x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

BBC's Mishal Husain: from UAE to US to China

Mishal Husain, one of the best-known faces on BBC World News, talks about her upbringing in Abu Dhabi and her shining career in journalism.

The letter on her desk was carefully inscribed with swirling italic handwriting and politely addressed to Mishal Husain, courtesy of the BBC.
But even as she tore open the envelope, Husain already knew instinctively who the meticulous handwriting belonged to.
Her heart skipped a beat as she read: "I used to teach a Mishal Husain in Abu Dhabi. I just wondered if you were the same person?"
The missive transported Husain back to her former classroom at the British School in the UAE, Al Khubairat, where she spent her formative years being taught by the letter writer, Karnia Rooney. It was an experience that she believes planted the seeds of her career as a global news anchor.
"She was my teacher at Al Khubairat and an extraordinary woman," Husain says when we meet at BBC headquarters in London. "She was one of those teachers you never forget. One of her big things was handwriting and she taught us all to write in italic handwriting.
"I had not been a presenter in Washington for that long when she wrote to me. The funny thing is, the minute I saw the envelope, I knew it was from her because her writing was so distinctive.
"I always think that is one of the nicest things a career in the news has ever delivered. That letter has meant more to me than any other and we still write to each other. I only hope I made her proud rather than thinking: 'Oh my goodness, I taught her nothing'."
It is hard to see how the schoolteacher could fail to feel proud of Husain's rising star.
Born in Northampton in the UK and raised in the UAE, the Cambridge University graduate was the BBC's first Washington-based anchor. She was despatched to the US after the September 11 attacks and gained a cult following of nearly one million viewers with her live nightly programme, screened at the height of the debate about the Iraq war.
After she left the US in 2003, she went on to become the main evening news presenter on BBC World News, broadcasting to 200 countries, before joining the organisation's domestic operation on BBC Breakfast.
Her background in international law and her personable presenting style put her back on the global stage, this time as the face of World News Today, an east Asia-focused current affairs programme.
Since February, she has been presenting Impact Asia, an incisive news, business and cultural digest of significant developments in the region, to a worldwide audience of millions every weekday while viewers at home in the UK watch her reading the weekend news bulletins.
Last year The Times newspaper named her one of the top five most influential Muslim women in the UK. The Washington Post has called her "spellbinding" and a website poll voted her one of the world's "sexiest TV anchors".
What would Mrs Rooney make of all that?
"I have incredibly fond memories of growing up in the Emirates and wonder how much of my interest in global news and current affairs comes from having that really international childhood," says Husain, 37, who juggles her high-powered job with caring for her sons Rafael, six, and twins Musa and Zaki, four.
"I think news has always been in my blood. I grew up all over the world, my parents were born in one country and lived in many others so I think the desire to find out about the world we live in has always been a part of me and it has felt like a very natural thing to move from being a viewer of the news to being a part of making the news."
Considering her global popularity, it would be easy to affect airs and graces but there is something disarmingly natural about Husain. She is charming and utterly without any affectations, so much so that when we fail to find one another in the labyrinth that is BBC Television Centre, she comes in search of me herself, clutching a paper cup of Earl Grey tea.
"There you are," she smiles, waving cheerily after weaving her way through crowds of jostling tourists in the foyer of TV Centre, oblivious to the star in their midst as they go in search of the celebrities of another BBC show, Strictly Come Dancing.
Smartly dressed in a red jumper, black trousers and a scarf knotted about her neck, she is petite, poised and a natural beauty, even under heavy studio make-up. Born to bright, academic and affluent parents - her father was a urologist while her mother, a former producer for Pakistan Television Corporation and a teacher, has three degrees - it is perhaps little wonder that Husain, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, had the confidence and ambition to reach the upper echelons of a thoroughly British institution.
She was two years old when her father, then a junior doctor, relocated from the UK to the UAE. There, he had been tasked to set up a specialist urology unit at what was then Central Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
From 1975, just as the newborn country was emerging from a British protectorate, she spent 10 happy years camping at weekends and exploring the UAE with her parents, who were both "intrepid great desert-goers".
She says: "My memories of growing up are totally based in the UAE. My father had a little sailing boat and on Fridays, we used to go and meet friends on a little island and take a picnic.
"We would also go to Khor Fakkan, which was just amazing and such a gem. I have just the best memories of the outdoors and things that my children will really never have, like desert campfires.
"My only regret is that my school Arabic was not something that developed into a command of the language because the population was so overwhelmingly expat. That's a shame because it would be great to be an Arabic-speaking journalist."
When Husain was 12, her father moved to a job in Saudi Arabia and she went to Cobham Hall girls' boarding school in Kent, south-east England. Despite the family's nomadic existence, the friendships she formed there have lasted to this day but she has few ties with the UAE.
"The hard thing about an expat childhood is once it comes to an end, you are not connected. It is not like you go back somewhere and your friends are around," she says.
