As I wrote in an article for Muftah a few months ago, it is no secret that American media outlets have often struggled to provide nuanced, contextualized coverage of the Middle East that captures the complexity of the region’s histories, cultures, and peoples. Or as the LA Times would put it, the region’s “ancient and dazzling cultures.”
The paper has been the butt of jokes on social media this week thanks to a poorly-worded job listing for a Middle East correspondent. The listing, which has since been edited (presumably due to the swift and relentless criticism), originally read:
The Los Angeles Times is looking for a seasoned reporter to cover the Middle East.
This correspondent will anchor our coverage of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, as well as monitoring the turbulent progress of “democracy” in Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf. But more than that, we are looking for an accomplished writer who is capable of plunging into these ancient and dazzling cultures, capturing their mesmerizing variety, deep intellectual history, turbulent social upheaval and — from ISIS insurgents to entrenched dictators — their capability for brutish violence.
The successful candidate will be the one who avoids the office and wanders the back roads; who will leave the others to tally the daily mayhem and bring us stories we will not have the power to forget.
Fluency in Arabic is strongly preferred. Home base is negotiable.
Many on social media were quick to point out the seemingly blatant Orientalist tropes and assumptions packed into a few short sentences. Some referenced a recent poll that found 30% of Republican voters and 19% of Democrats support the bombing of Agrabah – the fictional Middle Eastern country in the Disney classic “Aladdin” – and drew parallels between the two incidents. Some also noted the problematic fact that fluency in Arabic was merely a preference, rather than a requirement. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a correspondent who did not speak English tasked with covering North America.
— Lissie Jaquette (@lissiejaquette) December 21, 2015
“Edward Said is rolling in his grave,” commented one Facebook user, referring to the late scholar and original critic of Orientalism. Orientalism refers to a way of perceiving and depicting non-Western cultures (the “Orient”) in relation and in opposition to the West (the “Occident”), usually as societies that are static, monolithic, and backward.
The paper also posted a call for a European correspondent who would be willing to “board boats on the Mediterranean in search of sinking migrants,” solve the Greek financial crisis, “delve into the politics of NATO as a host of nations wage war in the Middle East,” and teach Americans about the “teeming social experiment on the other side of the Atlantic.”
While the LA Times clearly needs to have a chat with whoever is writing its job ads, the incident underscores some much deeper problems. It highlights a continuing trend of intellectual and journalistic laziness when it comes to the Middle East. It also indicates a (perhaps subconscious, but deep-seated) belief that the region is a mysterious, alien monolith frozen in time, with foreign, indecipherable script and a propensity for brutish violence. From a desire to bomb Agrabah, to the TV show Homeland’s failure to fact-check Arabic graffiti, to the search for an Orientalist reporter-explorer willing to “wander the back roads” of Middle Eastern mayhem, Edward Said’s articulation of the Western imagination vis-a-vis the Arab and Muslim worlds seems to ring as alarmingly true today as it did thirty years ago.
As an aspiring journalist, I am always excited to see job listings for reporters and correspondents to cover the Middle East and tell stories that break through the tired cliches that have come to characterize Western journalism about the region. When I first heard about the LA Times advert, I was ready to apply. After reading the listing, I changed my mind, but still decided to write my cover letter and publish it here, in the hopes that it could be a teaching/learning moment. Here it is:
Dear Sir/Madam (and whoever wrote that job ad),
Though I am not yet a seasoned reporter, I am one that has been simmering for awhile, steeped in Arabic coffee and cardamom, the lentil soup made only during Ramadan and the sugary syrup atop my knafeh, my grandmother’s laugh as she made breakfast for a dozen grandchildren perched atop stools and countertops in a kitchen the size of a bathroom, the crooning voices of Fayrouz and Abdel Halim Hafez emanating from a tiny radio and cooing of pigeons on the windowsill, all competing for our attention with the wafting smell of crisp pita bread, eggs and ful.
I am a byproduct of ancient and dazzling cultures that are still figuring out “democracy,” and a place that puts our struggles – our desperate, fearless fight for life and for dignity, despite impossible imperialist odds stacked against us – in quotation marks, a place where the word “culture” is rarely used, except when following words like “rape” or “gun” or “corporate.”
Though I was born in New Jersey, I lived in perhaps the most unknown and mystifying of these cultures, a (Saudi) Arabian land still “veiled” and “shrouded” (see: more synonyms for veil) in mystery, spending summers in the home of my ancestors who created civilizations and moved mountains to build other mountains. I received a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies from an elite American institution, and yet learned so much more speaking to a doorman’s son in Cairo on the eve of a military coup, learned so much more from the children of one of Cairo’s poorest slums who were finally learning to read and write thanks to an NGO the government was attempting to shut down.
Perhaps the Middle East is “mesmerizing” and captivating, not because it is a real-life Agrabah full of mayhem, madness and exotic mistresses. But because its people are as diverse and complex and contradictory and hopeful and fearful and ordinary and extraordinary as those anywhere else.
You list fluency in Arabic as a preference, not a requirement, for your next Middle East correspondent. I respectfully disagree. To speak a language, to me, is to begin to comprehend the very soul of a culture – its history, its idiosyncrasies, its nuances, fears and ambitions. You will never fully understand a people until you understand the intricacies of their language, in its ever-evolving forms – from classical fus’ha to the emergence of a new “slang” that modifies, dilutes, even re-invents the Arabic language.
Storytelling of the Middle East in American journalism, as journalist Alia Malek says, always looks for reductionist and simplistic frameworks. The story – indeed the multiplicity of stories in the region – are so much more complex than the labels we assign them. Nothing about the region is easy or simple – not its “ancient and dazzling cultures,” not its “turbulent social upheaval,” not even its “brutish violence.” We need journalists to ask better questions, to build better (non-Orientalist) frameworks, to think in more nuanced ways. Above all, perhaps, we need journalists who listen; who not only “wander the back roads,” but who live in them, play soccer in them, eat street food in them and learn their vernacular.
I hope that we – as journalists, as editors, as people who write job listings – can learn to do better.