Part I: Welcome to Beirut
I was not supposed to be there. Yet I took a seat, opened my notepad, and pretended to write. Everyone shifted their focus on me: the new girl in a pretty dress. Abashed by their frowns, I retreated to a chair at the back of the room, and remained reluctant to explain why I had come.
The Marine Tower is in the part of Achrafieh familiar to journalists: the underside of Gemaizih, South of Rue Gemmayze, a middle-class art and saloon haven of bullet-torn residential buildings above modest restaurants.
I had imagined reporting for local, art and culture, and possibly, business sections. For two months I had hoped to sit among other reporters in what might have appeared a squat, smoky, and stimulating newsroom.
Instead I attended an intern meeting without invitation one floor below the office. Inside the boardroom, a man holding a French cigarette addressed a dozen of interns who remained seated. Some wrote in their notepads while others typed at their laptops; but most gave their attention to the man in front of the room.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I am a journalist,” I said “Hasn’t Richard mention to you that I was coming?”
“No,” he had replied, “take a seat.”
As the meeting neared its end, interns continued firing ideas at the man in charge who was soon to become their editor.
“Because the city is congested with traffic making me late for weekly meetings, I would like to understand and write about traffic issues,” said a British intern.
“I will get you in touch with an NGO though they may not have the percentages of how much the traffic has increased from the previous year,” the editor replied.
The editor proceeded to quiz us on the number of traffic engineers who remained in Beirut after the Civil War. The answer was a pitiful “one.”
“I want to cover the proposed cigarette price increase,” said another British intern, “and maybe issues on the city’s clean water supply.”
“Good—speak with the municipality minister,” the editor responded.
Finally lighting his cigarette, the editor pointed to the man next to me, who he assigned to cover the discrimination of Philippine domestic workers at beach resorts. For another half an hour the following coverage of ideas remained earnest: uninhabited soap factories, unexpected tourist boom, financially depleted airport, forgotten fishing gear, and unobtainable driver licenses.
“How about you?” he had suddenly asked me. It was my turn to accept an assignment in a city I had resided for only two weeks.
“The only news I have reported is the unexpected diesel leak in my water supply,” I had replied, “caused by the gas station across the street from where I live.”
“Welcome to Beirut!,” he announced.
With that statement I officially joined the staff of predominately male intern reporters and photographers. I received a tape recorder, a written press pass, and permission to use an office laptop. I became familiar with lax deadlines and delayed communication among inter-departmental editors.
My first published article on a pompous store opening became a flop; part from my reportage of the wrong information and part, in the lack of direction and clarity among my two editors. A funny remark and my editor’s last minute edits saved the article, before the story filed the following evening.
By the end of the meeting I was asked to join a circle of 20 interns and report business and art & culture news.
Part II: The Cocktail the Lebanese Prefer
One religious group heads The Press Federation which owns Beirut’s newspapers, while another leads the Union of Journalists, in charge of the city’s journalists. The majority of journalists are not members of the union; they complain of its limitations. The man who ran the union for 50 years had recently died. The union, like all institutions in Beirut, remain weak in hands of its “dictators.” These leaders are politically and religiously selective in dictating the guidelines while setting limitations to the media.
In a country ruled more by sectarian custom than by law, it is no surprise institutions are championed by families. Positions are passed down from father to son and daughter. On national television some politicians boast of their two account books: one for their family, the other for the government.
According to my editor, newspapers are not owned by parties. They are financially aided by elite families often members of a religious doctrine who decide its style and content. While some editors express insolent doubt of images, most scorn loudly—and coarsely—at cluttered headlines.
Arabic publications refrain from using subtitles. They summarize the news in three bold headlines and congest the front page with images. One paper publishes cartoons and enlarged images of religious figures, and abstain images of two seated politicians holding diplomatic talks.
“This is what I call the national cocktail,” says my editor, “the national style of Lebanon.” The style has been, and will always remain, cluttered with photographs accompanied by articles written with conglomerate of national detail. News is fed from a single national wire, which receives their news from their correspondents and not from local reporters.
News is therefore delivered from top to bottom. The internet is not a trusted source of information and lawsuits remain prevalent. The style of local papers remain a controversial topic while more and more newspapers become victim to magazine style of writing—clever features parred with exhaustive portfolio of images.
Our newspaper shuns cluttered titles and subtitles. We like politicians sitting in chairs. Then again, it is not up to me, or my editor to choose images and captions. Rather the publisher, a member of the Prime Minister’s party, evokes the final word…and drinks the last cocktail.
Part III: Lessons from Ramadan
On command, the students discuss their findings from their July reports to their editors. They discuss prospects for August and remain lighthearted by the upcoming Muslim festivities of Ramadan.
To some, the second week of August has come rather slowly; to my editor it threatened the day when all moves in delayed reaction. On August 11th, dawn festivities delay the workday and post sunset celebrations excuse all from evening chores. Dinner parties become a priority for religious families and administrative office start late, and close their doors early afternoon in time for the following days’ spectacular.
For journalist such splendor becomes a burden. Interviews are postponed and canceled. During interviews, gifts are granted to some reporters in order to add “mirage” to each article on behalf of each party. Dinner plates praise Allah, and espresso shots with cigarettes remain “on the house.”
The night of Ramadan, I had interviewed a few jewelers in famed gold Souk. In exchange for my time, I had received a watch and pendant in shape of Lebanon. As soon as the interviewees were asked to explain their failures, they had defended their parties and blamed others for their wrongdoings.
I soon realized influence was bought and information was favorable on the interviewee’s behalf. Meanwhile, self-practice of censorship continued. Businessmen became reluctant to admit their profits in fear of being criticized for tax evasion while politicians hid their agendas from the public.
“Ramadan,” said my editor, “Is a time to plow through all bullshit.” I plowed alright, accepted the hospitality, and anticipated the answers.