What it did give her was an early consciousness of the world: "I grew up in a family that was always very aware of the world around us. My parents were big consumers of news and were always reading papers and magazines.
"I remember overhearing them talking about the assassinations of Anwar Sadat [the third president of Egypt] in 1981 and Indira Gandhi in 1984. It makes me wonder what events my children will remember their parents talking about."
But a career in journalism was not a given. Husain studied law at New Hall, Cambridge, before going on to complete a masters in international and comparative law at the European University Institute in Florence, with a thesis on the legal status of Bosnian refugees in Europe.
"It was while I was at Cambridge that I started thinking maybe I was not cut out to be a lawyer and I should think about other things," she says. "I loved international law and human rights but wasn't so keen on contract and tort and I suddenly thought, the ones I really like are probably not what the nuts and bolts of what being a lawyer will be about."
Having dabbled in journalism with work experience on a Pakistani newspaper at the age of 18, she had another taste of the adrenalin rush of a newsroom when she shadowed Joshua Rozenberg, who was then the BBC's legal affairs correspondent, an experience that decided her fate.
After a two-year stint working at Bloomberg TV, where she wrote, produced and occasionally presented, she secured a job as a junior producer on BBC World News in 1998.
But she says it was a "fluke" she ended up becoming a public face of the broadcaster, thanks to a staff shortage that meant she was asked to cover a 4am presenting shift while working as a producer in the organisation's business and economics unit.
"I was absolutely terrified because it was a huge jump and I could have crashed and burned hideously," she says.
"But I enjoyed it and that was 10 years ago and it is what I do now. I can't say I dreamed of being a presenter. I dreamed of being a BBC journalist and was overjoyed when that happened and then I dabbled a bit in front of the camera but I did not actually think about that as a career path."
Presenting, she says, is a "terribly privileged position to be in. I've seen BBC World News from all angles because I've interned, I've produced and been a correspondent and ended up as a presenter."
She began as an anchor for business programmes on BBC World News in May 2000 before a post as the presenter of the newly launched Asia Business Report took her to Singapore in October that year.
Husain was in New York to report on the markets re-opening after the September 11 attacks and was subsequently posted to Washington in 2002, where she was based as the BBC's first US anchor when the Iraq war broke out. She returned to London in 2003 to marry Meekal Hashmi, a fellow Briton of Pakistani heritage and childhood friend who became a surprise sweetheart a year earlier.
"Our mothers had been friends for 40 years. We joke and say it was an arranged marriage but actually it wasn't," she says, laughing.
"I would not say it was at all obvious to me in my early 20s that I would end up with him but I knew him all along, which is great. I think there are very few husbands who would be as positive about their wives having as demanding jobs.
"Meekal is just fantastic about it and has always been incredibly encouraging. We're a team."
Since then, she has gone on to interview a host of politicians and high-profile figures, from the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, to the author Paulo Coelho, Sir Paul McCartney and the Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan.
Of the news stories she has covered, the ones that stood out were the September 11 attacks in New York in 2001, Pakistan's 60th anniversary celebrations and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, as well as two significant events in China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo this year.
"Those stories were poignant in different ways," says Husain. "I felt I was witnessing a really important moment that China had been waiting for. Then there are the stories that have mattered to me - the anniversary was one and then a few months later, the assassination.
"I was definitely more aware of my Pakistani heritage when I became a mother. I want my three little boys to know who they are and that it's a part of the world we have a connection to.
"I do think faith is incredibly personal but if people think I might be a role model for younger women, that is fantastic and a huge honour."
Motherhood has not slowed Husain down: she is more in demand than ever. Last month she was in Malaysia covering the World Capital Market Symposium; next week, she will broadcast Impact Asia from the G20 summit in Seoul. She will leave the boys in the care of a nanny and Hashmi, 40, a high-flying lawyer who works as general counsel for Old Mutual Asset Managers.
Husain says of her sons: "They are a handful, bless them, but it is easier than when they were small babies. I don't particularly like being away from home but it is part of my job. Now I try to go away for short trips. We Skype a lot, which is brilliant."
Earlier this year things came full circle when Husain returned to the UAE with her family to search for the east coast cove where she camped as a child.
"It was so wonderful and the boys just loved it," she says. "The years seemed to melt away. I would love to go back."
 

The Husain file

BORN March 12, 1973, Northampton, UK
FAMILY Husband Meekal Hashmi, 40, sons Rafael, six, and twins Musa and Zaki, four
SCHOOLING The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi, and Cobham Hall, Kent, UK
ON GROWING UP IN THE UAE It was a very innocent, outdoors life with an international group of people, a great place to grow up in the Seventies and Eighties.
ON BECOMING A JOURNALIST I grew up in a family that was always very aware of the world around us. I am incredibly lucky.
ON BEING MUSLIM I don't feel there is a message that is not being put across because this is a very diverse society; we are represented in every walk of life.
CAREER LOW POINT Awaiting a George W Bush press conference, the BBC accidentally broadcast a live feed of the president having his hair styled as he practised his speech.
CAREER HIGH POINT I met Sir Paul McCartney a few years ago on tour in the US. To be in the same room as a Beatle and talk to him one on one was an amazing experience.