Georgie Anne Geyer's final journey

The renowned columnist who travelled the world over for decades left her mark in a previously male-dominated world of foreign correspondents.
Wednesday 22/05/2019
American journalist Georgie Anne Geyer. (uexpress)
American journalist Georgie Anne Geyer. (uexpress)

TUNIS - Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, a foreign correspondent who travelled the world over for decades, has made her final journey. Geyer died May 15 in Washington at the age of 84.

“Gee Gee,” as she was known to her friends, including this writer, was a female reporter who left her mark in a previously male-dominated world of foreign correspondents.

Born in 1936, she graduated from Northwestern University in 1956 and obtained her first major journalistic job at the Chicago Daily News three years later. In her 1983 autobiography, “Buying the Night Flight,” she explained what it was like entering the field of journalism as a woman in that era:

“I was 27. And I was clearly a woman,” she wrote. “All the correspondents were men in their 50s and 60s.”

Fluent in Spanish, Geyer put much of her focus on South America. She interviewed former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and wrote a book about him.

She was also attracted to the Middle East and North Africa, interviewing many of the region’s leaders, including Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

As a woman reporter, Geyer said she expected no special treatment while mingling with revolutionaries and guerrilla leaders in the Middle East and Latin America and was never inhibited by the danger.

However, in recent years, she said such adventures were becoming increasingly too dangerous for foreign correspondents. “One of my specialities was getting to these guerrilla groups,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2017. “Today, I couldn’t do that with [the Islamic State] ISIS or al-Qaida. They’d kill me.”

In much of her work, Geyer conveyed the views of Middle East leaders but never without a healthy dose of scepticism. In Qaddafi, for example, she could see the sociological handicaps of “a desert boy, raised in a tent.”

When she interviewed Khomeini in December 1978, she was unconvinced by his democratic pledges or support for women's rights. "Anyone who knew even a little bit about the ayatollah's highly conservative form of Islam would realise the early Persians learned how to ‘dissimulate’ or lie to strategically protect the faith from invaders. So I did not take any of this very seriously. And I was surely right," she wrote.

By telling it as it is from her conservative perspective, Geyer was not afraid of being perceived as politically incorrect or controversial, both in Washington and abroad.

She interviewed Arafat several times from 1977 to 1980. Her portrayal of him was not always flattering, although she was accused of anti-Israeli bias by pro-Israel organisations.

Unlike some Orientalist minds in the West, she did not see fanaticism as representative of the Arab or Islamic world’s intellectual history.

“There have been great liberal Muslim societies across history: Al-Andalus in Spain, the Mughal Empire in India, the (more-or-less) Ottoman Empire in Turkey and many more,” she wrote. “The great universities of ancient times, from Damascus to Baghdad, saved the universal works of Greece for all of us.”

Geyer grew especially fascinated with Tunisia, which she described as “a heartbreakingly beautiful enclave of 10 million people,” and the role of its first president, Habib Bourguiba, in fashioning the country's pragmatic outlook. She followed the country's turmoil and saw conclusions from developments there to the rest of the region.

“Security with authority or democracy without security? This is the underlying question in much of the Arab world today and Tunisia spells it out for us,” she wrote in 2015.

Still, she saw an enduring streak of moderation in much of the Arab region as a reason for hope.

“Today you could add Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Dubai and especially Oman to an imperfect but impressive modern list of Islamic countries that choose moderate, step-by-step development over reviewing troops,” she wrote the same year.

After 1975, Geyer began writing a syndicated column for the Los Angeles Times and then for the Universal Press Syndicate.

My last time meeting with “Gee Gee” was two years ago in Washington’s National Press Club, where she handed me a picture of herself that she insisted on signing. I could see how emotional she was about it.

The brave reporter who had survived a serious bout with cancer seemed already to be saying goodbye.