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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 correspondentâ€šÃ„Ã´s book: an attempt to explain the Middle East. He found that he couldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t, however, because he himself didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t understand the Middle East. â€šÃ„ÃºI didnâ€šÃ„Ã´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.â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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. Thatâ€šÃ„Ã´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 â€šÃ„Ãºtalking headsâ€šÃ„Ã¹. 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 â€šÃ„Ãºtalking headsâ€šÃ„Ã¹ â€šÃ„Ã¬ academics or human rights activists, for instance â€šÃ„Ã¬ were paid by the government or by western NGOs, or were terrified of the secret police. Whenever Luyendijk did manage to interview the â€šÃ„Ãºcommon manâ€šÃ„Ã¹, he heard weird things. One man answered a question about an Egyptian â€šÃ„Ãºreferendumâ€šÃ„Ã¹ 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 didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t manage to convey this to his Dutch newspaper readers, because in a dictatorship itâ€šÃ„Ã´s hard to get anyone to describe what life in a dictatorship is like..
…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 â€šÃ„Ãºthe storyâ€šÃ„Ã¹.
Much of Luyendijkâ€šÃ„Ã´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. Luyendijkâ€šÃ„Ã´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.
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Simon Kuiper – The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times