Writing and reporting about the Middle East is not an easy task, especially during these years of turmoil and upheaval. Following and reporting on these constant changes without a deep and compassionate understanding of the region will achieve little beyond predictable and lackluster content that offers nothing original — only recycled old ideas and stereotypes.
From my humble experience in the region, I share these dos and don’ts as to how the Middle East should be approached in writing and reporting:
• Question terminology:
To start with, the term “Middle East” is itself highly questionable. It is arbitrary and can only be understood within proximity to some other entity, Europe, whose colonial endeavors imposed such classifications on the rest of the word.
To question the term “Middle East” is to become conscious of the colonial history and the enduringly fierce economic and political competition that is felt in every facet of life in the region. Keep this in mind and learn to question many other terms: extremist, radical, moderate, terrorist, pro-Western, liberal, socialist, Islamist, Islamic, anti-Islamist, secularist, and so on.
These are mostly misleading labels. They might not mean at all what you think they do. Their use is often political as opposed to a direct reference to an ideological or political position.
• Learn the language:
If your reporting is intrinsically linked to the Middle East, then you must learn a language. If you are not an Arabic-speaking journalist, you must invest the time to learn Arabic (or Farsi, Turkish, etc., depending on the specific region of your interest).
Even a local translator would hardly help bridge the language divide, for they would likely have their own biases and limitations. Moreover, much is often omitted and lost in translation.
Speaking the native language will gain you more than access; it will earn you trust as well, and help you develop real compassion with people who are in greater need to be heard.
• Start at the bottom:
Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
Every Middle Eastern country has its educated elites. They are often approached by the media out of convenience. They often speak one foreign language or another; they know what a sound bite is, they don’t require much training; and they are always ready with their talking points.
Although they may be the ideal media guest, they may be the least qualified to comment on a story.
Your best bet as a reporter is to start from the bottom, the people who are mostly affected by whatever story you are reporting: the victims, their families, eyewitnesses and the community as a whole. While such voices are often neglected or used as content fillers, they should become the center of any serious reporting from the region, especially in areas that are torn by war and conflict.
• Side with the victim, but be careful:
True, there might be more than one side to the same story, but that should not be the driving force of your reporting. Start by becoming aware of your limitations to report on a story without feeling sympathy toward people who are the subject of your report: a Syrian mother separated from her children, a Gaza father, who lost his wife and five kids to Israeli bombs, an Egyptian democracy activist on a prolonged hunger strike, and so on.
One of the greatest flaws in how the war in Syria is reported is the simplistic and polarizing approach and terminology. Most media weep for the Syrian people, but the victim and victimizer differs when seen from the perspective of Al Jazeera vs. Al Mayadeen, to Press TV, to Russia Today, to Fox News, to the BBC.
Manipulating who qualifies to be a victim, is a highly political question with far-reaching consequences.
• Learn history:
The once fringe group Houthis of Yemen is becoming the kingmaker of a country whose central government is by name only, and whose military is divided among sectarian, regional and tribal allegiances. How is one to report on this fairly new phenomenon without developing a solid understanding of Yemeni history and historical divides, regional and international politics that have greatly disturbed any sense of normalcy in that Arab country for decades?
History is essential to understanding any conflict in the region, because every single conflict has its own protracted history. Understanding this history is essential to fathoming the complexity of the present.
• Raise questions:
Don’t be afraid to raise questions and provide context that you and, at times, only you believe is essential to the story.
The so-called Islamic State is a relevant example. Virtually unknown a few years ago, Islamic State is now supposedly the greatest danger facing the Middle East, as its oddly composed but well-armed battalions are moving in multiple directions, leaving in their wake gory stories of death and destruction. But how is one to position a story of this magnitude?
What would be a proper context? Remember, no such major upheavals happen in a vacuum. Dare to question the motives in others’ selective reporting.
• Avoid subjective language:
Don’t use the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” unless they are in the proper context. You are not the judge of who is and who is not a terrorist, a term that doesn’t reference a fact but a political perspective. Many such terminology become pitfalls that could compromise the credibility of your reporting.
• Don’t be a tourist:
Reporting, especially from conflict zone is a huge responsibility. Sometimes misleading reporting can cost lives. Avoid the passerby casual reporting, as from a young New Zealander hopping from Yemen to Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia in two weeks, producing a whole number of articles for whatever outlet willing to publish without scratching the surface of a story.
Five days in Sana’a and a week in Bahrain don’t make you an international reporter, don’t give your insight much merit and, frankly, do a disservice to the profession.
You cannot possibly inform others of what you hardly comprehend.
• Don’t get too involved:
The opposite of the hopping reporter is the “expert” journalist, Westerners and others who spend many years reporting from a single country. They can be enormously helpful in conveying a truly authentic story, with consistency over time. The pitfall is that some get too involved, thus taking sides and falling into the trap of the divided politics of the areas from which they report.
Lebanon is rife with such examples. So is Kurdistan in northern Iraq, for it was accessible to Western journalists for many years. Thanks to them, much of the Iraq story is skewed and one-sided.
• Don’t generalize:
When your interest in the Middle East is centered on a single topic, the Arab Spring for example, you are likely to oversimplify and generalize. You are compelled to look for common dominators between “Arab Spring countries,” while willfully dismissing all else. Avoid generalizations to a fault. It will require more research on your part, but that is what sets a serious reporter from others.
Always remember: writing and reporting are a learned process, and there is always something new for all of us to learn. So remain humble, and always welcome the opportunity to learn new things.
Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years.