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.