Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 July - 2 August 2006
Issue No. 805
Profile
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hafez Al-Mirazi

Hafez Al-Mirazi: Arab contemporary

Hafez Al-Mirazi left Egypt four years after graduating from Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Science in 1979. Already a news anchor with Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs), the radio station founded by Gamal Abdel-Nasser along Arab nationalist ideological lines but by now well adjusted to Anwar El-Sadat's policies of liberal economics and peace with Israel, a scholarship took Marazi to Washington DC to pursue a masters in politics and international relations at the Catholic University of America, and while studying he freelanced with Voice of America's Arabic Service, becoming a full-time staffer on obtaining his degree in 1990. By 1996, when he left Voice of America, trying out a range of options from BBC to the Arab Network of America (ANA), from an Arab American community radio to a one-man show hosted by a commercial channel, he had made a name for himself as one of the world's most pan-Arab and independent voices in the media. Though he was well-equipped for it, he had no idea that he would become Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief less than a year before 9/11, just when that pariah of Arab stations was poised, in the words of Hugh Miles, British author of the most comprehensive book on the satellite TV network, "to change the world". Six years on he has lived up to the challenge.

Vacationing between Cairo and his birthplace in Upper Egypt just after giving up his post as Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief to devote his time and energy to his talk show -- administrative and managerial duties had proved too much, he says -- the Egyptian journalist with an Arab perspective is reluctant to speak of Israel's bombardment of Lebanon. Not that it would incur any professional problems, he insists: he just doesn't like to step on other people's turf; and Lebanon is the responsibility of another bureau chief, after all. Towards the very end he has only this to say: that American news networks are happy to report exclusively from the Israeli side of the border, where, running to the shelter, scared, before alleged Hizbullah missiles, the anchor gives the impression that Israel is the victim even as enormous military deployments are systematically destroying Lebanon's infrastructure. The civilian body count, hundreds of times that on the Israeli side, rises by the minute. It is more than bias, the journalist opines. The only way it can be explained is "flagrant racism". Yet it is what he has been confronted with throughout his career: the challenge to present the news objectively -- "objective", he concedes, "is a very subjective word" -- in an atmosphere where the media fashions reality to the tastes of an unjust superpower. After 9/11, he reports, Americans learned to "mix patriotism with journalism", to lower their professional standards and play to the basest instincts of their viewers...

Contrary to his local counterparts, Hafez Al-Mirazi gives an immediate impression of efficiency. His awareness of time -- heightened by Egyptian standards -- and his astonishing capacity for an instant, intelligent response, bear testimony to a mind constantly engaged with some of the world's most relevant questions. His appearance is remarkably polished, if by and large unassuming: slim, dark, with chiselled features animated by a tightly controlled tension, a childlike laugh -- very Egyptian, this -- and no compulsive gestures. Unlike most of his compatriots, too, since the mid-1980s he has shed all vestiges of Egyptian self-centredness, an attitude that expects other Arabs to understand Egyptian dialect and appreciate Egyptian nuances of culture even as Egyptians brazenly fail to return the favour, however minimally. Even informally, he speaks a kind of pan-Arab lingua franca in which he has reverted back to the classical "j" sound of his upbringing in Maghagha, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya (in contrast to Cairo and the Delta's "g" sound, famously preserved by anchor Ahmed Said), pronouncing the qaf as often as not; Marazi questions the long established though by now groundless notion of Egyptian cultural and media hegemony; and half-jokingly he describes his marriage to a Tunisian in terms of loyalty to the principles of the station in which his career took off.

"When I started working with Al-Jazeera it was in 2000," Marazi begins, in accented, unequivocally American but strangely global English, eager to be quoted with precision. "We had a small office in the National Press Centre in Washington." His is an Arabic inflection of the language that makes no attempt to hide the identity of its speaker, whether through foreign or native means. "I don't want to be like some Arab rulers," he responds to a question about the importance of the Washington bureau prior to his arrival there, "when they deny there was any history before them. No, it was important. We had one reporter and six months before I joined they added another, so when I joined the three of us, including the former bureau chief, were working as a team." The office had been established in 1996, the year Al-Jazeera was founded within months of the successful coup against his father by the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, then the youngest ruler in the Gulf and the man who would bring traditional Saudi-Qatari competitiveness to a head through a bundle of daring and in some ways beneficial, if still largely schizophrenic policies. "The opinion and the other opinion," Marazi quotes Al-Jazeera's slogan by way of justification, though, no doubt involuntarily, it sounds like a quip. In that year, suspecting Al-Jazeera of deference to the Qatari government that would be funding it, Marazi, a reputable voice, rejected an offer of work at the network: "So I was very hesitant..." He remembers covering the seemingly never-ending 2000 presidential campaign, stressing that it wasn't until the 2004 campaign that Al-Jazeera did "what no other non-English network except maybe Japan ever did", placing a sky box over the convention: "American anchors like Wolf Blitzer were wondering why Al-Jazeera was covering American politics better than other networks. But we found it was important with American military presence in Iraq," he laughs, "to consider America a neighbouring state."

