By Amal Khan
In the chilling, three-minute 2002 video of his murder in
Karachi, Daniel Pearl says: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am
Jewish.” Then the film cuts to a different frame, where a hand suddenly sweeps
down and beheads the journalist. Months later, his body was found cut up in
pieces, collected and sent home to be buried.
Today, a Pakistani court overturned the death sentence of Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man convicted of Pearl’s killing, who will be released in a matter of days.
Close to this time in 2016, I was sitting alone in Daniel Pearl’s small bedroom in the Pearls’ family home in the LA suburban hillside. Ruth and Judea Pearl were downstairs making me tea and I was exploring the house. There was a single bed, an array of books from newspaper style guides to novels, a violin case, small trophies on the window sill. The branches of an old green tree in the yard looked into his room. I remember thinking to myself, how many times must he have dreamed of the view from this window in the last days of his life.
In the six months I spent in Los Angeles as a Daniel Pearl fellow, I came to know the Pearls closely. Ever since 2003, Ruth and Dr. Judea Pearl have given fellowships to journalists in South Asia and the Middle East to come and work in newsrooms around the United States and continue their son’s legacy.
I was lucky I ended up in Los Angeles and privileged they allowed me to become a part of their lives, opening up their home to me, their stories and their unnerving kindness. I spent Passover with the entire family in a small Jewish eatery, we debated about politics and Pakistan and were not always on the same page. I quietly recited the Ayat Al Kursi and prepared to die when Ruth Pearl drove me at high speed on an LA highway still hooked up to her oxygen tank.
Over those few months, I spent some hours with Judea in his
haphazard study arguing about religion amid a jungle of his antique books,
loose papers and an old desktop computer. Judea is a recognized genius, winner
of the Turing Award– the nobel prize equivalent for computer science. He has
strange sleeping hours and spends most of his time in his sun-drenched study at
the front of the house. He laughs easily, recites poetry in dozens of languages
and I would joke that I only ever half understood what he was saying to me, so
mysterious and lyrical were all his words.
When I said goodbye to him in August that year before my departure for Lahore, he whispered to me: “I will always remember you in your youth, walking beside me in this desert.” I had no idea what this meant, but as the years pass on, I think about it more and more. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish.” These were presumably, some of Daniel Pearl’s last words.
Perhaps if he was allowed to, he might have said more. He might have told the world his father was not a religious man, but that he worshipped the works and mind of Galileo. That he was a philosopher and a mathematician and once, a choir conductor. That he was full of mischief and kindness, played the guitar and piano, and could be found most days singing loudly in his study.
He might have said of Ruth, she keeps a beautiful home in the Los Angeles hills. That she collected all his writings, and rolled her eyes at her husband’s poetry. That she drove far too fast, was opinionated and strong, and would stop at nothing to tell the story of her son’s life. His elderly parents know every tiny detail of his kidnapping, his beheading and mutilation.
In the days to follow, much will be debated about the release of Omar Saeed Sheikh, who cleverly befriended and abducted Pearl in 2002 and carries a long list of terror offenses to his name. There will be a host of questions that will rise again: Why has Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, principal architect of 9/11, still not been charged for Pearl’s murder? Who will answer for the fact that a bureau chief of one of the world’s leading papers was beheaded and mutilated on Pakistani soil, and now, not a single man is in jail for the crime?
And all the while, I will be thinking of that quiet little first floor bedroom, where a younger Danny Pearl must have played the violin on some days, the tree swaying outside his window. It is unimaginable how far he traveled from that charming home in the California hills in search of the truth. A truth that is still, it seems, far from found.
(The writer is an editor, Arab News Pakistan. She was Daniel Pearl Fellow in 2016 at the LA Business Journal and LA Times. Article courtesy Arab News)