People Like Us
Review by Simon Kuper
Published: September 26 2009 00:27 | Last updated: September 26 2009 00:27
|News photographers take pictures of Israeli troops just outside the Gaza strip in January|
People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East
By Joris Luyendijk
Translated by Michele Hutchison
Soft Skull Press $14.95, 240 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39
Joris Luyendijk covered the Middle East for Dutch newspapers and Dutch state television from 1998 to 2003. Then he went home to the Netherlands and tried to write the usual correspondent’s book: an attempt to explain the Middle East. He found that he couldn’t, however, because he himself didn’t understand the Middle East. “I didn’t want to write a book explaining how the Arab world could become democratic, how tolerant or intolerant Islam is, or who is right or wrong in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.” Instead, he wrote a book that explained, in the casual style of a man chatting to a friend in a bar, that it was impossible for TV in particular or indeed for any journalist to explain what was happening in the Middle East.
A book that takes perhaps three hours to read changed the way readers thought about the Middle East and the media. The Dutch edition of People Like Us, published in 2006, sold 250,000 copies. Now this important book has broken beyond the Netherlands. That’s a feat in itself: a Dutch Moscow correspondent once complained that if the Messiah returned to earth and he reported the event in Dutch, the world would never find out.
In 1998, Luyendijk began work as a 26-year-old newspaper correspondent in Cairo, where he had studied at university. He dutifully covered summits and presidential speeches, and interviewed “talking heads”. He gradually realised this did not convey Egyptian reality, however. Hardly anyone in Egypt who was allowed to speak in public could be believed. The “talking heads” – academics or human rights activists, for instance – were paid by the government or by western NGOs, or were terrified of the secret police. Whenever Luyendijk did manage to interview the “common man”, he heard weird things. One man answered a question about an Egyptian “referendum” by telling him that Hitler had been subsidised by Jews who charged 38 per cent interest, we learn here. Was this common man typical? In a country without polls or fair elections or freedom of speech, it was impossible to know.
As he recounts, Luyendijk came to understand that covering an Arab country while saying little about ordinary life under dictatorship was like covering the Netherlands in 1943 while saying little about the Nazi occupation. Dictatorship was the story. The western media depicted the Arab world as a chessboard, but it was more like a poorhouse run by corrupt thugs. Luyendijk didn’t manage to convey this to his Dutch newspaper readers, because in a dictatorship it’s hard to get anyone to describe what life in a dictatorship is like.
Moreover, he points out, few western correspondents in Arab countries speak good Arabic or mix much with Arabs. Luyendijk himself speaks decent Arabic, or at least the Cairo variant, but he too struggled to socialise with locals. And so, hardly anyone in the west knows much about Arab reality. This became painfully obvious after the attacks of 9/11. How many Arabs supported Osama bin Laden? Impossible to know, says Luyendijk. How many supported the purportedly non-violent Muslim fundamentalists – and were these people truly non-violent? Impossible to know, too.
People Like Us helps explain the geopolitical tragicomedy of the past eight years. When western governments began trying to change the Arab world after 2001, they went in blindfolded, Luyendijk demonstrates. The western leaders and secret services with the most information made elementary misjudgments. They were stunned by 9/11. They were stunned when the Palestinians, finally allowed to vote, voted for Hamas. Many were stunned when Iraqis did not welcome American soldiers with flowers. They were stunned when Saddam turned out not to have weapons of mass destruction. Luyendijk blames the farce around WMD on how clueless the west is about the logic of dictatorship: “Saddam had allowed the impression that he had those kinds of weapons to persist, right to the bitter end: it was to prevent an insurrection among his own subjects”.
All these misjudgments were in part failures of the media, says Luyendijk. Years later, western coverage of the Middle East has not improved. The most reported event in the region in recent months was probably Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, itself an event made for TV.
After Cairo, Luyendijk moved to Lebanon and then to East Jerusalem to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Dutch TV. Here he came across new distortions. The conflict was produced for TV, he argues. The stone-throwing, the suicide bombs, the 24 hours that Israel waits before responding to a Palestinian attack so that the world can reflect on Israel’s pain – all this exists chiefly so that TV news can cover it.
“The common idea about correspondents is that they ‘have the story’,” Luyendijk writes, “but the reality is that the news is a conveyor belt in a bread factory. The correspondents stand at the end of the conveyor belt, pretending we’ve baked that white loaf ourselves, while in fact all we’ve done is put it in its wrapping.” He also reminds us that TV reporters are slaves to their images; they can tell only the story shown by the images, because images speak so much louder than words. TV can convey the horror of a suicide bomb but it is less effective at conveying the humiliation of daily life under occupation. In any case, the Palestinians are no good at producing those images for TV.
Israel excels at baking the bread. It knows just how to package a soundbite or image for TV, whereas Palestinian spokesmen drone on in incomprehensible language. In fact, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat deliberately kept articulate Palestinians off air for fear that they would acquire their own power bases.
Luyendijk acknowledges that a few serious publications, such as the New York Review of Books and a handful of others, carry accurate reporting on the Middle East. Unfortunately, hardly anyone reads them. TV, the dominant medium, distorts the picture and rarely explains how it gets “the story”.
Much of Luyendijk’s argument is familiar from the field of media studies. However, what sets People Like Us apart is that it is theory written by a practising journalist about a fantastically misunderstood region. The book applies beyond the Middle East: in Russia, where journalists trot around Kremlin press conferences as if that was the way to find out what was happening; and in South Africa, where journalists living in white Johannesburg suburbs were stunned by popular support for Jacob Zuma. Luyendijk’s next project is to try to propose a new way of doing journalism. Judging by certain recent misreadings of the world, it might help.
Simon Kuper is co-author of ‘Why England Lose’ (HarperSport)
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