‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’: Things I Learned Writing about the Middle East

Writing about and reporting the Middle East is not an easy task, especially during these years of turmoil and upheaval. While physical maps remain largely intact, the geopolitical map of the region is in constant influx. Following and reporting about these constant changes without a deep and compassionate understanding of the region will achieve little but predictable and lackluster content that offers nothing original, but recycled old ideas and stereotypes.

From my humble experience in the region, I share these "DOS" and "don’Ts" on how the Middle East should be approached in writing and reporting.

Question Terminology

To start with, the term Middle East is itself highly questionable. It is arbitrary, and can only be understood within proximity to some other entity, Europe, which colonial endeavors imposed such classifications on the rest of the word. Colonial Europe was the center of the globe and everything else was measured in physical and political distance from the dominating continent.

Western interests in the region never waned. In fact, following US-led wars on Iraq (1990-91), a decade-long blockade, followed by a massive war and invasion (2003), the "Middle East" is back at the center of neocolonial activities, colossal western economic interests, strategic and political maneuvering.

To question the term "Middle East" is to become conscious of the colonial history, and the enduringly fierce economic and political competition, which is felt in every fact of life in the region.

Then, learn to question many other terms: extremist, radical, moderate, terrorist, pro-western, liberal, socialist, Islamist, Islamic, anti-Islamist, secularist, and so on. These are mostly misleading labels. They might not mean at all what you think they do. Their use is often political as opposed to direct reference to an ideological or political position.

Learn the Language

If you reporting work is intrinsically linked to the Middle East, then you must learn a language. If you are not an Arabic-speaking journalist, you must invest the time to learn Arabic (or Farsi, Turkish, etc., depending on the specific region of your interest). Learning few greeting words and how to flag down a taxi is good, but will hardly allow you to overcome the numerous obstacles of having no direct access to a whole country, save few mostly western educated elites who speak your language. Even a local companion would hardly help bridge the language divide, for she/he is likely to have their own biases and limitations. Moreover, much is often omitted and lost in translation.

Speaking the native language will gain you more than access, but trust as well, and help you develop real compassion with people who are in greater need to be heard.

Start at the Bottom

Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying: "There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard."

Every Middle Eastern country has its educated elites. They are often approached by the media out of convenience. An Egyptian English speaking graduate from the American University of Cairo, or a Yemeni head of EU-funded NGO, or a Palestinian Ramallah-based political analyst who is loosely affiliated with the Palestinian Authority are all obvious media mouthpieces. They speak one foreign language or another; they know what a sound bite is; they don’t require much training; and they are always ready with their talking points. Although they may be the ideal media guest, they may be the least qualified to comment on a story.

Your best bet as a reporter is to start from the bottom, the people who are mostly disaffected by whatever story you are reporting: the victims, their families, eyewitnesses, and the community as a whole. While such voices are often neglected or used as content fillers, they should become the center of any serious reporting from the region, especially in areas that are torn by war and conflict.

Side with the Victim, but be Careful

True, there might be more than one side to the same story, but that should not be the driving force of your reporting.

Start by being aware of your limitations as a person to report on a story without feeling sympathy towards people who are the subject of your report: a Syrian mother separated from her children, a Gaza father, who lost his wife and five kids to Israeli bombs, an Egyptian democracy activist on a prolonged hunger strike, and so on.

But let the understanding of the cost of conflict be your guide in understanding the bigger and more multifaceted issues, without turning into an advocate for one cause or another. Human rights advocacy, if done for the right reasons is a noble and important mission, but on its own is not journalism per se.

One of the greatest flaws in how the Syria war is reported is the simplistic and polarizing approach and terminology. It depends on what channel you are watching or what newspaper you are reading, only one set of victims or refugees matters. Most media weep for the Syrian people, but the victim and victimizer differs when seen from the perspective of Al Jazeera vs. Al Mayadeen, to Press TV, to Russia Today, to Fox News, to the BBC. Manipulating who qualifies to be a victim, is a highly political question with far-reaching consequences.

