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Why Netty thinks Middle East journalism beats Edward and Bella any day of the week …

July 20, 2010

Hello everybody!

As Andy has already told you, journalist Joris Luyendijk’s Fit To Print was a bestseller in his native Holland, where it was published under the title Het zijn net mensen, or They Are Just People to me and you (assuming that you don’t speak Dutch either). Its Australian title is presumably a reference to the New York Times’ long-standing motto “All the news that’s fit to print”, while in England it was published as Hello Everybody! (which forms the punchline of a not particularly funny passage set in a Sudanese refugee camp that opens the book) and in the States as People Like Us.

Speaking of assuming , it is never a good move at the best of times, but  we can safely do so with regards to Fit To Print ever occupying the upper echelons of Australia’s best-selling books’ lists. This is not because Fit To Print is badly written (or, for that matter, badly translated) or uninteresting, but because it deals with two specific fields – namely journalism and the Middle East. If your interests don’t lie with either subject, then you’re not likely to ever dip into its pages.

Mine, however, do, which is why Fit To Print ended up on ANRC10 in the first place, and if you’re still reading at this juncture, then I’m guessing yours do too. I have spent 20-plus years in print journalism, but have only developed a real interest in the Middle East in the past decade (and by the way, Andy, I still fully intend to read that Fisk tome of yours one day!) and am yet to grace its shores – uh, deserts. So I’m both in and out of my comfort zone here.

Luyendijk  didn’t start out in journalism – he was a social sciences and Arabic major who did his Masters at the Cairo University.  His first book – a memoir of a westerner living in Egypt – brought him to the attention of  Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant and Radio News 1 and secured him a five-year correspondent’s posting in the Middle East from 1998-2003, based first in Cairo, then, post September 11, in Jerusalem.

Despite his experiences as a student in Egypt and Syria, Luyendijk admits to going back into the Middle East with myriad misconceptions, few of which he ever manages to satisfactorily resolve. As a journalist, he wrestles with the inability to accurately depict the real Middle East in a western media that falls back too easily on preconceptions, clichés and stereotypes, or, in his words: “News only shows what deviates from the norm, and if the norm is not known, you get a distorted image”. Later, he goes on to admit: “I didn’t know what Arabs were like, not because I wasn’t trying, but because I couldn’t know”.

Luyendijk also dispels any myths of the presumably “glamorous” life of an international correspondent – he is dependent far less on his own footwork than the editorial teams back at home base who take their direction from the world’s major news agencies.  “Correspondents stand at the end of the conveyer belt, pretending we’ve baked the white loaf ourselves, while in fact all we’ve done is put it in its wrapping,” he says.

His experience in the medium of television is even more restrictive, reducing complex, multi-faceted stories into visually appealing, three-minute reports dependent on the right images and soundbites, dictated to by what the customer wants and network viewing figures. Depressing, but unsurprising. Luyendijk says: “If the western media had done its job during the (Iraqi) war, viewers would have sat in front of their television sets crying and vomiting”, admitting that the gulf between the East and West seems to widen “not because we are different from each other, but because we are shown radically different images of the world” – namely, American flags versus Arab limbs.

Still, he paints a vivid portrait of the locals’ lives under often-brutal Arab dictatorships sometimes masquerading as democracies; the daily negotiations of bribery, corruption and poverty; and his own almost-comical efforts to negate bureaucracy and its never-ending red tape (although the recounting of his experiences in an Iraq still under the control Saddam Hussein is downright disquieting).

While Part I of the book, which primarily deals with Luyendijk’s time in Egypt, is interesting enough, the really fascinating stuff – for mine – is in Part II, which details the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He steers clear of a lot of the history and background – which could easily have added a thousand or so pages to the book – concentrating more on his ground-zero observations, experiences and musings. While he is not explicit about it, Luyendijk’s sympathies appear to lie moreso with the Palestines. He poses the question:  “Is the essence of the problem occupation or terror? Is the war about Jewish security or Palestinian freedom?” It’s fascinating, pertinent stuff that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, ultimately raising more questions than providing answers.

But at the end of the day – indeed, in its 2009 afterword (it was originally published in 2006) – Fit To Print transcends its geography; it is about “Factors that lie beyond the control of journalists, but that influence what those journalists cover, and how”, according to its author.  For a journalist, that is a riveting concept. For a layman, I’m not so sure.

And therein lies the rub.  If you’re interested in journalism and/or the Middle East, you would do well to read it. If not, well, there’s always the latest offering from Stephanie Meyer, which, unlike Luyendijk, is sitting atop the best-sellers’ lists.

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