Robin Yassin-Kassab

A Country of Words

with 6 comments

“We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere…

We have a country of words.”

A traditional Arab media operation, according to Abdel Bari Atwan, is “characterised by editorial interference from the owners, slavishness to social hierarchies, backstabbing and nepotism.” It goes without saying that all the Arab local-national press, TV and radio stations are controlled by their respective regimes. Only in the pan-Arab sphere, beyond the control of any single regime, is there a possibility of anything better. Yet of the pan-Arab newspapers, ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat are owned by different branches of the Saud family dictatorship, while the smaller-circulation al-Arab is part of the Libyan regime’s propaganda apparatus. Even after the satellite revolution, pan-Arab TV remains tame and partial, fattened and diluted by Gulf money, often providing its viewers a contradictory diet of Islamic and American-consumerist bubble gum. The second most famous channel in the Arab world, al-Arabiyya, is yet another mouthpiece for the Sauds (during last winter’s Gaza massacre it became known amongst Arabs as al-Ibriyya, or ‘the Hebrew’). The most famous channel, al-Jazeera, is of course the model that broke the mould. Its challenging reporting and inclusion of all sides in open debate has had a revolutionary effect on the Arabs.

Al-Jazeera’s print equivalent is the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, founded in 1989, seven years before al-Jazeera. It may not have the immediate impact or mass audience of al-Jazeera (it’s banned in most Arab countries) but with its cast of excellent writers, its fearless exposure of Arab regime corruption, its scoops (al-Qa’ida chooses to communicate with the world through its pages), its renowned culture section, and its refusal to bury news from Palestine behind the football results, al-Quds al-Arabi is indispensable. Rather than backstabbing, its staff have sometimes worked for no pay to keep the operation afloat. Its founder, editorialist and editor-in-chief Abdel Bari Atwan is as passionate and articulate in speech as on the page, and is admired by the Arabs for his call-a-spade-a-spade style on those TV channels which dare to host him, usually al-Jazeera Arabic and Hizbullah’s al-Manar. Atwan’s “The Secret History of al-Qa’ida” is a book-length account of his meeting with Osama bin Laden and of the development of the al-Qa’ida network. Now Atwan has written an autobiographical memoir titled with a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “A Country of Words.”

It’s a Palestinian story, typically tragic and inspirational. In 1948 the Atwan family were driven from Isdud (now renamed Ashdod) to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Abdel Bari was conceived in a tent and born in a rough shelter provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). His early childhood was punctuated by massacres. On October 29th 1956 Israel murdered 49 men in Gaza’s Kafr Kassim. 275 men were killed in Khan Younis on November 3rd,  and another 111 were killed in Rafah nine days later. These atrocities came in the context of the tripartite aggression against Egypt, known in the West as the Suez Crisis, but were aimed at intimidating potential Palestinian resistance rather than at the Egyptian army, and they were perpetrated in cold blood. Israel stayed in Gaza until March 1957, and in this period its crimes reached right to Atwan’s door. The boy saw his father beaten and then lined up with other men to be executed. Fortunately Atwan senior was saved by a last minute reprieve, thanks to an Israeli officer who turned out to be the Judaised son of Palestinian peasants last seen aged twelve in the chaos of the Nakba. Abdel Bari’s grandmother was less fortunate. She was shot dead when she failed to immediately open her door to Israeli troops. Crippled and too poor to buy a wheelchair, she was dragging herself across the floor of her one-room hut when the bullets flew throught the door. Years later, Abdel Bari’s baby nephew was killed when an Israeli gas canister landed in his cot. In the meantime, one of Abdel Bari’s brothers was mentally damaged by Israeli torture, and another had a nervous breakdown after years working in the Saudi desert in order to support his impoverished family.

Atwan recounts with humour as well as indignation the deprivation of the refugees. In the 1960s the annual UNRWA budget was a mere $13 per refugee. Atwan has suffered anaemia throughout his life as a result of childhood malnutrition (his stomach ulcer he chooses to attribute to his father’s genes; his father died in his early forties from an untreated perforated ulcer). Before the Nakba many Palestinian peasants had lived in a cashless society. The Atwan family, for instance, had bartered grain for olive oil. Expelled from their land, they were at first completely dependent on UNRWA handouts. Because bundles of second-hand clothes were delivered rarely and randomly, “you’d see an old man in a moustache wearing a tight-waisted woman’s coat.”

