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.
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 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.
Finland isn’t quite so high on the radar for such officials, to say the least. That changes the entire approach to journalism. Negus couldn’t simply profile high-ranking pols or get big play with a major interview, so she had to look for a different kind of story.
“I had to write about human-rights activists and ordinary people,” Negus said in an interview in the garden of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. “I had to focus on human-interest stories, because I didn’t even have the option of doing big interviews.”
Editors tend to be impressed by “important” interviews with big politicians. Readers, on the other hand, email reporters when they read about ordinary people. So the kinds of tales in Negus’s book are likely to give the kind of insight into the workings of Egypt that readers actually crave, rather than the crusty political analysis served up by many U.S. correspondents.
Take the situation of women, for example. “Friends always asked me what it was like to live there as a woman,” Negus said.
So she devotes much of her book to the women she met in her decade in Cairo.
She recounts her own experiences being groped by the notoriously lecherous little men in crowded Cairo streets, including a list of the phrases with which they accompany their squeezes and pinches, such as “Ah, white meat!” She notes something rather shocking of which I was unaware — that even Muslim women wearing head coverings were subject to the same unwanted advances.
She also details cases of women fighting for their rights against Egypt’s macho culture and boorish bureaucracy, and has an excellent section on women campaigning against female circumcision, a form of genital mutilation quite common in Egypt.
The response to women’s bodies is more revealing, in Negus’s portrayal, than the mere sniggerings of street-corner lechers. In fact, there’s an interesting parallel with the way such issues play out in the U.S. Negus notes that more than half of Egyptian women are obese and yet “in the tv commercials, fat women cook and serve food, clean and do the laundry, while slim ladies lie on the beach or shop at malls, wear make-up and drive fancy cars.” It’s a change in cultural attitudes, she adds. “The slim body has come to symbolize beauty, success and style.”
Maybe Egyptian women are just picking up on something American women have been struggling with for years. It wouldn’t be the only connection between the U.S. and Egypt, after all.
Egypt is the recipient of $1.5 billion a year in economic and military aid from the U.S. and the most famous of the 9/11 hijackers was the Egyptian Muhammad Atta (most of the rest were Saudi, but that’s another story…). It’d behoove Americans to know more about the place. Negus’s book would be a very good way to start.