3 years

Reporting in the Arab World

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Lawrence Wright on his experience of reporting on and from a world that smothers access to facts, but will let opinions pass.

Before Lawrence Wright published his epic Looming Tower, about the individuals and events that led to September 11, he found a way into Saudi Arabia as a newspaper editor—after initial attempts to enter the country had failed. He wrote about his time there in a New Yorker article (titled The Kingdom of Silence’. His time here was important for the perspective it provided on the country, and how it shaped people who changed the world. I had long wanted to understand how he reported in West Asia, a place where questions are discouraged, and government press releases are taken to be fact. Goes without saying he didn’t have much time; the interview lasted 15 minutes.

When you were there as an editor, and you had these reporters under you, did you feel like they were ready to look at the world in a different way?

I felt that my reporters were at a transitional point in Saudi history. They were very modern in their ways. And because they worked at an English-speaking newspaper, they were more oriented towards the West than most Saudis. But they were also surprisingly traditional. One of the things that surprised me was that when I went back to Saudi Arabia a couple of years later, when they had gotten a little older, they had become even more conservative. In fact, some of my male reporters were opposed to women driving, which surprised me, because they had not been this way when they were my reporters. As they got older, they adopted more traditional Saudi views. So even though I still see them as being a transitional generation, I think the transition’s going to take a long time.

Was what you experienced with them at the paper an extreme form of what happens in West Asian media?

Well, I don’t want to lump all the Arab countries together. The Arab media is an interesting study by itself. Saudi Arabia had extremely restricted media until the first Gulf War. They had only two government channels, and they restricted everything else. But suddenly they had this war on their border, and one day, without explanation, they had to let CNN come on television, without any announcement at all. And this was a way of alerting people to what was happening. The official media couldn’t even admit it. And once satellite media was allowed to broadcast, it liberated a lot of the print media, because people could see something on television, and that allowed newspapers to write about it. This doesn’t mean that the press in Saudi Arabia or much of the Arab world is free. It’s ironic, because you can express opinions… the newspapers are almost like the blogosphere. You can say what you want, but the government is very careful in Saudi Arabia to limit access to facts. Facts are dangerous; opinions are not.

That’s surprising, because one assumes that ideas are dangerous things, and so opinions would be suppressed…

Yeah.

…But it’s the other way round. Why do you think that happens?

Well, as long as there are opinions, there’s a level of abstraction about it. Or instance, one of the stories I was working on with my reporters was about expat workers. There was a taxi company that had its own jail. And they would bring in workers mainly from the subcontinent who thought they were getting one job and were given another. In some cases they couldn’t even drive. Yet suddenly they were chauffeurs and taxi drivers and they were trapped there. Their papers were seized, and so on. And if they rebelled, the owner of the taxi company would put them in his private jail. Now, I thought that was a big story. But we weren’t allowed to publish it. Now you could say in an opinion piece, in an editorial, ‘it’s shameful, the way expat workers are treated’. But if you were to expose a Saudi businessman who physically abused his workers and failed to pay them and then imprisoned them when they try to escape and get their freedom, that’s a different matter. That, I think, is the crucial difference.

Given your experience as an editor, are you satisfied with the coverage coming out of a place like Dubai?

No. Not entirely. I had an editor of one of the largest Arab-language papers in the world make a confession to me. He said, ‘There will always be a footnote to my name, because we never wrote about the hijackers. I’m ashamed of it’. And I said, ‘Why didn’t you?’ And he said, ‘I met this Egyptian writer very briefly, he disappeared. He wrote against the government, and he was a satirist. He made fun of the government. One day he disappeared, and he’s never been found’. My friend said, ‘I don’t want to be that guy. Not because he was killed. I’m used to death threats and all that. But nobody ever speaks of him. His absence has gone unremarked.’

That, I think, is still a reality in the Arab world. Somebody can be eliminated, and it’s just a lesson that chills the entire press, including the editor of a very important paper in the Arab world.

What about you? Is it safe for you to go back to the Arab world, given all that you’ve reported there?

I never really think about those things. How do you know whether you’re safe or not? You just don’t know. I’ve always been treated pretty well, and so I assume that everybody loves me. I don’t want to succumb to paranoia, and I have a ton of friends in the Arab world, so I think that attitude serves me well. I’m going there in good faith, and I hope that people can see that.

How did you manage to stay under the radar there? Because word tends to get around.

I know. But it was a little mysterious to me. They wouldn’t let me in as a reporter…

That was pretty amazing. That you thought of getting in as an editor.

I just had to get in. I just had to get in. And so I started looking for a job, and I was really lucky that a friend of mine had been the professor of the editor of the Saudi Gazette and she knew that he was looking for someone to train his reporters. And I was like ‘wow, that’s it. That’s perfect!’ I wasn’t sure that it was actually going to happen up until the last minute. As soon as I got the visa, I just got on the plane. It was perfect for me because I was much more a part of the fabric of society, and secondly, the minister for information didn’t know that I was there. I was an expat worker beneath notice, and it gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, even though the newspaper was Prince Naif’s. I was inside his own tent, and he wasn’t really paying attention to me.

So your name wasn’t on the masthead.

Nope. There were several reporters who wanted to write about me, but I didn’t really want to call any attention to myself.