Learn History

Consider this, once fringe group like the Houthis of Yemen are becoming the kingmakers of a country, whose central government is by name only, and whose military is divided between sectarian, regional and tribal allegiances. How is one to report on this fairly new phenomenon without developing a solid understanding of Yemeni history and historical divides, regional and international politics that have greatly disturbed any sense of normalcy in that Arab country for decades? Scraps of information about the Yemen revolution from Wikipedia and some newspaper’s "fact sheet" will not do, if one indeed aims to convey a reasonably full picture of the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

History is essential to understanding any conflict in the region, because every single conflict has its own protracted history, which understanding is essential to fathoming the complexity of the present.

Raise Questions

Don’t be afraid to raise questions and provide context that you, and, at times, only you believe is essential to the story.

The so-called Islamic State (IS) is a relevant example. Virtually unknown few years ago, IS is now supposedly the greatest danger facing the Middle East, as its oddly composed, but well-armed battalions are moving in multiple directions, leaving in their wake gory stories of death and destruction. But how is one to position a story of this magnitude? What would be a proper context? Who is supplying IS with weapons and constant stream of funds? Can IS’s war, or the war on IS be reported without a clear contextualization that would take several factors into account, at the heart of which is the US invasion of Iraq? Hardly, but many regularly do, and they seem to get away with it.

Remember, no such major upheavals happen in a vacuum. Dare to question the motives in the selective reporting of others.

Avoid Subjective Language

Don’t use the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" unless in proper context. You are not the judge of who is and who is not a terrorist, a term that doesn’t reference a fact but a political perspective. There are many such terminology which are pitfalls that could compromise the credibility of your reporting.

Don’t Be a Tourist

Reporting, especially from conflict zone is a huge responsibility. Sometimes, misleading reporting can cost lives. Avoid the passerby casual reporting, as in a young New Zealander hopping from Yemen, to Bahrain, to Egypt, to Tunisia in two weeks, producing a whole number of articles for whatever outlet willing to publish, but without scratching the surface of a story. Five days in Sana’a and a week in Bahrain, doesn’t make you an international reporter, doesn’t give your insight much merit and, frankly does a disservice to the profession. You cannot possibly inform others of what you hardly comprehend.

Don’t Get Too Involved

The opposite of the hopping reporter is the "expert" journalist, westerners and others who spend many years reporting from a single country. They can be enormously helpful in conveying a truly authentic story, with consistency over time. The pitfall however is that some get too involved, thus taking sides and falling into the trap of the divided politics of the areas from which they report. Lebanon is rife with such examples. Also, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, for it was accessible to western journalists for many years. Thanks to them, much of the Iraq story in skewed and one-sided.

Don’t Generalize

When your interest in the Middle East is centered on a single topic, for example, the Arab Spring, you are deemed to oversimplify and generalize. You are compelled to look for common dominators between "Arab Spring countries," while willfully dismissing all else. Yemen is a unique case in time and space and can only be truly understood within a set of variables that reflect that uniqueness. While the Tunisian revolution may have inspired revolutionaries and opportunists to follow suit or to exploit the transition, the outcomes of such revolts was largely determined by local and regional factors.

Avoid generalizations to a fault. It will require more research on your part, but that is what sets a serious reporter from others.

And finally, always remember, writing and reporting are a learned process, and there is always something new for all of us to learn. So remain humble, and always welcome the opportunity to learn new things.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

16 thoughts on “‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’: Things I Learned Writing about the Middle East”

  1. Good sound advice, applicable to most kinds of reporting. Especially in places where one is not a native or culturally experienced.
    In the "Middle East" it is especially tricky since most sources/people have a distinct viewpoint which will reflect some bias.
    Almost nothing published/aired in the US about this area is free from bias or editorial slant. So just try to look at objective facts and actions and ignore the bias. For most reporting the language used is so corrupted that it becomes mere propaganda. A trait found in nearly every report by every side.

