Sweet from Sour : Journalist Sandy Tolan on the Middle East and training the reporters of tomorrow

“I’m not here to tell war stories, but to engage the students in a project and get them out in the world . . . I’ve always liked the idea of using the classroom as a newsroom. ”
Sandy Tolan, journalist and author

February 19, 2008 7:33 AM
“Stay on the ground. Get your story from the ground. You’ll be okay, just don’t decide on what the story is before you go.”
Journalist and author Sandy Tolan received that advice from several of his mentors in his early education, including George Stoney, who taught him at New York University, and the New York Times’ Wayne King. Over 25 years, several books, award-winning radio shows, articles, and reports, Mr. Tolan has kept to the ground, trying to bring out stories of world conflicts through the people who experience them. His latest book, about which he lectures on Tuesday night, does so in the middle of the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The Lemon Tree” tells the tale of one house and one tree, and how the changing hands of ownership allowed Mr. Tolan to impart the story of the conflict through two families. Built by an Arab family, the house was inhabited by the al-Khairis until the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. The al-Khairis left and the house became home to the Eshkenazi family four months later. In 1967, Bashir al-Khairis visited the house and met Dalia Eshkenazi. As the decades passed, both Bashir and Dalia kept in touch.
“The book grew out of the 1998 radio documentary that I did on the 50th anniversary of the war,” Mr. Tolan says. “In all our coverage that I’ve read on the war, of all the forests fallen to make articles and the miles of videotape spilled, so much of it is about the blood and the conflict. There is too little of the human story. Many of us in the U.S., we grew up with the Leon Uris version of history, as in his book ‘Exodus.’ We learned how the growth of Israel came out of the Holocaust. What we didn’t learn was the other side. It doesn’t refute the Israeli side, but you must understand the roots of the conflict.”
That need led him to the story of Bashir and Dalia. But, he says, he had no idea how the story would evolve or what it might say about the conflict.
“I knew I was going on a pretty long ride. My opinion wasn’t changed, but it was deepened.”
Unlike in the movies, real life doesn’t resolve itself neatly. The lemon tree of the title seemed like a nice metaphor for the conflict — bearing bitter fruit, planted by Palestinians on Israeli land, etc. — but its fate ends abruptly, with nothing poetic about it.

When dealing with reality, how does Mr. Tolan know when a story has resolved?
“There’s always a deadline,” he says. “Thank God for deadlines, or we’d never get things done. This story has no neat and tidy end point. At some point I wanted . . . the ending to be told in the lives of those in which the story goes on. I got a chance to see those two people (Bashir and Dalia) finally meet again face to face. Something in their conversations was powerful and poignant. They were two old friends who disagree deeply, yet were so warm and genuine about their relationship. After seeing them argue and exchange a depth of grieving and kindness, I felt I had the ending.”
Mr. Tolan began his journalism career by reporting on the former uranium miners in north Arizona, most of whom were Navajo. He spent months living with and interviewing these men on the reservation, most now dying of cancer. Mr. Tolan says he comes out of an era that was still celebrating the power of journalism working for the public good. This was the post-Watergate era, he says, “when the words journalist and hero could be used in the same sentence. The public had a much better view of journalism in the mid- to late-’70s than they do now . . . There was the idea that you could be involved in making society better by digging for untold stories.”
A recent transplant to Los Angeles, Mr. Tolan teaches journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students, he helps them learn how to tackle large topics in a real-world setting. Some of these projects have made their way into print (Christian Science Monitor), online (Salon.com), or radio (NPR). It’s as close to a real working environment as they’re going to get. In 2007 his students won the George Polk Award for reporting on global climate change. It was the first time students had been honored in the history of the award.
“I’m a working journalist,” Mr. Tolan says, explaining how he teaches. “I’m not here to tell war stories, but to engage the students in a project and get them out in the world . . . I’ve always liked the idea of using the classroom as a newsroom.”
Mr. Tolan likes to impart to his students the idea of not staying in one medium. Instead, he tells them, focus on storytelling skills.
“I was a freelance radio reporter for years,” he explains. “I was doing a story for NPR and then for the New York Times, using the same material. That’s a part of the reason I survived. Now that’s called multi-media. Reporters are asked to take their own photos. They are asked to do ‘Reporters Notebooks’ on NPR.”
Although Mr. Tolan has realistic expectations about how “The Lemon Tree” will help understanding of the Middle East’s situation, he says that desire to have an impact stays with him. Just don’t expect Hollywood endings.
“I found that change doesn’t come directly,” he says. Mr. Tolan cites an article on abuses at a maquiladora on the Arizona-Mexico border that he wrote in the late ’80s. “There wasn’t much reaction when it ran in the New York Times. But six months to a year later, a board member for one of the companies read the article. He was so disturbed by the living conditions of the workers that he helped sponsor the construction of workers’ homes. They built 600.
“But it was partly by chance I heard about it,” he says.
When: Tuesday, February 19, 8:00 p.m.
Where: UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Tickets: Free
More info: www.sandytolan.com
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press

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