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

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