At Al-Jazeera, we dont have taboos, we dont 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?
Khaders 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 Khaders 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.
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, Id 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 Lévys American publisher, Dennis Johnson. If the higher-ups at Al-Jazeera were concerned about what one of their staff might say abroad, they neednt 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 dont 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 dont know! Im 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 didnt like it.
For now, however, thats 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.
I asked Khader what, if anything, the U.S. had done right in Iraq.
People tend not to see that, he noted. First of all, they toppled Saddam Hussein. This is number one. Iraqis are free for the first time, even though they cant eat every day, but at least they are free. When I was there last month, there were 170 publications in Iraq. The freedom of speech in Iraq is something extraordinary. You never witness that in any Third World country. You have newspapers, magazines, from the extreme right to the extreme left, everybody attacking everybody, and everybody accepting the criticism of others. Its wonderful, really wonderful.
For a moment, Khaders 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 cant 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 dont 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 dont 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 worlds 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. militarys media center is located. Ten miles down the road, as it happens, are the headquarters of Al-Jazeera. The station is heavily subsidized by Qatars 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 films 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; its not mentioned in the film), attended university in America, worked for the BBC and is married to an Englishwoman. Khader is the films 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 Ibrahims nor Khaders 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 networks 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 doesnt 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.
In Control Room, Noujaims fly-on-the-wall approach has its drawbacks. The lack of any voice-over commentary or narration sometimes means a lack of context too. Though she says that the film is about information, how its controlled and how its conveyed, theres some striking information thats missing. For instance, we are never informed that, despite its reputation for being fearless, Al-Jazeera has been reluctant to criticize its host country, Qatar, and in fact hardly reports on it at all. Nor is there any explanation or analysis of why Tarek Ayoub, the Al-Jazeera reporter killed by an American missile, is repeatedly referred to as a martyr and given a warriors funeral in Jordan. Most seriously, perhaps, one hears nothing of the many allegations of corruption that have been brought against the network, including specific charges that some of its reporters were on Saddam Husseins payroll.
If you listen to Mamoun Fandy, the Egyptian author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, you get a very different image of Al-Jazeera from the one seen in the film. At a debate about the network held by the Center for Law and Security at New York University on April 27, he characterized the Al-Jazeera product as politics rather than news. He said that 60 percent of the channels staff are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and spoke of watching an Al-Jazeera talk show in which a guest was allowed to theorize freely that Jews are descended from pigs and monkeys. He depicted a news culture in which stories are frequently manufactured and in which Western standards of verification and investigation are often dispensed with completely. You cannot understand Al-Jazeera without understanding Arab politics, he stated. Its authoritarianism, the whole idea of bribery and corruption. If you think Al-Jazeera is CNN, you must be smoking something illegal.
But if you listen to Lisa Wedeen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago referred to me by Juan Cole, the liberal Middle East scholar behind the influential blog Informed Comment, the picture of Al-Jazeera that emerges is far less disturbing. Wedeen says she values the stations Middle East coverage over CNNs and believes that its political talk shows are superior to the ones we see in America.
Al-Jazeera journalists tend to have less deference for their guests than their American counterparts, she wrote in an e-mail. In The Opinion and the Other Opinion, the anchorperson typically begins by delivering a brief monologue that expresses one view for example, that Americans are imperialists who invaded Iraq for material gains. And then the anchor flips and delivers the contrasting view for example, that Americans went into Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people and establish democracy. The conversation that ensues generally complicates the two positions and in ways that allow for serious, rational arguments in public.
As usual when it comes to the Middle East, its hard to get warring analysts to agree on anything. Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security, which put on the debate at NYU, emphasized that very few people in the West understand what Al-Jazeera is really about or how it works financially, ethically or journalistically. Were all desperately trying to catch up, she said.
Noujaim says that some of the questions raised by the film will be addressed when Control Room comes out on DVD, and that there simply wasnt time to go into them given its current 84-minute length. You have to go with what intrigues you, and Im much more interested in figuring out what motivates Hassan or Samir or Josh Rushing personally than whether Al-Jazeera was being completely accurate in its news coverage or not. My loyalty was to try and represent my characters as truthfully as I could.
Inevitably, there is something a bit unsatisfying about this approach. Since Noujaim doesnt speak enough Arabic to understand everything said on Al-Jazeera When I tried to speak Arabic with her, she couldnt get one single word, Khader told me in some astonishment what might have been an opportunity to dispel some of the obfuscation that surrounds the channel is lost. Instead, she serves up an impressionistic portrait that avoids tough questions, or directs most of them at the Americans. By refusing to be heard asking questions, she was even forced to leave out what might have been a key moment in the film. At one point, she told me, she asked Khader whether he supported the war, and his answer was surprisingly ambivalent. (Lets wait and see was what it amounted to.) But Noujaim omitted the scene because it occurred during a conversation in which her own voice could be heard. Hassan Ibrahim, on the other hand, talks incessantly about the war, generally in the most scornful terms, and no problems of cinematic technique interfere with the delivery of his message.
