Kurt Pitzer tells how soccer star Zidane broke the ice with the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.
Question: What has been your most surprising moment covering a story?
Pitzer: I was in Gaza Strip with a photographer some years ago while Arafat was still alive, and we were trying to talk our way into being hosted by the al-Aqsa Martys Brigade, which is a militant group. And it took a lot of groundwork to sort of ingratiate ourselves with them. And one day, they showed up in our guesthouse in a van and put some hoods over our heads and drove us around for about an hour. And by the time we got to their safe house, it was pretty late at night and they couldn’t reveal their identities to us so they were wearing hoods. And when it came out that I was American, the leader of this little band of al-Aqsa Martys kinda freaked out and got very angry and started shouting at me and my young translator was terrified and he was having trouble even translating clearly what the guy was saying. And I was sat down in a chair and there are a lot of very, sort of big guys with hoods with weapons whose muscling in on me. And he was harping on, “America, America,” and I was trying to find out from my translator what he was saying and hoping to break through and make a little, you know, change the topic somehow. And I finally told him I don’t live in America; I was living in Spain at the time. And mentioned, tell, I said tell him I’m a supporter of Real Madrid, the soccer team. And it sort of took him back a little. I can see his eyes through the ski mask and he sort of stop for a second. And he said, Zinedine Zidane who’s the player for Real Madrid an Algerian and a great hero to the people of that part of the world. And I said Zinedine Zidane, number one, Zizou. And this guy, suddenly his demeanor completely changed and he shook my hand and ordered tea, and some of the guys put down their weapons and went and got tea and we sat and we had tea. And the whole, the whole sort of atmosphere changed and eventually ski masks too came off and another guy came up and wanted me to feel his leg whether he’s really had broken his shin bone. And then wanted to tell me he learned his English, which was a few words, but he’d never left the Gaza Strip. I said, how did you learn your English? He said, movies. And then he asked me, you know, if I wanted to know his favorite movie, he asked me in English. I said, yes, he said “Being John Malkovich.” And I said, where did you get “Being John Malkovich” and I went through the translator. Apparently, a copy of it was being sold in a bazaar in Gaza City, and he loves this film, “Being John Malkovich.” And it’s those weird moments of surprise that I think are sort of a genuine stuff that we’re looking for as journalists, and often don’t make it into the newspaper and got left in the files on our computers and don’t actually got read. But it’s those little sparks of humanity that are common, you know, those things that you can relate to in your living room in New York, having just watch the same movie as a militant in Gaza, and those are some of the things we look for.