The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged middle east
Repression and suspicion for scholars in the middle east

I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances. 

Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”
The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”
“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”
It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.
Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 


On James Foley, Steven Sotloff and freelance journalism in the Middle East

It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder. 

These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.

Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing. 

There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.

In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments). 

Academic tourists?

This opinion piece by AUC sociology professor Mona Abaza raises some interesting and uncomfortable questions about the inequalities between local and foreign academics who study the Middle East -- especially now, as the Arab Spring has made the region the object of increased scholarly interest: 

Without sounding xenophobic, which is a growing concern that personally worries me more than ever, there is much to say about the ongoing international academic division of labour whereby the divide between the so called “theoreticians” of the North and the “informants” who are also “objects of study” in the South continues to grow.

I am indeed speaking of frustrations because “we” as “locals” have been experiencing a situation, time and again, of being reduced to becoming at best “service providers” for visiting scholars, a term I borrowed from my colleague, political scientist Emad Shahin, at worst like the French would put it, as the “indigène de service”, for ironically the right cause of the revolution. To rather cater for the service of our Western expert colleagues who typically make out of no more than a week's stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge.

I cover higher education in the Middle East and I know there are a lot of academics and students of the Arab world who read the blog, and I'd welcome your reactions. Have you experienced these kinds of frustrations -- or misgivings? In the rush to assert one's professional credentials on the Arab Spring leading to superficial work? Is this just sour grapes or is there a power imbalance between visiting foreign scholars and their local colleagues? How could it be addressed? 

"Innocent abroad"
Over at The National, Wesley Yang reviews Neal McFarquhar's new book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. McFarquhar was the New York Times correspondent in Cairo from 2001 to 2006. (He previously wrote a novel--a satire of the journalistic milieu, mostly aimed at TV, and a story of romantic entanglements between foreign reporters during the 1991 Gulf War--called The Sand Café.)

The new book is a tour d'horizon of the Middle East, with a focus on its supposedly lighter, more hopeful side--it features interviews with feminists, activists, media personalities, non-conformists. Yang--while respectful of McFarquhar's professional production and personal politics--critiques the book for its "banal," general observations about both the state of the Middle East and the American role therein. 
He proposes that Americans increase the amount of foreign aid targeted toward development, become more vocal in condemning all forms of repression, and refuse to moderate that criticism just because a foreign government serves America’s immediate policy goals. He urges a return to “a time when the US was known for defending the little guy, when the guiding principle of American foreign policy was doing the right thing”.

The blameless banality of these suggestions, most of which are both apposite and true in their way, winds up in tension with many of MacFarquhar’s observations elsewhere in his book. It begins as a view of the “lighter side” of the Middle East; it becomes, almost in spite of itself, a rather crushing account of political paralysis. The “smart, energetic, dedicated activists out there working to transform the region may not have reached a critical mass”, he writes. They may “face terrible odds in confronting the brutal machinery that keeps so many dictators in power”. But, he concludes somewhat lamely: “they are determined to make a difference.”

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect what we have here is yet another Big Book by a Big Guy (it's almost always a guy) with a Big Idea--a genre that dominates the Western publishing industry when it comes to the Middle East (in second place are accounts of female oppression and sexual self-discovery, featuring the world "veil"). I know there are some excellent exceptions, but generally I have the  hardest time mustering interest for these "medical" books--they're all diagnosis and prescription--in which every anecdote is milked for socio-cultural insight and every interview leads to political prognostications. And the Big Idea seems quite fuzzy in this case: there is hope for the Middle East, not everyone there is backwards or cowed or fanatic, but still things are very tough, and the US should do something to help. Yet the US's deep, structural complicity with the authoritarian regimes of the region is one of the book's "blind spots," according to Yang.