Meeting Al-Jazeera 

The new documentary Control Room shows the way Arabs and Americans look at the same events and see two entirely different things

Thursday, Jun 3 2004
Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures

“At Al-Jazeera, we don’t have taboos, we don’t have red lines,” said Samir Khader, a senior producer at the controversial Qatar-based news network. “When I come to work, I start by raising the question, ‘Have you heard of a new red line, a new taboo, to break today?’”

Khader’s lips parted in a taut smile, revealing tobacco-stained teeth, and for a moment he exuded an unmistakable air of satisfaction. You see, he seemed to say, we are not so backward as you Americans think. In many ways, we are already more advanced, more courageous, more transgressive than you!

This was Khader’s first trip to the United States, and it had begun with a two-hour interrogation inside the Terrorism Verification Unit at John F. Kennedy Airport — a red line if ever there was one. Still, things were looking up. He said Americans had treated him well (even airport security), and he had been inundated with requests for interviews.

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That Khader was talking to the American press at all was due to Control Room, a new documentary film about Al-Jazeera in which he is prominently featured. He had been permitted to travel to New York from Doha, Qatar, to promote the film, and now, on a Saturday afternoon, I’d taken him along to a lunch at the Carlyle Hotel with Bernard-Henri Lévy, the mediagenic French philosopher and author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and Lévy’s American publisher, Dennis Johnson. If the higher-ups at Al-Jazeera were concerned about what one of their staff might say abroad, they needn’t have been. Khader is a stalwart advocate for the channel. But he did admit the situation was slightly unusual: Normally, Al-Jazeera prefers not to receive publicity, particularly in the United States. “They prefer silence,” he said.

After some preliminary chitchat, he and Lévy, who was in New York to promote his new book, War, Evil, and the End of History, settled into a knowing, insiderish discussion about Pakistan, the upcoming U.S. elections and al Qaeda.

When it comes to handing over al Qaeda terrorists, Pakistan has a very precise agenda, Lévy told Khader, adding that he was certain the Pakistani intelligence services know approximately where all the major al Qaeda figures are, including bin Laden. One al Qaeda terrorist, he pointed out, was handed over to the Americans on the anniversary of September 11 — “Happy birthday, Mr. President!” — while a second was apprehended the day before Congress voted on a multibillion-dollar aid package to Pakistan. The third, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was pulled like a baby from his crib the day before Pakistan voted against the invasion of Iraq in the U.N. — a kind of consolation prize, as it were, for the Bush White House.

“It will be the same — I take the bet,” Lévy said, for the biggest name of all: Osama would be an election-year surprise.

“Will they arrest bin Laden or will they kill him?” asked Johnson.

“They will never kill him. They don’t want another martyr,” replied Khader. Later on in the conversation, he mentioned that he himself had received death threats from al Qaeda.

“Of course,” said Lévy, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. These days, any man of consequence receives death threats from al Qaeda.

“Have they, er, rescinded those threats?” asked Johnson.

“I don’t know! I’m not part of them!” Khader answered, sounding a bit testy.

A thin, scholarly man with blotchy skin and an old-fashioned comb-over, Khader is proud and a little prickly, and has a knack for looking slightly shabby even when dressed in a suit. Before working for Al-Jazeera, he toiled in the wastelands of Jordanian state TV, where two-thirds of every broadcast was devoted to the activities of the Hashemite king. Not surprisingly, his new job feels like paradise in comparison. But, in New York, I sensed he felt very much like someone on exhibition — Look, a real live Arab journalist from Al-Jazeera! — and didn’t like it.

For now, however, that’s what he was. He was also a real live Al-Jazeera journalist who was born in Iraq and who had recently been on assignment in Baghdad. Unlike Western journalists, he had been free to roam around, mingle with the population and walk the streets at will. Iraq, he told us, is in a mess, and so far the Americans have demonstrated little ability to control it. Amazingly, even the American-run television station, Al-Hurra, which means “The Free,” is completely incompetent, with bad editing, black spots that appear on the screen, and sound that comes on after people start speaking and cuts off before they stop. Though the station was barely a month old, he said, it had already lost all credibility with the Arabs and was watched only as a source of amusement.

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