Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nearing the End of a Long American Film

The American president began his last year in office with a visit to a region left more unstable by his administrations short-sighted policies. Unfortunately his sabre-rattling wasn’t limited to the Alartha sword dance he tried his hand at in Bahrain.

While the White House has billed the trip as an effort to reassure his Arab allies in the Gulf that the US will protect them from Iran, it seems the GCC, while it does have concerns about growing Iranian power, prefers constructive dialogue to an exchange of bellicose rhetoric and grandstanding - as in the battle of the videos over the incident in the Strait of Hormuz. As the Saudi foreign minister said at a press conference “I am talking about Saudi Arabia’s point of view. This is not the time for any provocation in the region”.

"Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous and Iran will be dangerous" was Bush’s mantra throughout the trip, and he seemed unfazed by the fact that IAEA chief Muhammad el-Baradei was in Tehran to negotiate on outstanding nuclear issues, or by his own intelligence agencies recent report that said Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program.

As the Saudi Gazette put it, “If this is the Bush definition of diplomacy, he needs to pick up a dictionary”. Editorials in leading newspapers also lambasted Bush’s much vaunted peace plan, which consigns UN resolutions to the dustbin of history, denying refugees their right of return, and declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements, illegal under international law, “facts on the ground” which must be accommodated by the occupied Palestinians . The “viable state” turns out to be a network of Bantustans with no territorial integrity, with the Palestinians deprived of their best land and water resources.

The other ‘carrot’ to the people of the region was a revival of the short-lived ‘freedom agenda’ in his keynote speech in Abu Dhabi. The speech was in part a repeat of the 2003 state of the union address in the build up to the war on Iraq, substituting Iran as state sponsor of terror on the path to acquiring nukes.

Reeling off a list of democratic elections in the region, he mentioned the Iraqi and Lebanese elections, but skipped the Palestinian election of a Hamas government in favour of the earlier election of Abu Mazen. To Arabs watching the speech live, the glaring omissions was proof, if any were needed, that this wasn’t about universal ideals, but about a Bush principle: with us or against us? Again, the idea that you negotiate not with your allies, but with people who disagree with you, seems an alien concept.

But as this administration is on its way out, perhaps some appreciation is in order. Will the next one provide as much material to satirist?

‘Bush bashing’ has become a spectator sport in some quarters, and the urge to lampoon has even reached Arab video clips, whose Arab spin-offs have reached levels of inanity undreamt of in MTV’s philosophy – as exemplified by the craze for cheesy children’s songs by pop-singers.

You’d think nothing could be more apolitical, but one of Nancy Ajram’s contributions to the genre, “Shater, Shater” (Good Boy, Good Boy) proved to have hidden potential. When the US Secretary of State visited to the region, on a tour as empty of substance on key grievances as Bush’s, the song was adapted to suit the occasion.

Some creative editing replaced the pop-star playing teacher with a digitized version of Ms. Rice. And her pupils? The heads of various Arab states depicted as uniformed pint sized schoolboys. Not very subtle, and the lyrics weren’t either:

Teacher: What do we call the boy who listens to his parents?
Chorus: Good boy, good boy
Teacher: What about the boy who does well at school and doesn’t annoy his teachers?
Chorus: We will love him and always call him a good boy

It’s obviously a simplification of US-Arab relations, but one that struck a cord, as the resulting remix spread like wildfire on the internet.

Bush himself appears in “Ahlan, Ezayak” or ‘Hi, how are you?’ in which a Tunisian-Kuwaiti singer, Shams, reworks an Egyptian song about the breakup of a relationship (with lines like “I’m not your relative, or your darling, I’m someone whose sick and tired of your deeds…buy your safety by getting away from me”). Her version stars the American President as the rejected suitor.

The video features an elderly Rambo spraying bullets everywhere, US soldiers being chased through the desert by an incensed woman wielding a slipper, oil fields and cowboy hats, and the words Guantanamo, Democracy and Liberty appearing as props at various stages.

Having berated Bush for his behavior in front of the international media and squared off with Condi in the boxing ring, the singer climbs up steps in the shape of a graph in the middle of oil rigs, pushes Bush off his perch at the top, and then visits a fortune teller to find out who her destined partner will be. Gazing into the crystal ball, she sees herself in a frothy Western wedding dress walking off into the sunset with Handhala, a cartoon charater who was the signature figure of assasinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al Ali.

As Mamoun Asfour said, he encapsulated his creator’s philosophy, the figure of a ten-year old boy with his back to the viewer, whom the Palestinian cartoonist described as “neither beautiful, spoilt, nor even well-fed. He is barefoot like many children in refugee camps...However, those who came to know… [him] adopted him because he is affectionate, honest, outspoken…his hands behind his back are a symbol of rejection of all the present negative tides in our region."

The marriage of pop singer Shams and Handhalah at the end of the video clip is thus a concise and powerful way to indicate a rejection of Americas foreign policy.

“Ahlan, Ezayak” generated a lot of controversy, one contention being that it was empty of any real content, a dumbed-down commercialised version of ‘resistance art’. And it is – a one-off ‘political’ video-clip whose success was down to a desire to vent at being made to live through “a long American film” as Ziad Rabani’s musical puts its.