Much in Control Room is memorable, however: the portrayal of the Al-Jazeera reporters and staff, particularly Khader; the robotic banality of many of the CentCom officers; the bleached, lunar atmosphere of Doha itself. (The film ends, poetically, with a cleansing rainfall.) There are also some zingers. Two months ago, the clip in which President Bush is shown promising an end to torture in Iraq wouldnt have attracted comment. Now it will be greeted with groans, or possibly jeers, as will the scene in which the military sells the media on the discredited Jessica Lynch story. On the other hand, when a female Al-Jazeera producer claims that the toppling of Saddams statue in Firdos Square looks staged, in part because there are no women on the street, you have to laugh. Judging from the news footage from Iraq and elsewhere, one could be forgiven for thinking there were almost no women in the Middle East at all. But on this point Khader was adamant. We are convinced at Al-Jazeera that those people who were demonstrating and enjoying the toppling of the statue were not from Iraq, he told me.
A few days before I interviewed Noujaim, I stopped by a small store in New Yorks East Village. The owner, a white working-class woman, noticed the book Id 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 (shed 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, dont talk to me about that, the Yemeni replied in mock annoyance, as if the mere thought of the pictures might make him vomit. Its too early in the morning.
Given the strong anti-war sentiment in much of the U.S., its 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 cinemas 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 (Im 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 Id 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 wouldnt 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 Guardian have 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: Whos next? So why should I help?
Let me change the question, I said. Has the Arab intelligentsia helped the U.S.?
No. They cant help it, because they dont agree with the justification for the war WMD, Saddam Hussein represents a danger for the whole international community, he has ties with al Qaeda, etc. Nobody believes in that.
But they agreed with the result, in the sense that they wanted him deposed.
Yes, but they would have preferred that the result should have come from within Iraq.
But it doesnt come from anywhere within the Arab world.
And why is that? Khader retorted. Because all these dictators are fully supported by the United States. All of them. Even the Syrians.
If you dont mind my saying so, I said, it sounds like youre playing games. It sounds like theres an opportunity for democracy there, and youre not taking it. Its as if youre saying, I like this gift, but I dont like the way its wrapped, I dont like the store you bought it from, and the owner of the store killed my uncle.
But believe me, this is the mentality of the Middle East! Khader exclaimed, suddenly becoming excited. This is the way things go on in the Middle East! Do you know that the Saudis, for example, will never, ever forget that the ruling family in Jordan came from Saudi Arabia? And that they are the legitimate rulers of the Hijaz, which is in the western part of Saudi Arabia? This happened some 70 or 80 years ago, but they didnt forget it. They never forget. There is a saying, The revenge of an Arab lasts for 40 years, and obviously, Im part of that Middle East. I cant think otherwise. You say its a game, but its not a game. Its the way things go on in the region.
Khader is obviously an extremely intelligent man who is knowledgeable not only about the Middle East but about Europe and America as well. He speaks fluent French, excellent if heavily accented English, and has taught himself enough Hebrew to be able to follow the main points of Israeli news broadcasts. He is also a skilled debater who frequently tied me up in knots. But did he really share in what he called the mentality of the Middle East? After a while I began to feel as if there were two Khaders: one an emissary for Al-Jazeera and the greater Arab world, the other representing no one but himself. Im not sure if even he always knew which of the two was speaking.
Referring to Iraq, Khader No. 1 said that occupation of any kind, even one that purports to replace tyranny with freedom, is unacceptable to the international community, of which he considered himself a part. Khader No. 2 said that he hoped what has happened in Iraq will spill over and bring democracy to the whole Middle East, this is my dream. (And, reading between the lines, to hell with the international community.)
Khader No. 1 eagerly anticipated Bushs electoral defeat and accused the presidents foreign-policy team of wanting to remodel the world according to their own narrow, belligerent, insensitive agenda. Khader No. 2 compared the Bush team favorably to the hypocritical Europeans, whether they were pro-war like Blair and Aznar, or anti-war like Schroeder and Chirac, and said that at least the Bush team had a straightforward policy and were clear with themselves and their people and the world. The Europeans are not clear.
