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Why books about the Middle East are now the realm of European journalists.
JERUSALEM — Time was anyone with an interest in the Middle East could be guaranteed a couple of books a year would be brought out by U.S. journalists based in the region. Now many of those correspondents are history, with news bureaus closing and those that remain cutting back. The new books written by Americans tend to be by think-tank types or others whose agenda is hard to figure out.
But you know that already. It’s one of the reasons you’re reading GlobalPost, which was founded partially to replace the disappearing corps of U.S. foreign correspondents.
So GlobalPost has solved your journalism problem. But, still, what’re you going to do about the books? With a book written by a foreign correspondent you couldn’t always be sure of a good read —I’ve ploughed through some stinky “notebook dumps” in my time by reporters who padded his pages with meaningless tales of their Palestinian and Israeli “friends” — but you at least knew that it was by a responsible journalist answerable to editors and readers even for his extracurricular writings. Not so with think-tank academics whose financing and agenda can make for deeply skewed accounts.
The answer: Europeans. A new book demonstrates what I’m talking about.
“Hold onto Your Veil, Fatima!” is an expose of contemporary Egypt that’s at once harrowing and humorous by Sanna Negus, a reporter for Finland’s YLE Radio and TV.
Negus came to the Middle East in the mid-1990s for graduate studies in Cairo, largely because she wanted to learn an unusual language and figured Arabic fit the bill. (It’s not as unusual as Finnish, but then she already had that covered.) She returned to Cairo, working for the English-language Cairo Times and staying for a decade as YLE’s correspondent. She’s been based in Jerusalem the last two years. (Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer for “The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” writes in the book’s foreword that Negus is “one of the most informed and well-connected reporters in the region.”)
Hers is a different story from most traditional U.S. correspondents who worked their way up covering local stories until they were granted the privilege of a foreign posting. There are other differences, too. U.S. correspondents, under those circumstances, usually had sufficient resources to hire translators. Negus didn’t, so she had to perfect her Arabic.
The U.S. correspondent would also have the advantage of American prestige. Government officials across the Middle East want to feel they’re speaking to America, so they grant access to U.S. correspondents. When I was Time Magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, the Israeli Foreign Minister used to telephone me sometimes even when I hadn’t called him. Just for a chat, you know. Cruising in the armored limo, nothing else to do.