In a room not more than two square meters, a small black-and-white television is perched uncertainly on top of a refrigerator, a cable running through the corrugated tin roof. In this small baqala, shelves stacked with tins of milk, dry biscuits, and crates of eggs, six men sit around a large tray, eating their lunch. After greeting me and inviting me to join them, Khaled, the proprietor, asks without the slightest trace of self-consciousness, “Tell me—why do you (all) hate the blacks so much?”
To me, the question comes out of left field, and I am at a bit of a loss for how to respond. To the men in Khaled’s shop—a couple of small-scale merchants like Khaled, the launderer from across the street, the security guard from an institute in the neighborhood—the question is a new one, and it has been weighing on their minds, they tell me. Less than two months after the Yemeni government killed more than 40 people in an effort to put down economically-motivated rioting and looting in their own city, they are watching United States law enforcement agents firing in the streets of New Orleans, seeing Americans scavenging for loaves of bread and bottled water in abandoned shops, and hearing the charges of racism and benign neglect emanating from American politicians and activists. They are asking themselves—and me—is this really America?
Viewing Tragedy from Abroad
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, media critics in the US were aware that the Arab satellite stations were airing what many saw as America’s dirty laundry. Naming Al Jazeera specifically, one conservative urban planning analyst noted at the time that it had, “gleefully portrayed the Katrina suffering as… ‘America’s original sin—racism.’”(1) And, indeed, some activist organizations in the United States did celebrate the exposure that international media outlets gave to issues of poverty and inequality, juxtaposing them with the oft-maligned mainstream media.(2) “US journalists may have been largely silent on issues of race and poverty,” wrote one well-known activist organization, “but the international press was not.”(3)
I was not in the United States to witness these arguments or anxieties from within, but was instead in Sana’a, worlds away from the crisis. In this country where 42% of the population lives below the poverty line and one in five is chronically malnourished, I walked through the streets of downtown Sana’a confronted by a level of poverty and daily deprivation that was staggering. At a roadside stop on the Sana’a-Aden road just a few days before the hurricane struck New Orleans, I watched as a toddler fought with a stray dog and a chicken over a torn piece of bread in a garbage heap several feet high. Days later, satellite images raised questions about dehumanizing inequalities not alongside a highway in the Global South, but in the streets and neighborhoods of the American South.
Perhaps most surprising was the eagerness of Yemeni friends and colleagues to address the topic—and to relate it to Yemen, another example of the observation that satellite media “accentuate the global but simultaneously stimulate the local.”(4) In late September, sitting at a qat chew with a group of about 40 politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals—the Sana’ani chattering class, if you will—a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party approached me. We had not been introduced, so he gave me his name, took my hand in both of his, and then said quite formally, “Please accept my condolences for Hurricane Katrina and the suffering of your countrymen.” Trying to situate this show of empathy within the range of reactions I was seeing around me—to understand even the sheer scope of interest in the topic—I asked the group as a whole about their responses to the coverage.
In the discussion that followed, as well as in subsequent chews over the coming days, it became clear that this event was not simply about America in America, but America abroad. As ‘Ali Saif Hassan, former head of the Nasserist party and current chairman of the opposition Political Forum, a local NGO committed to political and economic reform, explained:
“I thought that I knew America well, but what I saw [of the Katrina coverage] on Al Jazeera showed me something from deep inside American society, things I see in most Third World countries. I learned about this [other] America from Al Jazeera.”(5)
Others in the room spoke about the ubiquity of inequality, and the universal relationship between race and poverty. Members of the Islamist Islah, in particular, tended to take a long view of human history, perhaps surprisingly linking the current crisis less to the particular iniquity of the Bush administration or Godless Americans, than to the fundamental human instinct to discriminate. What is it about human nature, asked journalist Sayeed Thabit Sayyed, that means that there are distinctions of inequality in the poorest countries, like Yemen, and in the richest?(6) Without dismissing tremendous global inequalities, he was moved by a sense of common experience. Each person who spoke about Hurricane Katrina made it clear that their awareness of inequalities of race and class in America was heightened by the broadcast of often-grueling images by Arab satellite stations.