  2. You need to be more clear with the title.
    maybe switch it to something like.
    "how to never get a well paying job in the us media"?

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  4. I would add the new western invented term or terms of jihadi or Jihadist that have no existence in the Arabic language or as a real term in Islam.The use of these terms instead of fighter or fighters is intended create a very sinister image in the minds of western audience and so is using the word Jihad often instead of fighting ,or using the word Jihad and then explain as holy war not what it really means .

  5. What are you supposed to call terrorists or terrorism if you're not supposed to use those terms? Murdering psychopaths? Listen to me, if you want to know all about IS, just ask me. I've been following this crap since before the beginning of the destruction of Syria. Since Libya, and even before Libya I told my Hus., Libya would be next – and France (cowardly france who never wants to get involved in any kind of conflict) would be directly involved – I can't even remember at this point exactly what I saw/read/understood that made me say that – but shortly thereafter – big headlines 'blah blah France, England, U.S.' – Libya was the biggest farce of a fake 'rebellion' I've ever seen – while the world laps up the most ridiculous lies and propaganda I've ever read – OR the people that control our countries as our 'elected servants of the people' (joke) are complete idiots and utterly incompetent, which is frightening, truly, chilling to the bone. As incompetents they believe any lie told by 'reblels' who are really sunni wahabiis who want control, power, money and destroy all non-sunnis. Or maybe they know exactly what they are doing, and that's maybe even worse – they understand that the rebels are not really rebels, that syria was never a civil war, that the people who initiated the violence WERE in fact, ALL from countries other than Syria, that they slaughtered and then filmed the bodies of many sunni families to incite the violence – going so far as to dress in fakey Syrian soldier outfits and call the victims 'dogs and pigs' while nudging the bodies with their feet. Why would soldiers assassinate people with plastic bags of food who were giving care packages to hungry citizens? Take them to the roof of a building, blow their heads off, disrespect the bodies while saying something STUPID like 'look, look at these dogs, yeah these are just dogs' in stilted, stupid voices because they're terrible actors – by THEY I mean the FSA – 'free syrian' army (or fake syrian army was we liked to call them) WELL before this all started MI5 and CIA admitted they had people on the ground in Syria. I mentioned once that one of the reasons you never 'hear anything about Syria' is because the civilians don't have any weapons. Oh, okay, SUDDENLY they had tanks, surface to air missiles to take out planes, shiney new bullets on their shoulder.

    1. Let me stop here – ask yourself this – what is the primary difference between the countries the 'western world' screws up and the ones they pretty much don't screw with or even SUPPORT? Why check the religions, who is in power, who is in the majority (religion of civilian population), whether the leader of the country is religiously tolerant (he might kill a few people, but not because of their religion – and often the people he killed was years ago. Also we can't judge islamic country leaders by whether or not they kill people, man, they ALL do – the question is how, how many & why?)

      Iraq, Libya, Syria – either Shiite run, majority Shitte population AND non-sunni's and non-muslims lived relatively at peace and without fear – especially Syria and over a decade ago Iraq. Millions of Christians were in Iraq, between 2004 and 2008 over 50,000 were flat out murdered in the streets – not sectarian violence or some stupid word that's supposed to make us think it's nothing. FIRST posters get put up 'Christians leave or we will kill you, we will butcher your family' then when they didn't leave – the killing began. Usually women & children while the men were at work, then men with wrists bound dragged into the street and shot in the head – executed.

      The only difference between IS and the other 'terror' groups, or let's be real civilian Sunnis who support the groups (you don't think that fly by night group of terrorists could take over a third of a country if the local population didn't join in, did you?) is that IS filmed their atrocities and shined a spotlight on it – because they wanted to and were gloryhounds. Oh Al Qaeda and everybody said Hey, we don't support them, we're 'not so bad terrorists' even though they've literally done every single thing IS is doing now. Killing Christians, raping women wholescale, murdering children of people who disobey their demands.

