Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fernandez Comeback?

Looks like Alberto Fernandez may well make a comeback for the US State Deparment:



While I in no way remain a fan of USFP or trying to sell such rubbish, as a bureaucratic battle, looks like the relative good guys may well win this time around.

Cautiously though. Nahar-Net is what As'ad Abu Khalil would refer to as a right-wing fascist Lebanonese (i.e., totally friendly territory for a US diplomat defending Bush policy) web site.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Al-Jazeera English is live

Check them out, their English website is updated (looks notably better). I wasn’t able to connect at the launch at 7am eastern time because the website was overwhelmed. They’re only broadcast 12 hours per day for now and no major US cable or satellite systems have agreed to carry them yet (let’s be blunt, they’ve been unfairly slandered), but you can watch them via RealPlayer and a few other online options. They are hoping first and foremost to carry the global (i.e., non-US) English-speaking audience which numbers in the tens of millions, establish their credibility, and then hopefully the US systems will start to carry them as well. I’ve been watching a few clips now, and I must say, their first outing looks fairly impressive. Certainly glitches – Muhammad Hassanein Haykal’s ramblings are absolutely intolerable to listen to in Arabic, why in the world they stuck him on speaking stilted English instead of with a translator (probably his own stubborn insistence that his lousy English is great) is even more horrendous – but overall it looks a fairly slick blend of BBC World and Jazeera’s own identity. I can see it become a main news source I would follow. Their English website also looks improved, I was never very impressed by the last one or the quality of the reporting, hopefully the facelift is more than skin deep.

I would highly recommend getting on the site now or shortly as the first 12 hour broadcast is over and if you click on the link to watch live via RealPlayer you’ll get a decent little 15 minute sampling of the types of things they were broadcasting today.


Click through on the Programmes link as well and you can see the types of shows they’re doing and see some of the journalists. One glaring omission is at least a show or two that directly utilizes some of their best Arab journalists. I wish they could have Faisal al-Qasem for example doing an English version of al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis (the Opposite Direction), he is so much better than anything Crossfire or any US network show has ever produced in the “heated debate” genre. Maybe yet to come (fingers crossed). They have an extremely large network of bureaus around the world with a very international cast of journalists. They state their goal is to provide a view of the world from the perspective of countries who are more frequently spoken about than from, and they certainly seem to have assembled the resources to do so. After numerous false starts, it’s go-time now and they have to prove they can do it. Based on their first outing, I certainly wish them luck, the English speaking world certainly needs news from a developing world perspective.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Az-Zaman Web Poll

As I've said before, I like to keep an eye on Arab media site web polls. Not because they're scientific, but because of what they reveal about generally like-minded readerships of various publications. Az-Zaman is one of Iraq's most popular papers. Founded in London by Saad al-Bazzaz, a former senior Ba'ath party media official who had a falling out with Saddam, the paper then moved to Iraq after the American invasion. The paper (Arabic version here http://www.azzaman.com/, shorter English version here http://www.azzaman.com/english/) and his Ash-Sharqiya television station (http://www.alsharqiyatv.com/) are some of the most popular media in Iraq. More importantly, they are respected as independent and non-sectarian, by far the most important of the country's large media outlets to be such (most media is now connected to political parties or the government). This is part of the reason why the government recently threatened to shut them down -- they weren't sufficiently partisan to satisfy some. Anyhow, they're running the following web poll right now which based on the background I've given as I understand it, I will invite you to draw your own conclusions from:

What will happen to Iraq if the federalism law [note: literally "law of the regions"] is implemented?

Iraqi stability - 24.9%
The end of violence - 4.5%
The breakup of Iraq - 48.1%
The collapse of secuirty - 22.5%

Votes: 4481

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"My Name Is Rachel Corrie"


Play at Minetta Lane Theater in New York. Saw it this weekend. You should too. Has its flaws, but ultimately very powerful (as raw first-person witness often is). Everyone should see it. Will write more later.


