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'ATC' host Ari Shapiro reflects on a varied life in 'Best Strangers in the World'

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly say a gunman killed 49 people at a Florida nightclub in 2013. The attack occurred in 2016.]


Our colleague Ari Shapiro begins a new memoir by recounting what he did in first grade. He says he and his brother were the only Jewish kids at their school in Fargo, N.D., and at Christmastime, they went around explaining what Hanukkah was. Not all that many years later, Ari Shapiro went to work at NPR. And according to the NPR archives from back in 2003, he was still explaining Judaism to everybody else.


ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At the Passover celebration in the first century B.C., Rabbi Hillel smeared bitter herbs and an apple nut mixture called charoset between two slices of unleavened bread, or matzo. It may not have been the first sandwich ever made, but it's the first in recorded history.

INSKEEP: Ari Shapiro 20 years ago doesn't sound that much different. Since then, he's become a correspondent, traveled much of the world, covered conflicts and elections, become host of NPR's All Things Considered, our afternoon program, and also is a singer who tours with the group Pink Martini, often singing in multiple languages. I'm out of breath just saying all that.


SHAPIRO: (Singing in non-English language).

INSKEEP: Shapiro's new memoir reflects on his varied life. It's called "The Best Strangers In The World."

Are you still, in some sense, that first grader going around saying, let me tell you what Judaism is?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What I picked up as the first grader who was the, like, only Jewish kid in his class and later picked up as, like, the only out gay teenager in my high school, was the ability to go to a crowd of people and say, this is unfamiliar, but I'm going to help you understand it.

INSKEEP: In a passage of his book, Shapiro recounts interviewing a man who suddenly told him, probably you're on the radio because you want to be loved. Shapiro doesn't deny it.

You interrogate yourself a little bit in this memoir, and you ask if maybe the common theme in your career is that you want attention.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's certainly an aspect of it. I tell a story about at my grandmother's 90th birthday party, my mother was introducing her three sons. She said, and then there's my middle son, Ari, who was so ignored as a middle child, he had to find a job where millions of people would pay attention to what he had to say.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So, sure, that's a piece of it. Like, I do like being on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in front of thousands of people. But even more than that, I like finding the story of somebody who we would never otherwise hear from and bring them into your home, into your car, into your life, and hopefully maybe help you see the world a little differently.

INSKEEP: He's often tried to see the world for himself, as in 2013, when a gunman killed 49 people at a Florida nightclub.


AUDIE CORNISH: And we have a team of reporters in Orlando, including our co-host Ari Shapiro. And, Ari, I understand you're in downtown Orlando.

SHAPIRO: I am downtown. And you might be able to hear the news helicopters above me, which has been a frequent sound since I arrived here.

I volunteered to go cover that story because I had been to gay bars, and I knew the importance of them. And I had been to gay bars in Orlando. And one of the things I explore in the book is kind of the tension between bringing your full self to any story that you tell and approaching stories as an outsider. And with the Pulse nightclub shooting, I knew I brought something to that story that other journalists did not. The experience and the history and the perspective that I brought to those stories made them better, not worse. They didn't compromise me as a journalist. They enhanced what I was doing as a journalist.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in the two kinds of experiences you're describing just in this conversation. You described there being a kind of insider to the story. And we also began with the story of you as one of the very few Jewish kids in Fargo being the outsider...


INSKEEP: ...To the story. Each has its value, doesn't it?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I think about going to coastal Turkey when the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak. And there is a negative stereotype of foreign correspondents as parachuting into a place that they know nothing about. And there are absolutely pitfalls to that. But also seeing something with fresh eyes and coming to something as an outsider and asking what may be very naive questions can lead you to profound insights as well.

INSKEEP: Ari Shapiro not only reported on refugees, he sang about them.


SHAPIRO: This is a song in Arabic that Pink Martini wrote the melody for in the '90s. They recorded it as a Spanish tune and for a recent album, "Je Dis Oui!" We asked a dear friend of the band who has since passed away, named Iyad Qasem, if he would reimagine the lyrics in Arabic. And so he wrote this song that sounds like it's about someone pining for a lost love if you listen to the lyrics. But he told us what he had in mind was the experience of a refugee longing for the homeland he might never see again. His own parents were refugees, and so he renamed the song after something his mother always used to say, which is there's no breeze as sweet as the breeze of home. And so the new title of the song is "Finnisma Di," which means in the sweet summer breeze.


SHAPIRO: (Singing in Arabic).

And before Iyad passed away, he would go on tour with us, and Pink Martini would do this song. I would do this song in Lebanon, in Morocco, in Tunisia, in Abu Dhabi. And he would introduce the song and talk about its importance to him. And then he would say how meaningful it was for him to have his Jewish friend sing it. Iyad is Palestinian. And so we would hug together on stage, and then I would sing the song.


SHAPIRO: (Singing in Arabic).

INSKEEP: People just embraced in the other room. Was that the music that caused that? I don't know what's going on in here.

SHAPIRO: It brings people together, the music.

INSKEEP: Apparently. So it's really, really beautiful. Do you speak Arabic?

SHAPIRO: No. I sing with Pink Martini in lots of languages that I don't speak. Any time I'm recording for an album, I make sure to get language coaches who - I actually had two language coaches for that song, one who was Lebanese, one who was Egyptian because it's in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. It was very specific. But I want to do justice, whether I'm singing in Armenian, Arabic, Ladino, Spanish, all of which I recorded in with Pink Martini and none of which I speak.

INSKEEP: Did it ever not work on stage?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. There was a time in Lebanon we were performing at this gorgeous ancient palace called Beiteddine as part of this music festival. And after the show, the organizers of the music festival approached Iyad and said it was unnecessary of him to inform the audience that I'm Jewish.

INSKEEP: What did you think of that?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, what I thought was a word that I can't say on public radio. But there's only so much you can do.

INSKEEP: You can say it. We can bleep it. Whatever...

SHAPIRO: OK. I thought [expletive] them.


SHAPIRO: I thought [expletive] them. And so Iyad and I, you know, hand in hand, arm in arm, walked into the after party, ate baklava and had a great time. We do what we can. We can't force people to be open-minded.

INSKEEP: The memoir from Ari Shapiro is called "The Best Strangers In The World: Stories From A Life Spent Listening." Thanks for coming across the hall.

SHAPIRO: It's been a pleasure, Steve.


SHAPIRO: (Singing in Arabic). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.