Sunday, September 16, 2007
Dinner with Madonna
When Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Kevin Flower, began gesticulating wildly at me from across the dinner table, pointing at his chest and mouthing some word I mistook for an obscenity, I thought maybe he was trying to tell me the bill was here and I owed him a LOT of money.

It took me a while to realize that he was actually pointing at a petite blonde sitting at the table behind him instantly recognizable as the one and only Madonna.

Suddenly, the place was buzzing. Waiters dropped their dishes. Diners stopped chewing and turned around to stare. The more quick-witted ones whipped out their mobile phones and snapped grainy pictures.

But while the rest of the place craned their necks to get a better look, I was shrinking into my seat hoping to disappear from view.

You see, I did a story recently on Madonna, Kabbalah and her visit to Israel for the Jewish holidays. Suddenly, face to face with the subject of my work, I was terrified.

I had a vision of her marching over and slapping me with her dinner napkin, deeply offended at my pathetic attempt to report on her celebrity supremacy as husband Guy Ritchie glowered at me from a distance.

So, I took decisive action. I decided to ignore her. I turned to a fellow journalist beside me for support.

"What about these rumors of the Egyptian President’s failing health? What does it all mean?" I asked in a desperate attempt to look serious and sound earnest, pretending to be utterly unconcerned with the superstar in our midst.

But it was unavoidable. All around me people wanted to talk Madonna. What kind of shoes is she wearing? What is she eating? Is it kosher? What size do you think she wears? She’s so tiny! Why does her hair look so great? Atika, why does her hair look so perfect? You have the best view!

That was the worst part. I had a clear shot to the Material Girl herself and I was too embarrassed to even glance in her direction.

My friend Katherine, a professional photographer who is much braver than me, suddenly announced, "I want to take her picture but I don’t have a camera."

Guiltily, sheepishly, I slid my CNN-paid-for videophone across the table to her, an enabler to paparazzi.

You know, as a journalist, I’ve walked into the aftermath of a tsunami, stared down the barrel of a kalashnikov, and run headfirst into a riot. I’ve interviewed presidents and prime ministers, even a convicted cannibal.

But I couldn’t even gather enough guts to press a button and take a photo of Madonna.

We struggled for at least 30 minutes like this. Giddily taking photos of each other. Surreptitiously zooming in on the real target behind us.

It was a mess.

The closest we got was a very unflattering picture of Bureau Chief Kevin Flower and Madonna’s two bodyguards blocking the view behind him.

So, at the restaurants urging, we finally paid the bill and walked out, utterly defeated.

Of course, I’m sure Madonna had no idea what was going on. She probably didn’t even watch CNN and had never even seen my piece on air and didn’t give a hoot except to think: What a bunch of losers these people at the next table are.

Outside, the paparazzi pounced on us as we exited, flashing and snapping their cameras then groaning when they realized their mistake.

What was I doing? I should have elbowed her bodyguards aside, brazenly snapped a photo and demanded an interview with Madonna mid-bite. That's what a real journalist would do.

So, Madonna, I apologize for not doing my job and interrupting your dinner and bombarding you with questions until I was forcibly removed from the building.

I admit it: When it comes to celebrities, I am a bad journalist.

-- From CNN International Correspondent Atika Shubert in Jerusalem.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Watching the CSI Madeleine show
The sleepy and quaint Portuguese town of Praia da Luz has never witnessed such commotion and speculation.

From taxi drivers, churchgoers and waiters to the tourists -- everyone here has an opinion on what's behind the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

But with little or no official evidence being provided by authorities, many see the mysterious case as real life CSI playing before their eyes.

From the moment we landed in Portuguese soil, we witnessed the dramatization of this case first hand. Hundreds of journalists from around the world planted themselves outside the somewhat degraded and tiny police station in Portimao. Restrained by police barricades, we looked like stuffed Portuguese sardines. But we weren't the only ones that looked out of place here.

Tourists too in their flip-flops and summer hats, still smelling of perfumed sun tan lotion -- have anxiously awaited word on the fate of Kate and Gerry McCann.

