Saturday, July 22, 2006

How the Arab world gets its news

The Opinion….And The Other Opinion
That’s Al Jazeera’s slogan. CNN may fancy itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News,” but it’s hard to argue that it’s the most important. It is certainly not the most controversial. That title, without question, belongs to Al Jazeera. And, as of Saturday, I can watch as much of it as I like, along with 250 other channels. The price tag was about $100, including installation. If I lived in Cairo the rest of my life, I would never have to pay another penny.

The process by which Arabs get access to Satellite television is entirely different from the one Americans are used to. The biggest difference is that, for the most part, TV here is free. The biggest exception to that rule is Arabic Radio and Television, or ART. Most people don’t get the extra channels offered by ART, a monthly subscription service that provides more movies, news and sports. This reality caused quite a stir throughout the region when ART won the rights to broadcast the World Cup exclusively throughout the Middle East, but except for that month of brooding and frustration, what you get for free here is everything a TV junkie could ever want. Even if you didn’t speak Arabic.

Having my satellite installed caused me to miss a fairly big protest against Israel’s siege of Lebanon. The protest involved thousands of Hizbollah (“The Party of God”) supporters who had gathered at Cairo’s most famous mosque, Al-Azhar. Muslims are required to pray five times daily, but most of those prayers are done privately. Several times I’ve been at small bodegas looking for some random item, only to have the shop owner ask me to wait so that he can pray. He’ll pull out a rug, wash his hands, feet, forearms and face and then begin praying, facing Mecca. The whole process takes 5 to 10 minutes. Then it’s back to business. It’s only during the Friday afternoon prayer that most worshippers go to their local mosque to listen to the sheik’s sermon and pray with their neighbors. Such prayer meetings have often served as a forum to vent more worldly frustration; In a Muslim country with such strong relations with Israel, the gathering can be politically dangerous. These days, every sheikh in Cairo (no, I haven’t heard every one, but I dare you to prove me wrong) is decrying the Israeli raids on Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and America’s seeming indifference to it all. At Al-Azhar, the last two Fridays have witnessed huge demonstrations directly after prayer time, and large-scale police interventions. This past Friday, I wasn’t able to witness the thousands in Al-Azhar’s mosque who waved green banners and demanded that Egypt break its relations with Israel and America because I was up on my roof, at 2 P.M., watching two young men install my satellite dish. I would only see shots of the protest later on, on Al Jazeera.

The actual installation of a satellite is quite an ordeal. While purchasing by dish, the shopkeeper asks me if I want assistance with installation or if I can do it myself. This question only becomes ridiculous after I figure out what installing the dish requires. The process is thus: Along with two helpers, I amble onto my roof with all the required equipment: Dish, cement mixing contents, 100-foot wire – and my 20X20 inch television. I finally manage to get to the roof after climbing a wooden ladder so rickety that my mother would have had a stroke had she seen it. What I find is a 2,500 or so square-meter roof utterly covered in satellite dishes of various sizes. I immediately realize that I have bought the smallest dish on the roof, and a depression sets in that any half decent psychiatrist could easily explain (“I have the smallest!”) The next step is the cement mixing. White and black stuff is mixed with water to form wet cement that will dry and secure the base of the satellite to the roof. [Note: I am no longer a boy, but I’m not a man yet either. I firmly believe that I will someday be a man, and that I will know that day has come when I know what that “white and black stuff” really is. Or perhaps I will know that day has come when I no longer think such knowledge allows one to join the man club] Once the base is secured, the television is hooked up so that we can watch a little TV. Only with the TV on can you figure out if the satellite is facing at the correct angle to get decent reception. When all the screws are finally tightened, the 100-foot wire is attached to the satellite and then thrown over the side of the building. The building I live in is 10 stories high and my apartment is on the 5th floor. In order to watch TV, a wire is going to have to stretch from my rough to my apartment. We take the TV back downstairs, all three of us covered in sweat, only to find that the wire has gotten tangled amidst all the other wires. One of them goes back up to disentangle everything. Finally everything is set up. I pay the helpers for their help and flip on my set. I find Al-Jazeera and flip to the channel. What’s on? A half-hour, exclusive interview with Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah. It’s going to be a good year, I think to myself.


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