Palestinian Media: Peering Through Windows

“The right is written with my blood…

 There is a name that my mouth repeats,

Al Quds, here we are, we have come to save you.

Young soldiers have defeated the old, thrown stones

Made the enemy’s murdering army flee”

In a timely release with the second Intifada in 2000 (Al Aqsa Intifida), Lebanese pop-artist Diana Haddad put out a track and music video called Al Haq yaktubo min Dami (The Right is Written With My Blood) written by Saudi poet Suad Al Sharbatli and directed by her then-husband Emarati director and media executive Suhail Al Abdool. In solidarity with the Palestinians, Haddad cancelled a 15-city tour of the US. “This song is the least I can do for the Palestinian people in support for their cause,” said Haddad adding “if we believe that these hard times are not the times to contribute anything; then when is the right time? We cannot watch idly what we see on television and not move,” Haddad stated in an interview asking her about the reasons for the video and tour cancellation.  The video was released on many highly rated pan-Arab television channels reaching the television screens of Arab viewers in 21 countries from Mauritania to Yemen.

In an earlier example, Palestine was the subject of a popular operetta by Egyptian producer Ahmad Al Arian. The 18-minute video of The Arab Dream became one of the most popular songs following the Palestinian Intifada. Directed by Tariq Al Arian and written by Egyptian poet Medhat Al Adl and Emarati poet Saif Al Khalidi, The Arab Dream operetta brought together over 20 artists from across the Arab world including Syrian Asala Nasri, Kuwaiti Nabeel Shuail, Tunisian Lutfi Bushnaq and Sudanese Sumayyah. Like Haddad’s The Right is Written With My Blood, the video was circulated on a wide array of Pan-Arab TV channels making it one of the most widely distributed songs in the Arab world. The video, a montage of black and white footage from the Palestinian Nakba (exodus), the October war, Gamal AbdelNasser public appearances, the artists’ studio recordings and the live stage performance of the operetta, starts off with a waving Palestinian flag implicitly making the case for Arab unity as a solution for a liberated Palestine.

Generation after generation

Will live on our dream

And what we say today

We are accountable for in our lives

It may be true that the darkness of night

Will separate us for a day

But the brightness of light

Can reach the farthest of skies

This is our dream for life

A chest that embraces

All of us, all of us

In 2008, following the Iraq war, Al Dameer Al Arabi (the Arab Conscience), part two of The Arab Dream was released by the Arian duo. This time, over 30 artists, from across the Arab world joined forces, including up-and-coming young pop-artists like Nancy Ajram and Diana Karazon to perform the operetta. The forty-minute song, centered on Palestine spoke about the dire situation of the Arab world from the conflict, to the Iraq War, to sectarian tensions and political instability of Lebanon. The video, a montage of news footage cross fading between shots of the artists performing in the recording studio, showed images of war, destruction and the deteriorating political landscape of an Arab dream in shambles.

Fast-forward to 2011, another example appears on the Pan-Arab television arena, which now holds over 90% penetration of all television viewing in the Arab world. 10-year-old Esam Bashiti from Jerusalem recited Ahlam Al Tufoola (Childhood Dreams), a moving poem, written by his family member, on the popular Arabs Got Talent in its first season. Receiving an emotional ovation from the audience and the judges alike, Bashiti advanced well into the final episodes of the season beating competition from talents from across the Arab world. Aired on popular Pan-Arab channel MBC 4, Arabs Got Talent, became one of the channel’s most successful shows and is currently running in its second season.

MBC 4’s mother company, MBC Group, is a Saudi-owned media conglomerate that runs some of the most popular Pan-Arab television channels in the Arab world including the highly rated Al-Jazeera contender news channel, Al Arabiya. It’s reach, like all 500+ Pan-Arab television channels covers 22 Arab countries.

What is interesting about MBC is that ever since its inception in 1991, it has never been based in Saudi Arabia. First launched in London, beaming its then, one channel to the Arab world via satellite. Later, it moved its headquarters to Dubai in 2002. By basing its headquarters outside of Saudi Arabia, it was able to feign an independence and sovereignty from the state’s stringent regulations on content and production. This does not in any way imply that the move freed it of all constraints of Saudi regulation. This is especially witnessed in the state’s influence on its editorial interventions in the news coverage of Al Arabiya. However, the point is this: in order to function (editorially, professionally and to a large degree, technically) it has had to seek editorial asylum and go offshore.

Similarly, under different circumstances, given the constraints of PA, Hamas, infrastructure limitations as seen in the cases of Ma’an, Al Aqsa, VOP and other so-called ‘indigenous’ media institutions, “Palestinian media” has had to, in order to function, always exist everywhere and elsewhere. The limitations are different, of course, but that would be stating the obvious (political fragmentation, Israeli control of the OPT, infrastructure etc). What is common, however, is the necessity to look elsewhere, to exist elsewhere.

