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Travels with Danny

Daniel Pearl covered the Middle East at a time of promising change. We couldn't foresee how such change would darken.

July 01, 2007|Nicholas Goldberg | NICHOLAS GOLDBERG is editor of the Op-Ed page and Opinion section of The Times.

I FIRST MET Danny Pearl 10 years ago, in a very different world.

It was different in part because it was Tehran, where women were covered from head to toe and men could be seen on the streets wearing turbans and robes. Secret police asked us questions in hotel rooms, dissidents were reluctant to speak to us, and giant posters of the dour-looking Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stared down on us from walls all around the city.

But it was also different because, unlike today, things actually seemed to be getting better. Not just in Iran but all over the region.

We had both arrived -- Danny from London, I from Jerusalem -- to cover the May 1997 presidential election in which reformer Mohammad Khatami came from behind to beat the supposed shoo-in candidate of the ruling clerics. Almost two decades after the Islamic Revolution, it was a time of almost giddy excitement. Some women wore their head scarves -- if you can imagine it -- in a risque manner (wisps of hair showing!) and soccer matches suddenly evolved into impromptu political rallies for freedom. Khatami himself had been seen reading Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

Danny was working for the Wall Street Journal, and I was there as a correspondent for Newsday. We shared a translator all week. Each evening after work, we went back to her house, where she immediately peeled off her abaya -- the heavy, gray body covering she was required to wear over her street clothes. Her father played the guitar. Danny and I talked Middle East politics most of the week, and although both of us were cautious and a bit skeptical, it was hard not to feel that something extraordinary was happening in that part of the world.

In Jerusalem, where I was stationed, a peace process was underway after nearly 50 years of war, and several Arab countries were seriously considering upgrading their relations with their longtime Zionist enemy. Lebanon, after 15 years of civil war, was beginning to rebuild under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Gulf countries talked of enfranchising women. Even at the gates of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the "espionage den" where 52 Americans had been held hostage for 444 days from 1979 to 1981, an Iranian soldier confided to me, "We don't hate Americans here. But we're not allowed to say that."

A few days ago, I saw "A Mighty Heart," the new film about Danny's life and death, and I was struck, not for the first time, by how dramatically -- and tragically -- all that has changed. Iran is back at the top of America's enemies list -- and not only is it aggressively cracking down on internal dissent, it is apparently fast becoming a nuclear power. A meaningful peace between Arabs and Jews seems inconceivable, at least for now, in the wake of the Hamas takeover in Gaza last month. War and chaos have returned to Lebanon, where Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and where buildings that were rebuilt in the 1990s need to be rebuilt again. Danny, of course, is dead too, having been captured, forced to confess his Jewishness before a video camera and, ultimately, beheaded by Islamic militants in Pakistan.

I was also reminded of how, in the months after Danny's death, people continually asked me how he got himself into such a horrible mess. What would possess an American Jew to go to an after-hours meeting in Karachi, Pakistan, with an obviously hostile and possibly dangerous fundamentalist leader?

But I understand why Danny went. The reality was that while the world was changing around him, he didn't quite recognize it. Sept. 11, only four months before Danny disappeared, had indeed transformed things -- for reporters, for Americans -- but it took a while to realize that. Danny was behaving as we had all behaved in the region for years. We hadn't felt terribly threatened.

Before 9/11, the groups that Americans widely considered "terrorist" were wising up: They had young, U.S.-educated spokespeople who were reaching out to the media, speaking our language. Hezbollah's press spokesman had lived in the United States, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Edgar Allan Poe. Hamas political leaders would invite us into their Gaza living rooms and hint seriously at support for a two-state solution.

Sure, there were killers and rejectionists and crazies, like the old Shiite mullah I met in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, who told me that that he'd never met a Jew but that if he did, he'd know it instantly and kill him; and the young Jihadi I met in Peshawar, Pakistan, who told me virtually the same thing. We knew that all was not well in the Muslim world, but it felt, somehow, like such people were on the fringes, not in the ascendancy.

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