      Every country, iraq, syria, libya, was run by a man who either I have no idea which denomination of islam he follows (shiite or sunni) or, like Assad, is a Shiite. Iraq is or WAS Majority Shiite population, Syria controlled by Shiite minority – protected the kurds and christians who have been systematically eliminated in a genocide no media out has said SHIT about, not really even now !! We get to hear about the Yazidi's on every headline – Obama says 'people killed because they are not the same religion' ANYTHING to avoid saying CHRISTIAN- OH, 1,000 Yazidi's killed you say? Okay, let's still not talk about the 150,000 Christians killed in effing Syria, cause F them anyway – and Turkey's only finishing what they tried so hard to do 100 years ago, right? Aleppo, 1914 – any of this ringing any bells? Probably not, because you are probably just as ignorant as the rest of the idiot reporters who don't know a G.D. thing about what is really happening.

      1. Western powers are obeying Saudi and getting rid of the leaders of any country that do not obey Saudi as master, helping to eliminate the Shitte populations of the world – don't CARE about the Christians and others who die – and throwing the countries into turmoil and allowing the Sunnis to murder the rest with weapons GIVEN to them BY the U.S.A.

        Obama admitted he gave weapons to 'rebels' didn't he? Who do you think those rebels were? EARLY, and I mean EARLY on I already knew there was a terrorist group from Iraq with at least 1,000 members operating in Syria as PART of the FSA and under the guise of 'we're syrians' bleeah yeah right. Many Syrians SAID they knew that Saudi and Qatar financed mujahadeen to come start everything, from Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan, Libya, even the CAUCUsus – seasoned well trained fighters who controlled everything from start to finish and ISIS is the end result.

      2. Iraq was run by Saddam a Sunni.ISIS has killed more sunnis than any other group.Where did you get the 150,000 Christians killed in Syria.The US was responsible for the death of over 500,000 Iraqi children,and US officials with the support of most of the "American"people decided that" the price was worth it"Iraq was much better country before it was illegally invaded ,occupied,and destroyed by the the US,the UK,Australia ,and other US stooges.
        Finally before you go on make up numbers of out thin air maybe you should do some search >
        These figures are world wide:
        "Estimates of the total number killed range from around 7,000 or 8,000, according to the International Institute for Religious Freedom’s Thomas Schirrmacher, to the lofty 100,000 estimate of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

        Beyond those killed, the World Watch List recommends that three more categories of Christians should be considered: Christians whose death is never reported; Christians killed due to increased vulnerability, such as those in conflict areas; and Christians who die due to long-term discrimination.

        Taking these into account, as well as those whose deaths are reported by the media, the World Watch List suggests Schirrmacher’s estimation is roughly accurate, although the figure may be higher still.

        “Christians aren’t always directly killed, but are so much squeezed with regulations and vulnerabilities that they just perish – not at once, but in the course of years. If we would include them in the counting, it would be an enormous number of people. However, the precise number of Christians who die due to these factors is very difficult to quantify,” according to the World Watch List." the source is the Christian source of World Watch Monitor . https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2014/01/2935607

        By the way any could come up with figure and past history and claim his side suffered the most,but to what end?

  6. Let me stop here – ask yourself this – what is the primary difference between the countries the 'western world' screws up and the ones they pretty much don't screw with or even SUPPORT? Why check the religions, who is in power, who is in the majority (religion of civilian population), whether the leader of the country is religiously tolerant (he might kill a few people, but not because of their religion – and often the people he killed was years ago. Also we can't judge islamic country leaders by whether or not they kill people, man, they ALL do – the question is how, how many & why?)

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  8. Thanks, very informative post. Of course, for writing about foreign country you should consider a variety of factors, political, cultural, ethical etc. especially such person as you are.

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