The notion of “Palestinian media” is not like any other media, it has had to exist against all odds: through windows.

Whether it was setup in a strictly off-shore model, as in the case of AbdelBari Atwan’s Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, Al Qabas for which Naji el Ali made his 40,000 cartoons, or through solidarity projects like the Arab Dream/Conscience, through special sections like Al Safeer’s Falasteen, or even through opportunities that presented themselves like Bashiti’s resilient assertion of innocence — the unifying thread of “Palestinian media” has always been: existence through a series of windows.

These windows come in different shapes and sizes. Some are tinted, some are transparent; others are broken. Some windows were utopian, capitalizing on the seemingly safe-space of online and digital platforms like EI and Palestine Note. Others came in the form of a state’s desire to capitalize on the cause as a means of gaining political clout through the influence of public opinion. Whether it was used to gain popularity, advance a political agenda or to carve out a space for Palestine in an increasingly populated arena, “Palestinian media” has always managed to emerge, like much else in Palestine, in the most unique of ways.

Through the windows emerges a commitment to placing “Palestine” in the hearts and minds of not only the Arab publics, but global public consciousness at large, however varied the intentions may be.

Al Jazeera, as outlined by Zayani and Lynch, presented a very different kind of window. To some it was a panorama; to others it was a ploy. Whichever way one looks at it, whether as an assailant or a cheerleader, Al Jazeera provided a different kind of window for “Palestinian media”. Beyond the coverage of Palestine, whether it is seen as serving a greater Qatari agenda or not, the Al Jazeera phenomenon was, to a large degree, a different kind of “Palestinian media” window, insofar as its housing of what, would in a utopian idea of a functioning Palestinian media landscape, would be available in terms of talent, expertise and media-savvy professionals. What Lynch does not address is the significance of those that call the shots behind the scenes in the New Arab Public.

Off and on-air, in Arab media conglomerates the region over, through the decision making powers of Palestinian television media executives with significant power and a professional talent-base, channels like Al Jazeera were able to flourish.

Al Jazeera, launched on pan-Arab satellite from Doha in 1996, built its strong talent base off the spoils of failed London-based BBC Arab television venture (part-owned by Saudi’s Khalid Bin Faisal Al Saud). The closure of BBC Arabic, created a huge window of opportunity for the Qataris to tap into some of the most talented Arab journalism professionals based in London, many of whom were Palestinian.

By attracting talents from the BBC and elsewhere, like Waddah Khanfar who started as a Palestinian reporter covering the Afghanistan war then appointed Al Jazeera’s Managing Director quickly rising three years later to being its Director General, Al Jazeera was able to become as what was perceived by many, until recently (with its selective coverage of the Arab uprisings) an answer to the region’s prayers. “The maverick channel”, as it is called by Kraidy & Khalil in Arab Television Industries also had many other Palestinian executives at its helm including Ahmed AlSheikh, who ran its news team. On screen, talented professionals like Ghida Fakhri, Muna Ibellini, Tareq Ayyoub and Jamal Rayyan, became a different kind of window for “Palestinian media” – both visually asserting Palestine on the world media arena and editorially.

While home-grown Palestinian media organizations face the challenges of “professional qualities” (Jamal) they have long sat at the helm of the most influential media organizations in the Pan-Arab context – on and off camera. Al Jazeera is the most prominent example.

Contemporary examples, as explored by Stein & Swendenberg are also in abundance. Whether it is through hiphop music of Arab diaspora in solidarity, like Omar Offendum’s Destiny or The Narcycist’s and Low-Key’s Long Live Palestine, there are countless examples of how “Palestinian media” has transcended conventional norms when it comes to challenging media structures through windows. The digital landscape has allowed, not just for Palestinian-generated content as outlined by Khalili, but also for other manifestations of The Arab Dream phenomenon – through a “Global Palestine”, in my opinion, a great metaphor for Palestine in the global conscience.

While it doesn’t function under an umbrella called “Palestinian Media Corporation” – the strong presence of Palestinian media decision makers, editorial influence, platforms, initiatives, segments, film, websites, sections in fact collectively as Sienkiewicz put it:

“constitute potential building blocks for the Palestinian “imagined community, a possibility that would counteract the otherwise factional and fracturing nature of the nascent nation’s media.”

One thought on “Palestinian Media: Peering Through Windows

  1. Karem says:

    Very Interesting Article.
    However, I think you should have put a para about earlier music (80’s and before) regarding Palestine: i meant Marcel Khalife, Ahmad Kaabour and others (only in Palestine topic and not Lebanese or social topics). and you have the Palestinian Artists (so-called Arab 48)
    I guess it will be a later post for you??
    Anyway it is a huge effort, congrats

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