The narrative reminds us of the population transfers which were not formally forced, but which were forced nevertheless, by poverty and lack of opportunity. It describes the professionals and labourers who moved out of Gaza in search of work, who built Kuwait, Amman and the Gulf states. A teen-aged Abdel Bari left for Amman, supposedly to finish his schooling, with his uncle’s life savings (about ten pounds) sewn into his shoes. In order to leave the Strip he had to sign a guarantee that he would never return. In Jordan his educational dreams collapsed into hard economics. He earned the equivalent of 30 pence for a twelve-hour shift in a tomato-canning factory. Working conditions were appallingly unsafe; Abdel Bari bears the machine scars. At this stage he slept on a rooftop, his legs tied together to stop him sleepwalking.

He graduated to working as a driver before financial support from relatives and then a scholarship from Gamal AbdulNasser’s regime allowed him to finish school and study journalism at university in Egypt. The first time Abdel Bari had benefitted from writing was when, aged seven, he sent an admiring letter to ‘General Nasser, Cairo.’ Nasser replied with a package of books and photos, making Abdel Bari a star in his UNRWA school.

Sometimes Atwan tends to uncritical adulation of leaders claiming to oppose imperialism. It is difficult to read of Nasser’s “personal honour and bravery” and his dislike of communism without hearing of the many Communists (and others) who died in Egyptian jails. Saddam Hussain comes across as a nation-builder and patriot, if a brutal one, rather than as a useful idiot for imperialism. Likewise the deeply suspect Wahhabi-nihilist bin Laden is portrayed as “a religious authority and leader who exhibits an extraordinary understanding and knowledge of theological matters” (this the man who rejects entirely Islam’s philosophical and mystical traditions). “Many of those who have been drawn to al-Qa’ida,” Atwan enthuses, “have mentioned the fact that ‘it doesn’t matter what nationality you are’ as one of its attractions in a world all too easily split by ethnicity or race.” He fails to account for the vicious sectarianism at the centre of al-Qa’ida’s world view which divides Muslims and contributed to the collapse of the Iraqi resistance, and he fails to examine how bin Ladenism has aided the empire at least thrice. Atwan’s heart is in the right place, however. He responds passionately to these figures because he sees them as underdogs, and in reaction to the hypocrisy of the Arab and Western order which demonises them.

He paints a much fuller picture of Arafat, who he knew well, as well as Mahmoud Darwish, who helped him develop his writing, and Edward Said, who offered articles free of charge in al-Quds al-Arabi’s struggling days. The book is full of interesting detail on key personalities (Labour Friends of Israel was the first organisation Tony Blair joined on becoming an MP; David Blunkett admitted encouraging Blair to bomb al-Jazeera’s Baghdad transmitter in 2003), and on the work of the Israel lobby in UK media. Israel’s London embassy, apparently, won’t allow the BBC to host Atwan on the same panel as an Israeli politician. It also regularly sends story ideas to the producers of Radio 4’s Today programme, and these are often picked up. Atwan makes an obvious comparison: “When an atrocity was committed against the black people of South Africa we did not witness a rush to provide ‘balance’ in the form of an Afrikaner carefully explaining his agenda. The BBC was rightly appalled and did not shy away from broadcasting the truth in terms that invited condemnation.”

Abdel Bari Atwan is not an analyst but an expert reporter. If he hadn’t been born Palestinian he might have become a novelist, and the penchant for larger than life characters (Nasser, bin Laden, Saddam Hussain) on display here would have served him well. The story of the Gaza policeman ordered to guard a young woman’s corpse, and tormented through the night by the desire to unclothe it, is unforgettable. In a fine comic moment Atwan blames his old teacher for his poor English accent: “I know full well that I am mispronouncing these words but am still afraid to say them correctly, expecting Mr. Azzat to jump out of my subconscious with his stick if I dare to vary his version of the English language.” His immigrant observations of London are valuable too. A “politically motivated shearing” and a new suit gain him access to posh restaurants but make him unwelcome in his old hang-out, a punk pub where he is now seen as a police spy. The “campaign of neighbourliness” whereby he insists on greeting the stunned inhabitants of his building, Arab-style, is very funny and also very sad.

Did I say inspirational? Mai Ghoussoub, the founder of Saqi Books, asked Atwan to write his story because she thought it would inspire others, and it does, with its comedy and passion for life burning even in the worst circumstances. “The limits we impose on ourselves,” writes Atwan, “are not real and can always be expanded; … we grow stronger in response to our experiences, not as a matter of course.”

