Saturday Diary / A love letter to Pittsburgh

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To begin with, I think I should mention that before I came to the United States, I had never heard of Pittsburgh. I had heard of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, but not Pittsburgh. So when I got a journalism fellowship to work at the Post-Gazette, I thought I was unlucky not to go to New York City or Washington, D.C., or another American city well known to foreigners.

I still remember my American friends' reactions when I told them I would be working in Pittsburgh -- not very excited. But they were totally wrong. I would say that Pittsburgh is no less a city than Washington or New York. It is unique, natural and pure American.

Before I came to Pittsburgh from Yemen, I first spent 10 days in Washington to take part in an orientation program organized by my sponsoring organization, the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships.

Washington is a beautiful city but I could not get used to the Metro. We do not have subways in my home country. I made sure that I was with friends whenever I rode the Metro. I did not like the idea of using it for daily transportation. I like to see the streets and know where the bus is taking me, like the buses I ride in Pittsburgh.

After almost a month in Pittsburgh, I went with friends to visit New York City, or Dream Land as my friends in Yemen call it.

I was exited and at once posted on my Facebook page that I was going to New York on my 25th birthday. My friends wrote back: "Wow, New York! The most beautiful city in the world! You must be very lucky!"

I wondered why none of them was as excited for me to be in Pittsburgh as they were about me going to New York.

Anyway, I arrived in New York before noon, but it did not look like noon. It was extremely cold and cloudy and windy. Even though I was wearing a scarf on my head, I had to buy a wool one from one of the street vendors to keep warm.

The bus dropped me off near Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. The smell of chicken sandwiches from the food carts welcomed me. The buildings were so super high that I felt like an ant.

Although it was mid-May, the weather was not very nice. Along with the wind, the voices of hundreds of people looking at the goods of street venders did not give me peace of mind.

The people in Washington and Pittsburgh seem more friendly than those in New York. I have noticed that people in these two cities smile to you on the street. In New York, I remember smiling at people but none smiled back, so I stopped.

While I was sitting with my friend near a fountain there, I noticed an older woman with a young girl and a dog. As I took a picture of the dog, the woman frowned and pulled the dog to her side. I was going to tell her that the dog was shivering, but, seeing her reaction, I decided to keep silent.

I would say that New York made me feel more like a stranger than Pittsburgh does. Walking the streets, I could hear people speaking English but also Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Russian, Bulgarian and African languages. I wondered how long it would take me to understand them.

While in New York, I went on a cruise around Manhattan, visited Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and had a caricature drawn of my friend and me. You might think that 12 hours is not enough time to get to know a city. But I had enough time to form an impression -- New York is fast, overwhelming, not as friendly as Pittsburgh.

I fell in love with Pittsburgh from the very first hour. It is quiet, neat, beautiful and a city of character, with its architecture and bridges and friendly people. Pittsburgh has proved to me that it is like no other.

Malak Shaher is a reporter for the Yemen Times who is spending five months working for the Post-Gazette as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow ( , 412-263-1944.)


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