As Bush’s trip competed for air-time with the frenzied coverage of the early stages of the US elections, one can only hope that the next American film will be less bloody.

Bush in Dubai

Goat brains on the buffet in Dubai
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
by Mark Silva

They served goat brains on the buffet in the hold for pool reporters here today, but I cannot directly report what it tastes like -- read on for a review.

.....As we were led in we saw Bush arriving from an interior door to the courtyard, where he was greeted by six young girls - they must have been under nine, because at nine they must go under cover and these girls were not covered but rather wearing bright gowns - half of them in fuchsia and half of them in turquoise.

..."Hi girls," said Bush, arriving to their greeting, as they burst into song. Their hands were henna'd with designs and Bush remarked on their "beautiful hands." After the song, two stepped forward with baskets of flowers and said "Welcome to Dubai."

The girls who greeted Bush and the ruler of Dubai are younger than nine, for at nine they must cover their heads.

They walked to the front bench in the center facing the rugs and now 12 girls, all dressed in the hot blue and pink gowns - fuchsia and turquoise, Dana Perino assures me - started dancing on the carpet before them.

....They circled and swayed and made great flourishes to music, and the president smiled broadly, nodded his head to the rhythm and tapped his right black-shoed foot in decent timing. The dance lasted a while and Bush was beaming throughout.

"Shukran," Bush told the girls. Thank you.

The drizzle had ended by the dance's end, and then four robed men came out with hunting falcons on their arms - fabulous big birds of light brown tones with dark markings, and they approached Bush, who briefly took a bird on his arm and handed it back. "Beautiful birds," Bush said.

With this, we were led out and motorcaded to the cultural center past the famous Dubai creek, which was not active on this national holiday - declared so for the Bush visit.

Your pooler dubbed it Freedom Day.
They circled and swayed and made great flourishes to music, and the president smiled broadly, nodded his head to the rhythm and tapped his right black-shoed foot in decent timing. The dance lasted a while and Bush was beaming throughout.

Shukran," Bush told the girls. Thank you.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Covering Countries in Crisis

The international news has recently been dominated by countries in crisis, first Pakistan’s pre-election rioting following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the by Kenya’s post-election violence following a disputed presidential poll.

Kenyans and Pakistanis face an uncertain year ahead, but the way these two stories are being reported has raised serious issues. Kenya reports often boiled down to machetes, tribal warriors and rage; and on TV this mantra was accompanied by appropriate images of angry young men confronting each other, the police, and their neighbors. This was strikingly similar to the Pakistan coverage, when video packages of violent mobs shaking their fists, burning tires, and smashing cars were used over and over again.

Without providing adequate background and explanation, a lot of reporting simply perpetuates the idea of black and brown people as inherently savage and barbaric, their modern politics tribalism and feudalism by another name. Kenyan journalist Peter Kimani paints a very different picture by detailing the alliances and rivalries among the countries politicians in the last few decades and how they lead to the current tragic outcome, without ignoring or minimizing the role tribal allegiances play.

Kenyan Pundit (one of the bloggers who have come to the fore during this crisis as sources of information) felt that the way the international media reported the current crisis “only served to reinforce what I have always felt about news that emanates from Africa, we need to really work on news for us by us, we can no longer rely on the international stations and media”, and hoped that A24, a pan-African 24 hour news channel to start broadcasting this year, would change things when it launches. After all China has International CCTV, Germany has DW-TV, there’s Russia Today and France-24 and Jazeera English so it’s high time that Africa gets its own station to with an African perspective.

In the mean time, the Kenyan blogosphere had some praise for the quality of Aljazeera English’s coverage, which can in part be ascribed to the fact that AE’s reporters (Haru Mutasa, Mohammad Adow and Andrew Sullivan) were not network stars parachuted in for the disaster.

Anchors and reporter without detailed knowledge of the country they’re reporting about tend to extrapolate, and in the case of African nation experiencing a horrific mixture of ethnic, political and criminal gang violence, this means “the specter of Rwanda” is invoked. CNN, the Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel for example used the comparison repeatedly.

In the case of Pakistan, meltdown took on a whole different dimension, with the notion of Alqaeda somehow getting hold of the bomb once the country had descended into lawlessness being bandied about frequently, especially in the American media. You’d think the Pakistanis kept the nukes in a shed.

But the real interest in the Pakistan story was of course Bhutto herself, the assassinated leader. She was “pale-skinned” (the phrase was used by The New York Times and the AP news agency, others slipped in references to her “fair complexion” as clarification for her nickname Pinkie), spoke English as her mother tongue, and had been educated in convent schools and then attended Harvard and Oxford. She was good looking, she was a Muslim woman and she said what the west wanted to hear.

How powerful her image had become is made clear by the fact that one of the Republican candidates for president, Rudy Guliani, launched a new advert to try and boost his dismal ratings, and featured Benazir Bhutto. The same man had reprimanded his fellow republican candidates for attempting to make political profit out of a tragic event. The video features a lot of scary brown people while a voice over warns of “a people perverted” “madmen” and “a nuclear power in chaos”. Then archive footage of a younger, prettier Benazir Bhutto as the voice talks of “democracy attacked”.

