5 Reasons People Care More about Paris than Beirut

Cool Beirut by rabiem22

Last week was a flood of bad news online, beginning with the ongoing confusion surrounding the crash of a Russian jet in the Sinai peninsula, and ending with two terrorists attacks.

That’s right: two. One was in Beirut, the other Paris.

Facebook went into overdrive, allowing people in Paris to post that they were ‘safe’ (and I did go and say thank God on each friend’s wall) and then adapt their profile photo to have the red, white, and blue of the French flag superimposed.

No such options for the hundreds of people who were maimed in Beirut.

Remember those off duty American airmen who saved that French train?

Well, no such glory for father Adel Termos who reportedly tackled the bomber to the ground in the market, setting off the vest, saving lives, and sacrificing his and that of his young child.

So the media has a bias. This we know.

What we refuse to acknowledge is our complicity in this bias.

Ratings are everything – even for the 24 hour news cycle. They still run advertisements after all.

We must acknowledge that the bias in the media is the one we give it. The news reports on news that we want to know about.

Here are three reasons why people want to know more about Paris than Beirut.

5. Beirut… the Middle East… guilty by association. Internet trolls may be the only ones expressing this chain of thought out loud while the rest of us kick it away, like a soccer ball, stinging on feet. Because of the religion of the extremists, Muslims and Arabs are judged as being complicit in their own pain. Ask the Syrians drowning while attempting to start over after the civil war,

4. The Olympics of Suffering. If the stats say that 100 people died in one place (Paris) and 200+ people were maimed in another (Beirut) the economy of suffering says that Paris wins this round. As humans we are conditioned to shut out pain so that it doesn’t overwhelm us. In the modern age, with the suffering of the world at our fingertips, we shy away when we need to stay tuned.

3. The attack on Saturday resonated as a continuation of the story of the French (and the French way of life) being under attack. The coverage of the massacre at the magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 started that thread. We care about Paris because we already cared about Paris. That story was told with the subtext of freedom of speech as the unjust provocation for extremists.

2. Paris, like New York, and London, dominates popular culture in the movies, think Forget Paris, and books, of course, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you search in Amazon.com, there are 1,036,380 results for Paris across all the departments. Know how many there are for a similar search of Beirut? Under 10,000. Not kidding. Go try it. PS the French flag and “solidarite” have been the central image in the scrolling items bar at the top since the weekend.

1. People have been to Paris. Or dream to go to Paris. Or plan to visit Paris. How many can say that of Beirut? The ease at which the media forgets about Beirut is equal to the difficulty we have in conceptualizing a place we have not been, thought about, or considered. Beirut exists for most outside the Arab world as a limited rendition of itself, concocted in Hollywood soundstages (love you, Homeland, but you went racial profiling rouge from Season 3). You can’t have empathy for people in a place you can’t imagine.

I have been to Beirut. I’ve felt the pulse of a city that has survived 30 years of civil war and suffered through some of the most entrenched conflict in the world. The Lebanese love to party. They speak Arabic inflected by French rhythms (most of them speak French as well as English). Films like Caramel show you the beauty of Lebanese women. I have sat on the border between Syria and Lebanon waiting three hours in the visa office with an American passport in hand, and a cup of tea in the other.

The lack of compassion for Beirut does not surprise those who live there. This what a friend posted on her Facebook wall:

30 years of war and plus (because the war did not end yet) and Lebanese were suffering from terrorism and the world was somehow indifferent. So why we are expecting from the world now to stand in solidarity with us! During all these years we did not wait for anyone to stand by our side. With so much pain we tried to stand on our feet so many times! Sometimes we failed, and few times we succeeded! But everyday, until now we keep trying! 

I wrote back, asking her to not give up on all of us.

5 Rules for Reading Gender in Arab Pop Fiction

Photo by Kenny Louie
Photo by Kenny Louie

As many of you know, I am a professor of literature and writing. Last week the fall term began with exciting new developments: I am teaching a new course, called Gender in Popular Arab Fiction. I love literature, both reading and writing it, but often am teaching first year composition. The opportunity of developing a writing about reading course is the best of all worlds.

After hearing the course’s title, many mentioned wanting to sit in on the course – which meets at 8:30 a.m. but few (other than those registered) attend. So here’s your chance! This semester we are reading short stories from Beirut 39, as well as Girls of Riyadh, and Finding Nouf. Read along with us. Feel free to test out the elements of literary analysis as well.

If you’ve ever wondered how to analyze fiction, here’s your crash course. Grab any one of these books, write a 100 word post following these directions, and I’ll give you some feedback (if you want it). The most important thing about reading – have fun. Write about an aspect of the text that engages you – or explain why it didn’t.

Use Reader Response Theory

The premise of this strategy stresses you, as the reader, as central to interpreting a work. There’s no fixed meaning of a story – no right or wrong answer. Rather we create our own meaning, filtering the text through our life experiences, feelings, and backgrounds.

In order to write about your response as a reader to a text, try following these “close reading” tips on how to examine the text of the story.

Close Reading Ins/Outs

  1. Pay close attention to the language and structure of the story.
  1. Consider the relationship between the parts of the story that stand out to you (symbol, theme, figurative language, etc.) and the meaning of the whole story.
  1. Discuss specific details and patterns in order to make a generalization about an overall issue, idea, message, or effect.
  1. Look for patterns in the text (or across texts)—repetitions, contradictions, or similarities.
  1. Ask questions about the patterns you’ve noticed—especially how and why. PROVIDE ANSWERS.

Providing answers is the part where we the reader demonstrate our understanding or position on the text.


How to Help Gaza in 1 Easy Step

The news is rife with atrocities in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, among other places. We clamor against death tolls and rightly so. But the public can grow weary of these images, preferring to turn back to their more comfortable programming.

I am particularly touched by the Gaza crisis because I’m watching how it has polarized friends around the world through social media. Perhaps people misunderstand the Palestinian cause because of the myths about this historical conflict. Perhaps because they don’t know any Palestinians either personally or culturally.

Artists, writers, musicians, friends: each have a role in building our world view of a people group. Sadly for most places in the Arab world, the people are represented by their politicians.

Unlike people in Arab countries, the rest of us can’t as easily make distinctions between people and their leaders. My Iranian friends love me though I’m American. My Pakistani research assistants write down notes from our sessions though I’m Indian. The world thinks of Gaza as being ruled by Hamas because that’s the predominate talking point.

Instead of death tolls or media soundbites, how about we think for ourselves? Can we see people for what they are: humans like us who have passions, desires, needs?

Let me share with you an artist, Mona Hatoum, who I learned about during the exhibit Turbulence at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. I live in the Middle East and this certainly allows me to gauge the messages the media feeds us about this part of the world. As a writer much of my recent work has been set here because I see it was part of my role to contribute to a wider group of stories about this place. I’m still an expat writing about a place that is not my origin but after nearly 10 years here I write with the other perspective in mind.

Do you have other suggestions of how we can combat media saturation?