Quran Burning and the US media: It’s a question of ethics

The first amendment is a genius piece of work. It gives American journalists the freedom to express and air information, it gives ordinary citizens the power to vocally criticize authority, and it also gives the priest of a small church in Florida the right to publically burn Qurans on the ninth anniversary of September 11.

Terry Jones
Pastor Terry Jones. Photo credit: AP

Although burning a holy book doesn’t legally violate the US Constitution it is a clear provocation and should be, at least in my book, defined as hate speech. This priest in Florida knows he could do this but the question really is: should he? It is the same question that I ask the American media that has managed to blow this small story out of all proportion. This story could have been briefly covered as an isolated incident happening in a small Florida town. Instead, the media grabbed it and ran. They extensively covered it, analyzed it, and brought talking heads to debate it. Yes, they have the right to publish and air whatever they wish – and expand or diminish any event but, again, should they?

A story that could have been easily forgotten has now become an event that is being watched globally. It will go down as another example of “Muslim-hating Americans.” It will be exploited by extremists in their attempts to recruit future followers. In their attempts to extensively cover Islamophobia, can journalists actually endanger American lives?

The Arabic media has slowly started to pick up the story in the same pace that they picked up the Danish cartoons story which eventually unleashed more than a few bombshells.  Here is a round up of the Arabic media coverage of the Quran burning  story.

Media practitioners should be careful when they decide whether to cover or bury a story, for today the consequences of this decision can be grave.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to the media today asking them not to cover the planned burning event on September 11 “as an act of patriotism.” I don’t see shying away from giving big attention to a small story as an act of patriotism per se, but mostly as a question of ethics. But ethics, as we well know, can be elusive.

‘So, how was your summer?’

Since I moved to the US, I have gradually become one of those who dread Mondays. I don’t dread Mondays for the obvious reasons:  The start of a new hectic week, the end of a weekend, etc. I dread it because it’s the day that I have to submit my social life report first thing in the morning. It’s the day that I’m expected to find a very good answer to the most dreadful question: “How was your weekend?”

When people ask me this question (and they always do), I usually stutter, trying to find the most exciting response. It’s really nerve-racking as I have to come up with an answer along the lines of “It was great. I hiked the Appalachian Trail, and swam in the Atlantic, then had a BQQ on a boat with exciting cosmopolitan, friends who discussed the merits of eating beef from grass-fed cows.”

The sad reality is that I always fail in this instance by giving the wrong answer to this inevitable question. My answer is usually something like: “It was nice, relaxing”. Really, why impose that pressure on me? What if I spent my weekend drinking coffee, and watching reruns of Sex and the City in my Victoria’s Secret Pajamas? What if the highlight of my weekend was using Weed and Feed for the first time? Can I still submit this in the weekend report on Monday morning without eyebrows being raised and quick smiles being exchanged?

Living in a town where motivation and moving up the ladder is the name of the game, having a lame weekend would not bode well for my career. I feel tremendous pressure to fit it, to be able to concur the weekend like the rest of the Washingtonians so that I can submit a stellar report first thing on the very fist day of the working week.

The sad news is that this pressure doubles when it’s summer time, when people not only ask you about your weekend but also ask you about your summer. Now that’s when I start sweating (and not only because of the record-breaking heat). It’s usually the time of the year when people expect me to come up with answers that include words such as “Hawaii”, “Disney Land” “Beach”  “cruise” and “Europe”. See, I failed miserably this summer since I can’t provide any of the correct answers. What I did this summer was absolutely nothing. I went to work, watched reruns of Sex and the City and did projects around the house. In normal circumstances I shouldn’t feel bad about it, should I? But not here, not in this town where the brightest and the most competitive dwell. Not in this cut-throat city where high scores need to be achieved, all-year around especially during summer time. Do you see my debacle nowadays? Not only do I have to give a report about my weekend, but I also need to constantly update everyone on my progress for the whole duration of the summer (three months or more). I have to keep them updated on how exciting (or unexciting) my life is. It is a double whammy really, and I’m one of those with feeble hearts who will eventually succumb to this scary pressure and collapse.

The good news is that it’s September and summer is almost over. This means I will go to submitting only one weekly report that I usually fail. Ah, well, what can I do? You can’t have it all. And on that note, hope everyone is having a good summer!

Octavia Nasr’s blunder: When a tweet gets you fired

Octavia Nasr's tweet
Octavia Nasr's tweet

As many of you have heard by now: CNN Senior Middle East correspondent Octavia Nasr has been fired over one single tweet. The 140 (or less) word burst said the following:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”.

The tweet resulted in a public outcry with some accusing her of being a sympathizer of an group viewed by many in the US as a “terrorist” organization. CNN acted swiftly to the controversy by firing Nasr.

