FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

Question Terminology

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.

Learn History

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.

Raise Questions

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.

Don’t Generalize

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.

Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

More articles by:

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
Elliot Sperber
Eddie Spaghetti’s Alphabet
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail