Dark and Mighty Hearts
The recent release of the movie, “A Mighty Heart,” based on the book of the same name by Mariane Pearl, widow of journalist Daniel Pearl who was slain in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002, has revived memories of this harrowing event and its implications in a post-9/11 world that seems to be spinning out of control.
Pearl was the Mumbai-based India correspondent of The Wall Street Journal who arrived in Karachi in January, 2002 with his five-month pregnant wife to pursue the investigation of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and his possible al-Qaida links in Pakistan.
Trusting, curious and driven by a passion for truth, Pearl agreed to meet a mysterious, elusive imam named Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani whose followers, it was believed, included Reid. A man named Muhammad Bashir arranged the meeting.
It was a trap, and on January 23, 2002, Daniel Pearl walked straight into it.
A frantic search begins when Mariane suspects that her husband has been kidnapped. Pakistan’s intelligence agency (inter-services intelligence, the ISI), US consulate in Karachi and the FBI pool their resources to rescue Pearl.
The movie is faithful to these well-known facts but what is remarkable is the skill with which director Michael Winterbottom conveys them. Although we know at the outset what happens to Pearl, the movie plays like a thriller. Ordinary scenes pulsate with foreboding. Here is Pearl waving goodbye to Mariane as he is driven away in a yellow taxi for his rendezvous with Gilani from the Karachi villa rented by the writer Asra Nomani. Later in the evening, an anxious Pearl riding a different car asks the driver how much longer it will take to reach his destination, and the driver remains silent. Meanwhile, Mariane fights fear, fatigue, bureaucracy and pains of pregnancy to cling to her sanity as the clock ticks away and her husband fails to return.
After five weeks of false leads and midnight raids into the dens of terror suspects in the labyrinthine alleys of Karachi, an FBI agent posing as a journalist receives a grisly video in a hotel lobby. In graphic detail, it shows Pearl being beheaded by his captors weeks earlier, after he is coerced into confessing his “Jewishness.”
Angelina Jolie is brilliant as Mariane Pearl, at once restrained and explosive, worldly and transcendent. When informed that her husband has been murdered, Jolie retreats to her room in a trance and collapses into what has to be among the most heartrending wail in movie history.
Also impressive is an officer whom Mariane calls “Captain.” Played by Irrfan Khan, whom many Americans recently saw as the father in 'Namesake', the "Captain" is the head of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism unit. He vows to Marianne that “I will bring your Danny home” and afterwards, that he will bring Pearl’s killers to justice “even if it is going to take a lifetime, my lifetime.” He speaks softly, but there is no mistaking the steel beneath the velvet.
It was the "Captain" who found that “Bashir,” who lured Daniel into the fatal trap, was in reality Omar Saeed Sheikh, the London School of Economics dropout arrested in 1994 in New Delhi for kidnapping American and British tourists. He was released by the Indian government in exchange for the hostages of an Indian airliner hijacked to Afghanistan in December 1999.
Omar Saeed Sheikh was sentenced to death in July 2002 by a Pakistani court for the murder of Daniel Pearl but with several appeals pending, he remains in jail.
In the tangled world of terror, however, the truth behind the killing of Daniel Pearl remains as elusive as ever.
On March 15, 2007, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks who was captured in Rawalpindi in March 2003, told a U.S. military tribunal that he personally beheaded Daniel Pearl. “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”
Mohammed claimed that he was tortured while in CIA custody, but told the judge at his hearing that he was speaking freely and was telling the truth.
How will Mohammed’s confession affect the fate of Omar Saeed Sheikh? No one seems to know, a source of anger and frustration for Mariane and all those who wish to see justice done.
Mariane, whose mother is Cuban and father Dutch, gave birth to Daniel’s posthumous son, Adam D. Pearl, on May 26, 2002 in Paris. (We learn from the book that as she is getting ready to give birth in the delivery room, she is wearing a long white shirt she and Danny bought in Dhaka, Bangladesh.) Through Adam, she hopes to continue the legacy of her husband.
What is this legacy? As Mariane explains, it is to remain true to your purpose in life and to never let hate consume you. It is to reject a Manichean worldview where subjective versions of good vs. evil is locked in an eternal battle, a world without hope, a world where violence is the only solution.
“Part of my ‘revenge’ (against the fanatics) was that my purpose wouldn’t change – not how I live, the work that I do or my approach to the world,” she recently said in TIME magazine. In response to “Has your view of Islam changed?”, Mariane replied, “No, it hasn’t changed at all. I grew up with Muslim people, so I was very acquainted with Islam. So it is not like the people who killed Danny taught me what Islam was about. They are hijackers of their own faith.”
And when asked, “You have a great love for the Pakistani people. Has that love changed?”, Mariane said, “Not at all … For me the nationality and the religion is really a secondary matter. For me, it is all a matter of human behavior … The people who I truly love in Pakistan are the most noble, powerful and deep people that I have ever met in my life. At times like that you encounter the worst human behavior possible, so you are also going to be very sensitive to the best human behavior possible ...”
In the context of the war on terror waged by the U.S. government since 9/11, in which the certitude of zealots is matched by the certitude of the movers and shakers in Washington, Mariane Pearl is a beacon.
While she is more eager than anyone to see the killers of her husband, and the killers of innocent people anywhere, brought to justice, she has achieved the ultimate victory against the extremists by remaining true to her goal, and her husband’s, of bridging races, religions and cultures through compassion and understanding. She has done this without in any way compromising with the fanatics and their nihilistic ideologies.
Like her husband, Mariane gives substance to Hemingway’s observation about the fearless fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Against the mighty hearts of the likes of the Captain and the Pearls, the heart of darkness symbolized by the likes of Omar Saeed Sheikh and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad stand no chance. There is a lesson here: Never succumb to despair, and never allow fear to overcome courage and hope.