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No-Fluff Zone
Watching al-Jazeera

It’s Sunday morning. I’ve been at the computer, watching al-Jazeera’s new English-language all-news channel. (It’s not available on television in the United States, as it is in the rest of the world; we’ll get to that in a moment.) I’m not bored or driven insane as I am by most TV news. Network news here is self-absorbed and simplistic. If it’s not happening in the United States or doesn’t relate to the collective colonic, it doesn’t rate attention. There are exceptions. But they’re islets of glitter in oceans of sludge.

Consciously directed at a Western audience, al-Jazeera’s focus is on what the American eye ignores, or prefers not to see, especially in that Arab-Islamic world that keeps reshaping our own even as we profess not to understand why. It’s flawlessly produced, unassuming, and the most blessed no-fluff zone on the air. So far this morning I’ve watched a show called “Everywoman,” a newsmagazine program that featured a segment about the slow evolution of rape laws in backwoods Indonesia (where, as in other places where Islamic law is more predatory than protective, women take the blame for being raped and face more ostracism or punishment than legal recourse); and another about Nada Zeidan, the Gulf’s first woman race-car driver, who sounds and looks more interesting than any 10 NASCAR men put together. I’d apparently just missed a segment featuring a woman talking about her husband’s imprisonment at Guantanamo and another on “lady mechanics in Nigeria.”

One of the news-hours I watched included reports from Darfur and Gaza, and a long piece on how Hezbollah is deliberately shoving Lebanon back toward civil war. The segment included a live, tough interview from Beirut of Hassan Fadlallah, spokesman and news director for Hezbollah’s al-Manar television (banned in the United States, France and Spain). To American viewers, merely giving groups like Hezbollah room to speak is an indication of sympathy. To al-Jazeera, ignoring them is an indication of stupidity, especially since Hezbollah’s ilk are driving the Mideastern agenda more than neocons ever managed. Might as well understand their motives. That’s not sympathy. It’s common sense.

The same goes for the next segment. Here’s how the anchor set it up (after his mention of 52 killed in Iraq “so far on Sunday”): “Let’s take a closer look now at one of the groups fighting in Iraq. It’s called the Islamic Army. It’s been responsible for kidnappings and attacks on American troops. It’s a Sunni organization and the stated aim of it is to drive out all foreign influence from Iraq, be it from Iran or from the United States. Well, al-Jazeera has obtained pictures of the group in training. Iraq correspondent Hoda Abdel-Hamid has our exclusive report.” Cut to Abdel-Hamid’s voice-over as footage shows hooded men training in a rural setting: “Some call them insurgents or terrorists. They describe themselves as a national resistance movement. Born out of occupation, the soldiers of the Islamic Army pride themselves on being Iraqi. None of their fighters, they say, are foreigners. Their aim: To expel any foreign fighter from Iraq.”

Further footage shows the new recruits training in ambushes, kidnappings, “tactical instructions to hit enemy helicopters,” rescue operations, then a graduation ceremony “as a new class of fighters is ready to pick up arms.” The segment is one-sided. It quotes only one “spokesman of Islamic Army in Iraq” (his face is oddly blanked out, even though he’s identified as Ibrahim al-Shamary). But when is the last time an American network interviewed an insurgent to balance out what, let’s admit it, has been three years of inaccurate tripe from military and academic spokesmen this side of reality?

My favorite story of the day, an affecting, 60 Minutes-like piece the late Ed Bradley might have done (and, in fact, a CBC production picked up by al-Jazeera), was called “Being Osama” — the story of five Canadian citizens of Arab descent unfortunately named Osama, and how their names have been Borat-like triggers of latent racism and hatred among Westerners. “It’s a very common name in the Middle East. And here, too,” one of them, a composer, says as the image cuts to Osama bin Laden shooting his Kalashnikov, then back to the composer: “But it’s evil.” Al-Jazeera, alleged bin Laden sympathizer, shows you how.

To watch al-Jazeera up close — to really watch it, rather than catch eight-second snippets of snidely filtered stereotype by “our” own networks — is to see the rest of the world as it sees us, and from the street up. It’s not a window on the world. That’s the Travel Channel. It’s the languages of the world, in English. Not surprisingly, America is turning a deaf ear. The only way to see the channel is to spring for a $6-a-month Internet subscription. Good enough, but still. Cable and satellite providers won’t touch al-Jazeera. Censorship? Worse: Ignorance.

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