Underlying it all was the tricky business of ordinary human pride, of which I surmised Khader possessed his fair share. To be offered freedom (democracy in waiting, he called it) by the Americans was humiliating, and so it was to be expected that many Iraqis would reject and fight against the occupation. On the other hand, it came out in conversation that way back when, the Iraqis had also rejected him, Khader. Though he was born and raised in Iraq, he told me, because his family was of Jordanian origin they had been shunned and treated as outcasts by their Iraqi neighbors. Iraqis do not like foreigners. They are a chauvinistic people, he said.
After a while we adjourned to Khaders spacious but drab suite of rooms on the ninth floor of the hotel. Contra critics like Mamoun Fandy, Fouad Ajami, Yigal Carmon and others who claim that Al-Jazeera has built itself a 40-million-strong audience by whipping up Arab emotions and inciting hostility and hatred toward the West, Khader claimed that Al-Jazeera is a scrupulously neutral organization. Al-Jazeera never does politics, he told me as he sat on a couch and smoked. Al-Jazeera reports politics. This is the policy of Al-Jazeera, to report the various positions and policies of all parties in the region.
Khader readily conceded, however, that the notion of Al-Jazeera reporting politics is a bit contradictory, given that much of the political life in the region exists primarily on the screen of Al-Jazeera itself. Since almost no one in the Arab world actually gets to vote, there arent a whole lot of politics to report. (Imagine life as a journalist under Saddam Hussein.) It is a democratic channel in a totalitarian region, which is a bit like being a sex channel in a world in which only royals, presidents-for-life and people in far-off countries are allowed to make love. No wonder, then, that Al-Jazeera is reputed to have a feverish, hothouse quality. It has become the expression of politics in the whole Arab world, Khader told me.
As for the possibility that Al-Jazeera might ever adopt a pro-American stance vis-à-vis the occupation, that was out of the question. Even if many of its journalists were essentially Westerners with Arab faces (as Mamoun Fandy said at NYU), the viewers, it seemed, were very different. We have an audience which needs careful and gradual education, Khader explained, and this is what Al-Jazeera is all about. Educating the Arab masses for something else, but gradually, without impinging on their beliefs and their dogmas and their traditions and their cultures. We want to change, but we know that change should be gradual; otherwise, people will lose their identity or, simply, switch the channel.
I brought up the subject of Arabs living in the West. Why were they so overwhelmingly against the war, given that theyd chosen to live in a democracy? Wouldnt supporting the American effort to democratize the Middle East be more logical?
The problem is not the intention, its the way you proceed and the mission you project, Khader replied quietly. I can tell you frankly that after 9/11 most of the Arab and Muslim communities in the West, along with those in the Muslim world, started believing that the West was preparing a new crusade against them. Dont forget that after 9/11 the Arab and Muslim communities in America were virtually besieged!
How so? Bush made a lot of statements about Islam being a religion of peace . . .
Statements and good intentions are not enough. Many Arabs were asked by the FBI to go and register. They were singled out at the airport. They were denied access to many flights. I know its understandable from the point of view of the Americans, but imagine yourself in an airport in a queue, and an officer says, You and you and you, please come here. Especially when you are an American citizen, enjoying your constitutional rights, and you see yourself profiled and singled out, you start to think that this is a fake democracy. Because a true democracy would not make this distinction. After all, those who did 9/11 were not American citizens.
I asked Khader what the reaction would have been like in the Arab world if some American tourists had hijacked a plane full of Egyptians and run it through the pyramids.
The reaction would have been unimaginable, he replied, because the Arabs are easily emotionally affected. But at least we dont pretend that we are democratic.
Well, youre not democratic. We are.
So you have to act as democrats.
I told Khader that this seemed slightly unfair to me. Though hailing from a part of the world lined wall to wall with dictatorships, he felt at liberty to criticize every infringement of a democracy that provides many Arabs with a completely free life they could never receive in their countries of origin.
Khaders voice went very quiet. At least, he said, spreading his hands in front of him in an almost pleading way, at least people like me, they have only one dream in their lives, which is to transpose this Western democracy, as it is, with all its negative aspects, to their part of the world. At least.
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And do you feel, if you had to go before your Maker, you could honestly say that as a journalist at Al-Jazeera youve done everything you can to make that possible?
Khader spread his fingers across his chest, as if to signal that he was speaking from the heart. It may even be that both Khaders were speaking.
Yes, he said. Were trying very hard. Believe me when I tell you that sometimes when I leave work and go home, I keep thinking, Have I done everything possible for the good of this horrible Arab world? Have I done enough to put an end to this nightmare? I dont know about the other editors, but I believe that they also are doing whatever they can to satisfy their own agenda of democracy and freedom, and to have a clean spirit, and a clean heart, when one day they stand before their Maker if He exists.
Control Room opens at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles on June 18.