While inequality was an aspect of the Katrina tragedy highlighted by Arab satellite stations, Arab broadcasters were not alone in discussing an issue that also was at the center of debates in the United States itself. The difference, I think, was that this message in some ways went against what many see as the metanarrative of American dominance and Arab alterity expressed, in particular, by Al Jazeera.(7) As Sheila Carapico noted in late September,
US imperialism is projected via a reputation for omniscience and omnipotence, intelligence and power of epic proportions, great wealth and ultimate invincibility. The teleological conspiracy theories so rampant in the Arab world …are built on this parable of indestructibility and foolproof information. Now it turns out that it is not only Asian nations that lack early warning systems to sound the alarm before disaster strikes; it is not only Asians who have to smell the stench of death in the streets for weeks or have to beg for basic necessities.(8)
In Sana’a, it was like watching Goliath fall. The incredulity of Khaled, at the corner baqala, was repeated in interactions across class and gender, from political activists, to deputy ministers, to the woman who cut my hair. As Adel Iskander has explained, “the creation of a narrative of counter hegemonic alterity along the post-colonial model helps propel Al Jazeera’s image as an alternative voice that ‘represents the other’…”(9) But what does it mean when representing this “other” means representing poverty and inequality in America itself?
As Michael Hudson noted in the inaugural print issue of Transnational Broadcasting Studies, there is substantial concern in policy circles that Al Jazeera, “while opening up new political space, has created an opportunity for anti-American sentiments to be voiced and, perhaps, anti-American activities to be encouraged.”(10) Despite the fact that the net effect of Arab satellite viewing does notappear to promote anti-American sentiments, critics continue to lambaste Al Jazeera in particular, "for being hopelessly biased and unfairly hostile to America.”(11)
Is Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Katrina aftermath, then, simply an example of the subaltern periphery “speaking back,” as some would have it, by celebrating the perceived fallibility of a global hegemon? A special report by the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy tracked worldwide coverage of the Katrina aftermath and concluded that their sample, “suggests that while much of the international coverage of Katrina started out like our own, the tone and direction of international coverage has gradually changed. Critical coverage, ranging from pointed criticisms of the administration’s climate policy to the perceived failure of the American social safety net, have become stronger, while some alternative media have even resorted to describing Katrina as an act of ‘divine redemption.’”(12)
At the same time, the major satellite stations also provided a venue for liberals who “trashed the divine interventionists repeatedly.”(13) In this way, Joseph Braude argues that the coverage—and here he is presumably speaking mainly of the many call-in shows and debates that dealt with the topic—provided an unforeseen opportunity to “negate the legitimacy of al-Qaeda and its ilk” by enabling viewers (and online readers) to voice the opinion that New Orleans residents are “human beings before they are Americans.”(14) Al Jazeera’s coverage, in particular, has been described as, “respectful and sympathetic, but not without a few tastes of irony.”(15) Watching news coverage of the disaster at a child’s birthday party in the Sana'a home of a family that fled Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 invasion, a Palestinian guest asked in rhetorical anger how the mothers were supposed to feed their children in the flooded city. And where was the government? This, it would seem, was a concern that resonated with her own experience and, I imagine, with many of those who have been displaced in today’s Middle East. But in her anger there was empathy.
It is therefore possible to interpret the broadcast of American setbacks—alongside more realistic images of American society in its racial, economic, and regional diversity—as having “deepened the Arab world’s factual, rather than imaginatively preconceived, understanding of America.”(16) Indeed, Nabil al-Sofee, one of Yemen’s most prolific journalists and editorialists praised “Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and others like them, (for treating) diversity as both legitimate and beneficial” and suggested that this “may be the greatest contribution of this media, and one we should admire.”(17)
Thus one of the core questions inadvertently highlighted by Al Jazeera’s extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina is the role that such coverage may be playing in creating a kind of transnational democracy of information, as opposed to simply “undermining America’s policies and reputation.”(18) One of the greatest contributions of the satellite news stations may simply be the provision of information. As Abdallah Schleifer suggested in the last issue of TBS, “it is informed opinion that is of value—not opinion for its own sake. Reporting from the field and reporting the facts as they are in the field informs opinion.”
Ironically, in parts of the developing world where access to television and the Internet remains limited, print journalists may be among the greatest beneficiaries of satellite media. As journalist friends and colleagues repeatedly told me (and as I could see myself when reading their articles) the information provided in the basic news coverage on international Arab satellite stations informs their own writing and, to some extent, shapes their concerns. In this vein, Al-Sofee, himself reliant on satellite media as a principal source in his writing, has suggested that “these stations have helped to an imaginable extent, by giving the viewer—and here I’m speaking about the Yemeni (viewer)—the opportunity to follow global debates and listen to widely divergent opinions.”(19)
This outward orientation is a part of what has driven a regional "demonstration effect," by exposing viewers to democratic developments elsewhere in the region, like Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, or Egyptian, Palestinian, and Iraqi elections.(20) Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya’s conscious decision to increase their coverage of American domestic politics over the past several years, culminating in the Katrina coverage, may also be helping to "provincialize" America in ways that have an impact not only on how others view the United States, but also on how they view their own prospects for democracy and development.
