Michael Slackman is the Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, having served in this position for the past five years. Previously he worked in Albany, Los Angeles, and Russia, and this summer he will be ending his stay in Egypt to become bureau chief of Berlin. This move is forced upon him, as he has become blacklisted in Iran, and all but blacklisted additionally in Syria, Libya, and Algeria. Covering the Middle East is nearly impossible if the doors to these nations are closed. He leaves sadly, but with full appreciation for life abroad and the privileges it brings in being able to see the world through the eyes of another.
This is the perspective Slackman spoke of during a public lecture the evening of April 15 at the Abraham Forum. This initiative was developed by St. John’s Church as an effort to build bridges between East and West, Muslim and Christian, at the point of intersection in the church’s backyard of Maadi, Cairo. Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler introduced Slackman with these words, believing the reflections of such a high placed journalist would help enlighten the local expatriate community about realities in the Middle East.
Slackman began his presentation by remarking that if those in attendance had done a Google search on his name, they may not have been interested to come. Spoken tongue-in-cheek, he explained how his work has come under much criticism. He has always made it his ambition to engage people in a free and open exchange of ideas, allowing the subjects he covers to be able to express themselves in a forum otherwise impenetrable. Unless the media carries their voices, the people of the Middle East will remain unheard.
Though Slackman emphasized he only reports, never advocates, this interest in conveying faithful representation has engendered significant controversy. He tries to show the cultural and political nuances of the word ‘terrorism’. He depicts wide questioning of the Holocaust. He even writes how the oft-perceived trash dump is in reality a loosely organized but effective recycling center. In all matters he defends his practice as both good journalism and in the interests of the United States. Should not a policy maker desire to know the reality of what people are thinking?
Slackman gains his perspective through the challenging but rewarding work of face-to-face journalism, certainly with political figures but primarily with people on the street. Though he requires the use of a translator he states that it is very easy to get to know Egyptians. As he has “hung out” with them he has sensed that they desire to make themselves known. Both here and elsewhere this gives him an appreciation for the “little things” that make such a difference in understanding a people and their culture.
Unfortunately, he states, these little things were lost on the United States during the invasion of Iraq. Everyone who lives in the Arab world understand that the hand signal for ‘slow down’ is to turn your palm upward and put your fingers together, bobbing it up and down. The US military signal, however, is to raise your fist and knock, as if against a door. Slackman stated he was reticent to say what this signal meant to the people of Iraq, as it was quite uncouth, but this failure to communicate caused countless incidents as Iraqis approached checkpoints and each misunderstood the ‘go slow’ signals of the other. Add this to the fact that the military could not comprehend that the “We love Bush” slogans they received were only the knee-jerk reaction mirroring the “We love Saddam” chants offered to the prior ruling power, and Iraq was a disaster waiting to happen, but could have been prevented.
A vital difference highlighted by Slackman which goes far beyond the “little things” is the role of religion in society. In the United States it is common that a newspaper have a religion reporter, who occupies a rather minor and generally limited sphere of importance. This pattern though is impossible in Egypt and the Middle East, where religion touches upon and intertwines with every subject imaginable. For most people of the region the first identity is ‘Muslim’, second is the particular nationality, and third is ‘Arab’. Any reporting must take these factors into consideration.
Unfortunately, not only is it difficult for many Western reporters to appreciate the primacy of religion, the nature of religious perspective is also incomprehensible to them. His first example was from conversation with Fayyoumi fisherman near the Cairo island of Manial. When asked what religion meant, they esteemed the traditional pillars of Islam – prayer, fasting, etc. – but emphasized it was that God had placed a ceiling on their life, and they were to be content therein. Questioned if this indicated they did not have to work hard they disagreed. Within their allotment they must work hard to succeed. Transcending their position in life, however, was impossible. It is, as is always heard, in sha’ allah – if God wills. Due to this fact, and the fleeting nature of life, the only solution is to pray.
The second example was from Saudi young men who accompanied him on trips to the desert. Over time he got them to open up and from them he learned much about their society. One such lesson, however, was quite disturbing. One young man accused Slackman of being reckless. When asked why, he responded that he did not consider the danger joining these young men in the desert accompanied by his female translator. Should he wish, the man stated he would get rid of Slackman and then sexually approach the woman, raping her if she resisted. The other young men all nodded along, none disturbed or offended by this line of communication. When asked how this fit into their understanding of morality and religion, they stated that the mistake of a man stays in his pocket, but the mistake of a woman shames the whole tribe. Apparently, for him, this was enough.
On a third occasion Slackman was being asked about his religion, and he responded with admirable notions: I try to be a good person, I look to help others, I maintain a good family. To his surprise this was responded to with the follow-up question, “So you don’t believe, then?” Since then Slackman has utilized his lesson from the fisherman, and now answers, “Life is fleeting, so what is there to do but pray?” This answer has received much better reception. Reflection on these episodes, however, has led Slackman to criticize much Western religious reporting as focused on ritual, rather than on spirituality; unfortunately, as he finds in many Middle Easterners, this is how they manifest their religion.
When asked specifically about religious relations in Egypt, Slackman compared the situation to race relations in the United States. When whites are polled about the state of relations most hold that things are just fine. Most blacks, however, state they are the same as always and not getting better. It is a matter of majority-minority difference in perceptions. Without confirming local Coptic opinion, he has experienced, and conveys, that they almost universally decry their position.
In proceeding to describe the murders committed at Nag Hamadi he indicated sympathy for some of their complaints. After the atrocities the government in issuing its condemnation clearly and unequivocally stated that this was not a sectarian incident. Yet when it put forward its explanation, it did so in clear and unequivocal sectarian language. They did not put it that an Egyptian took revenge against an Egyptian rapist, but instead it was for the Christian rape of a Muslim girl. Unless the government acknowledges that sectarian tension is a problem, Slackman insisted, things will never improve.
Throughout his lecture Slackman often reiterated his great privilege of living overseas in general and in the Middle East in particular. This has not been for the Pyramids, or the Nile, but because of the nature and friendliness of the people themselves. He ended his presentation, however, with a statement of disappointment. The first is that he had to leave the region due to blacklisting, and that in particular he would not again be allowed to enter Iran. It is such an interesting country, the most pro-American of any regional population.
His second disappointment was that he was never able to interview President Mubarak. Had he the chance, he would have asked two questions. First, what do you believe is your legacy? Secondly, with all seriousness, why can you not pick up the garbage? These questions best summed up the political and social coverage he has devoted to Egypt. Michael Slackman was faithful to the people of Egypt and devoted to cover both breaking news and slice-of-life stories. The next Cairo Bureau Chief will have big shoes to fill, and at least these two questions to pursue.
To read a recent article by Michael Slackman on the health of President Mubarak and the future of Egypt, click here.