By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For a moment, Khader’s face lit up and he smiled like a man who, just briefly, had glimpsed heaven and would never forget it. But when I asked him what it was like actually to live in Baghdad, the gloom set in quickly. The Iraqis, he said, cannot cope with life, because they can’t afford to buy food for their families, and the distress is visible on their faces. “Unemployment is catastrophic, half a million Iraqi soldiers were laid off by Paul Bremer just like that, and every one of them is the head of a family of seven to 10 people. So life is miserable.”
For the first but not the last time when talking to Khader, I was reminded that the best-known talk show on Al-Jazeera is called The Opinion and the Other Opinion. Whatever else President Bush may have done, however badly things may be going, it appears that by invading and occupying Iraq he has thrown the Arab world a psychological curve ball it is still trying to wrap its mind around.
“On the one hand you want something, and at the same time you want the opposite,” explained Khader, describing the profound sense of confusion that has descended on his fellow Arabs. “You don’t know. You are seeking your way. You try to figure out what to do. This is the state of the whole Middle East.”
No TV station is an island, but Al-Jazeera (literally, “The Island”) comes closer than most, at least for those of us who don’t speak Arabic. Protected by an impenetrable linguistic screen, it affects our fortunes in the Middle East and influences Muslims here at home. Control Room, which was directed by Jehane Noujaim, a 30-year-old Egyptian-American who divides her time between Cairo and New York, gives Americans an unprecedented look inside the Arab world’s version of CNN.
According to Noujaim, the film was inspired by her fascination with the way Arabs and Americans can look at the same events and see two entirely different things, sometimes in unpredictable ways. For instance, in January 2003, she filmed a massive anti-war march in Manhattan and then flew to Cairo, where her Iraqi friends told her they were eager for the invasion of Iraq to begin. “What are people protesting for if this is what the Iraqis really want?” she thought to herself at the time.
But for the most part, perceptions did and do divide along the usual lines, and the film is at least partly a drama about contrasting views of one war. Representing the pro-war faction is Lieutenant Josh Rushing, an earnest and surprisingly open-minded American press officer at Central Command (CentCom) in Doha, Qatar, where the U.S. military’s media center is located. Ten miles down the road, as it happens, are the headquarters of Al-Jazeera. The station is heavily subsidized by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who kick-started it with a $150 million loan in 1996. It is still not profitable, and its finances are said to be murky.
We meet the film’s two other main characters in the Al-Jazeera studios: Khader, who has degrees in journalism and mathematics from universities in Grenoble and Paris, and his colleague Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist who went to school in Saudi Arabia with Osama bin Laden (this according to the press package; it’s not mentioned in the film), attended university in America, worked for the BBC and is married to an Englishwoman. Khader is the film’s heart and soul; Ibrahim, a bearlike pan-Arabist and intellectual, its most articulate and insistent advocate of the anti-war position. More than anyone, he berates the Americans for thinking they can export freedom with laser shows and bombs, and scorns the notion that Arabs would ever suck democracy through a Republican straw. “Eventually you will have to find a solution that does not include bombing people into submission,” he scolds.
Neither Ibrahim’s nor Khader’s background is unusual for Al-Jazeera, raising the possibility that at least some of the most anti-American reportage coming out of the Arab world is the work of Western, or Western-trained, journalists. Reached by phone in Qatar, Jihad Ballout, the network’s communications and media-relations manager, told me that “quite a few” Al-Jazeera staff members hold dual nationality, mostly E.U. but with some U.S. or Canadian passport holders thrown in. “A lot of the core people who started Al-Jazeera and still work for it now have been trained in the Western media environment,” he said, adding that he himself had worked in print media in Britain and the U.S.
Noujaim doesn’t take sides, at least not overtly, and is neither seen nor heard in the film. “When you impose your agenda on something, it destroys that element of surprise and chance,” she told me, sitting in a New York café. Born to a Lebanese father and an American mother in Washington, D.C., she grew up in Kuwait and Egypt. At 16 she was sent to a boarding school outside Boston, and eventually majored in philosophy and visual arts at Harvard. Since then she has worked at MTV, apprenticed with the filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and co-directed Startup.com. Dressed in a beautiful print blouse, with long black hair and sparkling white teeth, she strikes one not so much as an “Arab-American,” but as a perfect, 50-50, Arab/American hybrid.