After hours under the intense Portuguese sun, their spokespeople revealed that Kate and Gerry had been made suspects. As our reporter informed CNN viewers around the world of that surprise decision, those on the ground listened attentively to the report, gasping at the news.

Some 24 hours after being made "arguidos," I get a call telling me the McCann's are leaving the country. We pick up our gear, call a taxi and within 15 minutes we're outside the McCann's villa -- the first on the scene. As dawn breaks, the McCann's make a fast exit, quickly chased by TV crews and snappers. This sight was once again all too familiar.

Little has been officially said of what's happened to Madeleine. That day will soon come. In the meantime however, speculation, regardless of how ludicrous, is making every reader, listener and spectator, armchair forensic experts.

Let's just hope this narrative doesn't reach a new cruel reality.

-- From CNN International Producer Isa Soares in Praia da Luz, Portugal
Suspicion and surreality in Portugal
My arrival at Faro airport was the first surreal moment for me during this trip. It occured to me stepping off the plane and into the awaiting shuttle bus to the terminal building that I was obviously surrounded by holiday makers. Of course, I was heading to a tourist resort, however I was not destined for a sunshine break and the people around me, clutching their Portuguese phrase books, looked on strangely as me and the correspondent I was with immediately starting checking our BlackBerries and mobile phones.

We decided to head straight to the police station in Portimao where Gerry McCann was being questioned by the police over the disappearance of his daughter Madeleine. His wife Kate had spent 11 exhausting hours at the police station the night before and another 4-5 hours that day before appearing to face the press and public as an arguido, or formal suspect.

As soon as I arrived at the police station, I was astonished at the masses of onlookers and press surrounding the door. It was virtually impossible to find my way to the front where our reporter, cameraman and producer were set up.

Within an hour of our arrival there Gerry McCann appeared from the police station door. He was accompanied by the family's laywer and their spokesman. The sight of McCann was another quite surreal moment. I had seen this man almost every day for almost four months, appearing on our television screens, newspaper front pages and Web sites around the world. His face had become instantly recognisable and seeing him standing before me felt like this was a man I already knew.

My second observation was just how exhausted and emotional he looked: Red eyed and barely able to face the waiting press that until now he had encouraged to surround his family. As photographers and journalists scrambled to get their shots of him, he barely had the energy to turn and face their cameras.

His laywer started addressing the crowds in Portuguese announcing that Gerry too had become an arguido in the case of his missing daughter. The atmosphere outside the Police station that night was that of surprise and confusion. How had the two people who had campaigned tirelessly since Madeleine disappeared become suspects?

Many journalists will be in the resort of Praia da Luz for a long time to come. Everyone here for the same reason -- to discover the truth.

-- From CNN International Producer Nicola Goulding in Praia da Luz, Portugal
Friday, September 14, 2007
Why Madeleine?
The first thing you ask yourself when covering this story is why Madeleine?
Why is there focus on this one particular girl when the sad truth is countless children are currently missing around the world?

The simple answer is that this is exactly what her parents Kate and Gerry McCann wanted.

With Madeleine gone the parents were keen to ensure she wasn’t forgotten. Her picture was placed in virtually every shop in Europe, a plea for information came from football star David Beckham and her parents even had a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.

But with their change in status to suspects in the disappearance of their own daughter, the media interest cannot be switched off.
Once courted, it is unshakeable.

Especially as unnamed sources and speculation are rife, hard facts are elusive and the Portuguese police say little officially.

Kate and Gerry can only protest their innocence in the disappearance of the now instantly recognizable Madeleine McCann.

One thing that strikes me is the courtesy the British media in Portugal has shown for Kate and Gerry.
Many of them accompanied the McCanns around Europe in their quest to keep the search for their daughter alive.

