Ruth Pearl, the mother of a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and executed by al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan, has died. Her long-ailing lungs finally gave out, 85 years after her birth in Baghdad.
Her legacy, an extension of Daniel Pearl’s legacy, lives in the hearts and minds of more than two dozen reporters, editors and broadcasters from Pakistan and other Muslim countries who were trained in a journalism fellowship program from 2003 to 2019 that advanced the kind of compassionate multi-cultural reporting practiced by her son.
Ruth Pearl, who died in Los Angeles on July 20, took an active role in selecting the 28 journalists who participated in the program run by Alfred Friendly Partners. The nonprofit organization has since 1984 trained some 330 foreign journalists taught ethics and best practices before working on the staff of major news organizations for up to six months.
Half of the Daniel Pearl Fellows are from Pakistan, and the others are from Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Turkey and Afghanistan. Many have become prominent, influential journalists in their countries, such as Umar Cheema, who co-founded the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan. Some are correspondents for international news outlets such as Saher Baloch, who works for BBC in Karachi, and Sherine al Madany of Egypt, a reporter for Bloomberg News. Two Pearl Fellows from Afghanistan are currently reporting about their country’s crisis for world audiences.
Aoun Sahi, a Pearl Fellow from Pakistan, worked at the Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau during the 2010 fellowship and said upon his graduation, “I have high hopes now for more serious, more courageous journalistic practice.”
Five years later, Sahi later shared in a Pulitzer Prize won by the Los Angeles Times for its coverage of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. A Pakistani woman and her husband, a Pakistani American, went on a shooting rampage at his workplace holiday party, killing 14 people. Sahi’s role was to find out about the woman and where she came from by interviewing people in her hometown and shedding light on the societal issues behind the act of terrorism.
The paradox overshadowing Pearl’s death was that his killers, Islamic militants angry with the West, murdered a reporter who was particularly sensitive to their views and grievances and committed to explaining them to his readers. Daniel Pearl wrote objectively and often about the hardships and aspirations of people in Islamic countries.
The Daniel Pearl Fellows often remarked on this paradox along with the elegant irony of his mother’s mission — a Jewish woman in California funding a fellowship to benefit Muslim journalists in Asia and the Middle East.
What’s also remarkable is the fact that when she was a six-year-old child in Baghdad, Ruth Pearl’s family barely escaped a pogrom by anti-Semitic marauders. She emigrated as a teenager to Israel, where she spent time in a refugee camp, joined the Israeli navy and eventually settled in the U.S., where she worked as a computer software analyst.
“Ruth Pearl took the uncommon road in life,” Alfred Friendly President Randy Smith said. “When her son, Danny, was killed by terrorists, she and her husband, Judea, responded with a program that aimed to further their son’s goals for journalism in the world’s troubled areas. Danny’s living legacy is the daily work of dozens of journalists who were empowered by the Pearl family’s wisdom. Ruth Pearl led this effort with an uncommon passion.”
Jonathan Friendly, a son of the founder and chairman of the Alfred Friendly Foundation, said, “Ruth made it a point to meet all of the Pearl Fellows she and Judea sponsored over the years, and she always inspired them to live up to the model that her son set. May her memory be a blessing.”
In their applications, each Daniel Pearl Fellow was required to write an essay that described “how your career goals match the mission and spirit of Daniel Pearl as a journalist and person.”
The Daniel Pearl Fellows also worked for a week at the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles and participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Los Angeles Press Club in which they talked to a largely Jewish audience about what it is like to practice journalism in a Muslim country.
During the week in L.A., Ruth and Judea always met and socialized with the Pearl Fellows, and sometimes their daughters Tamara and Michelle joined them at group dinners after the panel discussions.
“She was one of the most gentle souls I had ever met,” 2012 Fellow Aida Ahmad of Malaysia wrote in a Facebook post on Monday. Recounting an afternoon tea with the Pearls, she wrote, “The couple’s stoicism despite what had happened to their only son, was nothing short of admirable. My heartfelt condolences go out to the Pearl family.”
Amal Khan, a 2016 Daniel Pearl Fellow from Pakistan, wrote a column in January that criticized what she called Pakistan’s shocking Supreme Court order to release the man who masterminded Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder.
She also wrote about getting to know Ruth Pearl when she worked in Los Angeles and appreciating the fellowships that “continue their son’s legacy. It is an unnerving kindness, and one I thought about every day I lived in Danny’s old city, working in different newsrooms in his name.”
In a Facebook post on Monday, Amal wrote, “My most favorite memory with Ruth is of an afternoon spent in her home. She made me tea and we had just sat down when suddenly the living room was invaded by hundreds of tiny flying insects. They came out of nowhere, and the two of us were at once reduced to shrieking damsels swatting them with shoes and laughing uncontrollably. I remember thinking when I saw her that way, that I’d seen the little girl who still lived in there. She was truly my friend, and I am heartbroken she is gone. Somewhere spinning in time, the two of us are still swatting flies on a hot day in LA.”