trotting Christiane Amanpour, who narrates the 80-minute film.

Was Pearl killed to embarrass Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his ally, monolithic America? Pearl, the film shows, was hardly an enemy of Islam, though paradoxically his work had taken him into the underworld of Pakistani-based jihadi groups. Certainly "The Journalist and the Jihadi," which pencils in what Levy watercolored, frames it this way, as Good (Pearl, driven into journalism out of an interest in human rights, outgoing, dogged, and who left behind his pregnant wife, Mariane, a Buddhist) and Evil (Omar Sheikh, son of a well-to-do family, disciplined, in his youth an avid arm wrestler, convicted in the Pearl affair and sentenced to death). And yet the most gripping juxtaposition here is not so much between Pearl and Omar Sheikh as the respective experiential distances these two men traveled. What fascinates about Pearl, in part, is akin to what fascinates about John Walker Lindh, the American captured fighting for the Taliban. Worlds, cultures colliding in ways that raise uncomfortable realizations about proximity between peoples, despite the way the war on terror has been framed.

Indeed, one of the more chilling details in "The Journalist and the Jihadi" is about the e-mail program Pearl and Omar Sheikh used to communicate. Sheikh, calling himself "Bashir," had a user address of nobadmashee@, "which I knew immediately was trickery," says Asra Nomani, Pearl's journalistic colleague and friend. " 'Badmash' is somebody who is a troublemaker," says Nomani, a Muslim from India. "If Danny had watched enough Bollywood movies, you know, he would have figured that out. But 'nobadmashee,' then, is somebody who is not into troublemaking."

"The Journalist and the Jihadi" is inevitably a thriller in this way, even as it's far more grounded as a heartfelt tribute to Pearl. Portentous background music only suggests something ominous is unfolding. It isn't ultimately clear where the filmmakers, Ahmed Jamal and Ramesh Sharma, come down on the circumstances surrounding Pearl's death (unlike the narrative adventurer Levy, who postulates that Pearl died "a journalist's death -- dead not only because of what he was, but because of what he was looking for, and perhaps finding, and planning to write about").

Amanpour's voice in "The Journalist and the Jihadi" gives the facts of the affair an air of certainty, but it would take more than 80 minutes to tease out the nuances everywhere (Levy's book weighs in at 454 pages).

What is invariably heart-rending here is the archival material: Pearl's days as a Little Leaguer, his wedding to Mariane, the voicemail he left his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, after the sonogram revealed Mariane was carrying a boy. We hear his message to Mom and Dad, hear him on the hostage video, talking in an open way about his Jewish roots. But we don't see the violent death, video-recorded by the killers. By then we've come to know the victim better and are caught between the voyeur's impulse and our other self, the one that understands death as a complicated private matter.



'The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl'

Where: HBO

When: 8 to 9:30 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Los Angeles Times Articles