As Kate and Gerry individually walked the gauntlet of cameras, journalists and paparazzi into the police station in the Portuguese town of Portimao, there were the usual calls for a comment, a request to turn around for a photo, but the word “please” was used on more than one occasion.
In the intense 10-second window the media usually gets after waiting hours to take a shot, these niceties rarely emerge.
Jeering and whistling from some Portuguese onlookers were countered by shouts of “we believe you Kate” from British holidaymakers.

The McCann PR machine has done an unprecedented job of putting the McCanns and their missing daughter on the front pages. The problem for the couple now is that by encouraging international interest, any request for privacy will fall on deaf ears.

-- From CNN International Correspondent Paula Hancocks in Portimao, Portugal.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
A new millennium in Ethiopia
It is a strange experience to go back in time to relive a historic event, but here in Addis Ababa I’ve done just that.

It’s been seven years and nine months after most of us saw in the new millennium, but in Ethiopia it has just begun. With a number of official events, including a performance by the Black Eyed Peas, people have been partying like it really was 1999. This shift in time is because Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar that was given up by the rest of the world centuries ago.

I am in Ethiopia filming for the CNN program Revealed, profiling the great long distance and marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie, and by coincidence here at this momentous occasion. Haile is a wonderful man and Ethiopian hero. Not wanting us to be left out he invited us to his house with his family to enjoy a traditional New Year’s Eve. There was dancing and singing around a bonfire. We feasted on roasted goat, which we had only admired in his garden just two days before.

The last time I celebrated the millennium was with CNN filming from a cliff top in the Chatham Island in New Zealand. The first inhabited place to see the first dawn of the New Millennium. One thing I haven’t heard about this time has been the Y2K bug. The Ethiopians have had seven years to find out if computers and financial markets aren’t sent into turmoil at the stroke of midnight.

Ethiopia has made a big deal of this strange shift in time, with banners and festive lights throughout the capital. Security has been a big issue with armed security forces patrolling the city and some events cancelled. The producer, Rosie Tomkins, and I were stopped twice and searched at armed check-points driving on our way to an open air concert later in the evening. There was lots of traditional music and dance, and the audience were in a great party mood dancing into the very early hours.

It has been a very memorable experience.

Happy New Millennium from Addis Ababa.

-- From Neil Bennett, CNN International Photographer, in Addis Ababa.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Watching the Detective
In 2004 I interviewed Alexander McCall Smith in his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. The bow-tie wearing author of the bestselling novels about ‘The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ lived in the same street as J.K Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) and Ian Rankin (author of the Inspector Rebus novels)

At the time, I remember thinking, wow, that’s quite a thing - to have all three of the United Kingdom’s literary big hitters living, almost, side by side. Perhaps there is something in the street’s water supply to boost literary creativity?

While Rowling and Rankin have imagined up a boy wizard and police inspector, McCall Smith has conjured up of a well-meaning lady detective from Botswana.

He called his African heroine Precious Ramotswe and is she the enterprising proprietor of Botswana’s first detective agency. Mma Ramotswe solves crimes with her woman’s intuition, a canny understanding of human nature and a slightly meddling attitude to life.

However, McCall Smith’s detective stories are hardly heart stopping thrillers or gripping mystery novels. In fact, as McCall Smith conceded to me in that 2004 interview, “Not a lot happens” in his detective books except for a “lot of drinking of tea and eating of cake.”

It is testament to McCall Smith’s writing that such slow paced and simple stories have become an international literary phenomenon. So far they have sold around 15 million copies and being translated in 40 languages.

But despite the success of the books, I imagined it would be quite difficult to make a Hollywood movie that just focused on the mundane day-to-day activities of a Botswana lady detective who drinks a lot of tea and eats a lot of cake.

But the film seems to have captured the charm, pace and endearing quirkiness of the novels – from what I saw in the three days I spent on the film set.

Anthony Minghella – the Oscar winning director of one of my all time favourite films ‘The English Patient’ - co-wrote the script with Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary) and is directing too.

I have not hung out on a film set before so I have absolutely no point of reference – but Minghella seems to have an open and easy going directing style. His method of filmmaking seems to mirror Alexander McCall Smith’s style of writing - there is wry humour, clever cheekiness and generosity of spirit stamped on both the novel and screenplay.

