Here are two obvious observations:
1. TV makes the strange stranger.
2. I’m sorry Gil Scott-Heron, now the revolution is always televised.
Today I met my Moroccan host family and spent my first seven hours in their house watching TV. Here is the programming list:
-An Arabic dubbed soap opera from Argentina
-7NN: “Connecting you locally”. An English language channel broadcasting from the UAE with news that exclusively pertains to and compliments the home country.
-The Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I kid you not. The World’s Strongest Man simultaneously defeated 7 of the sport’s biggest spandex-clad stars in an epic battle only to be interrupted by the Mexican aristocrat Alguién De Río who entered the arena in his latest model Bentley to announce his unquestionable victory in the next championship fight, which would be held the next episode. It had my host mom, dad and me in stitches.
-We interrupt this broadcast to give you a Powerpoint presentation of the call to prayer
-An incest-filled dubbed Turkish soap opera
-A New Age music video celebrating Khomani, the Iranian imam that started the Iranian revolution. And speaking of…
-Non-stop-every-other-channel-coverage of the riots in Egypt.
When we were first greeted by our Academic Directors, Abdelhay Moudden and Laheen Haddad, they joked that every year they prepare something special and this year it is revolutions in the Arab world. By the time we had arrived, Tunisia had already overthrow a dictator and currently in Egypt millions are rioting in the street against a supposedly democratically elected president that has been in power for 30 years. You see, this is the first time there has ever been a successful revolution in the Arab states.
Political scientists have used the Arab world as a case study of the theory that things like revolutions, democracy, personal freedoms and human rights are not compatible with certain dominate cultures, just like socialized health care, free higher education and soccer don’t work in others.
By the way, the Arab world is defined as countries that list Arabic as an official language so it includes Somalia but not Iran, meaning the classification does not technically include, though it does imply, a common religion or race. As I mentioned earlier, there are 22 official Arabic countries while there are 57 Islamic countries in the world, many of who have experienced revolutions. This theory has attributed the lack of democracy in the Arab world to forces as diverse as Islamic fatalism, tribal societies, geographic isolation, recent decolonization and the resource trap phenomenon.
Suffice to say, it’s agreed upon that this CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. The panicked eyes of news anchors harkens back to the heady first days of the economic crisis. No one saw this coming. (It took days of riots to for travel insurance to evacuate American study abroad students. And those were the lucky ones. For more info follow Liana’s blog). No one knows what started it (Burning men? Twitter? Jasmine? Pent-up Repression?) No one knows how it will end (Democracy? Power vacuum to new dictator? Violent crackdowns and continued oppression?). And, no one knows how far it will spread (Yemen? Saudi Arabia? Morocco?). The New York Times, as always, has some great articles and opinions about it:
Despite being on the same continent as all of this strife and in a country that could be due for a revolution, I have surprisingly little first hand knowledge of what is happening. My Internet access has been spotty and the orientation schedule has been fulfilling its duty to distract us from everything we have left behind. Which brings me back to my 7 hour TV watching marathon, the closest I have gotten to being informed about the riots.
(For informed journalism, check out the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/world/middleeast/index.html and Nicolas Kristoff is posting a lot interesting opinion pieces)
First of all, this will be primarily a Visual Media Critical Cultural Analysis Study due to my complete ignorance of the Arabic language. It isn’t Comparative since I don’t know how this is being broadcast back home but I assume biases are present on both sides. For example, Dr. Moudden said there was a 1,000% difference in CNN’s estimate for the Wednesday protest (200,000) and Al Jazeera’s (2,000,000). From here, Obama’s call for Mubarak to reform rings hollow and Israel’s fundamentalist scares sound shrill, but I am surrounded by Middle Eastern and Peace Studies majors (see last post)
The quantity and quality of the images struck me initially. That is, the quantity is endless and the quality is of shitty cell-phone resolution. There is one incident where a military or police van swerved through the streets and ran down two men. They played an overview shot, a first person shot and a few close-ups , all clearly captured on different onlookers’ cell phones. There is even a photo of a man using his cell phone as a light for impromptu medical treatment on another protester’s gaping wound.
The images also have taken a turn for the battlefield genre. One station favors a nice photomontage of wounded protestors—heads, arms, legs, more heads, Egyptian flags, you name it, and they’re bloody. As the Mubarak supporters have started to retaliate there are videos of walls constructed of overturned dumpsters and people lobbing stones across them. There is even a video of men on horses running through crowds (really want a translation about that one). This sounds like a modern dramatic interpretation of medieval warfare, and in a way, it is. This is still a mainly leaderless movement and the streets have become chaos. Last count there were 6 dead and hundreds injured. One has to hope that some sense is made soon before it escalates more.
The last thing I noticed was the English. Occasionally, recognizable alphabetic characters would pop onto the screen in the form of banners, shirts and signs. The words that Egyptians chose to translate show how they want to be portrayed to the Western media: We Want Freedom, Game Over Mubarak, and Democracy Now. They all define the movement as political, choosing words that tug at America’s heart strings (Liberty, anyone?) and avoiding mention of Islam. Although this is the beginning of Arabic revolutions, the English-speaking, namely, American world is seen as having the power to make this revolution succeed. One of Kristoff’s articles went across the screen and Obama was discussed at length, while no other world leaders were mentioned.
And while this was happening, what was did my Moroccan family think? I have no idea. Fortunately my host dad speaks some Spanish so we can communicate, but his broken Spanish and our conflicting accents made it so the political discussion only came down to: “Mubarak needs to resign. The problem is he doesn’t want to.” We watched CNN briefly enough for me to hear Fareed Whosit declare Egypt the center of the Arab world and that they were all watching but my host dad took a sip of water rather than confirm or deny the claim when I translated it.
From what it sounded like, the Moroccans are somewhat in awe. There were a lot of questions being asked back and forth. A hush fell on the room as the violent images played. The problem is, I just don’t know.
These revolution is groundbreaking for the reasons I mentioned but also because it could represent a socially meaningful application of social networking tools (the Twitter Revolution, remember?) I read a nice rebuttal to this argument in the International Herald Tribune opinion section but can’t track it down. To summarize, social networking does a good job of counting how many people believe in a certain cause so society doesn’t commit the fallacy of pluralistic concession (or something) but alone it is not a catalyst. In fact, virtually supporting a cause may completely satisfy the revolutionary urge, preventing people from acting in real life, where it matters.
It will be interesting to see how this develops, I’ll most likely be watching.