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Syria native accentuates the positive in Selma with stories

January 4, 2019

SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Despite a long career in journalism, Karim Shamsi-Basha has never let himself become jaded about the news - or about much of anything else, really.

“Who says news has to be negative?” he asks, pointing to Oprah as an example of someone whose wealth and fame is based on spreading good news.

When an opportunity came along for him to help breathe new life into the weekly Selma Sun as its editor, he jumped at the chance.

“Most journalists are so cynical,” says Cindy Fisher, herself a longtime journalist who is the owner and publisher of Alabama’s Selma Sun and The Leeds Tribune, two newspapers she bought in September. By contrast, Karim is a “positive, we-can-change-the-world idealist,” she says.

Shortly after they were introduced at an arts festival in downtown Birmingham, Cindy told Karim she wanted to produce a positive newspaper. “I said, ‘Where have you been all my life?’” he recalls. “Especially in a place like Selma, I want to be part of it.”

Now that he’s been working at the Selma Sun for a few months, the job is “probably the coolest gig I’ve ever gotten,” he says. “I absolutely love it.”

Focusing on the positive is “so easy,” he says. “There’s positive news everywhere. More people need to focus on the positive. When you focus on the positive, good things happen. You can’t deny that.”

‘STARS IN HIS EYES’

Karim drives an hour and a half from his home in Birmingham to spend a day or two every week at the Selma Sun’s office, housed above a law office in a circa-1904 building. “Selma is the epicenter not just of civil rights but of equality, inclusion - big buzzwords they talk about now,” he says. “To me, it’s where everything culminated in the ’60s.”

Driving across the Edmund Pettis Bridge “is like stepping back in time,” he says, adding that he appreciates the city’s “history, tradition and legacy.”

The city continues to have issues to address, like race relations, poverty and crime, but Karim focuses only on the “great things” he sees happening there. “Right now, as the newspaper editor, I see a lot of stirring, a lot of positive energy, a lot of people doing amazing things,” he says, citing as examples the work of the nonprofit Blackbelt Benefit Group, ArtsRevive and Main Street Selma.

Recently, Karim featured a partnership between the Blackbelt Benefit Group, which is “doing incredible things for Selma,” and folk artist Charlie Lucas, which resulted in artwork being displayed in the windows of vacant buildings.

He also wrote a six-week series on education that highlighted some of the innovative programs in the city’s public and private schools, which are almost completely segregated.

On the day he spent in the public middle school, new laptops were distributed to one class for students to use the rest of the year. “You don’t think of that happening in a poor place like Selma,” he says. “Good things happen everywhere.”

“There are so many great stories down there, and they haven’t been told,” his boss, Cindy Fisher, concurs. “It’s not hard to fill that paper.”

She thinks one reason Karim is perfect for the job is that “his vision is so different from a local person,” she says. He “has stars in his eyes,” says Cindy - and his perspective is contagious. “Everyone loves Karim down here,” she says. “He gets lots of hugs.”

And the community newspaper they produce can make a difference, Cindy believes. “Through positive coverage in the Selma Sun, we’re helping to pump energy into the economy and helping readers feel better about their community.”

‘I WAS GIVEN LIFE AGAIN’

Karim grew up in Damascus, Syria, where his father was a writer who once served as the country’s poet laureate. At 18, he came to the United States to study engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but he fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist at the Birmingham Post-Herald in the early 1990s.

He credits his exuberance to a life-changing event on April 8, 1992, when an aneurysm burst in his brain as he was covering a church fire. He spent a month in a coma and had to re-learn everything. “After that, ‘carpe diem’ is not something I say. I actually do it,” he says. “The whole thing can vanish in two seconds, as it did on that day. I was given life again.”

As his children grew up, he repeatedly stressed the importance of making the most out of every second. “Grab life by the throat, squeeze it, live it,” he says. Now 26, 22 and 18, they are “the light of my life.”

After making a living as a freelance photojournalist for many years, Karim says he started writing on the day his father died in 2005. “I sat in front of the computer and started writing letters to my dad in heaven,” he says. After writing about 60 letters over the course of a year, he submitted a few for publication in local magazines. “I fell in love with writing and never looked back.”

In addition to writing and photographing stories for the Selma Sun, he also contributes to Alabama Power’s Alabama NewsCenter and has written two books. His children’s book, “The Cat Man of Aleppo,” co-written with Irene Latham, is set to be published by Penguin in the spring of 2020. He spent six years working on his novel, “Cactus Pear,” a love story set amid the civil war in Syria that is being considered by the same publisher. The title alludes to the fruit of the cactus, which, beneath the thorns, is soft and beautiful.

“It’s a metaphor for the war not destroying people’s spirit,” he says.

Karim’s cultural background might be another reason he’s been so warmly received in Selma. Though Middle Easterners are Caucasians, he says, they’re often considered to be “brown.”

“To me, I’m the perfect recipe for being in Selma,” he says. “I am perceived by both races as sort of like the middle of the road. I love that: Not white, not black, somewhere in the middle. We all should be in the middle. It’s a really cool thing to be.”

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