Updated: Mar 5
Welcome to the Interview Corner, the latest series at www.jessicawaltonwriter.com featuring unique voices in national security, communications, and culture. In this latest episode, Syrian-born American journalist Hayvi Bouzo talks about the complex dynamics of information control and the Middle East, the importance of storytelling in journalism, and her motivation behind working as a “policy translator” between the U.S. and the Arabic-speaking world.
From Mike Pompeo to John Kerry and many more, Hayvi is no stranger to conducting high-profile interviews and asking tough policy questions. Now it’s her turn to take the mic and share her story.
Jessica: Tell me about your upbringing in Syria and how you first got involved in the world of media and politics?
Hayvi: I was born and raised in Damascus with a diverse background. My father is half-Kurdish and half-Damascene; he was always a sharp intellectual with pro-West views. My mother is half-Turkish, from the Ottomans, and half-Halabi. Growing up in a Muslim family in Aleppo’s Jewish Quarter, she had a lot of Jewish friends, which shaped her political views later on of Israel and the West. We were an unusual, outspoken family in Damascus, hosting all kinds of intellectuals, artists, poets, directors, actors, and people who loved talking politics in our home. This was not the norm at all in Syria. In fact, it was dangerous.
Young Hayvi, center, with her family in Damascus, Syria
Jessica: Why was this type of engagement considered so unusual and problematic in Syria?
Hayvi: Because Syria constantly lives under the shadow of a dictatorship, under the [Bashar] Assad family and the Ba’ath nationalist socialist party. Just by talking freely in our own home we were risking our lives. The Ba’ath party is extremely corrupt and will not hesitate to use violence to silence opposition. The Syrian citizenry is fed propaganda through the media and education system starting at a young age; it’s not easy to break out of this mindset, especially when there can be dangerous consequences. My parents especially received a lot of criticism for having pro-West views.
Jessica: What brought you to the U.S. and how did you first get involved in U.S. foreign policy and national security issues?
Hayvi: In my early teens, I realized that I was interested in asking questions, interested in people and in their stories. Maybe it was due to growing up in a country stifled by propaganda, because I was fascinated by the untold stories, in a region where so many stories are not allowed to be told. So, I knew I wanted to become a journalist. When I was given the opportunity to study journalism at Santa Monica College in the U.S., I took it.
I did my undergraduate studies in Santa Monica for a year before returning to Damascus. I finished my degree there, and started working as a journalist for Orient News—covering entertainment and culture, mingling with celebrities. Then the Assad regime shut down Orient News in 2010. I continued to work for Orient TV in Dubai, while also hosting Drama Tech, a popular trivia show in the Arab world, but it wasn’t very fulfilling as a journalist who was interested in applying storytelling to world events.
Hayvi hosting Drama Tech in Damascus, Syria
The Arab Spring broke out soon after in 2011. It was a horrible time in Syria, witnessing innocent civilians being slaughtered in the streets. I felt a strong responsibility as a journalist to speak out against the regime, which I did frequently on my social media platform. This quickly escalated into a dangerous situation for not only me, but my entire family who was now being threatened by the Assad regime. I was fortunately able to escape to the U.S. My family quickly followed.
Instead of returning to California, I went to Washington, D.C., where I was able to convince the owner of Orient TV to create a local bureau. I began interviewing American officials and based on this success, I was given a show called The Axis where I continued to interview people like former Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator John McCain, General Jack Keane, and U.S. Special Representative to Iran Brian Hook. Eventually, I became the Washington D.C. Bureau Chief at Orient News. It was exactly where I wanted to be as a journalist, involved in politics and national security issues.
From left to right: Hayvi with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Senator John McCain
Jessica: On The Axis, as well as your current platforms, you often discuss controversial topics in the Middle East, such as countering extremism, promoting peace with Israel, and presenting the U.S. as having a positive role in international relations. From a communications perspective, how do you cut through your audiences’ entrenched viewpoints to present your arguments in a way that people are willing to listen?
Hayvi: First, you have to understand how unusual it was for a Syrian television station or journalist to be operating independent of the regime. This is something that might sound strange to an American audience, but government-controlled media is the norm in Arab countries. I was literally one of the first independent Arabic-speaking journalists to interview high-level American officials, translating the American perspective for the Arab world. This was very important to me as a journalist because I always believed in the American role as a positive force in the security of the Middle East.
Second, the timing was right. Citizens across the region had just started protesting, and they were met with the shock of their governments coming down on them harshly. Especially in Syria, with the help of extremist militias from Iran, the violence that was inflicted was so disturbing that it became an eye-opening experience for the Syrian people. People were finally willing to stop trusting their government and now listen to an alternative viewpoint.