It took a few months of negotiations before, having followed its progress and nurtured an admiration for it, Marazi accepted Al-Jazeera's next offer at the millennium's end: "The request that I made in order to join as bureau chief was that we want Al-Jazeera to be represented in Washington with the same weight that it has in the Arab media, and we want Washington to be represented in Al-Jazeera with the weight that it has in world politics." A dual challenge, as he calls it, soon to turn into double jeopardy. Marazi had made it clear that, if it ever became subject to censorial control -- the fate suffered by ANA, after it was purchased by "an Arab government" -- he would promptly leave. But as the US became ever more central to regional politics and Al-Jazeera played an incendiary role in the progress of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and the consequent, horribly entangled developments in Arab-American relations -- it was the only Arabic-speaking television that hosted Arab dissidents, openly criticising the Arab world's by and large oppressive regimes, gave air time to Israeli, let alone American, officials, and broadcast the most shocking atrocities live, on location, all with the blessing of the chameleon emir, whose pride in welcoming the biggest American air base in the Middle East in preparation for the invasion of Iraq did not prevent him from taking in Al-Qaeda sympathisers, in the same way as his forays into cutting-edge education and freedom of expression, the latter outside the borders of his country, could never undermine his autocratic rule within.

"Al-Jazeera in general was placed under the spotlight after 9/11," Marazi goes on, "regardless of who was representing the bureau in Washington. Immediately all the spotlights were switched on us and suddenly you find yourself trying hard to cover the event coming out of Washington at the same time as you're bombarded with requests for interviews and explanations and with media coverage that is mostly negative about you and that you need to reply to and challenge and refute." Here as elsewhere Marazi is staunchly loyal to his workplace, rightly or wrongly equated with the only Arab media outlet free of official censorship and control -- a distinction, he is eager to point out, that sets it apart from national Qatari TV, and one that Sheikh Hamad, "fortunately for the Arab media", deeply appreciates. Marazi tells the story of how, having hosted a biting critique of Qatari policy and Qatari- American relations on the occasion of the emir's visit to Washington, he was personally congratulated by Sheikh Hamad during a reception later on the same day on "bolstering the credibility of Al-Jazeera". Due largely to official Saudi-Qatari strife -- an ongoing problem with royal tribal roots -- the advertising embargo on Al-Jazeera, especially after it grew exponentially from a small affair with a few hours of broadcast a day to a huge 24-hour operation carrying live coverage from every corner of the globe, keeps the network dependent on royal Qatari funds. Marazi is concerned that, "if we didn't have the current emir", or if oil and gas prices were to drop, the network's independence would be severely undermined, and "Arab media", as he puts it, would lose a unique, indeed even historical development.

Marazi's case for the network's importance is articulate: Described by Tom Bradley as "the small station with a big mouth", prior to 9/11 Al-Jazeera had been hailed by American and Israeli media as a harbinger of democracy in the region, a taboo breaker with a critical perspective, only to be accused, in line with the early Saudi designation of it, of "serving up poison on a silver platter" as soon as its trouble- brewing tendencies came in conflict with the interests of the Bush administration. Unlike BBC and CNN, for example, it had accepted Taliban's offer of establishing offices in Afghanistan two years before the war, so when the borders were closed to the media and "we hit the jackpot scoop-wise", images of the American "onslaught" -- "the Powell doctrine of fighting with overwhelming power" was coupled by a drive to block information coming from the war front to the American audience, in order to avoid a rerun of Vietnam -- the station was subject to a "smear campaign" in which it was accused of, among other untruths, being Bin Laden's mouthpiece, with other networks using the channel "as the dirty gloves with which to handle" Al-Qaeda. Along these lines -- Al-Jazeera's battles over images of American POWs in Iraq that they broadcast, for example -- Marazi makes a persuasive point about the dynamics of media warfare in America and "the effect of Fox News", which made it more difficult for channels like CNN or ABC to sound balanced or objective to their viewers.

