I didn’t go to see A Mighty Heart when it came out in 2007 because I didn’t think I could stomach it. I had a vague memory of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel “Danny” Pearl being kidnapped and beheaded by Pakistani terrorists in 2002, and I couldn’t face seeing it on the screen.
A few years later, browsing an Oxfam bookshop, I found Mariane Pearl's memoirs of the time, A Mighty Heart - The brave life and death of my husband Daniel Pearl. In it, Pearl writes of her month-long search for her husband and remembers his life and their love. She portrays a Daniel as a journalist in constant search for the Truth, a man determined to promote tolerance and understanding between peoples.
Many in Pearl’s position would have broken down. Her husband had just been captured, she was heavily pregnant and in a foreign country. Nobody would have judged her for it. Instead, Pearl fought to find Danny. Rather than asking the people around her to take care of her, she took care of them. She inspired them and she gave them the hope and the will to keep searching, even when events took a turn for the desperate. In the film adaptation, where she is played by Angelina Jolie, the Captain leading the Pakistani side of the inquiry tells her that everybody in their party but her can break down.
Pearl impressed people beyond her close circle from the day her husband was kidnapped. Expected to cry on national TV when calling for his safe return, she moved viewers by her calm demeanour. From the start, Pearl decided that not being terrorised would be the best revenge against terrorists. It was a conscious choice. “I had a very intimate understanding of what the purpose of the killers was and also what the purpose of terrorism was and I had to make a decision on how to I react to this”, she explained to Global Perspectives ten years after Danny’s death.
Her whole journey has been about refusing the hatred promoted by terrorists. Pearl’s inspirational attitude and beautiful, clear writing makes A Mighty Heart as difficult to read as it is to put down. It is impossible not to feel that you want to delay the heartbreak that you know is at the end. It is one of the best first person accounts on terrorism, demonstrating a clear understanding of the forces at play.
Part-biography, part-autobiography, A Mighty Heart is a myth buster. It shows Pakistan not just as the corrupt, terrorist-welcoming dictatorship we hear about, including in Bernard Henry Lévy’s thriller-like account of his inquiry into Daniel’s murder, Who killed Daniel Pearl?, but rather as a country filled with people determined to do the right thing and go beyond prejudices.
The Pearls were true global citizens. I usually hate the phrase because it reminds of a number of dreadlocked white men I went to the LSE with (as did Omar Sheikh, the man who organised Pearl’s kidnapping, possibly his killing, and might have played a key role in 9/11) who went from the fight for global justice to investment banking in the space of one graduation day. The Pearls had values, and they stuck with them no matter what.
Danny’s writings for the Wall Street Journal, collected in 2002 in the anthology At Home in the World, offer unexpected takes on foreign affairs. In June 2000, he discussed the evolution of Iranian politics, through the hard-liners’ revival of pop music (Danny loved music). His May 1992 feature ‘To be a black cop can mean walking a very fine line’ isn’t just a piece about Tyrone B. Powell, an Atlanta policeman thrown into race politics by the Rodney King verdict, it’s a feature on racial problems in America which still rings too true over 20 years later. Since her husband’s death, Pearl has continued to uphold with their shared philosophy and values.
When you go down the Mariane Pearl rabbit hole on Google, you find nothing but positive articles, tribute to her desire to change the world, one small action at a time. Pearl turned her grief and her experience into a chance to further what she had started as a French journalist and what Danny believed in. For most women I admire, looking long enough, I eventually find a liberal columnist criticising her actions, a conservative one doubting her motives. Pearl, on the other hand, seems to spark off nothing but unanimous admiration.
Over the past 11 years, she has been active in the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organisation set up by his family “to continue Danny’s mission and to address the root causes of this tragedy, in the spirit, style, and principles that shaped Danny’s work and character”. Recent initiatives include fellowships bringing journalists from the Middle East and South Asia to work in mainstream American newsrooms and Daniel Pearl Youth News, a free online certificate courses for young people wishing to become journalists. The only requirement is that they write about tolerance.
In May 2010, Pearl was in the Oval Office, alongside their son Adam, when President Obama signed into law the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act that demands the Department of State identifies in its yearly human rights report the countries where freedom of press is threatened. She’s also been an advocate of stronger security measures and training for journalists posted abroad.
Pearl has written of her experience and why she feels justice shouldn’t be taken in one’s own hands for the Forgiveness project. In 2007, she published In search of hope, the global diaries of Mariane Pearl, a collection of her writings for Glamour magazine where she highlights global problems by featuring women who fight to solve them every day, rather than writing pity accounts. Reading through each interview, you quickly realise there is a feeling of kinship between Pearl and her interviewees, not because they both have vaginas but because they both undertake to change things, rather than moan about them.
More recently, Pearl has become managing editor for Gucci’s Chime for Change, a foundation dedicated to the empowerment of women across the globe. In an interview with The Independent ahead of the Chime for Change London concert, Pearl declared that she was focusing on women because “they offer more hope for the future”.
I tend to be cynical about any global company setting up a charity organisations since they too often are little more than marketing ploys and a way to buy a conscience. Pearl’s seal of approval however, makes me believe in the project, that it does have the will to truly change things.
For years, any introduction of Mariane Pearl started with some form of “the widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl”. She’s told the story of her husband’s imprisonment and how she reacted to it thousands of times. Saying that hardship can be an opportunity is a cliché but it’s been true of Pearl who’s had the courage and willpower to turn a horrific experience into a chance for the whole world.