What a sad way to end the career of a veteran journalist liker her! Nasr and I exchanged a few “tweets” over the past months, and I highly admired her. I saw her as a passionate, hard-working journalist. She represented the best of Arabs. Unfortunately, she made a mistake by voicing her own opinion while working as journalist and representing CNN. In fact, her twitter user name was “octavianasrcnn,” which made it clear that her views were linked to CNN.

As a trained journalist myself, I regard what she did as an error in judgment. She must have gotten so carried away with all the Twitter excitement (which includes crowdsourcing and direct, personal interaction) that she forgot to abide by the fairly rigid rules of mainstream media. Journalists are not supposed to air their personal opinions when they present themselves as part of a news organization. There is no question about that. You will never be viewed as a balanced reporter when you publicly express your opinion, especially about a hot political issue like that of Hezbulah.

Nasr recognized her mistake and issued an apology, which I thought was the right thing to do.

However, this was not enough for CNN and they simply let her go. It’s disappointing. If I was her boss and I had to make the decision, I would have given her a warning and asked her to issue a public apology. Sacking her seems a bit excessive, especially for someone who has been working for the organization for two decades and has given so much. Why not give her a second chance?

In addition to putting the word “Hezoballa” and “Respect” in one sentence, Nasr has also made another mistake: she forgot  or chose to forget  the sad reality of the world we are living in, where there are many watching and waiting for public figures to make mistakes. Those of Arab/Middle Eastern backgrounds are scrutinized more than others. At least that is how things look these days. Think Helen Thomas, who made a similar mistake. Thomas shouldn’t have said what she said. It was unacceptable. Thomas also forgot today’s sad reality. Scrutiny is the name of the game. Forgiveness is no longer an option.

As a writer and a trained reporter from an Arab background I’m completely aware of this scrutiny. I remember when I first moved to the US and was looking for a job; a number of potential employers questioned my ethics as a reporter and asked me bluntly if I would be able to report on issues, like the Palestinian-Israeli topic for example, in a fair and balanced manner. They immediately assumed that I would be biased.

This sense of scrutiny follows me most of the time, so much so that I will likely  write at least two or three drafts of this simple blog post to make sure I don’t make a public blunder. It’s sad and frustrating, but there is nothing much I can do about it.

Twitter or not, never forget to stick with basic ethics and make sound judgments, because yes, forgiveness is no longer an option.

My own food revolution

As I write this, I’m seated on a train headed back to DC from New York City. This basically means that I can’t keep making up excuses about not having time to update the blog. I do have time (four hours to be exact), and I can’t keep delaying something I wanted to share for a while. No I’m not with a child, for those who are so eager for me to procreate. The news is a major change of my lifestyle. It can simply be summarized as my own food revolution, mostly inspired by a celebrity chef.

But before I talk about the chef and his effect on me, I would like to go back in time to when the journey downhill all started. The story of my deterioration began with my first pay check. Yep, you  heard me right, it all went downhill when I got my first pay check, and decided to be fully independent by detaching myself from  my mom’s home-cooked food.

I thought dinning out and paying for whatever junk I put into my body was all it took to show that I made it into the adulthood world. So I quickly replaced mom’s Magloubeh‘s and Mlukhyeeh’s with fried chicken and big Mac’s. Please note that I’m talking about the early 90’s, the decade when Amman got introduced to the fast food industry with the advent of what I like to call the ” junk food firsts”, the first McDonald, the first Burger King, and the first Subway.

Yep, back then it was cool and hip to be seen devouring American food. It was empowering to be able to leave with my coworkers during lunch and delve into KFC’s “Zinger” and Arby’s curly fries. Yes, I made it , I thought to myself. I’m an emancipated woman who had just distanced herself from fresh produce and organic farming. Of course, that’s was when I started raking the calories, no surprise here. It was also when I started to feel lethargic, easily irritated and moody. While my downhill journey was just beginning, Amman Junk food stores kept mushrooming.

My deterioration continued for almost a decade until I decided to put an end to the fast food era. Not sure what made the first change. It might have been  my moving to a region in the US where health awareness was widespread, or it might have been the fact that I turned thirty and felt my body deteriorating. I started watching my diet and began doing some moderate exercise. This slightly improved my well-being but not to the level that was needed. I knew there was something still wrong in my eating habits. Getting rid of junk food was simply not enough, for some reason.

However,  in the past few months or so, I got a brand new inspiration. This might sound a bit cheesy and borders on the cliche, but I don’t care. My inspiration came from a TV  reality show. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a mere reality show has changed my life. The show is called Food Revolution and it is about British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who went to the most obese city in the US: Huntington, West Virginia to try o change the school’s lunch system. In his show he promotes healthy eating, and encourages the love of cooking. Nothing new, no? True, but the most striking thing for me was the issue of processed food. Yes, that was the missing link. Since I moved to the US, I had fell hard for the convenience of American living by buying whatever processed food I could find to make a quick semi-tasty meal. I thought when in Rome, buy processed. My freezer was filled with frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, potato wedges, pasta meals and others. At least, I was not eating a Whopper, I thought. Little did I know how some processed food can have even a worse impact than some of the nastiest junk food out there.

