If you live in the US and need to follow events in the Middle East closely, Mosaic is absolutely indispensable. A thirty-minute long aggregation of regional television news programming broadcast on Link TV, the show is the brainchild of award-winning producer Jamal Dajani.
A Jerusalem native, and a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I spoke to Dajani about his work on Mosaic for the March issue of Zeek. What transpires is a fascinating conversation about the state of Middle Eastern media today, and its increasing importance for Americans.
If you enjoy this piece, check out Covering the Coverage, and Left of the Middle East. Short excerpts from my book, they cover much of the same topical ground as my conversation with Dajani, but focus on US and otherwise progressive Western news media instead.
His curiosity piqued by a recent article in Haaretz discussing the relative merits of the New York Times' coverage of Israel, a colleague asked me if I could point him to what I think are the best studies of Western media reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict. For those who understand the subtext of such inquiries, the editor couldn't have asked a more loaded question. To make such a request in today's environment means that you first have to ask why the question is important, and second, for whom.
Since September 11th, domestic coverage of the Middle East has obviously become more significant. Not just because the attacks on New York and Washington signaled the beginning of a conflict between America and West Asian Islamists. But, also because of how it placed far more editorial requirements on a news media already struggling - and, in the US, largely failing - to meet the complex cultural demands already required of Mideast coverage by the country's Jewish and Muslim Diaspora communities.
US news agencies haven't done the best job of striking this balance yet either. However, there is more English-language, Mideast-based media to rely on than ever before to make up for it. Take for example, Israeli publications like the English edition of Haaretz on the one hand, and Al Jazeera's English broadcasting service on the other, not to mention all of the translated editions of regional sources in between. Americans now have every opportunity to read news that's potentially more informative.
Though "local" is not always a synonym for "better", irrespective of partisanship and the limitations international media inevitably find themselves subject to, in comparison, few domestic sources, including the ethnic press, deliver the same quality goods. Does that mean that American periodicals should hang up their hats? No. Because of this country's obvious ties to the region - economic, cultural, and military, to name a few - US news outlets are morally obligated to continue reporting on the Mideast.
The question is how. Obviously, one answer would be to create content that was complementary with a foreign reporting that is better privileged for information. Another angle would be to concentrate on commissioning work on the numerous ways in which Americans deliberate about their involvement in a particular country's affairs. Thus, you emphasize domestic political discussions at, say the State Department, or, amongst Americans with cultural ties to said state, instead of the other way around.
As many editors at American news periodicals will tell you, the two biggest complaints about Mideast coverage are always that its either anti-Semitic, or similarly compromised by a desire to satisfy special interest groups. The problem with such criticisms is that they're not only frequently incorrect. But, most importantly, that they help divert editorial attention away from very real ethical problems, like learning how to properly tailor international news for a cosmopolitan, multicultural readership - during wartime.
Oh No's new American take on Middle Eastern hip-hop is not without similarly single-minded precedents. In terms of actual full-lengths, Mutamassik's 2005 LP, Definitive Works, is of equally subversive significance. For anyone familiar with post-war Egyptian pop, from the sampled string sections to the galloping percussion, the influence of Om Kholtum's band looms large on this Brooklyn DJ's debut album.
Listening to Definitive last weekend, like a lot of records of its kind, I was struck by the ways in which Mutamassik almost plays with Western clichés of oriental music. Particularly the popularity of specific types of orchestral arrangements, and belly dance signifiers popular during the early '60s, when cities like Los Angeles boasted of a number of Arab-themed club bands.
I don't mean to suggest that this album intentionally stakes out a critical position in relation to these long forgotten artists. However, if you're hip to the phenomenon (think guitar-driven mini-orchestras with fez-wearing, Arab-American and Armenian band leaders, not shriners), its hard not to place the new engagement with Mideast music in American hip-hop in relationship to them.
I own a number of out-of-print recordings by several of these groups, but they're hidden somewhere deep inside my office closet. This weekend, I'm going to do some serious excavation work, and slap them straight back onto my turntable. I imagine that I'll find them a bit more ideologically complex than I did before.