From attempts to co-opt Arab sympathy through appearances on Al-Jazeera to systematic, Israeli lobby-instigated fights against it, Marazi presents the network's story as that of a fight for validation of the Arab perspective, conducted along lines reminiscent of the work of Edward Said or Noam Chomsky -- though he mentions neither. When the administration started asking "why do they hate us?", for example, the answer to that "silly question" was subverted through Israeli pressure: rather than recognising Israel as "the main regional oppressor", i.e. the principal reason behind such hatred, in the wake of 9/11 Washington decided to turn on dictators it had supported in the past who, promising to "deliver the street", had permitted their people to hate America enough for catastrophe to hit. Warned by "the Arabists" against the effect of the 1991 Gulf War on "the street's" feelings for America, Bush the elder had been vindicated when, in a bid to replace Israel as America's gatekeepers in the region, pragmatic Arab leaders managed to support that first war on Iraq without serious consequences. Ten years later, just as reality was finally proving Bush the elder misguided, Bush the younger was to insist on keeping Israel out of the equation, concentrating instead on "the lesser reason" by calling for democratic reform and putting pressure on dictators, through fair means or foul: "So we should get rid of those dictators, who couldn't really deliver their people to us as they had claimed. We should either put pressure on them to deliver fully -- not to say one thing to us and another behind closed doors -- or get other people to deliver under democracy. Of course we found later on the call for democracy in the Arab world. Still, anything but Israel..." But as Marazi elaborates on the issue, the feeling is that, rather than making a case for Al-Jazeera, he is forging an astute analysis of incumbent regional politics.

One thing he could not stand up to is the non-official Arab critique of Al-Jazeera as, in effect, a quality scandal-monger with no purpose beyond setting the cat among the pigeons, as it were -- not too inaccurate an assessment of Qatari politics. Yet, having found his calling in this brand of journalism, whose availability, no one can deny, is an asset in the Arab context, it is Marazi's prerogative to validate his work: When the Bush administration turned against Al-Jazeera during the Afghan War, the network never set out to discredit American policy. "Actually Al-Jazeera went out of its way to accommodate the American perspective. This is when we expanded the Washington office. It had been three people and now we're talking about 25 people, and it's still growing. Because when we found ourselves the only network carrying from Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera thought since we're here we also have to be balanced in our coverage from Washington. We're not going to rely on the news agencies but we're carrying news live from Washington and having analysts and politicians speaking. So we expanded our live news from Washington to five or six hours a day. When I talk to Americans," Marazi digresses, "I say go and look at Al-Jazeera's log and see how much time, since 9/11, the network has given Bin Laden, compared to Bush..." In the end -- this is largely the gist of Marazi's argument -- Al-Jazeera is the Arab equivalent of the American media, and if they are playing dirty tricks on us, there is no reason we shouldn't do the same to them. He never says it in so many words, preferring to demonstrate it through examples. "If the network had any kind of agenda or control, you wouldn't find so much variety in its staff. There are the Islamists and the leftists and the liberals. I don't think that would be possible if we were controlled by Qatar."

And notwithstanding the high-wire pace of his life, there are moments when Marazi can afford to adopt a contemplative tone. "I have found myself in a position trying to explain America to the Arab world and trying to explain the Arab world to America, at a time when both had good reasons to suspect or even to hate each other. And you are caught in the middle. When you talk to the Arab world you give the impression that you're pro-American or biased against Arabs, but you're trying to bring reasons to the discussion. You might end up with the same conclusion but you need to know why Americans behave as they do. You need to have reasons. And when you talk to Americans you're trying to do the same thing. You end up sounding very Arab. But to go back to the difference between Al-Jazeera and the American media: you find that in the Arab media we go out of our way to bring in English speakers and give ourselves the headache of simultaneous interpretation. You go into that pain to present their views. But look at what they do. They have Arab English speakers, they don't even need translation. And they don't host them. They bring in someone from a so-called Middle East think-tank that is flagrantly biased and sometimes even established by an Israeli lobby, or people who are dumb or racist or xenophobic. And they have these people talk about us, never with us... And when we started to bother the rulers in America they just acted the same way as the official media of some Arab regimes," Marazi is off again. "And the same kind of labelling was applied to us by the American media, which is supposed to be independent, mainly because the network is giving the view and the other point of view. They acted in a way that makes the formal censored Arab media look better than them, because at least our media has an excuse. It is not free, it is not doing it voluntarily. But you feel sorry that people volunteer to do bad media, to be biased, to cheer the leaders in the Pentagon and to take what they say as unquestionable truth." Marazi's makes the briefest of pauses. "That was really sad."

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