“Provincializing” America in the Developing World
Government incapacity and mismanagement are not new stories in Yemen. In fact, aside from the grossest examples, they hardly make the headlines. In February 2005, months before the hurricane struck, a report from a Washington think-tank was making the rounds in Sana’a, in which Yemen was labeled as a “failed state.” While many took umbrage at the label, they were hard-pressed to come up with a cogent defense against it. It was with many of the same public figures that I would later discuss Katrina and US policy failures, and while there was no sign of “rejoicing,” there were a lot of questions about whether or not a country that was so clearly ill-equipped to handle a crisis like Katrina should be seeking to influence Yemeni economic and social policy, much less reconstruct Iraq and Afghanistan.
If images of American poverty and government inadequacy captured the imagination of the nearly 50 million viewers of Al Jazeera, it may be in part because they have helped to expose the contradictions of what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the “not yet” approach to development. Ideas about democracy and development are articulated by the industrialized nations, the US most of all, ”… as a way of saying ‘not yet’ to somebody else. ... (this)‘not yet’ exists today in tension with the global insistence on the ‘now’ that marks popular movements toward democracy.”(21) By showing that this condition of suspension and incompletion-this “not yet”-exists within a consolidated democracy, these images open the door to Yemeni reimaginings of their own relationship with the United States and the “developed” world as a whole. When American development is seen as a work-in-progress, those viewing it become less the objects of American and international development goals, and more partners in an on-going process, however unequal this partnership may at times be.
In the immediate circumstances in which I watched this drama unfold, seeing the putative bearers of development falter in the face of Hurricane Katrina emboldened critics of US-led development strategies and initiatives for political reform. In July 2005, the Yemeni military rolled tanks into several cities in Yemen in order to put down protests and rioting generated by petroleum subsidy cuts that most saw as “imposed” by the United States through international financial institutions. As police shot rioters in the streets, the US Embassy’s deputy commissioner of mission, Dr. Nabil Khoury, faced media ridicule for his role in supporting the government’s actions. Sitting in qat chews in the days following Hurricane Katrina, people repeatedly drew a parallel between their government’s failure to ensure both peace and prosperity and what they saw as America’s failure at home. For Yemeni viewers of Al Jazeera, then,
Hurricane Katrina has exposed the ugliness of America’s segregation system, the ghettoes, racism, misery and poverty that lurk beneath the surface of economic prosperity and social harmony.(22)
Suddenly, following American wisdom in Yemeni policymaking seemed an even shakier proposition.
None of this should suggest, however, that satellite exposure to America’s troubles at home can resolve tensions of democracy and development abroad, or that its images of one American tragedy will critically and permanently reconfigure attitudes in developing countries. Recently returned from a trip to the US, 'Ali Saif Hassan, who found this "other America" on Al Jazeera, was surprised at what he had also learned from American television.
… What I saw on American television when I was recently in Washington was the complicated process of approving federal expenditure. ... If it takes that long to get money to a state (like Louisiana) in America, how long must it take to reach Iraq? Maybe now I understand some of the difficulties that the Americans are facing in Iraq.
Nevertheless, as these two visions of America collide, they give the viewer increased and better-contextualized knowledge, and through that knowledge, the ability to criticize, or empathize, or simply to better understand. Information and exposure will serve simultaneously to substantiate America’s critics, and in the best case, to build understanding of the humanity of the ‘other.’ Equating this to mounting “anti-Americanism” in any kind of reflexive sense would be a missed opportunity. Instead, critiques emanating from the airing of such “dirty laundry” should be considered the product of gradually more informed opinion, a value to be promoted by all advocates of democracy.
It is worth recalling that, “in an era of 24-hour satellite television and the Internet, public diplomacy is about who Americans are and what they do, not just what they say.”(23) Building a more realistic image of American society—in its complexity and, sometimes, its tragedy and ugliness—can help local reformers to evaluate the advantages and limits of the advice that they receive. Even if, at the end of the day, they still choose to turn to the United States and Europe for assistance in the planning and implementation of development projects, as they likely will, it will be from a position empowered by greater knowledge of the challenges facing democracies both in and outside of the developing world, with—perhaps—the more realistic expectation that we are all works-in-progress.