The Things I Learned Writing About the Middle East
Writing about and reporting the Middle East is not an easy task, especially during these years of turmoil and upheaval. While physical maps remain largely intact, the geopolitical map of the region is in constant influx. Following and reporting about these constant changes without a deep and compassionate understanding of the region will achieve little but predictable and lackluster content that offers nothing original, but recycled old ideas and stereotypes.
From my humble experience in the region, I share these “dos” and “don’ts” on how the Middle East should be approached in writing and reporting.
To start with, the term Middle East is itself highly questionable. It is arbitrary, and can only be understood within proximity to some other entity, Europe, which colonial endeavors imposed such classifications on the rest of the word. Colonial Europe was the center of the globe and everything else was measured in physical and political distance from the dominating continent.
Western interests in the region never waned. In fact, following US-led wars on Iraq (1990-91), a decade-long blockade, followed by a massive war and invasion (2003), the “Middle East” is back at the center of neocolonial activities, colossal western economic interests, strategic and political maneuvering.
To question the term “Middle East” is to become conscious of the colonial history, and the enduringly fierce economic and political competition, which is felt in every fact of life in the region.
Then, learn to question many other terms: extremist, radical, moderate, terrorist, pro-western, liberal, socialist, Islamist, Islamic, anti-Islamist, secularist, and so on. These are mostly misleading labels. They might not mean at all what you think they do. Their use is often political as opposed to direct reference to an ideological or political position.
Learn the Language
If you reporting work is intrinsically linked to the Middle East, then you must learn a language. If you are not an Arabic-speaking journalist, you must invest the time to learn Arabic (or Farsi, Turkish, etc, depending on the specific region of your interest). Learning few greeting words and how to flag down a taxi is good, but will hardly allow you to overcome the numerous obstacles of having no direct access to a whole country, save few mostly western educated elites who speak your language. Even a local companion would hardly help bridge the language divide, for she/he is likely to have their own biases and limitations. Moreover, much is often omitted and lost in translation.
Speaking the native language will gain you more than access, but trust as well, and help you develop real compassion with people who are in greater need to be heard.
Start at the Bottom
Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Every Middle Eastern country has its educated elites. They are often approached by the media out of convenience. An Egyptian English speaking graduate from the American University of Cairo, or a Yemeni head of EU-funded NGO, or a Palestinian Ramallah-based political analyst who is loosely affiliated with the Palestinian Authority are all obvious media mouthpieces. They speak one foreign language or another; they know what a sound bite is; they don’t require much training; and they are always ready with their talking points. Although they may be the ideal media guest, they may be the least qualified to comment on a story.
Your best bet as a reporter is to start from the bottom, the people who are mostly disaffected by whatever story you are reporting: the victims, their families, eyewitnesses, and the community as a whole. While such voices are often neglected or used as content fillers, they should become the center of any serious reporting from the region, especially in areas that are torn by war and conflict.
Side with the Victim, but be Careful
True, there might be more than one side to the same story, but that should not be the driving force of your reporting.
Start by being aware of your limitations as a person to report on a story without feeling sympathy towards people who are the subject of your report: a Syrian mother separated from her children, a Gaza father, who lost his wife and five kids to Israeli bombs, an Egyptian democracy activist on a prolonged hunger strike, and so on.
But let the understanding of the cost of conflict be your guide in understanding the bigger and more multifaceted issues, without turning into an advocate for one cause or another. Human rights advocacy, if done for the right reasons is a noble and important mission, but on its own is not journalism per se.
One of the greatest flaws in how the Syria war is reported is the simplistic and polarizing approach and terminology. It depends on what channel you are watching or what newspaper you are reading, only one set of victims or refugees matters. Most media weep for the Syrian people, but the victim and victimizer differs when seen from the perspective of Al Jazeera vs. Al Mayadeen, to Press TV, to Russia Today, to Fox News, to the BBC. Manipulating who qualifies to be a victim, is a highly political question with far-reaching consequences.
Consider this, once fringe group like the Houthis of Yemen are becoming the kingmakers of a country, whose central government is by name only, and whose military is divided between sectarian, regional and tribal allegiances. How is one to report on this fairly new phenomenon without developing a solid understanding of Yemeni history and historical divides, regional and international politics that have greatly disturbed any sense of normalcy in that Arab country for decades? Scraps of information about the Yemen revolution from Wikipedia and some newspaper’s ‘fact sheet’ will not do, if one indeed aims to convey a reasonably full picture of the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
History is essential to understanding any conflict in the region, because every single conflict has its own protracted history, which understanding is essential to fathoming the complexity of the present.
Don’t be afraid to raise questions and provide context that you, and, at times, only you believe is essential to the story.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) is a relevant example. Virtually unknown few years ago, IS is now supposedly the greatest danger facing the Middle East, as its oddly composed, but well-armed battalions are moving in multiple directions, leaving in their wake gory stories of death and destruction. But how is one to position a story of this magnitude? What would be a proper context? Who is supplying IS with weapons and constant stream of funds? Can IS’s war, or the war on IS be reported without a clear contextualization that would take several factors into account, at the heart of which is the US invasion of Iraq? Hardly, but many regularly do, and they seem to get away with it.
Remember, no such major upheavals happen in a vacuum. Dare to question the motives in the selective reporting of others.
Avoid Subjective Language
Don’t use the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” unless in proper context. You are not the judge of who is and who is not a terrorist, a term that doesn’t reference a fact but a political perspective. There are many such terminology which are pitfalls that could compromise the credibility of your reporting.
Don’t Be a Tourist
Reporting, especially from conflict zone is a huge responsibility. Sometimes, misleading reporting can cost lives. Avoid the passer-by casual reporting, as in a young New Zealander hopping from Yemen, to Bahrain, to Egypt, to Tunisia in two weeks, producing a whole number of articles for whatever outlet willing to publish, but without scratching the surface of a story. Five days in Sana’a and a week in Bahrain, doesn’t make you an international reporter, doesn’t give your insight much merit and, frankly does a disservice to the profession. You cannot possibly inform others of what you hardly comprehend.
Don’t Get Too Involved
The opposite of the hopping reporter is the ‘expert’ journalist, westerners and others who spend many years reporting from a single country. They can be enormously helpful in conveying a truly authentic story, with consistency over time. The pitfall however is that some get too involved, thus taking sides and falling into the trap of the divided politics of the areas from which they report. Lebanon is rife with such examples. Also, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, for it was accessible to western journalists for many years. Thanks to them, much of the Iraq story in skewed and one-sided.
When your interest in the Middle East is centered on a single topic, for example, the Arab Spring, you are deemed to oversimplify and generalize. You are compelled to look for common dominators between ‘Arab Spring countries’, while willfully dismissing all else. Yemen is a unique case in time and space and can only be truly understood within a set of variables that reflect that uniqueness. While the Tunisian revolution may have inspired revolutionaries and opportunists to follow suit or to exploit the transition, the outcomes of such revolts was largely determined by local and regional factors.
Avoid generalizations to a fault. It will require more research on your part, but that is what sets a serious reporter from others.
And finally, always remember, writing and reporting are a learned process, and there is always something new for all of us to learn. So remain humble, and always welcome the opportunity to learn new things.