Thursday, 17 September 2009

View from the Middle East (BWF Day 2)

Sydney-born Irfan Yusuf decided he should die for a Muslim cause. Joris Luyendijk spent five years as the youngest ever Middle East correspondent. Abbas El-Zein grew up in war-torn Lebanon. Lana Slezic has published Forsaken, a photographic essay of her two year assignment in Afghanistan.
(Chair: Matt Peacock)

I arrived a fraction late so had to sit all the way down the back, and I’d also missed the introductions. As I was finding my chair the panel started off discussing how there are so many different ideas of the Middle East, and through the media it is simply reduced for Western consumption to the issues of security.

The panel agreed that the Middle East has a history but this is often overlooked in the pursuit of sensationalist reporting. Each of the writers has in some way attempted, either intentionally, or not, to reclaim the Middle East

It was suggested to the audience that Joris’s latest book – Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East is about what journalists will never tell you themselves. Joris told the audience that his idea of The Middle East was skewed until he got there himself. On leaving for his first trip for Ramallah at the time of the Intifada in 80s, he thought he was writing his farewell. On arriving in Palestine he was amazed to realise it was just like Brisbane in many ways.

Having seen the images on the TV of stone throwing Palestinians, burnt out cars, Ambulances taking away injured protestors on stretchers, and the Israeli Army aligned against the unrestful masses on their side of the border, this is the scene he was expecting.

In a humorous anecdote he told of how he started asking the locals “where are the stone throwers?” To which he was told, to go down the street, take a right, then next left and at 2pm, they’ll start. Joris followed their directions and at the allotted time, students who had finished school for the day started to arrive, then the Israelis appeared on their side of the border.

Sure enough, just as clockwork, the students threw their stones, the Israeli soldiers fired their rifles in the air, then one of them shot a student in the leg, the ambulances arrived, a car was burnt out, and there you have the images that have been replayed over and over, with a white journalist on camera “reporting live from the battle zone in Ramallah” and saying “the chances for peace in the Middle East are slimmer than ever”.

What is remarkable about Joris’s experience of the stone throwers is that it was a public event, the locals came to watch the spectacle, and just as there would be pie sellers at a football game, there were falafel sellers at the “stone throwers”.

Conversation then switched to a more serious tone on the use of words used to describe the Palestinian situation in the media and their inherent difficulty. In calling it an occupied territory infers that it will be returned; calling it disputed suggests that the situation can be negotiated. It was also noted the Palestinian situation is not easily representable visually.

For example, if Israel wants to demonstrate its plight to the world, it simply shows the aftermath of ‘terror’ attacks by Palestinians. However, for the Palestinians to demonstrate the hunger, loss of land, social effects of sanction, etc, the visual images it can deploy are not as affective on the unsympathetic west.

Having spent two years in Afghanistan, Lana was able to give a view of the country that is not normally available to journalists. She noted that at the time of the recent war in Afghanistan, the western media were hailing the saviour of the Muslim woman – the burkha was gone. Women were liberated from oppression and young girls were back at school. However, the real situation on the ground was quite different. These were deliberate images of Afghanistan the west wanted the rest of the world to see.

When she first arrived she spent the first few months being indoctrinated by the military, and was only shown what the military wanted to show her. All journalists that arrive to report on Afghanistan go through this process, and she believes that this is why the stories coming out are all the same repetitive reporting with very few touching the deeper issues. She realised that to get to the heart of the country, she would have to stay on, and so she did, and her photographic essay The Forsaken, is a result of her time there.

Irfan told his story of how when he had finished school in the 80s, he wanted to go off and fight jihad in Afghanistan. He remarked at how if he was to say such a thing in today’s climate of ‘terror’, he’d be locked up. In the 80s, it was the US fighting a proxy war against the Soviets with the help of the Mujahideen. So, when you’re fighting Communists, jihad and terrorism are permissible acts of war, it would seem.

Questions were then invited from the panel to each other and Abbas asked a very interesting question: “Is the Middle East unknowable?” Lana mentioned that because little is really known by the west, what is unknown causes fear, and it is fear which creates a natural barrier to knowing. Joris ventured an ‘Orientalist’ view and suggested that keeping the region unknowable, plays into the hands of those who wish to dominate the region.

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