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
A few days before I interviewed Noujaim, I stopped by a small store in New York’s East Village. The owner, a white working-class woman, noticed the book I’d momentarily placed on the counter: Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. To my surprise, she began talking with great excitement about how fabulous Al-Jazeera was (she’d seen it on vacation in Spain), and told me she would like nothing better than to work for the station that Fouad Ajami, writing in The New York Times, called “a dangerous force [that] should be treated as such by Washington.” In all seriousness, she asked me if I could help get her a job there.
A block away from the lady who wants to work for Al-Jazeera is a Yemeni-run grocery store that sells newspapers. Almost every day the Iraq war dominates the headlines. “FIENDS!” screams the New York Post, while The New York Times hems and haws. Month after month there are photographs of suicide bombings, the U.N.’s Baghdad headquarters in ruins, American corpses desecrated in Fallujah, commuter trains blown up in Madrid, and, in the New York Sun, an entire week of front-page stories about the murder and near genocide, perpetrated by Arab Muslims, of hundreds of thousands of black Africans in the Sudan. Customers stream in and out, and in a year of shopping there I have never heard a single word said to the Yemenis about the war, or Arab terrorism, or anything else to do with the Middle East. But a few days after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke, an African-American bike messenger wearing skintight purple Lycra addressed the young Yemeni behind the counter.
“You see the latest pictures?” he called out, shaking his head in disgust. “Looks like Alabama in the 1950s, man.”
“Brother, don’t talk to me about that,” the Yemeni replied in mock annoyance, as if the mere thought of the pictures might make him vomit. “It’s too early in the morning.”
Given the strong anti-war sentiment in much of the U.S., it’s no surprise that Control Room, which opens in Los Angeles on June 18, is getting such a warm reception. (At Film Forum in New York, it broke the cinema’s 34-year-old record for a single-screen opening-weekend attendance.) But my own sense, from talking to Khader, is that while perfectly willing to let Americans beat up on themselves if they want to, some Arabs also enjoy it when Americans challenge them. At any rate, he gave as good as he got. When I asked him why Al-Jazeera was so timid about reporting on Qatar, he replied that this was a matter of legend rather than truth. (“We have done many things about Qatar,” he said. “We talked about the distribution of wealth, we talked about the status of women — this is one of the biggest taboos in the country! When we have an opportunity to do it, we do it.”) But when I asked him about the charges of anti-Semitism, he wheeled out the tired old line about Arabs being Semites too.
After our lunch with Lévy and Johnson at the Carlyle (“I’m dying for a cigarette,” Khader said, lighting up as soon as we reached the sidewalk), we took a leisurely, 30-block walk back to his hotel on 45th Street. I offered to take him to the top of the Empire State Building, but he seemed uninterested in doing any conventional sightseeing. Perhaps he was afraid I’d also suggest a trip to what naughty Ann Coulter dubbed the greatest monument to Islam in New York: Ground Zero. At any rate, he seemed happy just to walk around. Doha, Qatar, he reminded me, is not just a geographical desert, but a cultural and intellectual one too. If not for his job, he wouldn’t live there for a minute.
In the bar of the Roosevelt Hotel, Khader ordered a Coca-Cola and gave me a rundown of his views. Though even such anti-Bush papers as the Guardianhave run glowing reports about the local elections being held in Iraqi cities like Nassiriya, he dismissed them as a medieval sham in which tribal chieftains pick their relatives to represent them. (“This is not democracy,” he said, “this is dictatorship.”) Nonetheless, like a lot of experts, he thought elections should be held sooner rather than later. (“If I were Paul Bremer, I would give my order to start elections in September,” he said. “You have to start educating the Iraqi people in democracy, to choose their representatives.”) The overall verdict? The Bush-Cheney team had had a brilliant military plan — all Arabs were in agreement about that — but zilch for “the day after.”
“Has the Arab world helped them with ‘the day after’?” I asked.
“Why should they?”
“Well, you as an Arab were telling me that you were glad Saddam Hussein was gone.”
“And I told you that as a citizen,” Khader replied. “But if you were a ruler in the Middle East, the first thing that would come to your mind the day after is the following: ‘Who’s next?’ So why should I help?”