6 Responses

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  1. Robin,

    I’m not sure I understand your segway. On the first part of your article though, I recall reading an article by one of my favourite journalists about Al Jazeera & satellite television in Arabic. This was a few years ago while it was still novel, but the effects of uncensored (at least locally) media were beginning to show. It was incredibly hopeful about the transformational power this would have.

    It is inevitable that reporting on journalism and its power will be biased. Journalists believe in the importance of their field. They tend to forget that censorship is just one hurdle. The greater hurdle is often the audience itself. Media, in competition for attention, placates its audience. Inevitably.

    Eight or nine years later and Al Jazeera is only part of a world of uncensored access to media. Somehow, I think that this pundit had expected, at the start of the decade, more.


    January 24, 2010 at 11:39 pm

  2. and i’m not sure what you’re getting at either, but if you mean that uncensored media should have led to prosperous democratic societies within a decade then I think you are being naive. The problems of the Arab world, which you unpleasantly summarise as ‘the audience’, remain deep and manifold, and include foreign occupation, the chronic instability generated by the foreign-constructed state system, paradoxically very stable water-tight dictatorships, lack of consensus over the ideological basis of a legitimate polity, Arab or local or Muslim or by sect, as well as environemntal and educational crises. And so on. Access to information and debate is an essential element in moving things forward, but is only one element out of many.

    So do we agree on that? But the al-Jazeera effect has still been revolutionary, with a small r. So much less can be hidden from the people’s eyes. I think it is creating a new kind of politics, but the results may not be fully apparent for a very long time.


    January 25, 2010 at 12:01 am

  3. Hi Robin,

    I was just commenting on what I perceived to be a sentiment at the time, probably naive. If you go back a few years, I think you find an expectation among journalists of challenges to regimes . I have no strong theories about the connection between journalism & democracy myself.

    I didn’t mean to suggest anything nasty or arab-specific about “the audience.” I was just pointing to the two way relationship between media-maker and media-consumer. They each affect the other & can result in decay into “bubble gum media,” not much more useful then censored media if your goal is heightened political awareness, very easily. I suspect that while we are sensitive to state censorship, commercial interests or other “supply side” interferences in freedom of the press, we tend to forget the role, often detrimental, played by the audience itself. Palatable news can be easier to sell.

    I am happy to put that in Israeli media context to illustrate the point. Nowhere is this “hurdle” more evident. Israelis, as a media watching public are no longer interested in “politics.” They are interested in business, science, sport and more then anything, reality TV. Much of mainstream press and veteran journalists are as cold and serious as ever, but they have faded into a distant buzz in the ears of most.

    A staple of Israeli alternative media, Uri Avneri, recently wrote an article complaining about some “Free Shalit” (Israeli soldier held in Gaza) demonstration and how it had attracted so many people. The issue is noncontentious. Easy. Every side of politics can get behind it. No one gets criticised for it. Aasy. Palatable. He called it “deluxe-activism” or something like that. When it comes to a choice between Free Shalit and The Nakba, or worse, blame for the collapse of Oslo, the former wins.

    I’m not an Arabic speaker so I can comment very little on Al Jazeera or its effects. If you have further insights, I would be glad to hear them.

    * I’m not sure why you assumed an underhanded implication. Have you had bad experiences with Israeli comments on this blog?


    January 25, 2010 at 3:07 am

  4. No, no, I’m sorry if I’m being aggressive. Just responding feistily to the audience comment. Whitaker the Guardian bloke has come out with a book which blames ‘culture’ for the dictatorships in the Arab world. I think that’s too easy, although in some sense it is of course true. For instance, a weakness in Islamic political thought (which I’ll write about at some point) certainly plays a role.

    The aim of most Arab media owners is most definitely not heightened political awareness. The Sauds etc provide the bubble gum. al_jazeera has steered clear of gum yet remains by far the most popular and credible station. this suggests that it isnt the people who demand gum, but the gum providers who attempt to convnce the people that they need gum.


    January 25, 2010 at 10:43 am

    • “this suggests that it isnt the people who demand gum, but the gum providers who attempt to convnce the people that they need gum.”

      In economics that’s known as “supplier induced demand”.

      Love the blog Qunfuz, and really enjoyed your book. Keep it up!


      January 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm

  5. Very interesting article.

    I think we now need an English equivalent of Al Quds al Arabi … I’d love to be involved in that project — that’s like my dream job.

    Problem is though: if even Al Quds al Arabi struggles for finances, I don’t see where the money would come from….


    January 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm

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