The coveted role of Precious Ramotswe went to American actress and singer Jill Scott. She is in just about every scene in the movie so it was difficult to find time to interview her – but I eventually chatted to her at the end of a long day’s filming. She said one of things she really enjoyed about the role was putting on weight – her character is ‘traditionally built’ (Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful turn of phrase for somebody who has a fuller figure).

There were a few other familiar faces on the set – Anika Noni Rose (fresh from the Oscar winning Dreamgirls) and Colin Salmon (from the last three James Bond films)

While it was fascinating watching the professional actors work – it was the VIP extras really made the story for me.

Joining the cast for a funeral scene was Trevor Muamba, the Bishop of Gaborone.

I thought the bishop was the most unlikely film star but he felt he is more than qualified to play the role of a village priest who ‘officiates’ at the funeral of Mma Ramotswe’s father.

The bishop told me that acting was not that different from his day job because, he said, being a bishop (or a lawyer or a politician) necessitated some role-playing.

I got to see him in action – both on and off the set – and he was right, his ‘acting’ did not look much different from his real life preaching.

Also, as an Anglican bishop Muamba gets to ‘dress up’ in purple robes and a strikingly majestic looking mitre when he preaches at the Gaborone cathedral. In real life, I think his bishop’s costume was so much more theatrical than the plain black and white cassock he dons for the movie.

The bishop was also wonderfully comfortable in the make-up chair. An excellent conversationalist – he chatted happily to the make-up artist Kerry as she tried to give him a more ‘chiselled’ look. He even quipped that he should get her come and ‘do’ his face in the cathedral before his services.

The Bishop was joined on the set by another Botswana highflier.

I met the Minister of Health, Sheila Tlou, in her trailer on the set. This bubbly cabinet minister had the role of ‘Woman Mourner No1’ – she was in the same funeral scene as the bishop.

She seemed completely undaunted by her Hollywood debut and came across as someone who takes her amateur acting very seriously. She’s a member of many of Gaborone’s theatre groups.

In fact, she told me, acting is ‘therapy’ for her, “When you are Minister of Health, anything can happen anytime and you literally hold the lives of people in your hands. So once in a while you need something where you can forget about who you are.”

When I asked her how she was planning to slip into her role as the most senior ‘mourner.’ Mrs Tlou told me she was planning to sing very loudly.

Well, I can tell you, she did far better than that. During the filming of the funeral service there was indeed a lot of singing. But I am quite sure I also spotted real tears running down the face of “Woman Mourner No 1.”

She’s a real pro.

-- From Robyn Curnow, CNN International Correspondent, in Botswana.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Travelling with the Pope
I had the opportunity to take a quick walk along the majestic pedestrian area of downtown Vienna. The pope’s three day visit took me here. Giant television screens broadcasting live every move of the German pontiff loomed large above busy shoppers on this rainy Saturday afternoon. On Sunday Benedict XVI celebrated Mass at the St. Stephen Cathedral, the heart of this beautiful capital.

On Friday, speaking to an audience of German officials and members of the diplomatic corps, the pope slammed abortion, euthanasia and raised concerns about the future of Europe, a continent he said where everybody should be concerned that “the day will never come when only stones speak of Christianity. He urged the youngster to make babies and create families”.

These words, pronounced in his native German, resounded in my mind as I observed the scene around me. I sat down at a small kiosk selling Wiener Bratwurst (a delicious local sausage) served with brown bread and a small draft beer. It drizzled, but no one seemed to care that much.

No one seemed to care about the pope either. Most of the thousands of people walking below the television screens passed them without paying any attention. Sure there were a few who were listening, a few others taking pictures laughing, as if they were right there with the pope. But the vast majority were clearly involved in what the pope would describe (he did it again here in Vienna) as “terribly misguided courses of action”. More precisely, “the degradation of man resulting from theoretical and practical materialism, and finally the degeneration of tolerance into indifference with no reference to permanent values.”