From an unpublished conversation with a Jewish magazine editor
We have a terrible disjuncture at present, where the critical coverage that we increasingly rely on in this country comes from progressive sources that aren’t as discriminating in their approach to the Middle East as they should be. Being rightly committed to criticizing imperialism and colonialism, they frequently make the mistake of seeing all of the disparate crises afflicting the region as being different versions of the same political problem. It’s like saying that all Jews or Arabs are identical.
Take a look at how the occupation of Iraq has impacted a lot of progressive reporting on Israel: As the occupation has worsened, it has increasingly conditioned a way of covering the country that has assimilated Israel's conflict with the Palestinians with the situation created by the Americans in Iraq. The problem is that if this is the general disposition of the left press in covering the region, it therefore makes it difficult to explain the very real differences that distinguish the Iraqi refugee crisis from the Palestinian, Kurdish, or Armenian refugee crises which preceded it.
The Middle East is a very big place. Even within the space of short distances, such as that which exists between Gaza and Ramallah, the cultural and political distinctions can be extraordinary. The irony is that this is partially a product of territorial divisions first introduced by Europeans to the area. We ought to encourage the journalists we work with to strike a better balance between understanding the Middle Eastern experience of the West with the domestic differences that the outside world seems so oblivious towards.
A short excerpt from "Changing Partners: America or Europe?", the fifth chapter of my forthcoming book, Israel vs Utopia:
To many Jews and Israelis, however ideologically inclined, the charge of colonialism became a symptom of a much larger European about face that expressed itself in a deepening of both east and western European relations with the Arab world, an increase in Muslim immigration to France and the United Kingdom, and the routinization of Europe as the number one foreign site of Palestinian revolutionary violence.
Transpiring to the backdrop of the previous decades’ final regional colonial divestitures by France and the United Kingdom, and Europe thus becomes the right-wing Jewish caricature that it is portrayed to be today: the primary breeding ground of “Islamo-left” anti-Semitism, irrefutable proof that outside of Israel, America is the only place a Jew can truly be safe, if not call, however uncomfortably, home.
“Okay now,” Miss Kennedy finally said, “I want you all to be quiet and begin introducing yourselves, starting with the front row.” A short, fat boy wearing a beige cashmere sweater, with a head of thick, black, comb-backed hair began. “My name is Ahmed,” he said in nearly flawless English, smiling. “I just moved here from Saudi Arabia.” Next up was the dark, pretty girl to his right. “My name is Farnaz,” she said. “And where are you from?” Miss Kennedy asked. “Iran,” Farnaz replied. “I just moved here too.”
And so, based on my survey of how many Middle Eastern–looking kids were in the room, it was clear that Miss Kennedy—a young, blonde and blue eyed teacher married to an American serviceman stationed in London — wanted us all to confess our countries of origin. Following Farnaz was a boy from Syria, followed by an Iraqi, another Iranian, a kid from Lebanon, a girl from Libya and finally, me. “Joel,” Miss Kennedy asked, staring at my nametag, “do you want to introduce yourself?”
An enormous silence fell over the room. I was terrified. I just could not issue a reply. Miss Kennedy stared at me with a concerned look on her face. “What’s the matter Joel,” she asked. “Has the cat got your tongue?” My classmates began to giggle. Finally, seeing fifteen curious faces staring intently at me, waiting for me to say something, I finally blustered “Hi, my name is Joel. I’m from Israel. Can I go to the bathroom, please?”
In retrospect, there was absolutely no reason to be nervous. None of us was older than eleven, and besides, no matter what kind of ideology you inculcate children with, as I discovered that year in London, it appeared as though all vestiges of the Middle East conflict seem to disappear through the classroom collaborations and the friendships we inevitably fell into.
- From my editor's column, Tikkun, September/October edition, 2005
On June 5th 1967, the Six Day War officially began. In less than a week's time, Israeli forces had wrested control of the Sinai peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Though Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982, and dismantled its settlements in Gaza two years ago, it continues to retain control of the West Bank and the Golan.