State/Fernandez Follow-Up

Unlike Abu Aardvark who I'm sure has been continuing to follow the post-Fernandez direction of USG efforts in the Arab media and will probably write extensively on it, my attention is never as sustained. So this is just a brief snippet. Was watching just a brief few minutes of Jazeera's 7iwaar Maftuu7 (Open Dialogue) program tonight and they had another State Department Arabic speaker on with Ghassan Bin Jidu and a panel of maybe a dozen or dozen and a half what seemed like mostly journalists from around the Arab world. Few points:
  • State Department guy I think was named Michael Balty (I'm trying to transliterate into English from the Arabic transliteration of the English, so I'm sure at least the last name is off). His Arabic was about the same quality as Fernandez' in my opinion, for better or for worse. See the prior post on Fernandez and the excellent comments from readers afterwards for more discussion of that.
  • Unless I've missed recent appearances by Fernandez (which is certainly possible), I presume this means that at the least the heat in the kitchen at State was too hot to put him right back on the air. At the worst he may be done. I imagine by 2-3 months from now we'll know if they ever intend to put him back on the air or not.
  • However, beyond linguistics and politics one thing hasn't changed: it's a complete dialogue of the deaf. The US diplomat spends all his time explaining inexplicable policies. Arab questioners and audiences spend all their times pointing out how hypocritical US policies are, but never really getting the true dynamics behind US policies. I'm with the Arab questioners in that US policies are indefensible, but I'm also with the US diplomats in saying that Arab questioners rarely understand what really drives those policies.
  • There is a bottom line though: my (remarkably useful I've found over time) rule of thumb is that in imbalanced power relationships, it is the far more powerful party that generally carries the greater weight of responsibility. In this case, that means the US. US politicians and diplomats may be correct in saying that Arabs don't get US policy, but that's because the policy is rubbish, the diplomats of course are in no position to admit that, so it's hardly any surprise that Arabs never get what's really up as they're too busy trying to wipe the sand out of their eyes (which comes both from the sand that the US politicians and local Arab allies try to throw in Arab publics' faces and the sand thrown up from US and Israeli bomb craters). Of course, power balances operate on many levels and this is a very high (albeit important) macro level. US policy bad does not mean Saddam the dictator was good, Saddam the dictator being bad doesn't mean Mahdi death squads are good, Palestinian resistance to occupation doesn't mean suicide bombers are good, etc, etc, etc. It's complicated.
  • I speak in very broad terms of "Arabs" and Arab publics not getting US foreign policy drivers, but of course that is overly broad and some folks do get it. Probably the best quip from the show I saw was from a Tunisian journalist who turned to the State guy and said (trying to remember right here and translate) "it's clear the State Department has learned Arabic, but it's also clear they still don't understand Arabic". Brilliant. In other words, you can speak the words and throw the same old rubbish at us in Arabic as in English now, but you still don't have any idea what we're talking about. And that to me is a big part of what this is all about: even if there are some excellent Arabists scattered here and there in the USG, some of whom are even being put to good use, the real decision makers in Washington don't have a freaking clue (and don't care enough to learn) what's really on the mind of Arab publics and the context they live in. They want to tell Arabs what they want, couching it in terms of "universal" values without understanding that those values - while shared - look very different and can come in very different priority orders to people who have experienced a very different history and current reality. And that's the heart of the problem again: US decision makers don't want to understand how it looks from the other side of the fence, and they can't be bothered to do so, not even after 9/11 should have woken them up to the necessity of doing so. Far more important to win the next election by acting tough overseas (no matter the consequences to innocent folks abroad) than actually make good foreign policy.

My rantings for tonight.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Madonna and Child

Khalil Raad was an avid Palestinian Protestant photographer from the late 1800s into the 1st half of the 20th century. He has some wonderful photographs and his collection serves as an invaluable historical archive of Palestinian life before the Israeli ethnic cleansing of 1948 (while he wasn't out to do so, his photographs basically debunk all the erroneous Zionist myths about Palestine being uninhabited, desert wasteland, etc.).

I was recently really struck by this one picture which I thought looked like a quintessential Palestinian version of a Mary and baby Jesus portrait. After all, as Palestinians of all faiths will tell you, and as Palestinian Christians are especially proud, Jesus was Palestinian! The shot was taken somewhere between 1918-1935. If I knew anything about the local embroidery patterns anymore I'd probably be able to make a reasonable guess about which region of Palestine this young mother was from (and whether she was Christian or Muslim, I'm guessing Christian based on the photographs proximity to other shots from the Bethlehem/Beit Sahour area and the fact that Raad was Protestant and probably did many of the personal portraits from among those in his own social circles as well as the upper class and tourists more generally), but it's been too many years now for me to recall. It is an eery feeling to look back at many of these pictures though. A happy young mother with a newborn child. Did they survive 1948? Were they ethnically cleansed or did they manage to cling on to their homes? Is she or is the baby now an old cripple in a refugee camp somewhere, being told by Israelis and Americans that they are an "obstacle to peace" when all they want is to go home and have a few minutes of peace and serenity in the place they were born? Or have happier times prevailed, do they still have a warm home and warm memories in the place they were born and their descendants likewise? Or perhaps pieces of all of the above.