Wow. Right there, the pope talking about values, tolerance, generosity and openness and no one listened. In my six years covering the Vatican and the pope it had never happened to actually observe a generic crowd (as opposed to a crowd of people who gathered on purpose to see and listen to the pope).

I kept observing what was happening around me. The amazing thing about Viennese people is their ability to sit outside drinking coffee and smoking despite rain and uncomfortable temperature (everyone seems to smoke here, and this must be one of the last cities in Europe where you can do it in restaurants indoor. I noticed three young women in their late-20s taking a seat and ordering ice cream (yes that too seemed odd given the cold). I wondered whether they had heard the pope’s exhortation to young married couples to establish new families and to become mothers and fathers. I wondered if the pope had an audience here.

Fighting my journalistic instinct I decided against bothering these three friends, enjoying a Saturday afternoon out (I never assume that people enjoy answering journalists’ questions while they are trying to take a break). But I couldn’t help thinking that the answer to my queries was all around me.

The people ignoring the pope vastly outnumbered those who were even simply curious. Opinion polls issued ahead of the pontiff’s visit suggested only 3% of Austrians had any interest in actually seeing the pope live, while a good 40% said they would ignore him completely.

Vatican analyst John Allen wrote in his brilliant weekly column that here answering a question about who is their most trusted international figure, Austrians put Benedict XVI behind the Dalai Lama and the Austrian-born governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There are many reasons for this. Among them a series of high profile sex abuse scandals that shook the Catholic Church here, forcing the resignation of Vienna’s Archbishop in 1995 and almost a decade later the closure of a seminary after more than 40,000 pornographic images were discovered on computers there.

In an attempt to reach out to Austria’s ailing Catholic Church, the pope told reporters on board his plane on the way here, that he was grateful to all those who remained faithful in these difficult years: laity, the religious and the priests. But he also conceded that these difficulties haven’t been totally overcome yet, saying he hoped his visit would help healing the wound.

“Unlikely” I thought to myself, as I took one more look around me, washing down the last sausage bite with the beer. But he is the pope, and no one can fault him for trying.

-- From Alessio Vinci, CNN Rome Bureau Chief, travelling with the Pope.
Monday, September 03, 2007
Rocket Central
Back to school has a completely different meaning in the Israeli town of Sderot. It doesn’t just mean new classes and teachers. It means being escorted to school by soldiers and learning how to duck for cover before a rocket slams into school grounds.

Since school opened here on Sunday, about a dozen rockets have hit Sderot. This morning a Qassam rocket narrowly missed a kindergarten and preschool by just a few meters.

We visited the site shortly after the attack. The rocket hit a group of eucalyptus trees next to the school. There was still a slight smoky smell in the air. The school’s fortified walls were colored pretty shades of pastel but there were no children inside. Some of the windows were blown out.

We met Meir Ben Zikri at the site. His son was just outside the school when the rocket hit. The little boy was not harmed, but Ben Zikri says he is now too scared to go back.

“He’s at home shaking like this.” Ben Zikri said hugging himself tightly and rocking back and forth.

Ben Zikri’s house was already hit by Qassam rockets 6 months before. They are now living in a temporary home provided by the government as they wait for the renovations to finish.

“It’s not me, I worry about,” he said, “It’s the kids. I’ll be fine but they are traumatized.”

Ben Zikri kept fidgeting with a blackened chunk of metal. A piece of the Qassam rocket he said he picked up inside the schoolyard. Luckily, none of the students were hit by debris. But Ben Zikri says it was too close a call. So, why not move out of the range of the rockets, we asked him.

“I’m no hero.” He responded, “But if I leave, than this guy leaves and that guy leaves and soon the whole town is gone and the terrorists have won. I’m not doing that.”

As he talked, he would run his fingers over the metal or rub it across his chin thoughtfully. Sometimes, he would catch what he was doing and stop suddenly, balling the metal into his fist angrily. But the whole time he talked to us, he never let go of it once.

-- From Atika Shubert, CNN International Correspondent, in Sderot.
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