It was really until I watched this show, and realized how important whole food cooking is that I ultimately decided to make a drastic change in my life. I made a conscious decision to only eat food that is made from scratch. It was easier than I thought. I gathered all the cook books that I owed and made weekly grocery lists to achieve the goal. I didn’t stop here. I made sure to double the size of our moderate garden beds to include a large variety of vegetables that I can grow in our backyard. I rode the now yuppie wave of organic food, and even took the time to watch Food Inc.

The result was remarkable. Not only do I feel better, but  I look better. I lost almost 10 pounds mostly by focusing on wholesome food. I have to admit, cooking from scratch everyday can be a burden but the sense of sataifaction that I get after I finish any meal is usually my ultimate pay off. The most fascinating part for me was how I came full circle by actually embracing the home-cooked food that I rebelled against in my early twenties. I found myself looking for my mom’s recipes and making sure that I include them in my weekly meal planning. Yeah, yeah, mothers are always right!

Before I end this rant, I’d like to leave you with this TED talk in which Jamie Oliver talks about the show and his food revolution. I encourage everyone to watch it until the end.

Disclaimer: I never got to finish this post on the train. I got distracted and lost my inspiration. On a positive note, I managed to finish this post two days later, right after I devoured a shrimp linguini made by yours truly and yes, totally from scratch.

Transatlantic Arabic reading

My friend Bassam disagrees with me. He tells me he avoids reading any Arabic publications on planes heading to the US.

“It’s out of respect for their fear,” he tells me. “What’s that supposed to mean? ” I ask.

“Well, you know. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable while flying. You know how things are now.” “Come on, you’re not doing anything wrong,” I reply. “You should read the book that you like. It’s your right.”

Of course, we didn’t agree, because very few people agree with me on anything but that’s okay.

Unlike Bassam, I didn’t have any respect for anyone last month and decided to take the Egyptian bestselling novel Azazil (عزازيل) with me on a flight from Amman to DC. The first leg of the flight was from Amman to London. Reading a book that clearly displays “the scary language” was not a worry for me leaving from Amman. ِAfter all, the plane was filled with Arabic speakers who are used to seeing and reading “the language that should not be named.”

It was a great flight. I had three seats to myself. I kicked back and read for five hours while drinking wine and being served food and snacks. Nothing was expected from me and I felt elated.

The second leg of the flight was when I became nervous and started thinking about my friend Bassam and his no-Arabic-publication on-US flights policy. Do I really need to do this? I mean, I could just watch the in-flight entertainment and save myself all the trouble.

Cover of 'Azil'
The cover of 'Azazil'

Of course, as soon as the plane from London to DC took off, I pulled Azazil from my carry-on bag and put it on my lap. I had to get myself in trouble because that’s who I am. The middle-aged, all-American looking woman sitting next to me was reading a book that had the word Afghanistan in its title. A good sign, I told myself.

Somehow, I felt I needed to explain myself before I started reading my scary book. I felt I needed to talk to her to make her feel comfortable as she will be spending the next eight hours of her life in very close proximity to me (you know, United economy can get very cozy) .

To my surprise, she was the one who broke the ice and started the conversation. She started telling me about the book she was reading and how much she was enjoying it. Of course, that was my chance to show her my true colors. I showed her my novel and told her point blank that I was a bit nervous about reading it on the plane.

“Why”? she asked.

“Well you know. It’s in Arabic, and I have been reading lots of stories lately about people being stopped at airports and taken off planes just for carrying Arabic books. You know, some passengers get nervous if they see Arabic script on the plane.”

“Quite honestly, I’m very impressed that you actually can read it,” she said.

This is a very good sign.

A few minutes after our brief conversation, the flight attendant passed by us offering drinks.

“I can’t believe that on US flights they make you pay for alcohol,” I told the woman next to me (whose names I can’t remember now because I’m old). I felt I had to say something to keep the conversation going.

“I know,” she said. “You know what? let get me you a drink.”

” What? No you shouldn’t. Come on. You hardly know me”

“What do you like?”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!”

“Okay. I will have some red wine.”

Just like that, a total stranger bought me a drink for absolutely no reason. It was such a random act of kindness and a nice welcome home to my newly adopted country, where people are genuine, friendly, and generous. Somehow, I proved my friend Bassam wrong. Not only can you read  Arabic on the plane, but some flyers find this impressive and might even buy you a drink or two.

I was hoping that by reading on the plane, I might shatter some people’s stereotypes of Arabic readers, but what happened was the other way around. My own stereotypes of Americans being scared of my native language on a transatlantic flight was deconstructed. There is no reason to fear or hide from who I am.  The fact of the matter is I am who I am and it is a great thing. After all, people buy me drinks!