There is something too easy about being an Arab journalist. The Arab is inherently a babbler, as loquacious as (s)he is indiscrete. All you need to do is hang around a few potential sources. And within minutes you will have all the data you could possibly want. Permission to quote may not be as forthcoming, but the lure of the limelight is usually a sufficient incentive; and if you are not putting anybody in trouble, the chances are your interlocutor will be more than happy to pose for a front-page portrait. True, politics can be trickier, but who can afford to talk politics these days? In matters relating to art and life –– more to the point –– no job is simpler than the Arab journalist’s.
Not so in the UAE!
For three months now I have been trying to wrap my ghutra-less head around this Trucial oddity, and for three months it has been all I could do not to bash said head against the wall.
Time and again I think of stories to write: innocuous, apolitical and absolutely harmless stories. Time and again I hit the same inexplicable roadblock. Forget interesting or provocative commentary. You would not believe what it takes to obtain someone’s phone number. Irrespective, that is, of whether they might actually answer the phone. Say they do, then you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a brief answer to maybe one of five questions. More probably they will offer you someone else’s number, and then that other person will prove to be even less positively disposed. And to think that all you set out to do is cover an exhibition or a screening!
In three months I have coaxed, yelled and pulled strings. On the one occasion when plans did not fall through, the person vanished before I could organise the indispensable photo shoot. I have since learned that this can happen. When you are least expecting it, mobile phones are switched off, secretaries fail to reveal their bosses’ whereabouts under waterboarding, and e-mails continually bounce back.
It all adds to the mystery, of course; and indeed I had almost got used to it.
Until, asking a source’s permission for an anonymous and perfectly pro powers that be quote, I found myself reeling under a string of hysterical protestations. A strange, almost tearful moment: it was at this point that I conceived of my theory about Arab journalists in the UAE being the targets of a secret, nation-wide conspiracy to make them feel as far away from familiar, shoot-the-breeze territory as possible. And perhaps the intention is for them to hone their craft, the better to raise the standards of Arab journalism. I can live with that.
Recalling my easy-going former life as a cultural editor, my concern, rather, is that one day I will give in to the temptation, already strong, to put words into the mouths of those perpetually elusive sources. If they will not talk for fear of losing their jobs, perhaps they will lose them anyway.
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