People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East

It was late last year I finished Joris Luyenddijk's People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East. It's the story of a Dutch speaker who moves to Egypt to learn Arabic and then stumbles his way into becoming a Middle East correspondent for Dutch media. The first part of the book deals with his  wrestles over the fact that just because he knows Arabic doesn't make him an expert on Egypt, much less the Middle East. 

He gives readers the inside scoop on how reporters fake expertise, mostly by standing firmly behind a set of (mostly made up) statistics and each correspondent interviewing the same 'experts' in each country. He also wrestles with the fact that covering newsy items in the Middle East doesn't give his readers any insight on how people are there, how people live there, etc. 

One issue that makes it very hard to explain how people live and think is that (at that time) most of the people living where he covered lived under the thumb of dictatorships. No one living in Syria, Saddam-era Iraq and Egypt were going to tell him the truth -- about anything. At least on the record. And most certainly didn't want to be seen speaking with a reporter. 

The last 40 percent of the book covers his burnout from working and living in Egypt and moving to a different country (Lebanon) and finally to the West Bank. This latter move was the biggest of all. Professionally he went from a mostly anonymous Middle East correspondent into reporting on the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, where every word he wrote was filtered through these two hyper critical lenses. In the early years, he was lucky to receive any feedback through letters to the editor. In those later years, he was lucky if a single story didn't create an avalanche of nasty letters. He spends a bit of time explaining why Israel is winning this ever-so-important media war. 

From his early years: 

The most surreal thing was my own job. Students riots broke outings Iran, and I had to every them from Cairo because Tehran kept its gates closed. How many readers and listeners would know that I couldn’t even place a direct phone call to Iran from Egypt, and that Cairo was about the least-suitable place on earth from where to follow these disturbances? Not many, I hoped, and it really couldn’t come out that I know precisely six words of Persian. 

I am a former journalist, and it's been a long time since I read a good, honest account of the sometimes debilitating worries reporters have of being found out as fraudsters. I was told by the person who recommended the book that it wasn't going to change my thinking in any way. It didn't. But his reminisces and arguments feel so close to what I experienced -- just in another part of the world.