Perched on a rock by the edge of a cliff-side village at sunset, I’m surrounded by a curious group of children. Ranging from about five to nine years of age, they eagerly watch over my shoulder, fascinated by the combination of foreigner, computer, and English. One notices my camera and soon there is a chorus of “Soureeni! Soureeni!” Take a picture of me.
The adults offer to shoo them away, but I don’t mind.
We’re sitting on the edge of the village as an orange and pink sunset colors the sky over the valley below us. Olive trees cover the hillsides, and one-lane roads weave into valleys and over ridges. Clouds move slowly in a heavy sky as energetic 5-year-old Assad is carried off by a smiling father. Within moments he’s back, jumping and laughing and making faces in his sandals and red sweats.
“Mish ‘arfa,” I don’t know, I tell him, and he bursts into laughter before resuming his rapid-fire speech in Arabic.
It’s a comforting way to end a difficult afternoon, with smiles and laughter all around as children and youth and their older counterparts gather to talk with their “international” visitors.
Just a few hours ago I sat down with two young men from this small community in northern
to interview them for a story. As we talked about the changes the village has seen since the death of a 16-year-old member of the community, I discovered both young men are cousins of the boy. Slowly, our conversation shifted as the young men began to talk about their cousin. Palestine
Mohamed was shot by IDF soldiers in March 2010 as he ran to help another friend who had been shot. Neither boy had participated in the day’s peaceful demonstration against the neighboring Israeli settlement; neither was politically inclined. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The soldiers used live ammunition. Crowd-controlling rubber bullets were absent. The deaths were a shock to the community of 800.
As I listened to Mohamed’s cousins and our conversation drifted far from the limits of my story, the boundary between professionalism and humanity shifted, blurred – I knew the intimate testimony would remain between us. It would never be found in an article.
It is not the first time I’ve faced a situation where the line between journalism and friendship blurs. One of the challenges of being a journalist is keeping perspective and humanity at the same time, and it is not a simple challenge.
Humanity is vital. Personal connections are what make stories real – what can bring a tear to a stranger or solidarity from a reader time zones away. At the same time, one faces the dilemma of losing sight of the end goal. An article which captures pain and emotion without describing it as such is that much more powerful for doing so.
The line between journalism and friendship or between professionalism and humanity is not immovable. It shifts. At times it may not even exist. Yet while some rapport between interviewer and interviewee is vital, crossing the invisible line between them is dangerous to both.
Perhaps those with a strong sense of empathy are not meant for what can be a cut-throat profession. Empathy does not lend to cold analysis, which so often seems to be praised. Yet, is not the absence of humanity more dangerous than the alternative?