The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Al-Jazeera Tour

I have been traveling a lot lately, which is not amenable to finishing the thesis. So I am not sure I am back to the blog on a more regular basis as there is someone in the UK looking for my chapters. But I wanted to share a recent experience. I had the opportunity to go to Doha for the Fifth Annual forum for Democracy and Free Trade. It was my first trip to Doha and the place is fascinating and different than other Gulf countries I have visited.

Living in Egypt, one tends to forget that some of the region's governments are into developing longer-term projects and having dialogues in which the government and society don't necessarily miss one another. It is as alien as it is refreshing. One thing I got from my Doha trip was that even though it is a small country, its dreams are enormous and this could translate into positive future developments. You get a sense that the region's future is in some ways being pushed by Qatar rather than the more traditionally viewed countries.

Not that the conference does not deserve some space, but probably more interesting to the Arabist readers was a trip to al-Jazeera.

I made arrangements through a friend and was taken to the media compound in Doha. After getting through security, I was driven to al-Jazeera's building. Being fairly Egyptian, I was on my best behavior not to call it "al-Gazeera" as so many of my friends do (although I am sured I slipped one or twice).

The thing that strikes you is how small of an operation al-Jazeera is. It is essentially a largish room with loads of news readers and analysts gathering news off the net and wires. There are two small annexes off to the right and left - one with the control rooms and the other annex is offices for the the graphics and management departments. The day I went it seemed most of the conference participants were there. Having to do your job while dodging flocks of tourists must be annoying but the Jazeera staff seems very adept at getting things done in the midst of those watching.

On the wall there are posters that state al-Jazeera's Code of Ethics in Arabic and English. Also, there is a poster with Tariq Ayub's picture - seemingly on the morning he was killed in Baghdad. The poster declares that he will not be forgotten and that he is al-Jazeera's martyr.

I ran into a friend that works for al-Jazeera. She took me into her office and we chatted about the false leak that Qatar was looking to unload the network that appeared in the NYT. Also, we spoke about how if al-Jazeera has to choose between advertising and dumbing down their news or losing money through lack of advertisement dollars, it will choose the latter. My friend's office is in the new wing of al-Jazeera. Since al-Jazeera has added economic and sport channels and the documentary and english services are slated to launch within the year, space had to be added. Yet, one gets the feeling that the size now was more appropriate when it was just an Arabic news channel. Space, then, is disproportionate to these new additions.

By the time we emerged from the office, the tourists were gone. I was asked if I wanted to go into the Control Room. I was taken in at the top of the hour and watched how producers select and manage prospective stories. It was there that I also saw a familiar face. The producer working was Samir Khader from "Control Room" documentary fame. Feeling like I knew him, I introduced myself and explained "I have never met a movie star." He laughed easily and said "Wait until Hollywood calls then I can retire". I asked him how many hours he works. He said on a typical day it is around 10. But naturally being in a medium dependent on events, it is always subject to change. He had worked 7 hours on 9/11 when images and news broke form NYC and Washington at 345pm (Doha Time). He stayed with it and did not go home until 5am the next morning. The US war against war also meant long hours. He claims that he did not go home or leave the Jazeera building for the first four days after the war started. Like everyone at al-Jazeera, Samir did not seem bothered that I was milling around.

After another brief chat with my friend, I snapped some shots and decided to head out. Al-Jazeera is a small building for such a massive operation. The staff is friendly and accommodating. It would be interesting to compare a reception at CNN in Atlanta. I am guessing I probably would not be allowed in the Control Room.

Being an al-Jazeera watcher, it was an interesting to see how it all is put together.

Living in the Arab world is about a lot of things and our blog primarily tends to be political and event driven, so I hope our readers don't mind reading about some of the more equally interesting but less dramatic experiences that we get to have.

Selected pictures can be viewed here.

And to clear this up for all my friends and relatives asking about t-shirts and coffee mugs. No, al-Jazeera does not sell them.