By Nadia S. Mohammad
Working his way up from NBC to CNN to Al-Jazeera (AJE) and now back to NBC again Ayman Mohyeldin is fast becoming a newsworthy on his own. For the past several years viewers from around the world have been tuning in to watch him report as the only foreign journalist based in the Gaza Strip and more recently as the go to source for on the ground happenings during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt. His coverage of these historic events and more earned him a spot as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, nominated by none other than Dan Rather, himself. And his dashing good looks have earned him a spot in hearts of female fans around the world attempting to woo him virtually through Facebook. So what makes him tick? We caught up with Ayman somewhere between his Colbert and GQ interviews and here is what he had to say about life, his experience with AJE and food:
Elan: You grew up in both Egypt and the US. How has being a Muslim Arab American impacted your work today, if at all?
Ayman Mohyeldin: I think it’s been more so as an Arab-American. I’ve had the privilege of living in both worlds, having a foot in each country for different parts of my life. I spend a great deal of my time when I’m in the US trying to make sense of the Arab world for a lot of my American friends and when I’m in the Arab world I try to make sense of this part of the world for a lot of my Arab friends. So it’s been a great opportunity to be an ambassador to both cultures and both societies on a most personal level.
How religion actually impacted my work is a really tough question. My faith is definitely important to me. It’s what I rely on most, personally, especially at times when I’m in fear. But I don’t know if it really has affected my work. Though, in America there is a great deal of negative stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims, so any chance I get to break or dispel those stereotypes, either through work itself or just through personal interaction I try to do that.
Elan: Being an Egyptian American in Cairo during the Arab Spring must have been another of those privileged feeling moments. How did that experience impact you personally?
AM: Absolutely! I was extremely proud. I can’t think of another story that I have gone through in my life that was such a roller coaster of emotions between being afraid to being concerned, to worried, to disappointed, to upset, to happy, to jubilant – to proud when President Mubarak stepped down. I went through the whole entire range of emotions like most ordinary Egyptians did. In the end, when I saw those regimes collapse in 18 days, there was a great sense of pride that ordinary Egyptians felt because they were actually able to organize something. For so many years Egyptians have been criticized for being politically apathetic, not really engaged, not caring. So for me to see that [Egyptian spirit] come to life was a tremendous moment of pride.
Elan: Working with Al-Jazeera (AJE) in Egypt gave you an unparalleled advantage as AJE has its base in the Middle East, something which no other mainstream American media outlet had. Now that AJE is trying to establish itself in the American mainstream market how do you think their abilities will translate in terms of their impact in the American market?
AM: I think it’s already begun to impact two things. One, people have recognized what AJE is capable of. The discourse in this country used to be about what AJE is, now it’s about what AJE does. Also, I think it’s extremely significant that people realize that AJE has resources, institutional knowledge, cultural experience in that part of the world that’s unrivaled. That is what has given it such huge added advantage making it extremely unique for viewers in this part of the world and that’s why it’s getting the attention that it is now.
Elan: You’ve achieved a certain level of success where you can kind of ride it out for a while, but where do you kind of see yourself going in the next few years?
AM: I want to continue to report. Just you know, wherever the story is. Ultimately down the road, I’d like to maybe have a more personalized show and interview people. I really enjoy interviewing people and talking to people. It’s the most pure form of journalism. You know being able to interview people one-on-one. So I’d like to try to get into that field, into that realm. But in the short, immediate term, continue reporting from the Middle East.
Elan: Like replacing Piers Morgan for taking over Larry King?
AM: Well, I’d like to think I’d be someone slightly more intellectual. Maybe more like a morning talk show like Charlie Rose, but not Larry King.
Elan: How do you feel about having gone from being just a journalist to having a celeb status now?
AM: To be honest – I live in America; I know what real celebs are and I would not describe myself to be on any of those levels.
Elan: On the way up?
AM: I don’t even think I’m on the way up. There’s a very acute interest right now with everything that’s happening in the Middle East and that’s why everyone has taken notice of it. I think within that realm, here in the United States there is a community of Arab-Americans who are very concerned and interested about that part of the world. Muslims, Christians, even ordinary Americans now have a very unique interest in that part of the world and realize that there is a huge shortage of knowledge. So they all really want to try to figure out where is the best place to get information.
Elan: Right, but there is clearly an interest in you and your personal life from what we’ve seen. Has the attention that’s been given to you, rather than your work, gotten to you at all? Are you amused, annoyed, bewildered by it all?
AM: I don’t get annoyed by it. It’s flattering. I do find it amusing sometimes. I think there is a shortage of people in the Arab American community and the Muslim community who people can look up to. When we do find such people they tend to be a certain type of breed – engineers, doctors or scientists. It’s kind of rare that we see people [Arabs/Muslims] succeed in films, cultural arts and journalism. So now that we’re starting to see more Arab American faces and more Muslim names succeeding [in these fields] there is a great deal of spotlight on these individuals. I put that interest [in myself] in that category, not really anything beyond that.
Elan: What advice would you give to up and coming journalists?
Elan: You always seem to be working. What would you like to do if you had time off, with no work to do whatever you want.
AM: I never say no to a comfy couch and a good movie! Love a good story like Slumdog Millionaire and A Beautiful Mind. I’m really passionate about movies, so I really want to make a movie at some point in my life.
Elan: What kind of movies – drama, sci-fi, comedy, action, etc.?
AM: I would love to write and direct a dramatic feature film. Sci-fi, I don’t think I really have the skills for; but more like dramas, or even something even like action or suspense thrillers. There are a lot of beautiful stories out there and I think a lot of them can be made into a successful movie. There are also a lot of tremendous movies in Arab history and culture that I think would be extremely powerful if made in a popular feature film.
AM: Well, I mean there are a lot of notable characters and a lot of stories that happen at various point through Islamic history or Arab history. And I don’t think very good caliber movies have been made of some of these most iconic figures in the Arab world. Tons of movies have been made about Latin American characters where you can find just as similar characters in Arab history and are just as powerful and can be very Hollywood-esque in a way.
Elan: All right. We look forward to hearing from you when you make your first feature movie! Thank you for taking the time out to talk with us…
AM: That’s it? You don’t want to know like my favorite food or something?
Elan: Well, ok then! What is your favorite comfort food when on the road?
AM: Nothing beats my mom’s cooking! That [her cooking] is my comfort food. But I really love anything with meat, so when I’m on the road depending on where I am I look for a good shwarma or burger.
Ayman recently made the decision to rejoin NBC. He will continue to be based out of and report from Egypt. For more details about his decision please visit his Facebook page. You can also follow Ayman on Twitter at twitter.com/aymanm.