During the run-up to #tsjturnstwo conference (more on that later this week), I interviewed Bidisha about Palestine, its people, and the role of journalists on the front line of conflict.

Originally published at The Student Journals.


Photography: Limehouse Books

BBC journalist Bidisha travelled to Palestine in April 2011 expecting to write one article on her return. However, “I’m a journalist through and through,” she says, and in May this year she published a slim but moving book, Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine.

Bidisha describes her experiences as “too interesting to ignore”, but is quick to point out that she wrote it with no pretensions: “I could grandly say [I wrote], ‘To bear witness and give a voice to the voiceless.’ But that would be patronising and untrue. Palestine has many very dynamic, vocal and politically active writers, artists, advocates and thinkers of its own [who have] produced incredible works which far dwarf mine.” Amongst her most admired Palestinian writers, Bidisha names Suad Amiry, Susan Abulhawa, British Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, and academic and writer Ghada Karmi.

Her time spent touring the West Bank transformed her perceptions of “this abstract situation known as ‘the Israel/Palestine conflict’ into a real, living, breathing, troubling thing.” Having previously only read about the situations in the West Bank and Gaza in the news, Bidisha gained a new understanding of “the complex psychological, economic and cultural dimensions of a military occupation and oppression.”

Throughout Beyond The Wall, she writes grippingly and poignantly about the real lives and stories of ordinary civilians, which so often go unheard in reporting on foreign conflict. “In newspaper reports, writers understandably go for reporting immediate events and casualties, followed by speculation about what the local, international or strategic consequences will be,” she says. “However, I do think this is changing and there is a realisation that the most profound effects of any conflict and oppression are borne by those faceless, voiceless, ‘ordinary’ people who somehow survive and bear the consequences for generations.” Bidisha argues that comprehensive conflict reporting needs a mix of these styles – “deep and immediate, factual and analytical, narrative and news-oriented” – across all media.

Turning her attention to the wider world, she adds that “people must listen, read, learn and think instead of being obsessed only by the things which will impact their own lives and comforts.” She acknowledges her own experiences of bad news fatigue, which so often comes with reporting on on-going conflicts, and points out it affects writers and activists as well as readers. “It’s understandable and it doesn’t come from cynicism but sometimes simply despair and a sense of powerlessness.” As for keeping readers engaged, Bidisha advises “staying vocal and visible, writing with clarity and concision (never outright anger or repetition – it doesn’t work) and balancing the facts with memorable, humane stories.“

One of her biggest frustrations with the media agenda is the prioritisation of certain stories which are “in fashion”, while others “are totally overlooked or only momentarily examined by the media and world powers.” She describes female genital mutilation, the crisis in the Congo and honour killings as popular focuses for international news, while significant international news such as the Bosnian war “that went on for 3 years before international intervention”, and the military coup in Mauritius this February both missed out on widespread coverage.

That said, for a journalist who often comes across as cynical, Bidisha retains “total faith in the power of journalism and the ability of some journalists to testify, to infiltrate, to tell the truth, to represent reality to the world, to uncover what is hidden, expose corruption, cruelty and injustice.” She adds, “of course, not all journalists do this by any means, but non-fiction reporting of all kinds has great power in the long term. That’s why oppressive governments everywhere from Russia to Mexico to Iran are so active in persecuting journalists.”

Of course reporting on the Middle East has its potential pitfalls, particularly for journalists flown in from the West. Having spent a lot of time writing and presenting on the Arab Revolutions, Bidisha has heard the same complaints from Egyptian, Libyan, Bahraini, Yemeni, Lebanese and Syrian activists, of a “persistent Western journalistic reliance on racist, orientalist, colonial clichés when reporting about the Middle East.” The examples she lists are manifold, ranging from the cliché of angry, emotional Arabs to assumptions about the nature of political organisation, with many, many more in between. Bidisha’s frustration with their overabundant use is obvious and she concludes, “avoid clichés and avoid bigotry. Question your own assumptions and those of your colleagues.”

She refers also to reporting on violence against women – something I’m keen to pick up on, knowing Bidisha is at her most passionate when discussing women’s rights. Indeed, she notes that “endemic leering, following, harassment and general disrespect for women at a public street level was completely obvious” during her time in Palestine, as numerous anecdotes in Beyond The Wall testify.

Nevertheless, she says, “I don’t understand” the debate on women journalists’ role in conflict, which dominated Western news following the sexual assault on journalist Lara Logan in Egypt. “It’s as though whenever a woman is attacked, people of all cultural backgrounds use it as an excuse to say the woman should not have been in that place at that time rather than saying what is obvious: the perpetrators should not attack any woman, in any way, in any place, at any time.” She highlights that exploitation and violence against women are “absolutely endemic globally, not just in certain cultures” and is adamant that concerns about personal safety should not put women off reporting on areas of conflict.

“What perpetrators choose to do, to demonstrate their loathing of women, should not silence women or stop women from going anywhere or doing anything we wish to do, since we are free human beings. As always when travelling, research well, plan well, have contingency plans and be as safe and organised as possible while still getting the story. That goes for everyone, of both sexes!”

Finally, I ask Bidisha what advice she’d give to aspiring journalists, particularly those interested in foreign and conflict reporting. “The best writers are the best readers,” she says, “so read up on everything you’re interested in, starting with the newspapers but also longer articles and books on whatever region you are intrigued by.” Starting a blog is a good idea, she adds, with the caveat “but only if you’ve reached a level of real expertise, knowledge and particular insight.” In fact, she’s more keen to stress the importance of good training and experience: “I am rather on the side of establishments and institutions as I think they provide the best training ground and the most extensive contacts,” she says. “I would try to get my foot in the door as a professional journalist as soon as possible – training schemes at the BBC, UN, Reuters, Bloomberg or any other major newswire; voluntary trips with charities and aid organisations to the region you’re interested in; contacting the newspapers you’d like to work for and asking if they need someone to report for them.” Turning to her own career development, she tells me, “I can say with my hand on my heart that working for the BBC has contributed hugely to my skills – not just my outer career but my understanding, methods, discipline and professionalism.”

I’m already feeling inspired by the time Bidisha closes with a characteristically sharp summing up of journalism’s raison d’être – a topic with particular resonance in the run-up to Lord Leveson’s report. “Journalists, documentary writers, campaigners and reporters have the potential to tell the truth where and when no one else can, to influence general thinking about current affairs, to speak to rulers and citizens alike and to communicate with everyone. At its best, it’s not just a fine profession but a noble and necessary one.”

Described by The Observer as “an unflinching portrait of life in the West Bank in the 21st Century”, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine is a sharp, immediate reportage published by Seagull Books/Chicago University Press on 15th May 2012.

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