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Trials and tribulations of reporting from the Mideast

Writing and reporting about the Middle East is not an easy task, especially during these years of turmoil

Ramzy Baroud

Published: Updated:

Writing and reporting about the Middle East is not an easy task, especially during these years of turmoil. Following and reporting on these constant changes without a deep 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” as to 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, whose colonial endeavors imposed such classifications on the rest of the word.

If your reporting is intrinsically linked to the Middle East, then you must learn a language

Ramzy Baroud

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 facet of life in the region. Keep this in mind and 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 a language

If your reporting 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). 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. 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. They often 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 affected by whatever story you are reporting: The victims, their families, eyewitnesses and the community as a whole.

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 to report on a story without feeling sympathy toward 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 activist on a prolonged hunger strike, and so on. One of the greatest flaws in how the Syria war is reported is the simplistic and polarizing approach and terminology. Most media weep for the Syrian people, but the victim and victimizer differs when seen from the varying perspectives of different news organizations, from 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.

Reporting fairly

Consider this, a once fringe group like the Houthis of Yemen is becoming the kingmaker 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?

History is essential to understanding any conflict in the region, because every single conflict has its own protracted history. Understanding this history 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 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a relevant example. Virtually unknown few years ago, ISIS 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?

Remember, no such major upheavals happen in a vacuum. Dare to question the motives in the selective reporting of others.

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.

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.

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.
Avoid generalizations to a fault. It will require more research on your part, but that is what sets a serious reporter from others.

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Palestinian-American journalist, author, editor, Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) taught Mass Communication at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, and is Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Chronicle. Baroud's work has been published in hundreds of newspapers and journals worldwide and his books “His books “Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion” and “The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle” have received international recognition. Baroud’s third book, “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story” narrates the story of the life of his family, used as a representation of millions of Palestinians in Diaspora, starting in the early 1940’s until the present time.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.