Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

The New York Times’ Exoticization of the Middle East

AT first glance, they seem like typical American college students on their junior year abroad, swapping stories of language mishaps and cultural clashes, sharing sightseeing tips and travel deals. But these students are not studying at Oxford, the Sorbonne or an art institute in Florence.

Instead, they are attending the American University in Cairo, studying Arabic, not French, and dealing with cultural, social and religious matters far more complex than those in Spain or Italy.

Thus begins the latest New York Times piece on studying abroad in the Arab world. I’m quite used to these by now; I sought them out in college when I took my own first foray into the region, to study Arabic at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.

Though I should be used to them, I’m still a bit taken aback at how these articles haven’t changed much over the past ten years. They still reek of shock and awe, and they still include the same tropes, like this gem:

“We took a cab to Iraq from Turkey,” he said, as casually as if he had just jumped the Eurostar from London to Paris.

Now, I don’t expect readers not to find that fascinating; much of the Arab world is considerably more expensive and difficult to get to for Americans than is Europe, and in a country where only about a quarter of the population holds a passport, it’s not all that strange to expect that far fewer have ever traveled outside of easily accessible Europe.

The problem, then, is not Americans, but the Times itself. Its journalists are not the average American; they can afford to, or are sent to, places like Cairo from where they report on stories like this. They experience it firsthand, and yet every time, come back in shock at how “strange” and “different” the Arab world is.

It’s no wonder then, that Americans continue to believe it. When the mainstream media is doing the reporting fear mongering, it’s no wonder the average reader is booking tickets to Paris and not Beirut.

One need also ask: If this is how the Times reports on a subject like studying abroad, how can we possibly expect them to be relevant in their news coverage of the Middle East? How can we expect these journalists, who can’t seem to move beyond how “exotic” the Middle East is, to be fair and balanced in their reporting of it?

In my opinion, we can’t. The New York Times has a massive budget (at least in comparison to other media outlets) and has reporters in numerous places across the region. It can, and does, cover stories that other outlets can’t or don’t. And it has a few good journalists who seem to “get” the region.

At the same time, its MidEast bureau shows consistent bias toward Israel and the United States’ occupation of Iraq. Earlier this year, bureau chief Ethan Bronner was called out by the New York Times ombudsman after it was learned that Bronner’s son, an American citizen, had chosen to enlist in a program of the Israeli Defense Forces; though the ombudsman recommended Bronner step back due to the obvious conflict of interest, nothing came of the report, and Bronner maintains his position…and his biases.

So what is the solution? In my humble opinion, a healthy media diet goes a long way. Relying on the New York Times‘ coverage will get you an orientalist slant; balancing it out with a strong dose of blogs (Global Voices‘ Middle East and North Africa section is a good start), local media (varies by country, of course), and alternative or even other mainstream media (Foreign Policy, and the LA Times rank amongst my favorites) will take you much farther.

Better yet, here’s hoping some of those kids profiled in the Times piece take up journalism. At least we know they’ve spent at least a few months in the region.

21 Comments

  1. Didn’t think it was that bad. There’s no denying the Middle East is a “stranger” year abroad destination than Europe. Is that all the criticism you had of the piece?

    • The framing is the issue for me, yes. What else is there to criticize about the piece itself? The stats and quotes are facts.

      Why do you think it’s “stranger”? Because fewer people do it, or because there’s something inherently “strange” about the region? While I can’t argue with the former, I find the latter extremely problematic, particularly coming from the NYTimes.

  2. agreed 100% with you, Jillian.

    -Sabina

  3. The fourth power, right?

  4. Although there are “a few” good foreign journalists in the region, unfortunately, none of them stick around long enough to get to know it or its people. The days of a David Hirst are long gone, and few take the time to “get” the region. Luckily, with the”healthy media diet” you mention, as well as more and more blogs from and by people in the Middle East, we can rely much less on newspapers such as The New York Times. Hopefully, these students can go back with a different image and impressions and encourage more to come over.

  5. While I agree that there is a large amount of fear mongering among American journalists when it comes to the Middle East, I actually found the New York Times piece rather refreshing. I think that it highlighted the fact that students are making efforts to bridge the cultural divide by going into a region that they are unfamiliar with (and likely against the wishes of their parents, who have bought into the Middle East bias more readily).

    I don’t disagree that New York Times definitely has its bias and that the Middle East reporting among ALL major publication could be better, I am encouraged by these articles that showcase efforts to bridge an understanding between the Middle East and US rather than drive a wedge even further. As a Muslim in America right now, unfortunately that is all I can hope for (at least for the time being).

    You may want to check out this article that was originally in the LA Times http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/06/AR2010080605673.html

  6. Here, here. And I agree about the LA Times’ take on the region. Why is it so different, though?

    But the students – I hope most of them *don’t* end up as journalists. From the handful I’ve come across in recent years, many of them seem to be war tourists travelling to the exotic Arab World to confirm their stereotypes, who return to the EU/US to write about the region as ‘experts’.

    It all seemed to change in 2003. Before the Iraq war, many of the students I talked to were genuinely interested in immersing themselves and learning about Syrian/Jordanian/Lebanese culture. They had passion for the region, they didn’t just see a career opportunity.

  7. I have to agree on most things in this article. I study at Al Akhawayn University (How was your stay by the way?) and I read the nytimes on a daily basis. The difference between how my American friends feel about Morocco and how the media portrays that same feeling is colossal.

  8. “Media” are plural. As in “mainstream media ‘are’ doing the fear mongering.” Also, Webster lists “fearmongering” as one word, and AP style requires a hyphen (fear-mongering), but “fear mongering” is incorrect by both standards.

    Sorry; pet peeves.

  9. Why not suggest Al Jazeera as an alternative media source as well? Or would it be too jarring for Americans to ask “Middle Eastern” people how they perceive themselves?

    • Not at all! Actually, the only reason I didn’t list them was to try not to push my own biases too much…I freelance for Al Jazeera ;)

  10. I find this report terrifying. As a previous student of Middle East Studies who fell in love with Egypt while studying abroad here, I understand the necessary daily struggle not to exoticize your life abroad. But come on. Study abroad students are “dealing with” these issues in what ways? The New York Times is a constant disappointment when it comes to the Middle East.

    At the end of the day, I live in Egypt because it is fun, and I have wonderful friends here. Period.

  11. Wow, you really believe the NY Times is consistently biased in favor of Israel and the US occupation of Iraq? You must be joking.

    While I agree that news articles written by journalists who swoop in and out of a Middle Eastern city are generally trite and don’t do much to educate the reader, why do you feel the need to mention Israel at all in your commentary? Seriously, it’s not necessary to mention Israel in every discussion about the Arab World.

    • The Times is absolutely biased in favor of Israel (the latter is more complicated, and I probably shouldn’t have said it in the manner in which I did). Tell me the last time they hired an Arab correspondent to report on Palestine or Israel. And tell me the last time they seriously took Israel to task on…just about anything.

    • As for my bringing it up, well, that just happens to be an area on which I focus. I also happen to focus on Morocco, but the NYTimes is more likely to simply ignore Morocco than report on it in any manner, biased or otherwise.

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