Dubbed the "Occupied Territories", Israeli rule of these lands has had far reaching consequences for both their inhabitants and Israelis alike. On June 5th 2007, though I'd had no plans to formally mark the war's fourtieth anniversary, I found myself doing the exact opposite of what most Israeli Jews did that day: eating lunch at the home of a Christian Arab friend, in the Israeli town of Nazareth.
The meal began with a parsley salad, followed by a plate of lamb-filled lasagna. In between, the hostess served her own home made kubbeh, followed by a main course consisting of roast beef, baked potatoes and cheese. Desert was doled out in three stages: fresh fruit, followed by a cornmeal-based creme caramel, and finally, a mix of pistachio ice cream and lime sorbet.
Even though we all knew each other fairly well, for some reason, the atmosphere was somewhat tense. Long moments of silence were followed by intense, bilingual bursts of nervous conversation in Hebrew and English. Everything felt forced. In this context, the immense quantities of rich foods served their purpose, bludgeoning all of those in attendance with their heaviness.
It was only after the meal that talk turned to politics. Using Vance's presence as a pretext to discuss the situation in Iraq, our host expressed enormous frustration with US strategy in the region. Though I had little opportunity to overhear the specifics of his complaints, out of the corner of my eye, I could see our host's elbows jerking right and left, as he heatedly sought to articulate his concerns.
My attention, however, was focused on our hostess, who'd sat down next to me after serving us dessert. "This is for your wife," she said. Handing me a box of Christian Dior perfume, she told me how beautiful she found Jennifer, and how much she admired her short, bleached hair. "Your wife is very courageous to wear it like that," she said. "Please give her my warmest regards."
The mental health ploy had worked. She'd just gotten excused from her army service, and had come to the United States to go to art school. Standing in the kitchen of my old Richmond district apartment, K. [her pseudonym] sampled two versions of hummus: one from Trader Joe's, the other from a local Armenian deli. "Oy, they're horrible," she exclaimed. "However hard they try, Americans cannot make hummus."
Thus, the perennial refrain of most Israelis living in the Bay Area. And its true. In nearly every instance, American hummus is consistently terrible. Either there's not enough tahina (or any), or for some reason, ingredients such as mayonnaise, cream and salt are present. Even the so-called 'organic' versions are offensive, oftentimes sporting vegetable flavorings. Imagine an exotic wheat paste sprinkled with paprika. That's what it tastes like.
Though my Israeli house guest is long gone from San Francisco (she now lives in NYC), we finally have a restaurant where the hummus is competitive with the best that the Middle East has to offer. As good as anything I've had at Yafo's Abu Hassan, or Akko's Hummus Said, this hole in the wall, run by several wonderful guys from Jerusalem, has made the Bay Area a better place to live.
Located in the heart of SF's Mission district, the unsurprisingly titled Old Jerusalem, serves another dish of equal significance: Salat Turki. A standard at most Israeli fast food places, try and find it in the US, and you'll be totally disappointed. Though its not listed on the menu, it is indeed available, and it absolutely kills. A fifteen minute walk from our house, Jennifer and I eat at OJ at least once a week.
"Never trust an Israeli's judgement of Arab food," a Kuwaiti graduate student friend once joked to me as we inhaled Turkish coffee together in Toronto. "They're all one-dimensional orientalists." I thought about these hilarious, stinging words as a Lebanese colleague of mine worked his way through the hummus the other night during an editorial meeting we held at the restaurant.
"Bloody hell," he blustered as he dipped a thick piece of pita into the hummus. "This stuff is so good, you'd think they started this place just for us."
So what would be the truly radical ethico-political act today in the
Middle East? For both Israelis and Arabs, it would be to renounce the
(political) control of Jerusalem--that is, to endorse the
transformation of the Old Town of Jerusalem into an extra-state place
of religious worship controlled (temporarily) by some neutral
international force. What both sides should accept is that, by
renouncing the political control of Jerusalem, they are effectively
renouncing nothing--they are gaining the elevation of Jerusalem into a
genuinely sacred site. What they would lose is only what already
deserves to be lost: the reduction of religion to a stake in political