In a way this posthumous ‘tribute’ is appropriate, Bhutto personifying an embattled democracy in the East, exactly the image she had spent a lot of time and money creating, and consistently repeated in interviews, TV appearances, op-ed pieces. She knew that she needed the US on her side if she was ever to return to power, and like any shrewd political operator, crafted a message to achieve her goal.

But according to Richard Engels the Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief of the American network MSNBC, “Pakistan’s Ms. Liberty” perfidiously performed a “dance of the seven veils” and should not be trusted. The phrase also turned up in a biography by the NYT company which was printed in other newspapers, though it seems that the original New York Times was induced to change the wording of its online edition after reader’s indignant comments. Benazir Bhutto was a politician not a saint, but her political wheeling and dealing can be described without resorting to a phrase that combines misogyny and orientalism.

The negotiations between her and Musharraf for a power sharing agreement were brokered by Washington and London, which are also involved in negotiations between Kibaki and Odinga, and perhaps that is the most overlooked point in the coverage of both crises: foreign intervention.

Both Kenya and Pakistan were divided and ruled by the British, both became US allies against the Soviets, which meant periods of American backed dictatorship, and both are involved in the current ‘war on terror’, which has proved a divisive issue in both countries. The Pakistani army is pitted against its own people in an unpopular war in the Northern provinces, while Kenyan opposition leader Odinga is being characterized as the ‘Shariah candidate’ by his opponents, and described as a closet Muslim.

While there is no case for blaming the current unrest on the West, it does seem strange that most talking heads and op-ed writers prefer horrified glee over the natives displaying the atavistic urges to analysis of the 20th century history of the countries in question.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Makkah in the Media

Over two and a half million pilgrims made the hajj this year, but millions more were able to "live the haj", to adopt the LBC channel’s slogan for its special coverage of one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, by following it on the radio, TV and Internet.

The fact that LBC, a Lebanese entertainment channel, devoted a considerable share of its daily broadcast to covering the most significant event in the Muslim calendar shows to what extent Makkah becomes a media mecca, in the English sense of the word, during the hajj season.

One of the oldest and most successful programs began with radio and expanded into television: a live broadcast coordinated between Arab radio stations on the day of Arafa, the most important rite of the hajj. By the time the reporters from all twenty-two radio stations have had their say its sunset in Makkah, signalling the approach of Eid ul Adha next day. Tuning in has become part of the celebrations for many, and even the dedicated channels covering every aspect of the pilgrimage live have not displaced it.

There is the occasional reporter woefully inadequate to the task - it’s not difficult to introduce some quality control, the Libyans for example always do a great job, as they are always from the Quran Radio station. The format - short segments on the same topic strung together - mean repetition is inevitable, and the phrase “and now I pass the mike to my colleague from the…station” only has so many variations.

For Alarabiya, the Dubai based Saudi funded alternative to Aljazeera, finding new topics seems to have become an obsession, with a piece on camels decorated, or a report on the changing fortunes of Polaroid photographers who used to do a brisk trade before camera phones became the rule rather than the exception.

Aljazeera itself, the first pan-Arab 24 hour news channel, has been banned from covering the hajj for the last five years, but was allowed to return this year. It’s reporting focused on ‘giving a podium to those without one/voice’- and quite literally too, for example giving a group of pilgrims who could not afford to do their hajj officially, a chance to voice their complaints, instead of simply demonising them for taking an illegal route that exacerbates the Saudi governments logistical challenge, as has become routine on other channels.

Aljazeera Talk, the group site run by young bloggers and supported by the channel, also had special coverage under the slogan “Aljazeera talk goes on Hajj this year” with its citizen-journalists becoming pilgrim-journalists, writing about everything from hajj guides to fashions in headgear among pilgrims. Riz Khan, who began the fashion for western media coverage of the hajj almost a decade ago on CNN, was one of the first journalists to join Aljazeera English, which like the rest of the networks, was unable to send reporters to Makkah last year. However this, its second hajj, was covered by two reporters, Hashem Ahelbarra and Sami Zeidan, and in ihram no less.

Of course this year most western media have been preoccupied with the Iranian president, CNN anchors for example kept bombarding the reporter with questions as to Ahmadinajad’s whereabouts, so she had to preface everything she said with “we haven’t actually caught a glimpse of him”.

The attitude to hajj in much western reporting is encapsulated in the headline of a much reprinted AFP piece, “Hajj Intimidating for Secular Reporter”, and what actually gets covered is summed up with admirable brevity in this line from the Sky News online article “more than two million pilgrims have braved flies and scorching heat in the Hajj this week”.

The article actually dealt with an interesting subject though, the latest addition to the Islam Online island in Second Life, a virtual world which a ‘population’ of over 10 million. IOL has recreated Alharam AlMakki, Mina, and Arafa in 3D graphics, allowing Second Lifers’ to go on a virtual Hajj, which the IOL team sees as a “powerful educational tool for people embarking on the soul-searching journey in the real world”, as well as an experience open to non-Muslims curious about what the Hajj involves.

published in the Tripoli Post