A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

3oyoun 3ala al-ri2asa: Al Jazeera covers the conventions

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 21, 2008

This post has been long in coming, but I hope that you will all still find it interesting (and if not, feel free to skim!).

When it came to news coverage of the US presidential conventions, my favorite channel was Al Jazeera. I loved not only how much attention it devoted to each convention and the electoral process, but also how it incorporated Arab-American delegates and party activists as commentators. Al Jazeera covered the conventions extensively during Arab World primetime hours – I watched an online stream at work one afternoon, transfixed by the top-of-the-hour live report and the detailed explanation of everything minutely related to the election, from swing states to House and Senate majorities.

Al Jazeera’s tag lines were just as dramatic as CNN’s, and perhaps for me more fun because they looked fresher in Arabic. The Democratic Convention offered: “Obama and the Democrats: Eyes on the Presidency” (3oyoun 3ala al-ri2asa); “Before the Decision” (qabl al-7asm); “seesaw states” (wilayat al-taraju7); and of course, the great electoral tradition of “Mutual Exchange of Revelation of Political Defects” (tabadul kashf 3awrat siyasiya”.

And the Republican Convention, of course, had Sarah Palin. Al Jazeera, like the US news channels, took her very seriously, and spent considerable time and effort introducing her to its viewers:

Here’s what the text above says:

Sara Palin

Republican candidate for the position of vice president in the American presidential election

Elected in 2006 as the youngest and first woman to the office of governor of Alaska

First woman to be a candidate on the Republicans’ ticket for the American presidential elections

Opposes the right of abortion

Delineated authority of the large oil companies in their attempts to try to develop [oil] wells to capacity

(I may have elided the details of the last point, but that’s the gist of it. If anyone feels strongly that nufudh and ta7adat should be treated differently, I am more than open to another translation.)

To me, this list is very interesting, because it shows Al Jazeera’s view that these are the four most salient pieces of information for Arabic-speaking viewers looking to know more about Governor Palin. (I have more to say about the Arabic words for terms like “vice president”, but I will save those comments for tomorrow’s post.) I’m not surprised that abortion plays such a large role here – I suspect that her firm anti-abortion stance would make her popular with devout and/or conservative viewers, Christian and Muslim. And I guess I’m not surprised about the other points: she is the first woman to govern Alasak and to serve on the GOP presidential ticket, and oil and energy issues generally are certainly playing a major role in this campaign. But I’m having a hard time seeing this as sufficient. I keep imagining someone in the Hawran or Khartoum or the Metn saying to him/herself the next time he/she hears Palin’s name: oh yes, she’s the anti-abortion one who is the first conservative woman candidate for vice-president – and she’s young. On the other hand, I suppose its better than she’s the one with the pregnant teen-ager, which story hadn’t broken at the time I took this photograph, but which certainly dominated the US news.

But all these tags and bullet points, interesting though they were to me, were mere background to the main component of Al Jazeera’s convention coverage: live reporting from the convention hall, with an on-the-scene anchor, instant translation of the major speeches and commentators giving their analysis from a set of “directors’ chairs” positioned in front of the convention floor.

The anchor was a regular Al Jazeera correspondent, whose name I unfortunately do not remember. And the commentators were Arab-Americans who were at the convention either as delegates or party activists.

Here’s one of the Democrats, Saba Shami:

I confess that I hadn’t heard of him before Al Jazeera, but he is evidently a Palestinian-American who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and who has been very active in Virginia politics, and in encouraging Arab-Americans to take part in the political process. (You can read a 2004 interview that the BBC conducted with him here.)

And here is one of the Republicans, David Ramadan:

I hadn’t heard of Ramadan either, but he is a Lebanese-American who emigrated in the mid-1980s and is also very active in Virginia politics. (You can read a recent interview that Al Jazeera English conducted with him here.)

Here they are together, offering a very clear example of the channel’s commitment to broadcasting “the opinion … and the other opinion”. I took four pictures of them debating, and all look much like this one: intense exchange of opinions with many hand gestures:

I love this. I love that Al Jazeera, with its massive viewership, dedicated so much time to broadcasting the US political process in action: the pageantry of it, the goofiness of it, the tedium of it – not to mention the nitty-gritty of showing what states might vote which way, and what that will mean for the future president’s ability to work with Congress to pass good laws.

And I love even more that the channel found these and other active Arab-American citizens to explain, comment on, and argue over the process and the candidates. I do have my own personal feelings about who I will vote for in November, but I think that in this election we have two very good, intelligent, sincere, un-corrupt candidates. And what I believe most of all is that our country gets stronger whenever more citizens engage with the political process. I hope that Al Jazeera’s coverage gives viewers outside the US a sense of what our political process really looks like:no “99% of the vote” victories, on the one hand; and no Jewish cabals, on the other (and on my secret third hand: the acknowledgement that yes, both parties’ conventions could stand a little less spectacle and a little more grassroots groundedness).

And I hope that viewers inside the US, or coming to the US, see Shami, Ramadan, and the channel’s other commentators as men who they might emulate. Arab-Americans have been largely invisible as a political constituency, which means that politicians and political parties have done little to address their particular needs, whether these be an end to racial profiling or incentives to public schools that include Arabic in their roster of foreign languages – or whether these be changes to current immigration laws or to foreign aid allocations in the Middle East.

Joining a political party, going to community board meetings and political meetings, hosting fundraisers, door-knocking for candidates – all these are signs of active citizenship. And all these are ways to raise the profile of Arab-Americans with both parties, as a constituency whose votes and whose support are an important segment of the larger US community.

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2 Responses to “3oyoun 3ala al-ri2asa: Al Jazeera covers the conventions”

  1. faemom said

    That was a fascinating post. I had no idea Al Jazeera would cover American politics so closely and apperently so well. Thanks for sharing.

  2. J. Antanios Harb said

    Hello Diamond,

    Thank-you for sharing this interesting post. I am curious though; do you happen to know how many Republican Senators and Members of Congress of Lebanese descent there are as opposed to Democrat ones? Also are there any numbers for registered Republicans of Lebanese descent as opposed to Democrats?

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