The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A rough wake-up

I arrived in Doha last night to attend a conference on democracy organized by Al Jazeera. For me and many of the journos on this trip, of course, this conference is an excuse to dig a little deeper into the forthcoming Al Jazeera International, the English-language station. I was looking forward to meeting some of the people behind that and take a closer look at Al Jazeera's operation in general.

I certainly did not expect to be on Al Jazeera, which is what happened this morning. At 7:15am, I received a phone call from a former freelance contributor to the Cairo Times, the magazine I edited a few years ago. He was now a producer for Al Jazeera and wanted me to be ready to appear live, in Arabic, in two hours. Barely awake, panic immediately set in. I am rather self-conscious about my Arabic, which not only isn't that great, but also sounds like an Egyptian fellah with a Moroccan twang. I don't really speak fusha (the modern standard Arabic of Al Jazeera and broadcasting in general) and have no desire to sound like a hick on the most watched Arab television station in the world.

I politely refused on these grounds, but they finally dug up a translator (Saddam Hussein's former translator, actually) and so, around 9:30am Doha time, I appeared live on the show hadith al sabah (morning news). We talked about foreign-language publications in the Arab world -- ones that I worked in like the Cairo Times and Cairo magaazine, and others that have made a name for themselves. The questions were intelligent and touched on a lot of different issues, from whether these magazines were representative of the Arab world or not, regional differences, censorship and other obstacles. I made sure to get a word in for Jill Caroll (a veteran of the Jordan Times), whose chilling video appeared late last night on Al Jazeera (note to CNN: don't brag about showing a still picture rather than the film without sound as Al Jazeera did: they are as chilling as each other, and it just looks like you're saying that Al Jazeera, whose staff has made tremendous efforts on and off air to appeal for Jill's release, is somehow morally reprehensible. It's bull.) I also mentioned the trial against Tel Quel, a French-language Moroccan weekly that has faced indirect pressure for its courageous reporting.

One thing they asked about is whether the Egyptian experience showed that these magazines were doomed to failure. While the politically engaged magazines I worked for failed financially, this is not an indication for the rest of the industry. Egypt Today, a monthly, has published a quality magazine for some 26 years. Al Ahram Weekly, working within the constraints of state ownership (but often pushing the boundaries), is about 15 years old. Elsewhere, foreign-language Arab publishing in thriving, notably in the Gulf, but also in Lebanon and the Maghreb. And some are independent publications that are quite politically courageous (in Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon notably).

I'll be blogging about the conference and my impressions of Al Jazeera and Qatar. There are tons of interesting people here - I flew in with the cream of the Egyptian punditocracy, Fahmy Howeidy and Salama Ahmed Salama, both men of characteristic masri charm and intelligence. I had breakfast with Hugh Miles, author of the famous book Al Jazeera, who is also very interesting. And had an argument with the Weekly's Amira Howeidy about Hamas, although I'm not sure why, since we both seemed to agree. This should be an interesting few days.