Hayvi interviews General John “Jack” Keane in Washington, D.C.
I’m glad you brought up this issue of propaganda in the Middle East, because it is currently one of the biggest barriers to peace with the West, including Israel. The Arab world has been poisoned for decades by brainwashing, conspiracy theories, and associations of America and Israel as pure evil. I break through this by speaking gently—not aggressively—by sharing authentic information and engaging stories. We can’t undo the damage done by decades of propaganda overnight, but we can start creating the infrastructure today to improve our future.
The funny thing is that despite all this hatred, the Arab world still tunes into American culture: the movies, the music, the entertainment. They see people in the United States living a better life. It’s a bit of a disconnect, admiring certain parts of America while being brainwashed to hate it. America isn’t perfect, but it’s done a lot of good for the people in the Middle East.
Peace for the Arab world will lead to better lives for its citizens. Propaganda is one of the biggest barriers to peace. I believe the best way to fight false information is with real information, in the form of stories that surprise and engage the mind.
Jessica: You’ve interviewed high-profile American officials, politicians, and scholars from both sides of the aisle, providing a rare, balanced perspective of different American opinions to the Middle East. You now have tens of thousands of followers in the Arabic-speaking world. What is some of the feedback you’ve received from this audience that you think is valuable for an American audience to know?
Hayvi: I think it’s important for Americans to be aware of the huge impact that social media has had on the Middle East. The ability to have a voice is a novelty in this world. Historically, the governments of this region have controlled and manipulated the narrative for a long time, so just having access to alternative perspectives and being able to share facts from the ground is a novel thing. Of course, you have certain situations, like with the Iranian regime, where the government tries to shut down or control social media; but overall, it is becoming increasingly difficult for governments to control the information that reaches its citizens.
People are also engaging more with each other. They’re open to different voices. You can imagine how strange it was to hear someone like me, a Syrian-born American journalist who is very open about supporting peace with the U.S. and Israel, who is willing to criticize the Iranian regime and all of its bloody allied dictatorships.
Havyi interviews U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook at the mezzanine in the U.S. State Department
The Arabic-speaking world is becoming more open to communication from public figures in other countries, but they want to hear genuine voices. They want to hear empathy and understanding of their situation and suffering—not just confrontational or highly politicized commentary. Ultimately, the Middle East is going to need more independent news channels of their own, but in the meantime there is real value to having the West and the Middle East engage more directly and authentically with each other.
Jessica: What would you say is the unique Syrian or Middle Eastern perspective you bring to the table when discussing national security issues with American officials?
Hayvi: I remind American officials all the time that you can’t pull away from the Middle East. The world is only getting smaller, and what explodes in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. Of course, the United States has several strategic priorities across the globe, but this is a region where isolationist policies clearly result in failure: state breakdowns, the rise of ISIS, and more recently the Taliban disaster that resulted from withdrawing from Afghanistan.
With American officials, I try to drive home the point that these dictatorships—not just in the Middle East, by the way—perceive a withdrawal of American interest as weakness, and thus an opportunity to take a more aggressive stance on the world stage, which eventually will come back to haunt us. America should not be shy about communicating its security policy to the public, including clearly outlining its benefits.
Either way, the United States cannot walk away. Staying involved in the region is in the best interest of the United States, for the people of the Middle East, and for the stability of the entire world.
Jessica: About a year ago, you interviewed Mike Pompeo, the former U.S. Secretary of State and Director of the CIA. You discussed the Abraham Accords and the value of proactive leadership. What would you say was the most valuable takeaway from that interview?
Hayvi: I was very impressed by Mike Pompeo’s multifaceted approach to alliance-building in the region and his understanding of the Middle Eastern perspective. He is not saying that America should force democracy on all. No, he is saying that there should be basic human rights criteria that you have to adhere to if you want to enjoy the benefits of being allied with the U.S. or just be a functioning part of the international community. Just like America facilitated the Abraham Accords, it can continue to play a role in promoting women’s rights, freedom of the press, social reforms, and opening up business and tourism between peoples in the Middle East.
Hayvi interviews former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (view video)
I was also struck by how Mike Pompeo is a proud American who doesn’t shy away from expressing his opinions about the positive role that America can play on the international stage. For me personally, this really struck a chord, because I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up under an oppressive regime. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Coming from this background in Syria makes me appreciate the American value system so much more. I know reforms don’t happen overnight, but I do believe that we each have a role to play in making freedom from tyranny our reality.
Want to learn more? You can follow Hayvi on Twitter here.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.