Monday, February 7, 2011

So you want to be a journalist

[From January 29th]

Even under normal circumstances, Cairo is full of foreign journalists and would-be journalists. It's considered an easy and comfortable place to base out of while covering the Middle East: rent is cheap, winters are gentle, the city's full of other expats, and, until recently, it was supposed to be the most stable place in the region. You could go cover bloody civil conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, or Algeria, and be sure that your favorite scummy expat bar in Cairo was exactly where you left it. The result is that Cairo is crawling with major reporters you may have heard of, stringers you probably haven't heard of, and an uncounted multitude of wannabes who fancy themselves journalists because it sounds better than saying you're bumming around and writing occasionally.

Cairo's surplus of reporters means that I've felt relatively little need to play journalist once protests broke out. If I were someplace more remote, and there was a real lack of people who could get the story out in clear English, I might feel differently. But in Cairo, I'm reasonably sure that insofar as anyone can get any word out, it's being done, and it's being done by people with more experience than me.

But today I was confronted with temptation. I have a colleague from my University who's here in Egypt with me, also researching his dissertation. Unlike me, he has a background writing for journalistic outlets. While we were walking around the Tahrir protests together, he taught me a trick: just carry a pad of paper, and people will come up to you to be interviewed. It will be assumed that you are a journalist, and there will be more than enough people who want to make a comment, often in English. My colleague is collecting interviews for journalistic pieces [several of them now published - ed], and he was encouraging me to be the same, because my knowledge of Arabic could get me access to better stuff than the average reporter.

I didn't have a pad, but I don't look remotely Egyptian, and eventually someone made an educated guess. A man in a skullcap approached me through the crowd, tapped me on the shoulder politely and asked me in English if I was a journalist. I froze and stuttered, before answering lamely in Arabic, "no, I'm not any kind of reporter. But my colleague over there is. I'm sure he'd like to talk to you". The man obligingly went and gave his statement, my friend asked his questions, and we moved on.

Things are moving fast here, and that creates opportunities. Even more so than usual, anyone can be a journalist. It's hard to get pictures of anything without getting your camera confiscated by cops or thugs, but the protesters can still tell their stories to anyone who'll listen. I think, whenever the hell the internet comes back on, there's going to be a flood of stories. I hope especially we start to hear from people outside of Tahrir square, because after all the foreigners with notepads I saw today, the square itself looks very well-covered. It's the areas that are out of sight, areas where the cops will not humor foreigners with notepads, that I worry about.

1 comment:

  1. "it was supposed to be the most stable place in the region"

    yeah, they said that about the Ivory Coast too, until my parents got there