Monday, July 24, 2006


The first thing that you realize when watching Arab news is how much, well, more real it is than what we see in the West. I’ve heard wars include killing people, that people return maimed, that kids die, families are torn apart, things like that. But if you watch CNN, Fox News or any other American station, most of the time it’s hard to know. Blown up buildings get lots of airtime. Blown off faces do not. Something about “standards of decency.” In the Arab world, on Arab TV, such standards do not exist. You can’t go a half hour without seeing a crying child or a body half-clothed heading into an ambulance. Al Jazeera is known in the West in part for its bloody content, but it’s nothing compared to Al-Manar, the Hizbollah-funded television station that, despite Israel’s bombing of its headquarters, has managed to stay on the air.
One of the major issues that the Bush administration has with Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets is their willingness to show such bloody images. Such a policy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has argued, essentially works to arouse the Arab populace against America and Israel. Airing those images is thus something close to propaganda. And, of course, he’s right, to a certain extent. When Al-Manar airs dead civilians, it’s trying to gain support for its parent company’s goals. The same goes for Syrian or Libyan state television. But of course, the reality is that there is more blood being spilt on the Arab side of these conflicts (Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank) than on the non-Arab side, and thus, the facts are a little biased. Reality is what it is.

Syrian state television is offering particularly bloody coverage of the war. Even when the facts are biased, Syrian TV is going to be more biased than the facts. The Syrian government is one of the many in the Arab world that does not have relations with Israel, a fact that has deeply hurt its relationship with the US. That’s bad for business (The US has sanctions right now on Syria primarily because of their support for Hizbollah) but occasionally good for domestic support. While Egypt, with its strong ties with Israel, is in a bigger bind every day that hostilities continue, Syria, a country that does not recognize Israel, can gain politically from glorifying the Palestinian struggle and reminding the Syrian street where its government stands on the matter. There is no debate on the Arab street about whether or not the current Israeli incursions are justified. They simply are not. It’s an article of faith.

I decided to check out the quality of the state-funded propaganda of Syria’s television station. I hoped to find something funny, like embarrassingly low budget tribute videos to the country’s president, Bashaar Al-Asad. What I found was not funny.

When I turn to Syrian TV, there is a 10-minute montage to the Palestinian struggle running. What I find affects me, and I want to share that experience, but words are a poor substitute for pictures. The montage may have been a lot longer than 10 minutes, but after 10 minutes, I decided to change the channel. The montage was making me want to vomit. Israeli munitions may be incredibly precise, and the country may never target civilians, but it has managed to kill and maim enough children anyway to allow for some pretty unbelievable images. What they show on Syrian TV is of course biased, but it’s all, well, real. It’s hard to argue with reality, at least when you first see it. Reality becomes much more subjective down the road. A little later you can discuss if Israel is just protecting itself, if the concept of proportionality is important or ignores the real question of national security, if Hizbollah or Israel, or both are trying to draw in Syria and Iran and the US. You can argue about who fired the first shot 2 weeks ago, in 1948, in 1937, earlier. You can remind yourself that this is just Syrian propaganda aired to serve state interests, that no one is even watching this because no one trusts state TV anymore and everyone prefers Al Jazeera anyway. But those arguments aren’t really applicable at the moment.

What I see is a screaming mother, a stretcher being rushed to an ambulance, a woman wearing a Lebanon t-shirt crying, rubble, another woman screaming at a microphone, an old woman screaming at no one. It’s hard to think bigger picture. But then there’s this one image that really sticks. You can see the infant’s dead eyes, her dead face, the color completely gone, the eyelids open, her face pockmarked with blood. She’s covered in a white blanket which has a few specks of red on it. They’re in an undecorated room with a bed and a small wooden desk, they’re indoors, he’s screaming, he’s kissing the dead baby. He’s putting her down on the bed, his friends are pulling him away, he won’t let them pull him away, he doesn’t want to let go, he can’t let go, he’s crying, the tears are running down his face, the lifeless face of his baby staring up at nothing, not really staring of course, because she’s dead. The music is playing in the background, it’s a sad song, Arabic, a female voice, crooning for Palestine, the camera is in slow motion, two friends have now entered the picture, one arm on each of his shoulders, they’re still trying to pull him back, he’s struggling, the image switches to the next crying mother, or daughter, or whatever. I can’t remember the next scene. The shot may have lasted five seconds or it might have been 10 or 15.

It’s just propaganda for an autocratic regime that abuses its people and is searching for anything to legitimize its power, it’s just one baby and millions are involved and geopolitics are involved and maybe Palestinians killed her maybe it’s all a big set up…. That jumble of thoughts only comes after I change the channel. When I see that dead, white face, that baby that’s not going to get to live, I can’t really respond. It’s war and people die, and all I’ve done is witnessed a dead Palestinian baby.

There are no montages as brutal on serious Arab news channels, like Al Jazeera or Future TV or Abu Dhabi’s independent satellite station, but there are other montages, and there are other brutal pictures. Al Jazeera has labeled the current conflict as “an open encounter,” and every time Lebanon news is about to start it runs a series of pictures from the conflict, flashing quickly across the screen with voices talking over each other. The last picture is of a dead child, his face covered with blackened ash. The picture stays on the screen a beat longer than the others. There are call in shows where everyone talks about the terrible crime they believe Israel is committing against Lebanon. When I watch a call-in show on Al Jazeera on this topic, my first thought is that they should find Arab voices that support Israel, that it’s not balanced. But then I realize that those voices don’t exist. If you’re going to have a half-hour show on Arab public opinion on the current conflict, and you want it to reflect the Arab mood, you’re only going to have speakers who think Israel is committing a crime. Al Jazeera’s picture of a dead child, or Syria’s montage are basically reinforcing what everyone already believes to be true; that Israel is committing a crime against humanity.

There are plenty of dead bodies in Lebanon – about 370 at last count – for those montages. There are many dead in Israel, but not nearly as many. If nothing else, the Arab Media is serving as a witness to that truth. It’s definitely hurting the image of America. It’s definitely inciting rallies throughout the Middle East in solidarity with Lebanon. How biased it is, is your call.


At 7:12 PM, Blogger Simon said...

Thanks for this -- moving and awful. One thing I've wondered: any proof that these horrible images are actually all the results of Israeli actions? Rather than other traumas by other armies / terrorists / their own governments? Just wondering...


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