Manar Darwish, adjunct professor of modern languages at the College, said “although illiteracy is high, the awareness of world news is very high in the Arab world, not only through TV, but also through the Internet and radio,” at the Politics Forum last Tuesday.
Darwish grew up in Egypt, and has resided in the United States for the past 17 years. A professor of several courses in the Arab culture, Darwish’s objective is to broaden understanding and break stereotypes of the Arab culture by helping others “look at the culture, class and more of the social aspects.”
According to Darwish, Egypt has actually been a leader in the media. “When Napoleon came to colonize it he brought the first printing press with him, and a newspaper was started,” Darwish said.
Today, more popular than newspapers is the controversial TV station, “Al Jazeera” (The Peninsula), which has been known to take many journalistic liberties in providing the public with the blatant truth, according to Darwish.
Al Jazeera is “trying to look at things objectively,” Darwish said. As a result, it has recently suffered several attacks, mostly due to its attitude toward revealing horrifying truths about the Arab world, with the exception of Qatar.
“It is allowed to function completely free as long as it doesn’t say anything about Qatar,” Darwish said.
This is an unwritten rule, as all of Al Jazeera’s funding has come from Qatar ever since it commenced in 1996, with the plan to “be free from the authoritarian government and society,” according to Darwish.
The rest of the media in the Arab world is heavily swayed by authoritarian governments and the Muslim religion.
“More often than not the picture of the president is on the front page of the paper,” Darwish said, “often shown praying at a Mosque, which shows the prevalence of religion there.”
The sample copy Darwish displayed of “Al-Ahram,” an Egyptian newspaper, featured a large photograph depicting exactly that on the front page.
Because of this tendency, Darwish said “there is freedom as long as you don’t write something against the president and the rules. So, basically, there’s no freedom of the press. The government is in control. There is no freedom of expression coverage.”
Darwish said that the current media scene in the Arab world has been inundated with material concerning the current war, described as the “war on Iraq” by the Arabs, rather than the “war with Iraq.”
On March 21, the day after the war started, after the regular Friday prayers in Egypt, many protests and demonstrations against the U.S. occurred, which were shown on Al Jazeera, Darwish said.
After this, however, the government banned the protesting.
Darwish’s brother in Egypt told her over the phone, “all we are told to do is ‘Ask God for help,'” as the Arab people were threatened with torture if protesting proceeded.
“What’s important is that they all emphasize the unity of the Arab people during wartime,” Darwish said. “Of course, they watch other fun stuff when there isn’t a war going on, but right now everything is basically centered on the war.”
Darwish subscribes to Al Jazeera here, and mentioned that on the morning of the presentation, they were showing dead bodies being brought out from the attacks.
“It is more explicit footage of this sort of thing than they’d show here. They feel the journalists are there and should be showing the war the way it is,” Darwish said. “It’s gruesome, but it’s war and what do you expect?”
She said, however, that it does go against some religious viewpoints which ask for respect of the bodies and for them to be covered and not as they were shown. Despite many objections to the content featured on Al Jazeera, the station remains a form of media all Arabs heavily rely on for their world news.
“Even if people don’t have a TV or a satellite to subscribe, they will often go to a coffee shop to watch,” Darwish said. “Other television stations often show clips from Al Jazeera, too.”
Although many Arab women wear coverings, according to class and educational background, women on television are not allowed to be covered. They must be dressed in what Darwish calls “Western style.”
“If women cover themselves or wear a scarf,” Darwish said, “they lose their job.”
Darwish also emphasized how the religion is displayed in the media by showing a clip of a children’s cartoon for Ramadan, a Muslim holiday.
“The majority of the population is Muslim, so the entire media caters toward their religious events,” Darwish said.
Because of the presence of the media in the Arab world, Darwish thinks “Arabic television and films have united our world in a way, because it’s a cultural access through which everyone watches and is united.”
“The world now is becoming more like a village,” Darwish said, “less huge – because of the internet and everything else being interconnected through the media.”
The presentation received much positive feedback from those in attendance.
“I think it was really interesting,” Rachel Levy, sophomore political science major, said. “The Middle East has always held a deep fascination for me. This sort of feeds my desire for knowledge about that region of the world.”