Around the start of the current war, American, British, Iraqi and other Arab government representatives all went on camera to denounce Al-Jazeera. "The Fox News of the Arab world" must be doing something right.
"Different channels. Different truths," is the tagline for Control Room, Jehane Noujaim's documentary about five weeks inside both the satellite TV network watched by 40 million Arab viewers and the Coalition Media Center at CentCom, the U.S. forces' HQ some 700 miles from Baghdad. Noujaim is anti-war but fair; at minimum, she demonstrates that Al-Jazeera is far from harboring crazed anti-American fanatics. Her film doesn't merely portray the familiar Rashomon theme (that different people have different perspectives on the same event); it depicts variant takes on the truth within the same individual.
On the one hand, a Syrian producer for Al-Jazeera named Deema Khatib utters prophetic words just after the fall of Baghdad: "The military was the easy part," she reflects. "But now is the real test, because now this is going to jeopardize the future of the U.S. and jeopardize the relations of the U.S. with the world. When Bush is gone, America will be ailing." But on the other hand, she's capable of self-criticism: "I think it is the Arabs' fault," she says. "We don't liberate ourselves, so we give other people a chance to do it to us."
One of the most likable of the personalities in Control Room is Hassan Ibrahim, an Al-Jazeera journalist who's likewise full of contradictions: Once a Saudi classmate of Osama bin Laden, he also spent a year in Arizona as a Deadhead. A bomb explodes on a TV monitor, and Hassan mutters, "Ah, democracy"; he watches as Baghdad is attacked and sings his own satiric lyrics to "Yankee Doodle Dandy." But while vehemently opposed to the U.S. presence in the Middle East, Hassan also praises the U.S. Constitution and expresses confidence "that the U.S. people will put a stop to this war."
Lt. Josh Rushing, a media liaison officer at CentCom, comes off as a ten-hut Marine at first, but shows real understanding later (especially in the deleted scenes, which are nearly as extensive and illuminating as the 86-minute film itself).
On the one hand, he defends American military planning and "precision munitions": "We've got our smartest guys working on how we can do the least -- not most -- damage," he says. And he's disappointed that the Arab network doesn't show more footage of Iraqis welcoming their captors. But amid repeated clips of Donald Rumsfeld denouncing Al-Jazeera reporters as liars, Rushing directly tells some of those same reporters that he favors broadcasting more of the graphic images of wounded Iraqi civilians, and that he's well aware that he takes Arab spin and applies his own counter-spin. Acknowledging Hassan's comment on the visceral impact for all Arabs of seeing tanks rolling into an Arab capital, Rushing laments how apathetic Americans are about the Middle East. "After I get out of the Marines," says Rushing, "I want to do something about the Palestinian issue. No American connects them. But everyone here sees them as the same thing."
Rushing concludes that grasping the truth in the Middle East is "like catching a greased pig."
Samir Khader, a chain-smoking senior producer at Al-Jazeera, is sarcastic about Rumsfeld: "Obstructing the progress of their agenda is 'misinformation,'" he scoffs. Samir is opposed to Bush and the war, yet he wants to move to the United States, send his daughters to college there and "exchange the Arab nightmare for the American dream."
Responsible for spreading what Rumsfeld regards as Al-Jazeera's "propaganda," Samir believes that "Fallujah is a war crime." And yet, in a stunning admission, Samir says of the war that "If I were an American, I wouldn't think it was wrong."
Who gets called a "terrorist" and who gets termed a "freedom fighter" is relative, as Samir knows and the U.S. experience in Nicaragua attests. But Samir emphasizes that, above all else, Americans must understand that Iraq "is a tribal country." If someone is killed, he says, "the other side will try to avenge."
That fits with many Americans' view of the Middle East, as if it were filled with a bunch of roaming urban gangs to be dismissed as primitive. But the tenor of Jouhaim's film is that for people on both sides of an issue -- and as emotional as it was for the Arab journalists to see a Muslim capital fall -- it's still possible to keep multiple perspectives in mind at the same time. Perhaps many Americans cling to a pro-war view because they perceive that to be the American way.
Maybe it's not just Iraqis who are tribal. We all like the comfort of lining up as us and them.