No God but The God
I got an email this morning from Rosemary Stanfield-Johnson, Professor of Safavid history at The University of Minnesota.
Let’s hear it for the web.
I have not seen Rosemary Stanfield since 1980, when I left the graduate program in Islamic Studies at NYU to go to the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. We were grad students together. That was 26 years ago.
I had not set out to be a journalist, nor had I set out to work in television. I was in graduate school studying Arabic and Islamic History when it was still in the realm of Sanskrit studies. I hoped one day to finish my PhD and teach. That was where I met Rosemary. She was also a graduate student, specializing in Farsi and early Persian history.
I was on a Fellowship, but it only paid my tuition. In need of additional cash I took a number of temp jobs, mostly typing transcripts at $5 an hour. A temp agency called Career Blazers sent me to law firms, accounting firms, banks. Pretty much anywhere.
One day, they sent me to a TV studio.
For me, it made no difference. I was happy to type transcriptions anywhere, so long as I got my $5 an hour.
On the third or fourth day working at the TV studio, the place suddenly went nuts. All the phone started ringing. People were running around like crazy. I turned to the guy sitting next to me.
“What’s up”? I asked.
“The Iranians just seized our embassy in Teheran” he said.
OK by me. I kept typing.
Suddenly, George Merliss, the Executive Producer for Good Morning America (where I had been assigned, apparently) came crashing into the room. He was like General Patton at the Battle of the Bulge, tossing out orders to everyone in sight.
“You!” he said, “Call the White House”
“You… call the Pentagon”
Everyone was getting a job.
Suddenly, his eyes set on me.
I started to explain that I was a temp.
“You”, he said, “call the Islamic Center in Washington DC”.
Well, I didn’t really care what I had to do, so long as I got my $5 an hour.
So I picked up the phone, dialed them up and purely for fun said:
“Salaam aleikum ya saddiq. Ana min al-Good Morning America”.
In a flash Merliss grabbed my shirt collar.
“You speak Arabic!” he intoned.
Some of my profs at NYU might have strongly disagreed, but I just nodded.
“Where did you learn” he demanded.
Just for fun. Just for the hell of it, I said, “when I lived in Iran”.
Now, they don’t speak Arabic in Iran, they speak Farsi, but this being US network television news, who would know…”
Merliss’ eyes opened wide as saucers.
“You lived in Iran?” he asked.
Well, I had been alive, and I have been to Iran, so I guess that constituted ‘lived in Iran”, so I said, yes.
“Do you know anything about these hostages” he demanded.
Well, I knew there were hostages. I was pretty sure of that. So I said, “yes”.
His eyes lit up.
“Get this guy a desk and a typewriter”
And so I was hired, on the spot, to be GMA’s in-house “Middle East Expert”.
A few moments later, we all headed into the giant conference room, where the then VP for news addressed the assembled, pulled down a map of the world, and spent (I kid you not) about 5 minutes searching for Iran on the map.
We (both GMA and the nation, as it turned out), were in for a long and bumpy ride.
That was the start of my television career. The Arabic has stood me in goods stead repeatedly over the years, and my deep knowledge of the rise of the Caliph Omar always makes for great conversation, at least in the back of some NY taxis.
Congratulations Rosemary. You stuck with it and you became a Professor at a major university.
As we say in Arabic, Mazel Tov.