Live from Beirut, it's Kate Seelye '84

“My father was a diplomat, so we moved around a lot,” she said. “I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until the age of six,” she remembered. Soon after, Seelye moved to Maryland to attend elementary school but “went to an American school in Tunisia from fifth to eighth grade.” She returned to the U.S. for high school before attending Amherst College.

During her time at Amherst, Seelye did not plan to spend her future as a journalist. She played varsity basketball and rugby. She majored in history, and until the College started offering Arabic classes, studied Arabic at UMass. It was during her junior year that she realized she wanted to return to the Middle East after college. Seelye spent the year abroad studying at the American University in Cairo. “I loved Egypt, I loved the culture and had a great time exploring the country,” she said. “My time in Egypt confirmed in my mind that I wanted to spend a lot more time in the Middle East after college and in fact specialize in the region.”

At the time, Seelye still had not decided on a career in journalism. After briefly working in Jordan as an educator and on Queen Noor’s development projects, Seelye returned to the U.S. She worked in public relations and the film industry before committing to a career in journalism.

Wiring from the Middle East

Seelye began her journalism career in Los Angeles, working as a producer for “NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer. “I enjoyed my job, but wasn’t terribly interested in U.S. or regional politics,” Seelye explained. “The Middle East was my specific area of interest and I wanted to return to the region to pursue stories there as a journalist, so I moved to the one city in the Arab world that didn’t have an excess of American journalists-Beirut.”

Seelye’s timing was quite deliberate. She moved in June 2000, hoping she would be in Lebanon in July, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Israeli troops would withdraw from the southern part of the country. Although she missed the withdrawal by a month (the troops withdrew in May), Seelye had the chance to cover the death of Syrian President Hafez al Assad a few days after her arrival. Seelye then freelanced for NPR, ABC and CBS until she landed her contract with NPR.

For Seelye, Beirut is a wonderful place to work. Because of Lebanon’s proximity to other countries, she often has the opportunity to cover stories in surrounding areas. She feels that the press in Lebanon is practically free from governmental control, which gives her a great deal of leverage in her work. “I’m able to do quite a few regional analysis pieces from Beirut, interviewing professors and commentators for their insight into everything from Arab views about Saddam Hussein to how Arab leaders are preparing for the aftermath of war on Iraq,” she explained.

The Arab street in wartime

Seelye’s interest in the Middle East expands beyond the leadership of the respective nations. “I’m mainly interested in the lives of ordinary Arabs and Muslims and how they cope in a region that is at a political, economic and social nadir,” she said. “I’m also interested in observing their growing disenchantment with the U.S. foreign policy, as well as with their own leaders.”

“People here want change desperately- they are sick of their tired, corrupt anti-democratic governments, but they don’t want change imposed upon them by an American government,” she explained. “They see America behaving as the world’s new colonial power and they find its policy and approach to the region imbalanced, unjust and deeply problematic.”

Although when she arrived in the Middle East her intention was to focus her work on social and human interest issues, Seelye has since turned her attention to the war on Iraq. She feels that the war has not made her life as an American in the Middle East any more difficult. “Most Arabs are very good at distinguishing between U.S. foreign policy and the American people. In other words, they hate America’s policy,” she said. “They always say how much they like the openness and frankness of Americans.” Seelye noted that she has been received very hospitably in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, among other countries. “I don’t fear for my safety,” she said.

In terms of crime, the Middle East is “very safe,” according to Seelye. “When I report on anti-American rallies, I say I work for an ‘independent’ American radio station and the only hassle I usually deal with is having to face a longer-than-usual lecture about how damaging our policies have been to the region,” she said.

When it comes to interviewing individuals, Seelye’s long-term experience in the Middle East helps her immensely. She speaks some Arabic, which allows her to build rapport with her interview subject.

With the ongoing attacks on Iraq, Seelye does not know how her responsibilities as a journalist might change. Regardless of war, she will continue to live and work in the Middle East. “It is my job to report on the region. I want to be here following events and I enjoy being here,” she said. “Nor do I fear it will get particularly dangerous for Americans in Beirut or elsewhere.”

In Lebanon, where things are comparatively calm, Seelye is confident about her security. “The Middle East looks a lot scarier from your perspective. Here it’s just life as usual,” she said. “I don’t deny that people aren’t worried and upset about what’s going on in this part of the world, and I feel it in my conversations with people, but it has never manifested itself into personal hostility towards me.”

Ignorance and understanding

Despite her feeling of security, Seelye is aware that tensions could be lessened throughout the Middle East if the U.S. were more careful about its foreign policy. “Many Arabs and Muslims feel as though all Arabs and Muslims are being targeted, not just the bad guys,” she said. “Why are all civil liberties suspended in the U.S. when it comes to dealing with Arab and Muslim suspects, they wonder? Why is the US going after Iraq militarily, which is not a nuclear threat, when they are handling the North Korea crisis peacefully, and North Korea is a nuclear threat?” she wondered, voicing the opinion of many Middle Easterners.

Seelye believes that in order to increase U.S. popularity, it needs to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in a way which would respect the rights of both peoples.” If the U.S. could successfully do this, “I think terrorism and violence would be greatly reduced and Americans would be less targeted,” she said. “Americans need to do a lot more reading about the region, just as Arabs need to do more reading about the Americans. Although on the whole, Arabs are far more informed about the U.S. than vice versa.”

Americans, according to Seelye, must make an effort to understand the frustrations of the Middle East. “Governments make mistakes, and in the eyes of the Arab world, the American government has made a lot of mistakes,” she said. “Americans, who normally don’t follow international issues but now find themselves being targeted, need to be better informed.”

Part of this increased awareness lies in the hands of the journalist and the reporter. Seelye believes that if Americans cannot even be relied upon to vote in a major election, they cannot be relied upon to do a great deal of detailed, independent research. As a result, the reporter must bring information to listeners and viewers worldwide. “I hope through my work as a journalist, in a sense as a bridge between two cultures that I know well, I can convey Arab perceptions of the United States to Americans and in my dealings with Arabs, convey how Americans view the world,” Seelye said. “I enjoy my work-there’s a bit too much travel-but I get to meet some of the Arab world’s finest minds and scholars, as well as a lot of interesting people in general. I am tracking a region that is suffering from tremendous political, social and economic malaise at a time of great uncertainty and documenting for an American audience the region’s views and concerns.”