From game show host on Lebanese local TV to the host of CNN’s "Inside the Middle East", Rima Maktabi shows no signs of slowing down her journalism career.
This month, Maktabi and her team celebrate the 100th episode of "Inside the Middle East", a show that tells the stories of the people from the region.
“It’s been an interesting two years, challenging, but I learnt by the day,” she says of the show. “It’s definitely got me closer to the Arab world.”
Weekend Review spoke to Maktabi about her journalism career, where it has taken her and where she plans to go next. Maktabi, 35, plans to go back to news reporting soon. Excerpts:
Can you tell us a bit more about how your career in journalism started?
Rima Maktabi: I did ten years at Future Television [a local TV station in Lebanon]. I did five years at Al Arabiya [Arab television news channel] and it’s been two years at CNN. I was 18 at the time and I hadn’t yet gone to university. When I enrolled [at university], I’d say since 1997 I knew it was going to be a couple of years before I get into news. I did some entertainment and game shows, and then I moved to news.
Weekend Review: Is that what you had always dreamt of?
Rima Maktabi: I never thought of being on TV. I never dreamt of it. Probably I was a journalist by nature because when I was a teenager at school I started the school magazine and it was the first episode which I and other people at school worked on. When I look back, probably I wanted to be a journalist and I didn’t know that I wanted to be one. TV has not been a target, but the career of journalism. To be honest, when I started in TV, I was a working student and I was responsible for myself and so it was an income for me. It was a way of making money while studying.
Weekend Review: While working for Al Arabiya, you covered the July war in 2006. Do you think that covering the war shaped your career?
Rima Maktabi: Yes. I was in news almost four years before the July war and maybe more, but the July war pushed my career forward. When you do these things, you don’t think about your career. Simply my country was at war and I just had to cover the story. When I took the risk and went to South Lebanon and got stuck there for two weeks with a curfew, I didn’t think about my career. I thought about surviving; I thought about covering the story and telling the world what’s happening. Definitely my career took a different turn when this happened.
Weekend Review: How is what you’re doing with <Inside the Middle East> different from what you have done in the past?
Rima Maktabi: It is different reporting, more features. It’s interesting on the one hand that coming from Arab media we’ve been doing hardcore news for the past decades. If it’s not Palestine, it’s Iraq. If it’s not Iraq, it’s Yemen. If it’s not Yemen it would be Lebanon. It’s been really bloody. It was an interesting shift. I definitely got the chance to meet the people upfront and live. If Lebanon is at war, the rest of the Arab world is surviving. Young people are graduating. They have aspirations. They have problems. They have difficulties. They have achievements. That’s what the experience of <Inside the Middle East> has given me. But the Arab Spring has been taking place and I got the chance to cover a few stories.
Weekend Review: So do you sometimes miss doing that?
Rima Maktabi: I miss it every day. And I’ll be back soon to it.
Weekend Review: Is that something you’re trying to push for because you feel that’s where your heart is?
Rima Maktabi: It’s been on the map; we’ve planned it even before I joined CNN. It’s just that <Inside the Middle East> does take a lot of time. It’s just an issue of scheduling.
Weekend Review: How would you describe the state of journalism in the Arab world today?
Rima Maktabi: I’m in no position to evaluate Arab media. Having gone to international media doesn’t give me an edge. It’s a shorter experience for Arab media. You can’t compare channels that are 10 or 15 years old with CNN that is 31 years old. But let me tell you this. The Arab Spring has also meant a revolution for Arab media. Even us as an international channel, we monitor Arab media on a daily basis. The first news of Gaddafi arrested and being taken away by a bunch of kids came out on a Libyan channel. The first news of the release of Shalit came out on an Egyptian channel, not even Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera. So the concept of media in the Arab world has changed. We have the concept of citizen journalists that is now telling you everything that is happening in Syria. Yes, we have the question of accuracy, but let’s say we’re in a very interesting time where we’re witnessing major changes. Even as journalists, we will look back one day and assess this experience as it is taking our media to a different level.
Weekend Review: Can you tell us a bit more about the travelling you’ve been doing throughout the region for the show?
Rima Maktabi: I’m 35. I’ve lived my whole life in the Arab world – 30 years in Lebanon and five years here [in the United Arab Emirates] and you think you know the region. You think covering wars and covering political stories on a daily basis gets you to see things and it’s not true. It’s a limited view of what’s happening on the ground. Meeting people, talking to them, seeing the geography of this region, feeling the street, feeling the pulse of the people, that’s the story. It is an experience that wherever I go in life it has marked my two years. It has definitely got me closer to the Arab world. It’s true I’m not appearing on Arab media, but I’m closer to the people now. I’m not tied up in a studio reporting to them. I’m just between them.
Weekend Review: Which countries do you hope the show to take you next?
Rima Maktabi: I haven’t been to Yemen. I haven’t been to Kurdistan in Iraq and I haven’t been to Iran.
Weekend Review: Which interview would you like to get?
Rima Maktabi: I’d like to speak to Hosni Mubarak and [Zine Al Abidine] Ben Ali. I would just like to have a chat with them.
Weekend Review: Does your career in journalism give you enough time for family?
Rima Maktabi: It’s difficult. This is the life of a journalist. I’ve chosen this. I wanted this. It’s easier now than Al Arabiya days, but it’s also unstable because things happen and you have to jump to the bureau and just do things and cover the story.
Weekend Review: Do you ever think about when you would stop?
Rima Maktabi: It’s a passion. Maybe if I had kids and family I would choose other aspects of this career, but for now I want to be on top of every story.
Watch Inside the Middle East’s 100th episode on June 16 at 15:30 and June 17 at 8.30am and 10.30pm in the UAE.