We remember our first plane ride, our first day of school, our first use of the telephone, our first demonstration. Our first this, our first that. For me, there was, rather late in life, my first encounter with al Jazeera–in Jordan, in my parents’ apartment.
I was visiting my mother, and one afternoon, reclining on the living room couch, I was fiddling with the remote, when I stumbled on al Jazeera, and I stayed glued to my couch for the entire afternoon and evening. For the remainder of my stay in Jordan, all I really wanted to do was turn on al Jazeera, for hours and hours and hours. Since that fateful day, whenever I return to Jordan, the first thing I do is turn on al Jazeera, sit back, and watch and listen to the best broadcast system in the world, as I did during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon–and for 33 days!
I am no television junkie, my preferences always veering toward radio first, and then newspapers. I am restless as a worm, as the saying goes in Armenian, but on that summer day in the late 1990s, when al Jazeera Arabic was in its infancy, my feet had turned to clay, and I was, for all practical purposes, hooked. And in the last few days, as Egypt has errupted in anti-government demonstrations, al Jazeera has proven a formidable force–more so, the original Arabic but also al Jazeera English. The former is available in the US via cable and satellite. Al Jazeera English, which was launched in 2006, is largely unavailable in the US except on the internet and youtube–the unspeakable shame of a media landscape that prides itself on “freedom of expression” and the free flow of ideas.
But it is al Jazeera Arabic that held my undivided attention for those weeks and months of my stays in Jordan. First, there is the language: A language lives and flourishes when its users have a vital relationship to it, when people can think with and through it. And al Jazeera has a dizzying repertory of public affairs programs where the beauty of Arabic also reveals its capacity of precision and clarity. In fact, al Jazeera is one extended collective conversation in Arabic, spanning across countries, classes, dialects, and political concerns. Azmi Bishara has written about the unifying power of the Arabic language, and for me, nothing was more telling that afternoon when I stumbled on al Jazeera than the power of the common language to open a space for such a collective thought.
Second, there is the content: Of course not all of al Jazeera is outstanding; not all its positions are to everyone’s liking. But often, and more than often, al Jazeera takes the Arabic of discourse seriously, combining clarity with respect for the spoken word, something which is painfully absent from so many of our talk show programs.( The category is telling: talk show.) And in doing so, it also often takes its content seriously. This fact flies in the face of those who have said (they’re mostly of the orientalist ilk) that Arabic is the language of inflation and praise and hyperbole, as though Arabic were the language of vacuousness. If anything, al Jazeera’s content is too dense, too much, too immediate, especially when al Jazeera covers crisis, which it does very well.
Much has been written about the power of al Jazeera. Some have seen it as a subversive force, the mouthpiece of this or that leader or organization. This criticism may also be at the root of the censorship of al Jazeera English from our television screens. But these pronouncements spring largely from an inability (or unwillingness) to imagine an alternative to what is dished out to us day in and day out, to truly cross our narrow boundaries and enter another culture, another region through the paths and portals of the culture’s own, homegrown battles–for justice, freedom, and humanity. If and when al Jazeera–even al Jazeera English which is more mainstream–becomes easily available to larger sectors of viewers–I say when because it is bound to happen. Times are changing tectonically–it will surely pose a challenge to our media here, a challenge which will be hard to ignore. Which will only make our media take note, and try to do better, perhaps.
At the moment, and this is a moment of huge import not only in the Middle East but the entire world, al Jazeera is simply the best. Again.