Friday, August 22, 2008

Ethan Bronner, deputy foreign editor of the New York Times [now he is Jerusalem bureau chief], responded to my critique of his obituary of Mahmud Darwish (I cite with his permission and my response is below):
"Dear Mr. AbuKhalil,
Several people sent me your irritated comments on my Darwish obit. I understand that attacking The Times and by extension what I write is part of the point of your blog. And not all your objections struck me as wrong. But you were awfully harsh. And just so you know for your future attacks, it is not true that I know no Arabic. My Arabic is far from deep or brilliant but I did study it for several years first under Moin Halloun in Jerusalem (vernacular) and then under Nader Uthman in NY (standard). As deputy foreign editor of The Times, I created an Arabic class under Nader at the paper that is still going on. I also pushed very hard for the paper to recruit Arabic speakers and train correspondents assigned to this region in Arabic. In the years that I was pushing for it (and I was hardly solely responsible for it but I definitely played a role), the paper hired Hassan Fattah, Jad Mouawad and Kareem Fahim. In addition, due partly to my pushing, Robert Worth, who has been our Beirut correspondent since the winter, took a year off to study Arabic full time at the paper’s expense. It was the first time in the paper’s history that it did this with Arabic (historically, it has only done that with Russian and Chinese). This occurred at a time, of course, when there has been a great effort to spare expenses.
As to the specifics of your complaints: what is with the shoes in the face? I feel fine with saying that Darwish looked and dressed European. Your finding it offensive seems to me overly sensitive. I would agree that saying Darwish “left” Palestine doesn’t portray the situation in 1948. But I can’t believe anyone has any doubts about who razed his village and that struck me as a fairly weird reason to complain. The language of the street is the language I hear every day in Palestine and it differs markedly from the language Darwish employed in his poetry. Why did that distinction offend you? Was it the word street? In reporting the obit, I spoke with several Arabic scholars about his poetic language as well as with two of the three Palestinians who work for The Times here – Khaled Abu Akr and Taghreed el-Khodary. Both love his work. So I tried hard to get a sense of his poetics from those who care deeply about it. Finally, I agree that I should have noted that Darwish broke with Arafat over Oslo. I was already beyond our agreed length for the story and I worried that I would have to explain Oslo and his objections. But also, I had gained the sense that his disillusionment with Arafat and politics were much deeper than just Oslo, which was the last straw.

Ethan Bronner"

My emailed response:

I read your message with interest. You are right: I am highly critical of the Times and find its coverage of the Middle East consistently lacking, politically biased, and often factually incorrect. The obituary is one element in a larger problem, and I did find that it did not do justice to the place of poetry (in general) and to the place of Darwish in Arab popular and elite culture. But the celebration of Darwish in the Arab world, as one Arab eulogist pointed out, was--and is--a celebration of Palestine first and foremost, and that was missing from your obituary. Now on Arabic: Mr. Bronner: you really don't know Arabic, in that you can't read Darwish's poetry, and my sources tell me that you can't read newspapers and that you don't conduct interviews in Arabic. Studying Arabic is one thing: knowing Arabic is another. Over the years, I have studied Persian, German, and Hebrew but they are not on the same level of my knowledge of Arabic, English and French. I am sure that you know what I mean here. I wish Robert Worth the best in his language endeavor but let me break it to you: he will not know Arabic after one year of study. You may talk to the instructors at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey about that.
As for what you wrote on his appearance: yes, that was the most bizarre part. I don't know why it struck you that he dressed like that: have you met Arab intellectuals in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan? They all dress in blazers and many wear fashionable glasses too. Did you expect an Arab intellectual to don a turban? Darwish's appearance is not odd by Arab standards at all. I don't know one Arab intellectual who dresses in garb: and Gulf intellectuals also dress like him when they are outside of their countries. On shoes: it is an inside joke that I have with my readers. I have noted that foreign US correspondents are at pains to draw sharp distinctions between Arab culture and other world cultures, and many of them seem to relish mentioning that throwing shoes at people is "considered offensive in Arab culture" as if it is not in other cultures. The exaggeration of the distinctions of Arab culture seems to characterize Western media coverage of the region. Yes, the word street is particularly irksome to me: because instead of public opinion people in the West still prefer to refer to "the Arab street" in order to underline some atavistic motives to the people. Also, the street Arabic (language wise) is higly appreciative of Darwish's poetry: he was, and is, understood by an average person on any street, hence his wide popularity."