Getting a closer look at the man ‘Inside the Glass House’

By Ernest Corea, a former Editor of the Ceylon “Observer”

“ Sunday Times” columnist Thalif Deen and his Inter Press Service (IPS) colleagues were the centre of attention at the “glass house” last week (May 12) when journalists, diplomats, UN officials and other well wishers celebrated the 45th anniversary of IPS and the 30th anniversary of its UN Bureau. Deen is a key figure in both.

Two visionaries, an Italian-Argentinean economist Roberto Savio, and an Argentinean political scientist Pablo Piacentini, launched IPS as a source of “alternative news” dispatched by regular mail to media outlets in Europe and Latin America. Few observers would have imagined then that this fledgling effort would develop a global presence, and be known as “the world’s leading news agency on issues such as development, environment, human rights and civil society.” It prides itself on giving “a voice to the voiceless.”

An Asian publisher who recognized the potential of IPS in its earliest days was Sri Lanka’s Esmond Wickremesinghe. He was so convinced about its future prospects that he even attempted to have IPS set up its regional centre for Asia in Colombo. That initiative was destroyed by bureaucratic inertia. What is interesting, however, is that Deen fortuitously reflects a symbolic continuity between Wickremesinghe and IPS.

Wickremesinghe supported IPS, Deen has strengthened the news service as a staff member, and it was Wickremesinghe who inducted Deen into journalism.

Several Sri Lankan journalists have left home for “pastures new” and, in doing so, many have moved into other professions. Among those who stayed in the profession, few if any have reached the same professional heights, achieved the same journalistic eminence, and received the recognition of his peers as has Deen. He has been runner-up, and cited twice for "excellence in U.N. reporting" at the annual awards presentation of the U.N. Correspondents’ Association. He has covered UN affairs from the ‘seventies, and been at almost every major UN conference – on population, human rights, environment, social development, globalization and the Millennium Development Goals – as well as at numerous other international events including summits of the Non-Aligned Movement and of the Group of 77. His circle of contacts is enormous. It is almost impossible to keep count of his scoops.

He has worked at the IPS UN Bureau for the past 17 years. Currently, he is the IPS Regional Director for North America, one of five regional divisions maintained by IPS, and head of its UN Bureau. As the IPS Regional Director for North America, Deen manages a wide swath of journalistic territory. He is required to possess and combine management skills, journalistic flair, and a capacity to maintain a competitive edge. He does. Among journalists in the US who cover world affairs, the position of Bureau chief at the UN is, to use the local term, “to die for”.

What kind of a person is this Thalif Deen?

Deen is part of a caring family that remains closely-knit although its members are now separated by distance. When two sets of nephews recently visited New York, Deen did what most New Yorkers hate to do. He drove them down to Washington. (And the same to you, folks in the Washington area say to New Yorkers.) Deen showed his nephews around all the main historical sights in the federal capital, including the recently refurbished and re-established Newseum which is dedicated solely to the media of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. When driving the second set of nephews to Washington he also brought along a set of recent newspapers from Colombo and a package of love cake, both for friends who live near Washington, a Sri Lankan couple that he has known for many years. That’s the kind of gesture that characterizes his friendship.

He grew up in Hulftsdorp and Borella, two towns that are linked by crime and punishment. Borella was at various times the scene of crimes both petty (such as riding a bicycle with a passenger on its bar) and serious (including the murder at point blank range of a police sergeant). Hulftsdorp was where criminals when found out would get their just desserts. As a youngster, Deen spent hours at the Hulftsdorp courts, listening to “learned counsel” say their piece and absorbing a great deal about the structure and style of effective argument in the process. What he absorbed then continues to come through in his writing even now.

Deen is an old boy of Zahira College, as he ceaselessly informs anybody who will listen. An Old Royalist in New York, noticing that Deen had many Royalist friends, asked him (quite stupidly) whether he had become an “honorary Royalist”. Deen promptly shot back: “My Royalist friends are now all honorary Zahirians.”

