How to Dispatch from the Middle East

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Middle Eastern affairs and conflicts are, to say the least, mired in complexity. America’s fingers are dipped in many of the region’s interests–halting the spread of terrorism, securing oil reserves, ensuring non-proliferation of nuclear technology, and controlling the opium trade, just to name a few. Getting the story straight is difficult for seasoned reporters and exponentially harder for a blogger in the comfortable embrace of his Midwestern cubicle. After world-rattling events, newshounds balk at our country’s feeble grasp of Middle Eastern contexts and lack of strategic intelligence and foresight.

Well, that need-to-know information can’t always be collected and those highly-sought experts shouldn’t necessarily be trusted, according to Columbia Journalism Review–especially in a country like Afghanistan, where professional journalism is a fairly new institution. “Afghan journalists are relatively new to their work, and they have been criticized for lacking professionalism,” writes CJR’s Vanessa M. Gezari. “But Afghan journalists describe the world they see: a complex place, littered with overlapping, conflicting accounts. There are no reliable sources here.” The other issue faced by Afghan journalists is that their mission–uncovering truth in a burgeoning democracy–is relatively similar to that of Western military intelligence officers. According to Gezari, “For Afghan journalists, the methodological similarity between reporting and intelligence work is problematic. Journalism has little institutional standing in Afghanistan, and many Afghan reporters told me that ordinary people suspect journalists of spying.”

All solid journalism clearly requires proper training. Eager to test out the tools of their trade, journalism professor Diane Winston’s students put themselves in harm’s way and took up a religious beat in Palestine by actually reporting on the spiritual landscape from the West Bank. Winston recounts the class’s introductory experience in The Chronicle Review:

Then came the moment when the airport van left us inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Punchy after a 14-hour plane ride, we dragged duffel bags and camera equipment through narrow, cobblestone streets and winding pathways until we found our way to the Lutheran Guest House and sleep. Several hours later, jet lag proved no match for religious authority as a muezzin’s predawn chant led the call to prayer.

Being there made all the difference. The intensive preparation cohered when students, faced with breaking news, drew on multiple skill sets to report and write stories–to practice journalism for real. Students covered protests and demonstrations that could have been dangerous but were crucial for readers worldwide.

We in the magazine world know that not all reporting needs to be serious or completely objective. The nuances of obscure culture can be just as revelatory, thrilling, disheartening, or impactful. In a bit of meta-reporting, Bidoun–a quarterly, experimental-format Middle Eastern arts-and-culture magazine–interviewed two reporters from the long-running educational publication Saudi Aramco World. The publication’s editorial mission is quite different from, say, a newspaper or prime-time broadcast; one of the reporters states thatAramco World really saw itself as a cultural interface between the Middle East and the United States. I think there was prescience in that, the idea that greater understanding of the people and the issues of the Middle East would be important in the future.”

And speaking of Saudi Aramco World, the January-February 2011 features a very different type of dispatch from the Middle East: light-hearted photography. The magazine spotlights Iraqi photographer Jamal Penjweny’s project “Iraq is Flying” (pictures all over this post), in which he captured everyday Iraqi citizens in mid-air. Penjweny’s images remind the outside world of something we often take for granted: Iraq’s diverse people can transcend their portrayal by mainstream media, even with a permanent backdrop of war.

Sources: Bidoun,Chronicle Review, Columbia Journalism Review, Saudi Aramco World

Images courtesy of Jamal Penjweny.

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