THE BLOG
05/02/2013 10:18 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Ali "No Problem" Almarrany, Yemen's Inspiration Media Miracle

Try getting on TV if you're telegenic with an instinct for news. Try again if you lost an eye as a poverty-stricken child from Yemen where even your relatives made fun of you.

"In 2004, a relative took me to the mosque, told me 'you'll stand here, beg, you have your medical report, and any amount you make we'll split in half,'" recounted Ali Almarrany, a well-known Yemeni radio and TV presenter in neighboring Saudi Arabia who overcame daunting challenges to attain his goals.

In 2008, Almarrany was the youngest managing editor of the most popular daily TV show in Saudi Arabia, he told a captive audience at a TEDx talk in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

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Screen shot of Ali Almarrany recounting his travails

While being treated for the eye loss, Almarrany learned English and his first phrase was "no problem."

He also learned about computers and began browsing the Internet, which he called his godfather.

At one point he worked pro bono for seven months at a computer firm just to have Internet access and a place to sleep.

It freed him to communicate with the outside world and be accepted for his ideas, not be rejected for an infirmity.

Almarrany acknowledged facing daily challenges, not problems, in producing and presenting his radio and TV shows, he told me in an email.

"I thank God eight years have passed since my first article was published in (Saudi Arabia's) Al Madina newspaper and I've put out over 2,000 hours of radio and TV programs and more than 30 programs that I've produced or presented," he said.

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Presenting on TV Against All Odds Screen Capture

An incredible tale of sheer will to overcome physical adversity and extreme poverty.

It's a long way from the Yemeni village in the Saada district in which Almarrany was born in 1985. Yemen is considered the poorest country in the Arab world.

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Street vendors in Old Sanaa (Abu-Fadil)

Almarrany could neither afford to pay for an operation to mend his sight when a friend accidentally shot him with an AK-47, nor medication later in the healing process.

The bullet went through his right cheek and took out his left eye.

He spent three years living with an uncle in Saudi Arabia, being treated and later working in an office before his correspondence to various newspapers attracted attention and his first article was published.

Everyone had told the young man his ambition to become a journalist, much less a TV star, was a tall order. What pained him most were friends who avoided being seen with him in public.

But he refused to give in to rejection.

"I never imagined becoming a journalist, but a lady I met at a computer store in Sanaa in 2004 wanted to publish a women's magazine and asked me to help her dig up content from the Internet," he said. "That's when I tried to find out how news is written and reports are produced."

He was a passionate reader.

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Screen shot of a young Ali Almarrany

In his youth, a villager brought newspapers (dating back six months) from Saada and Arabic-language magazines published in London, which Almarrany devoured along with his brother's books in whatever light there was.

Basic infrastructure like water and electricity were a luxury in the village and school was taught under a tree.

He saw his first paved road en route to Saada when he won a school trip to the regional seat of government and had his first encounter with a landline telephone. The boy wanted to reach beyond his limited rural world.

By 2011 he had a house in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, owned land in Sanaa, and was building a house in his home district of Saada.

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Ali Almarrany (Courtesy Khalid Bakoor)

Today Almarrani wants to pass on his can-do spirit to Arab youth seeking media careers by advising them to read, watch, listen, and embrace diversity and not give in to any one media school.

"Everyone has an opportunity to work through social media like Twitter, Facebook and produce special programs on YouTube; we've seen many success stories that began with a mobile phone camera," he explained.

He particularly wants Yemeni youth to dream and not be held back by naysayers.

"They say hardship is the basis of everything," he concluded in his pep talk. "The entire Yemeni population is suffering, so there's no excuse for us not to be creative, not to achieve, and not to dream."

Almarrani majored in journalism at Sanaa University and is waiting to receive his B.A. Studies were interrupted for two years due to administrative problems.

He has attended 24 specialized workshops to upgrade his skills and has received 11 awards and citations in Saudi Arabia and Yemen for public service work.

I asked what he aimed to achieve in the coming years.

"I hope to establish a non-profit training center and make a fortune to transport my family from poverty to riches, as well as to continue with an M.A. and a Ph.D. at an American university," he said.