Anyhow, click on the image to have a closer look at this wonderful photo, I'm going to have to find some ways to take some artistic inspiration from it in the future.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Belated Comment On Alberto Fernandez

I'm coming late to a topic that has by now largely faded, but after all the hub-bub I feel I might have something useful to add. The State Department's Alberto Fernandez was recently in the hot seat for comments he made in Arabic on Al-Jazeera stating that America had been "arrogant" and "stupid" in Iraq. I won't go into all the nitty gritty details, for that I suggest you read the post and comments over at Abu Aardvark:


But here's what I'd like to add and it will come off in one sense as more supportive of Fernandez and in another sense perhaps slightly denigrating. I don't mean it as either, I just am trying to reflect what seems to me an important and obvious reality other commentators have missed:

People have gushed about how Fernandez is "fluent" and speaks excellent Arabic and how he's the only State Department guy who gets out there regularly on Al-Jazeera. On the latter point, it's true, he's the only one who is out there so often, and he can hold his own in a debate in Arabic on many levels. But - and here's the negative part - his Arabic isn't actually that good. Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible, it's not like Adam Ereli who was previously hailed as a good example of a State Department Arabic linguist and who was genuinely awful and embarrasing (no offense to Adam, I'm sure he's a great guy and could get there with time, he just wasn't there yet and wasn't ready to speak on TV, it came across as insulting and condescending just as I would have when I was first starting to learn the language). Fernandez can certainly communicate better and seems to pretty fully understand what's being said, and he's not afraid to be combative in defense of US government positions. BUT, his spoken Arabic is fairly choppy, it's laced with a fair amount of Egyptian dialect with a sprinkling of other dialect bits and bobs, his vocabulary is somewhat limited and hence he can't convey complex ideas nearly as richly as either his questioners or fellow interviewees can, and he just generally comes off as more of a moderately well-advanced Arabic student than a "fluent" speaker.

I don't fault him for that, I have enough experience with State and with friends there to know that despite their occasional rhetoric they do not actually value developing deep language skills in Arabic (and I presume in other languages as well). They'll generally get people up to and maintain minimal competency for their jobs. In some cases that is little more than "pass the cocktail weiners" (i.e., virtually nothing), in other cases it's how to chit chat and ask questions about a visa application, in a few cases it's moderately advanced for diplomatic discussions, but almost never is it a truly deep knowledge of the language that will allow a Foreign Service officer to blend in or impress folks in the countries they work in. Truly advanced Arabic training is essentially non-existent.

In that light, Fernandez' Arabic skill level is actually somewhat impressive. To get to that level clearly must have involved some personal initiative sustained over time. But it also is not enough to really prep someone so they won't make a linguistic gaffe as he did. I'm saying that because I actually feel like I've been in his shoes. At my peak several years ago, my spoken Arabic was probably about as good as his is today. I could communicate reasonably well, I could understand fairly well, but at the end of the day my ability to fish just the right word out for a subtle idea was quite limited in comparison to what I can do in English. More than once I have ended up pulling out an overly-simplistic or just plain erroneous word (which then results in some conversational acrobatics to "explain" what I really meant or else just living with the knowledge I had communicated something incorrect on the assumption that it didn't matter). Further, I've been interviewed on Jazeera and felt that nervousness of a live interview. In my case, it had been several years since I'd really spoken Arabic, I certainly hadn't spoken Fusha (formal modern standard Arabic, akin to say Queen's English or other than the archaic nature of it King James Bible English) in a long time, and so I had asked to know the precise questions ahead of time and written out my replies. I was going ok, but I got nervous, spoke very quickly, and when they shot an unexpected question at me I stumbled, scrambled, and barely managed to say something not totally incomprehensible before they mercifully had to finish. Fernandez' skills are more fresh as he does this on a regular basis, but at my peak I was more along his lines and I can see in his use of language something very similar to my own challenges.

So, I figured (having not seen the actual interview) that Fernandez really did say "stupid" and "arrogant" as it's the kind of gaffe I might have made in his shoes. You know, people asking a tough question, he tries to acknowledge things haven't been perfect as a prelude to his "but you have to understand that X Y Z is what's really important", but in the process of that almost afterthought prelude, he accidentally picks a harsher word than he ever would have used in English because his vocabulary is somewhat limited and he's trying to think on his feet in a second language at which he's not nearly as adept as his native language.

For him personally (regardless of my opinions of him as a person or a representative of the US government), that explains things better than any of the political musings or rantings. It's about language abilities. He deserves credit for having accomplished what he has, but also acknowledgement that the level he's up to is not truly "fluent" in the sense of speaking with anywhere near the richness, smoothness, formality, or ease of a well-educated native speaker (of which there are many who appear on Jazeera). For the lack of people with such skills, blame the State Department and US government generally. They do not have any programs in place to develop those kinds of speakers and in my personal experience have shown they have no intention of actually building such a capability.