“The thing that keeps me excited for the future is that the world is so small, but it’s also big enough that I can keep going to new places and searching for what makes us all the same.”
Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is an Emmy-nominated journalist and correspondent who has reported for countless media outlets – including Al Jezeera, HBO’s Vice, and The New York Times.
Your Twitter bio describes you as ‘Palestinian by blood, American by birth, Kuwaiti by nationality, Egyptian by upbringing, Austrian by adolescence, curious by nature.’ How do you reconcile all these different aspects of your identity?
“It comes very naturally to me. I grew up moving around a lot physically, but also mentally and spiritually. It was tough growing up because I felt a bit schizophrenic – trapped between cultures and value systems – but I realized that it was such a blessing. And so the way to honor it is to do what feels right and do what feels natural. It’s funny, because based on what environment I’m in – if I’m in the Middle East, if I’m in Egypt, if I’m in California – I find myself acting and even processing and relating to the world around me very differently. It eventually became very natural to just switch into different identities.”
What are the most challenging aspects of your work as a journalist?
“I worked at Vice for a year and a half, and did six documentaries. It’s the kind of brand that goes to the darkest places in the world and covers the most horrific events – and I’m quite sensitive.
So it’s challenging to witness the darkest parts of the human condition. You have to distance yourself in order to do the job. And sometimes the stories can haunt you because of the enormity of the tragedies around the world.”
And how do you prevent all of that from taking a toll on you?
“I think the way you protect yourself is to make sure you can always find hope – a silver lining in a story, or a hopeful character. Pull out and look at the big picture and be really grateful for what you have. I always look for opportunities to instill hope, or if I find hope, to celebrate it and encourage it and prop it up.”
Do you have a mission or a singular idea that drives you?
“What drives me is searching for commonality and searching for ways to connect with people. I think that we are much more connected than we are even privy to, and I mean that on a spiritual level. And human rights is something that has always driven my career, because I was born not understanding how we can grant people rights based on what sets us apart.”
Who are your personal heroes?
“So many. My mother who battled cancer for 6 years and was told there was no hope, but managed to find hope and healing within herself. And anyone who faces adversity and profound struggle with courage and grace and conviction. That includes Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Gandhi and all these people who in one way or another were subjugated to persecution but found it in themselves to not compromise their beliefs or values.”
Walk us through a typical day in your life.
“My friends, who know me better than I know myself, would probably say that a typical day in my life involves losing 600 things, losing my wallet – that’s my identifier. I lose my stuff all the time. I’m probably on a plane, and if I’m not on a plane I’m on a train. And if I’m not on a plane or a train I’m probably dreaming of how I could quickly get on a plane or a train, because I’m always trying to go somewhere. Which is probably why I always lose things.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m working on a new documentary series that’s gonna have me travelling to seven different locations. The thing that keeps me excited for the future is that the world is so small, but it’s also big enough that I can keep going to new places and searching for what makes us all the same. We’re living in this time where there’s all these rapid shifts in medicine and communication and the way data is collected. And it’s changing the way we relate to each other and the way we relate to the world around us.
Sometimes it’s happening so quickly that we’re not even aware of it. And in that process, there are people who are poised to benefit and there’s people who are gonna be left behind. So this documentary series is gonna focus on who is benefitting and who is gonna get left behind and what that means for our future.
I mean, I really believe that we’re entering a new era in human history, and this is a way to pre-empt that by shedding some light on where we’re all headed.”
Can you describe your own personal style?
“It’s very instinctive when I see something that I like. And for me the fun in fashion is when I’m in my apartment, and it’s just about mixing things together that often don’t inherently match. I just like contrast in life, and so when I see things that contrast in interesting ways – whether it’s shapes or colors – it tends to make me feel good. And I think fashion and clothes should make someone feel good. The older I get, I like simplicity. But my style keeps changing based on my whims.”
What are your favorite American Apparel items?
“I was living on the Lower East Side and there was an American Apparel store right by my house. My favorite thing was something metallic – they were kind of like meggings – but they looked good on me, and one night I had to go to this party with a lot of young, gay fashion people – one of them was a really famous designer – and I wore those and I was this hit of the party. It’s important for clothes to sometimes make you feel like a superhero, and those meggings made me feel powerful.”