A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 1, 2009

More Thoughts on Eric Davis' "10 Sins": Sin No. 7

Sin #7: Failure to learn the history, language and cultures of the region.

I'm not going to comment on all ten of Eric Davis' "10 Sins Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics" since I don't want to seem like this blog is becoming parasitic and repeating someone else's insights. But as I did in my post on "Sin Number 1" I want to expand my own ideas on a few of his points which are also hobbyhorses of my own. So in a way I am shamelessing ripping off Prof. Davis' ideas and spinning my own stories from them, but I hope I'm adding to the conversation while recognizing who raised the key issues in the first place.

I already dealt with his "Presentism" sin, so it's worth talking a bit more about one that is particularly linked to the "Presentism" problem: "Failure to learn the history, language and cultures of the region." It's his sin number 7, and while I also plan to post on sin number six, let me vent on this one first. Once again, if you haven't read the original article, please do so before reading me.

Number one already dealt with history, so let's talk about language.

His point on reporters (in particular) not knowing the language is, I think, a valid one. I particularly liked his comments here:
While I am not trying to suggest that those who do not know a country’s language should avoiding [sic]reporting on its political affairs, we can think of Eric Rouleau, who was for 30 years a special correspondent in many countries of the Middle East for Le Monde and who spe aks fluent Arabic. Would we take seriously a correspondent who was bureau chief in Washington, DC, for a major daily newspaper in Iran, the Arab countries, Turkey, or Israel if s/he did not speak English? A question to ask is why major American newspapers do not make more of an effort to recruit reporters who know at least one of the languages of the region, such as New York Times reporters John Burns and Neil Macfarquhar, and Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid, just to give a few examples.
One of my past incarnations involved being a jounalist for small specialized publications, but one who did speak and read Arabic. A great many years ago, probably sometime in the 1970s, even before I was working as a journalist, I was at a round table discussion of media coverage of the Middle East, and I raised the same question that Eric Davis raises here, right down to the citation of Eric Rouleau (who eventually served as France's Ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey). (I think I also mentioned Peter Mansfield and one or two other Brits with decent Arabic.) The answer I got from one of the panelists (right now I'm guessing it was Bob Simon, then of CBS, but I wouldn't testify under oath to it), was that US newspapers and networks thought that someone who had spent so much time in the region as to learn Arabic would show bias towards the Arab side in Arab-Israeli issues, and that therefore we tended to move foreign correspondents around a lot so they wouldn't fall victim to "clientitis."

I had no opportunity to rebut at that time, now over 30 years ago and maybe more, but the rebuttal is obvious: does your correspondent in Mexico city speak Spanish? Does the head of the Paris Bureau speak French? If so, how is that not posing the same threat you allege for the Arab world? And if they don't speak the local language, how do they cover the news?

The situation has changed since the 1970s; the correspondents Davis mentions know Arabic (and Anthony Shadid is Arab-American); and a lot more US diplomats have decent Arabic today, though only a handful of diplomats and retired diplomats are comfortable enough to be interviewed in Arabic on Al Jazeera, but there are a handful, of whom former Ambassador Christopher Ross is a notable example. But it's still true that most of the journalists covering the region have, at best, "kitchen Arabic," and that no one would think that normal if they were based in Latin America. Yes, Arabic is harder than Spanish.

I'm sure not that many US journalists posted to Israel speak Hebrew, either, and the same with Persian, Turkish, Pushtu, Urdu, whatever. This is also integrally linked to Davis' Sin Number Four: the Excessive Focus on Elites. But of course. If you can't speak the language, the only people you can directly speak to are those who speak a Western language or who can provide an interpreter if you don't have your own.

He also includes cultures, but I think I'll leave that aside for now, since if you know the language and history, you're likelier to absorb the culture, anyway.

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