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There's no place for me, which means I can live anywhere: Interview with journalist-turned-poet Dima Khatib

Hugo Chavez, the then President of Venezuela, condemned Israel's actions during its invasion of Lebanon in 2006. He was the first world leader to do so, and it precipitated years in which he championed the Palestinian cause. After Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip in 2009, Venezuela cut all diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.

One of the first international journalists to report on Chavez's condemnation of Israel in 2006 was Dima Khatib, who was Al-Jazeera's Latin America bureau chief. As a Syrian-born Palestinian living in Caracas, Khatib experienced first-hand the impact of Chavez's support for the Palestinians.

"Chavez would go on TV and tell people about the divisions on the map and how people were taken out of their homes," she tells me. "I could see that reflected in the way people would treat me on the street – they'd ask if I was from the 1967 or 1948 refugees and I was amazed they knew what that was. They'd be very proud to meet a Palestinian. That's strange. Usually you say you're a Palestinian and you're worried people will paint you as a terrorist."

A variety of leftist leaders in Latin America have since taken up the cause of justice for the Palestinians. After the latest Israeli attack on Gaza in 2014, five Latin American countries — Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador and Chile — recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv. Chile and Brazil both suspended trade talks with Israel.

Khatib was born in Damascus to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian refugee father, who had fled from his home in Tiberius in 1948. She was fascinated with Latin America ever since her days as a student in Switzerland, where she made friends at university who hailed from the continent. "I felt we've got so much in common and yet we know nothing about each other," she recalls. "I wanted to build a bridge between the Arab world and Latin America. I didn't know how but that's where the dream started."

After a false start as a UN translator — "I decided I didn't want to repeat other people's ideas." — Khatib went into journalism, working first for Swiss Radio International, then for AFP and finally for Al-Jazeera. She worked at the head office in Doha for several years, starting as a junior reporter before moving up the ranks to become the only woman at senior producer level at the channel to cover the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003. Later, she was sent to set up a new bureau in China, and subsequently became a roving correspondent in Hong Kong. Throughout her travels, her roots in the Middle East stayed in her mind. "I covered all of Asia and found a message for Arabs to learn from: development. Build, invest in your resources and use people for the progress of your economies. I always wanted to pass that message on and show how societies in Asia grew incredibly in a very short amount of time. They had been colonised like us, they had been through wars."

Eventually, Al-Jazeera's managing director Wadah Khanfar offered Khatib the chance to go to Latin America. This was a lifelong dream. Given the choice of country in which to establish a new bureau, Khatib chose Venezuela. She believed that Chavez, who had been elected in 1999, was a rising star and that the country would be a major source of news. At the time, most international journalists covering the region were based in Brazil, Argentina or Mexico. Ultimately, Khatib's gamble paid off, as Chavez became a major regional player, part of the movement of socialist leaders across Latin America. Developing close ties to the Venezuelan president, as well as to Bolivia's Evo Morales and Brazil's Lula Da Silva, Khatib observed Latin American politics closely from the very front row, and informed millions of Arabs about the continent via her TV reporting.

"One of the lessons I wanted to learn was how the Latin Americans came out of colonialism into troubled times – but then reached a state of democracy where they have free and fair elections; had female presidents before the western world; and where they are not fighting each other like we are in the Arab world." Living in Europe, she says, she had learned about respect, international law and so on. "All of those things, but in Latin America, the lesson I learnt was: don't accept the status quo. You can always change it."

Khatib lived in Latin America as leftist leaders rose in power, and was fascinated by the continent's model of anti-imperialism. Growing up in Damascus, she had felt alienated by the political opinions on offer amongst her friends. "I never liked the way liberal Arabs were so pro-western and I didn't like the Islamists either because they were very strict on a social level, particularly for women. I never found myself in either of those two camps. Socialism seemed like an interesting thing I wanted to explore."

She remained in Latin America until the Arab Spring of 2011 and revolutions broke out across the Middle East. "I became obsessed, because I had come to Latin America to tell people about revolution, and now it was happening on my side of the world." She became active on Twitter, where she has 295k followers. "It was my only way of being part of the revolutions," she explains. Her updates were followed closely by thousands of people. Al-Jazeera posted her to Libya and Egypt to cover the uprisings there.

During her tenure in Caracas, Khatib was the only woman to head a bureau for Al-Jazeera but after covering the Arab revolutions, she decided to stop her travels to dedicate time to motherhood. "I couldn't be a real mum. My son would see me more on TV than at home and that was causing us both a lot of distress." She planned to write books about her experiences in Latin America and of living in Venezuela during Chavez's time in power. Then a new adventure began. "Whenever I woke up in the morning, a poem had woken up before me and would be waiting for me around the house and I wouldn't be able to write a single word of my book," she reveals. "That went on for three years. You don't choose poetry, it chooses you."

Khatib shared her first poetic thoughts on Twitter and was concerned that the short poems in the form of tweets would alienate those who had followed her for her updates on the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. She shouldn't have worried; they were well received. So much so, in fact, that she began to attend and host poetry recitals. Her first book of poetry, in Arabic, is coming out this year. Khatib, who can speak eight languages, including Chinese, also composes verses in Spanish and French, although not English. "I find it difficult to come up with something really poetic in English because it is a very simplified language," she says. Although she has recently taken over as managing director of AJ Plus, Al-Jazeera's new online focused-youth channel, Khatib plans to continue writing poetry.

Her experiences have been shaped by her background as a Palestinian refugee. "In the beginning, I was looking for identity. There were times I would say I was Syrian, other times I'd say I'm Palestinian." She talks a lot about this in her poems. "There is no place for me, in the sense that I know I am a refugee everywhere I go," she smiles, "but that makes me capable of living anywhere."

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