He is blessed with a robust sense of humour. He has written, for instance, of how he had spoken at a Zahirian Old Boys Association dinner (in Colombo) about his old school’s legendary reputation for playing over-age students in their sports’ teams. The mythical reputation had even reached Lake House, he said, and when he asked Jem Garnier, the irreverent Sports Editor of the “Observer” whether he could assign a reporter to cover Zahira’s imminent cricket encounter with Royal, which was expected to be a great game, Jem replied: “I say, Deen, when Royal plays St. Thomas’ or when St. Peter’s plays St. Joseph’s, the parents flock to see their children play. When Zahira plays cricket or rugger, the children go to see their fathers play.”

Deen continued to speak in this vein at the dinner. The following Sunday he was delighted to find the then “Sunday Times”, the rival to his own paper, the “Observer”, commenting that “one of the most entertaining after dinner speeches we have heard in recent months was made at the Zahira College OBA dinner. The gales of laughter that greeted Deen’s stories were proof that we Ceylonese have still not lost the art of laughing at ourselves, and that the big schools still teach the very necessary quality of cutting ourselves down to size.” Those were the days.

From Zahira, Deen went on to the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya where he was a champion body builder. When he left Peradeniya with a degree in economics, the Esmond Wickremesinghe link appeared. Wickremesinghe regularly held recruitment exams at Lake House for new graduates aspiring to be journalists. Deen did exceptionally well at one of these and Wickremesinghe recruited Deen to the Lake House Economic Intelligence Unit. Whenever Wickremesinghe was travelling, he assigned Deen to work on the “Observer” until his return. That’s where Deen was introduced to roll-up-your-sleeves journalism by two inspiring mentors, Denzil Peiris and Clarrie Fernando – both, alas, no longer with us.

Thorough professional

Denzil was skilled at all branches of journalism, and generously shared his own expertise with younger colleagues. He would frequently urge them to check their facts at least thrice before setting anything down on paper. Similar advice was dinned into Dean at journalism school in New York where a lecturer told his class: “Even if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Clarrie, despite his golden heart, believed that the best way to produce a competent reporter was to be tough with him or her. So he growled at young reporters, gave them exacting deadlines, and insisted that any news item submitted for publication should be fact perfect, word perfect, and style perfect when it appeared on his desk.

Deen has never explained what compulsion made him move on from the “Observer” where he became Deputy News Editor, but leave he did. He worked for awhile on the Hong Kong “Standard”. As the winner of a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship he was able to earn a Masters degree in journalism from New York’s highly regarded Columbia University – Barack Obama is also an alumnus. Later, he emigrated to New York where he served as a UN Information Officer, and as a researcher and writer with Jane’s Information Group, before surrendering once again to the pull of day-to-day journalism. He joined the staff of the IPS UN Bureau where he has shone like the big, bright lights of New York’s Broadway.
As a New York bachelor, Deen lived for many years at Tudor City, an apartment building conveniently located at shouting distance from UN headquarters. His apartment was always open to visiting Sri Lankans, and he cooked for all manner of homesick men and women from Colombo. What he did with tuna straight out of a can would probably have horrified its manufacturers but it convulsed the gastric juices and satisfied the desires of his Sri Lankan guests.

And then – wham -- during an elevator ride at Tudor City, he met Lucille Altamore, a fellow-resident. Not much later, a minister visiting from Colombo asked a Sri Lankan diplomat: “Have you met Deen’s girl friend? He added: “She’s a stunner.” No doubt, Deen thought so, too, as he fell for all her endearing qualities like a ton of bricks falling off a cliff. Soon, he was informing friends that Lucille and he were to be married.

There was something of a quandary here. Lucille’s religious tradition is as strongly Catholic as Deen’s religious tradition is profoundly Islamic. So could the twain ever meet? They are an immensely smart couple, however, and found a way out of the dilemma, arranging a unique wedding ceremony. It took place in a mosque with a Catholic priest and an imam co-officiating. How’s that for true diversity? Deen and Lucille now live in Staten Island, a borough of New York City, where they maintain a warmly hospitable home. Staten Island, though not as well known as some other New York boroughs, such as Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, has been home to many distinguished residents including Joan Baez, Aaron Burr, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Madonna, Paul Newman, Martin Sheen and David Thoreau.
The anniversary celebrations behind him, Deen will continue to give “a voice to the voiceless” through his own writing and through his journalistic leadership at IPS. That’s the kind of person Deen is.

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