The recent airing of gruesome pictures of American casualties and POWs has again set the American media talking about the unbridled nature of Arab television, particularly the Qatar-owned al-Jazeera network. Indeed, the Arabs are watching a different war than we are here.
Their war is presented for television consumption using the templates of recent history: the Palestinian intifada, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the 1956 Suez War. The imagery of the past infuses the interpretation of the current war with familiar meaning -- and makes coverage easy.
The formats used by the growing number of 24-hour, satellite-based Arab news channels would be familiar to American viewers. There is a mix of news talk shows, press briefings, anchors reading headlines and then turning to video footage of the war. But the messages are uniformly anti-American: Americans are barbaric, and here are the pictures to prove it. We Arabs are heroic, and here are images of us downing their planes. Shots of Iraqi civilian casualties are a highlight of the coverage, as are those that show the "invading" forces suffering routs and setbacks.
Some American commentators have dismissively attributed the violence of Arab television coverage to the nature of the culture. The truth, of course, is more complicated. To understand the coverage, one must take into account the narratives that have shaped the Arab worldview. As an Egyptian who has lived in this country for 18 years, and as a media critic with an eye on both worlds, I recognize the references that shape the Arab coverage of this war. They span historical events from the Crusades to the Mongol invasions of Baghdad to the colonial experience and the recent Arab-Israeli wars.
These elements are also found in the speeches of Saddam Hussein and interviews with his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Quite simply, this is the frame of reference for the Iraqi wartime message, and no Arab network questions that.
Here in the United States, we tend to think of images only in terms of cameras and television: Photography is separate from narrative. In the Arab world, language is full of images, which cannot be separated from narrative. Arabic is a metaphorical language, rich in shades of meaning.
The image-based style of the Arabic language acts as an excellent interface with pictures. Thus television is terribly important. Consider the effect achieved, for example, when Majid Abdul Hadi, an al-Jazeera reporter in Baghdad, shows a picture of a coalition bombing while referring to Baghdad as the pulsing heart of the Muslim caliphate, a pulsing heart engulfed in flame.
What appears in this country as rantings and ravings by Hussein can seem coherent to people who are not bothered by his manner of stitching together disparate or historical images with current events. Recall that in Hussein's latest videotaped speech, he called for descendants of the Iraqi tribes who had defeated the Mongols at the walls of Baghdad to defeat the Americans in the same way. The overall impression is like being at a slide show. What Americans have seen in the POW pictures is thus just one moment in an ongoing spectacle. More is yet to come.
Among the templates being used -- not just on al-Jazeera, but on almost all Arab TV stations -- is the Palestinian struggle against Israel, an analogy that Hussein has also used to advantage. Consider his use, only since the start of the war, of the term "fedayeen Saddam" to describe his protective force. "Fedayeen" has been used for years to refer to the PLO fighters of the 1960s and '70s. By appropriating it, Hussein is attempting to blur the lines between the Palestinian cause and his own.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon and some of the media initially took his bait. "Fedayeen" has been translated here as "martyrs," giving it a religious connotation. But the word in fact means "someone who is willing to sacrifice himself" -- in this case, for Saddam. If the Pentagon had wanted to use "fedayeen" to advantage, it would have translated it as "killers for Saddam."
The Palestinian template has been useful in other ways, particularly in emphasizing the asymmetry of the opposing forces. Like its coverage of the intifada, al-Jazeera's reporting on the war in Iraq depicts a relatively unarmed populace facing down a trained army. Palestinians fielded the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade against the Israeli army, for instance. And now the Iraqi leader, too, has an al-Aqsa brigade, which, like his fedayeen, is fighting a battle that eerily echoes the Palestinian one. His deliberate borrowing of terms is clearly manipulative. The same parallel pervades television coverage. For instance, on al-Jazeera and some other networks, the Americans are described as an "occupying" force. The Iraqi military is the "resistance." Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV have shown dead Iraqis being paraded through the streets by crowds shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- intifada-style. Broadcasters and viewers alike speak of Hussein using the language developed for speaking of Arafat: Both are corrupt dictators, but the issue now is that the United States and Israel are occupying Arab land.
Thus, although Israel is not participating in this war, it looms large in the meta-story. It provides an important model of a dominating and unjust force. But this is not the only model that is driving news coverage in the Arab world.
Other dominant models evoke Arab pride. One recurring television image is that of an Iraqi farmer standing with his gun next to a downed Apache helicopter. This iconic picture -- the simple peasant defeating Western invaders -- is taken directly from the popular imagery of the Suez War, when Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt. Although in reality the United States saved the day and ordered the invading forces out, in the Egyptian popular imagination it was the local resistance that drove out the occupying forces. Pictures of men shooting at planes and of farmers and workers resisting the mighty powers is what Nasser fed Egyptians and exported all over the Arab world.
Why do the Arab TV networks accept the Iraqi narrative lock, stock and barrel? State-owned satellite news channels such as al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV are very recent creations. Al-Jazeera, the oldest such channel in the Gulf, did not exist during the first Persian Gulf War. Based in Qatar, it was established in 1996. Al-Arabiya, based in Dubai, is only three months old. The people who work at these stations were by and large recruited from state-owned television networks throughout the Arab world. Thus, they are reacting to their own past. While they were working in state TV they no doubt felt oppressed; now they have somewhat more freedom. But they are pushing the envelope, as are their colleagues at entertainment channels such as Lebanon's al-Mustaqbal and LBC TV, which have added some war coverage to their schedule. Before the war, Future and LBC competed over whose belly-dancers showed more skin. Now it's about who will show the most Iraqi civilian blood and American casualties. Now, as Egyptian TV producer Jamal Enyat told me, "it is political nudity," or what some call "political porno," that is dominating their screens.
Beneath the Arab modes of visual representation, the Western style is also present. Indeed, Arab coverage often copies the CNN and Fox News formats. Today, just like CNN, every one of the 10 Arab channels I watch, or appear on as a commentator, has a "war room" staffed with retired generals discussing the progress of the war and freely advising the Iraqis how to conduct it. In this way, these veterans of Arab wars are compensating for past defeat with on-air political speeches.
The tone of many reporters in Baghdad is much the same. For example, an al-Jazeera reporter in the Iraqi capital falsely told his viewers on the first day of the air campaign, "Here in Baghdad, a city accused of hiding weapons of mass destruction is being hit by weapons of mass destruction." This kind of repetition is the stuff that has made Arabic poetry so justly admired. Here, the rhythm and sonority of the language act to encourage audience disregard for the true definitions of the words being used.
With few exceptions, ethical constraints are rarely discussed in the Arab media, where the notion of editorial judgment sounds to many like censorship. Several have said it reminds them of what they had to do while they were working for state-owned broadcasters. Reporters and producers know what their viewers want to see: images of empowerment and resistance because of past defeats. They also want to see what Hussein's information minister, Muhammed Said al-Sahaf, calls teaching the Americans a lesson. "We are no less than the Vietnamese. Just make it costly in body bags and the Americans will run," said a general who comments regularly on al-Jazeera. Some Arab journalists say they have little choice but to go along. "The cost of speaking out now -- even to simply say that Saddam is partially responsible for what is taking place -- is very high. It could cost you your job and could even cause you physical harm," said one.
The Arab world has experienced that before. In 1967, Egyptian reporter Ahmed Said announced that Arab guns were bringing Israeli planes down like flies. A week later Arabs woke up to the fact that their armies had been roundly defeated. With that, Arab media lost credibility and audiences turned to foreign stations. It would take almost 25 years for the Arab media to regain some credibility. Their coverage of this war could well cause them to lose it once more.