A revealing book I have recently read about the present Middle East is Joris Luyendijk’s Almost Human. Luyendijk was a Dutch journalist who spent several years (1998-2003) in Arab countries as well as in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, working for two Dutch quality newspapers and for the television. His background as a social science student, his command of Arabic and his academic research in Egypt, as well as the fact that he deserted the journalistic profession, all give him a unique critical perspective on the “Middle East," both as an actual reality and as a permanent media item. In fact, the gap between these two between the Mideast’s reality and its Western image is the true subject of the book.
How It All Starts
Luyendijk sheds light on the actual mechanisms of Middle East reporting. The naïve news consumer in the West probably imagines the following standard routine: There is, say, a shooting incident in Alexandria, Egypt; the diligent journalist there urgently phones home (Amsterdam, in this case) and reports; and the news editors put the item in the lineup, or on the proper page in the paper. Nothing like it takes place in reality. A more accurate description, as Luyendijk explains, would be: an international news agency (Reuters, AFP, etc.) runs the story from one of their thousands of anonymous informants. CNN (or some other American news giant) deems it important enough to report. The Dutch editor in Amsterdam calls his reporter in Cairo: “Listen, CNN says something about a shooting in Alexandria, what do you know about it?” The poor reporter, obviously, doesn’t know anything about it: after all, Cairo is hundreds of miles away from Alexandria, and the Egyptian state-controlled news channels haven’t said a word about the incident, and might not do so for another two weeks, or, more likely, may never say a word at all. Since a live interview with the Dutch reporter is scheduled in no time, the best he can do to answer the typical question “Let’s turn live to our reporter in Cairo: What’s the atmosphere in Egypt right now?” is order a room service and ask the waitress what she would say about such an eventuality.
Global reporting on the Middle East is thus in the hands of a very small number of (mostly American) editors who rely on a handful of international news agencies and set the tone for the entire Western media. It goes without saying that their selection of what’s news and what’s not is not objective nor even representative.
What Do We Know
The fact is, Luyendijk argues, that we actually know nothing about the Arab world. Our understanding of the world in general via the press is based on a hidden assumption: that of democracy. When a Western reporter in, say, Switzerland tells us what the Swiss think of gay marriage, of German tourists, or of their new prime minister, we assume that one can know what the Swiss think, and that the reporter does know it. But this presupposes a relatively free and democratic environment. If there were no opinion polls in Switzerland, no free elections, no free press; if a Swiss citizen asked to answer a short questionnaire by an anonymous voice on the phone had to fear a subsequent nighttime visit by the secret service demanding explanations than the whole idea of “public opinion” would not work. But this is precisely how things are in Egypt, Jordan, and almost everywhere else in the Middle East (with the exception of “smaller” Israel, or at least its Jewish portion): there are no free media, no reliable polls, and no way to conduct public opinion research.
All this leaves the stage to the mercy of Western pride and prejudice. The selection of news items (violence, catastrophes, religious fanaticism, court intrigues Yes; humor, traffic accidents, daily life in general No), combined with Western projections of “how things must be over there” and the inability to quantify and verify data in a free stream of information (the very basics of responsible journalism) clear the field to reporting that mostly echoes Western prejudices. The image of the Middle East is made mainly in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, shaping, rather than shaped by, the scanty stream of information coming from Cairo, Amman, or Baghdad.
News From the Holy Land
Luyendijk spent some time in Israel/Palestine, or “the Holy Land," as he cautiously calls it. The circumstances here, as he describes, are extremely different. If the main problem in the Arab world was a lack of information, due mainly to a lack of democratic freedom and to authoritative regimes, basically turning the reporter’s professional life into hell, Israel was a journalistic heaven. Luyendijk describes an overwhelming, perfectly oiled propaganda machine, super-professionally run by the Israeli government and army. The reporter is spoiled by an endless stream of information, perfectly tuned to his needs. The Israelis spoil their guests with exhaustive lists of eloquent speakers, from academic talking heads to common people, ready to say in any of some 40 different languages those precious sound bites that television loves so much. You need a Dutch-speaking West Bank settler who lost a spouse in a terror attack? No problem, here are several phone numbers, here are the quotes, here’s an expert’s view, here’s some recent footage. The foreign reporter can just sit back in his armchair, and the Israeli PR machine will do his work better than he could ever dream of. In a matter of hours after a suicide attack, the Israeli army can take you to the bomber’s family, to hear a proud and delighted father wishing all his children would follow his brave son and kill Jews and heathens. Luyendijk, in an exceptional effort, stayed behind and managed to talk to such a family more intimately, in Arabic, off camera; that’s when different voices can be heard, not only giving background information but expressing true pain, trauma, even anger at those who so quickly brought the bomber’s bleeding organs back to his shocked family, wrapped in a plastic bag. But these voices can be heard only later, in private, and mostly off the record, in order not to breach Palestinian solidarity and dignity codes. You may use such stuff in a newspaper report, but it’s lost on television.
The Ramallah Lynching Revisited
Luyendijk illustrates the overwhelming Israeli media superiority in the notorious lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in October 2000, cynically exploited by Ehud Barak’s government to mobilize home and international support for the murderous oppression of the Intifada. Luyendijk shows how the Israeli propaganda machine, followed by the Western media, portrayed the event as that of two innocent Israelis abused and killed by a Palestinian mob, their corpses thrown out of a window in Ramallah we all remember the pictures. The Palestinian side of the story was left unheard: the two uniformed Israeli soldiers entered the autonomous Ramallah during the mass funeral of a Palestinian child, whose body was found in an Israeli settlement a day before: that’s why so many media teams happened to be in Ramallah at the time. Rumors spread that the soldiers invaded Ramallah in order to spill even more Palestinian blood. This does not excuse their killing, but two uniformed occupier’s soldiers violating Palestinian autonomous territory during a funeral of a murdered child is a very different story from the one that stayed in the Western collective memory namely, as yet another instance of the eternal framing “They are killing innocent Jews” (file under anti-Semitism, Holocaust, etc.).
These are just some of so many insights found in Luyendijk’s book, which is written not as a polemic or a political manifesto, but as a kind of an outsider’s report on Western coverage of the Middle East. The book is currently available in Dutch only; I hope some English-language publisher will pick up the glove and translate it.