The incident that made me switch my tools

Thursday, December 09, 2010

“Last month I had a terrifying experience as journalism betrayed me for the first time in my four years of working as a fixer. When I first met freelance journalist Ruthie Ackerman in a cafe in Beirut in early September, I realized that she did not know anything about Lebanon. Ms. Ackerman had arrived in Beirut to do a story on social networking, but it quickly became apparent that this reporter had not done her homework. Ms. Ackerman did not know who Hassan Nassrallah was. Ms. Ackerman did not know that Saad Hariri was the name of the prime minister of the country who’s coffee she was then sipping.  When, later, I took her to see a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut she asked, “Where are the tents?” Ruthie Ackerman’s ignorance of even the current status of a country she planned to write about was, in short, shameful. Though taken by surprise at this, I considered that perhaps her interest in social networking meant her cultural and historical background knowledge could afford to be less than someone writing a more political piece. I was wrong.   Ms. Ackerman did not end up writing a piece on social networking in Lebanon, but rather chose to cover the visit of the Iranian president Ahmadinejad to Lebanon. She published these in the Atlantic, and Slate here:
Would it surprise you to learn that Ms. Ackerman did not even know that Ahmadinejad was visiting Lebanon until the very day before, when I (most regrettably) told her? Ruthie emailed me saying, “I had no idea he was coming or I would have planned to be back for it!!” Keep in mind that this visit had been the talk of news agencies around the world (including the USA) for the full two months preceding.   Is it any surprise, then, that Ms. Ackerman’s articles fit into a steady stream of ill-informed and orientalist media propounded by journalists in the West and around the world? That her articles promote misinformation, perpetuate cultural stereotypes, and propagate racist caricatures of the Middle East? Does Ruth Ackerman realize how her irresponsible ‘war tourist’ journalism compounds the problems faced by the people of the Middle East in light of the way ‘the West’ views and treats us?   In my job as a fixer, I provide foreign journalists with the necessary contacts for a story. I arrange, facilitate, and translate all sorts of social interactions, including interviews with everyone from shoe-shine boys to top governmental figures. As the journalist’s local eyes and ears I am oftentimes the one to provide a foreign journalist with the story—‘the scoop’—itself. In Beirut, where I live and work foreign journalists come to town usually in need of a fixer and I am one such fixer.   If a journalist comes to me and wants the perspective of a Palestinian refugee, I can take them to him. If they want a translation of an interview with a Hezbollah politician, I can get it for them. If they want me to take them to the dirty and impoverished parts of Tripoli, I can do that too. Being a fixer means keeping up-to-date on the Lebanese political and security scene. Being a fixer means establishing and maintaining contacts with all types of people, from top politicians to the guy on the corner shining shoes. Being a fixer means being freelance and not knowing when you might next get paid. Being a fixer means using a social toolkit that is not taught at any university. I stick with this job because I believe in it fundamentally, and not for the great pay or the low hours, or the great retirement package….I am writing this because I am sick and tired of the stereotypes and narrow angles taken by ignorant and prejudiced foreign observers. Ackerman writes “Camels… had been sacrificed, their long, graceful necks slit open. The men who slaughtered them held their butcher knives and the camels’ heads as they smiled for pictures.” Could Ackerman not have spared us one more out-of-context reference that reduces a celebrating crowd to a bunch of stupidly-grinning camel butchers?   I mean, who is this person to jump into deep cultural traditions and compare them to western values and cultures? What she fails to explain is why they are out killing camels for the guest. Rather she hopes to exaggerate the apparent “savagery” of such an act, and give it a deep political metaphorical meaning that seems beyond her understanding of Lebanese history.   She does not hesitate to paint a whole group of people with her ignorant one sided brush. She spoke about the people welcoming Ahmadinajed as if she knew them and was one of them (lest we forget she didn’t know he was coming in the first place). No, she was not one of them, and she did not know anything about them.   Ackerman’s observations reveal the blatantly skin-deep level at which she works. She writes that, “…old women ululated. One tiny baby had her fingernails painted green—the color of Islam. Many held up their fingers in what to my naive eye looked like a peace sign but turned out to be a V for victory. Victory against Israel, that is.”  And there it is, one more portrayal of Arabs as Islamic warmongers.  What Ms. Ackerman fails to mention is that in 2006, Lebanon was being bombarded by Israel with the south of the country—where much of Lebanon’s support for Iran comes from—receiving the worst damage. Thirty three days of war left many people homeless and the nation in paralysis. Iran, like many other countries, donated money to build homes for the families from southern Lebanon, made refugees by Israeli bombardment, to shelter in. The fact that people cheered Ahmadinejad’s arrival meant so much more than her naïve eyes could see and her uninformed pen could write. But of course, these might be irrelevant details to a journalist like Ackerman, especially considering that she had arrived in Lebanon without knowledge of the 2006 war either…Today, I’ve changed my tools from fixer to writer and attempted to use my own pen to battle ignorance and misinformation.”
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3 comments

  1. I dealt with many foreign journalists who came to Jordan & knew nothing about the country or the situation of the Syrian refugees there. What affected me most is the bad manners they have.

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