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Trading Places: Arab and American Reporters

May 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Journalists in America and the Middle East are trading places as part of an exchange program which aims to bridge cultural and political gaps between peoples. Two journalists involved in the program are Shareen el Wakeel of Egypt TV, and American independent television producer Mike Cerre of Globe TV.

Here’s an excerpt of a report El Wakeel did about a week in America for her broadcast, “Good Morning, Egypt.” She translated the story into English.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Apart from our political and religious differences since September 11, Americans have started to become more aware of the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, and have started to take a closer look at us. I feel it is now our turn to take a new and closer look at them as well.

For one week, I tried to move beyond the current crisis in traditional news coverage of the United States and the Middle East by traveling across the country to discover some basic American traditions and values that might be closer to our own than we think. I also wanted to address some of the stereotypes we have of Americans from religion and movies: People with fancy clothes and girls in tight pants, and…

MAN: I don’t think that’s it. (Laughter) I don’t think that’s it.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: At first, I was afraid of how Americans would react to a Muslim and Arab reporter as a result of the 9/11 tragedy, but the local reporters covering the visit told me how rare attacks on Muslims had been, just like how rare terrorist attacks have been on Americans in the Middle East and how more furious Americans have become about Islam and the Middle East.

CRAIG BROWSER, Iowa Reporter: You’re doing a story about the Islamic center. They’ve had more converts to the Muslim faith since September 11 than they’ve had, you know, previous.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: There are more than ten million Arabs and Muslims in the United States. In the larger of communities of New Jersey, I was surprised to see how they have been able to maintain their culture, and I wondered why their voice is not as strong and effective as other nationalities.

I wanted to get out of the big city and into the rural areas and what they call “the heartland,” where the average Americans might have more in common with average Egyptians when it comes to what’s most important in their lives.

DICK FREDREICKS, Iowa Farmer: What we… what we are looking for is the same thing that any person the world over is looking for– it’s peace, it’s prosperity, it’s the right to live in a free environment and do what you want and strive for happiness. We’re no different than… than anybody else the world over.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: While driving through Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I saw they had as many neighborhood churches as Cairo had mosques. And even more of them than manodes.

MAN: On almost every corner you see a church of some sort.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: I’m surprised here it’s everywhere… everywhere big ones and smaller ones. My most interesting discovery in Cedar Rapids was the oldest mosque in North America that Arab immigrants started building here in the middle of the country in 1924. To really get to know Americans, you have to separate the people from the institutions and the media.

SPOKESMAN: We go to Amman…

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: In San Francisco, these Arab journalists are translating news programs from the Middle East to produce the only daily English broadcast of Arab news in the United States for satellite television to make up for the lack of coverage from the major networks.

SPOKESPERSON: And Shereen El Wakeel is from Egypt, and is…

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: To better understand the American media’s lack of coverage of the Middle East and other foreign issues, I went to the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

SPOKESPERSON: A lot of Americans who aren’t quite as educated are more interested in seeing things about America because they don’t think that internationally what happens affects them. And it’s less governmental. I mean, it’s part of our educational system. It’s very systemic.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: At George Lucas’ production facility, I was able to ask some of the creators of these movie images if they were aware of how some of these stereotypical images might be interpreted differently in other parts of the world.

ALEX LAURANT, Effects Art Director: I feel that more responsibility should be taken, and that a little more sensitivity… in some cases, much more sensitivity should be exercised.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: After spending a week with Americans in their homes, their schools, and their churches, I found more common interests than differences in our values and in our hope for the future.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m joined now by Shereen El Wakeel, who is a correspondent and anchor for Egypt TV, and Mike Cerre, who runs an independent production company in California. Welcome to you both.

Shereen, did you find Americans in your travels here… did you find Americans familiar with the Arab world as you know it, or did they tend to deal in stereotypes?

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Actually, of course, they are so obsessed by the stereotypes they see, especially on movies, they don’t have much information about Arab world or Egyptians. Maybe the pharaohs, the… you know, the most popular things and the stereotypes they see on movies and on television. But I don’t think they know real Egyptians or real Arabs.

TERENCE SMITH: Do they show an interest… did you find an interest in the Arab world, the things that were going on in the Middle East, or did you find that famous insular quality of Americans?

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Let me tell you something. I’ve been to the United States several times before, and I’ve realized a big change after September 11. Before, people were never interested in knowing about the outside world, what’s going on behind… away from their borders. But after September 11, and after I have this opportunity with Mike, I found out that people are getting more curious to know about the Arab world, the Islam, especially, and I can tell especially the younger generations.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Cerre, tell us a little about this program, how it came to pass, and why you think it’s important to do now.

MIKE CERRE: Well, Terry, it started in Bahrain in November while we were on our way over to cover the Marines going into Afghanistan. We were delayed with several other correspondents, both American and Arab. We went into one of the local soukhs and they were all commenting about how we really should be spending more time dealing with the cultures and the people involved rather than always responding to the crisis. And we all lamented the fact that we’d never had the time.

We were under deadlines; we have to do the crisis story. So we never really get to understand the culture and the people, which is probably what we should be spending more time on. So I suggested that what if we had the opportunity to take some time, do some human interest stories and try to learn more about the cultures, would everyone be willing to participate? They said they would. And at that point we decided, “let’s try to put together a journalist exchange.”

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: It happened to me. It was the same way with me because, you know, I’m a political reporter. So dealing with political declarations and politicians all of the time, it was fully different when I started visiting countries and dealing with people. It was real amazing that there’s different points of view. People are more simple, more willing to live in peace than the political declaration and the politicians want.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Cerre, did you find… as you’ve done your reporting in Egypt, did you find some of same either stereotypes or attitudes about Americans that Shereen was talking about — about Arabs?

MIKE CERRE: Absolutely. In the first few days of reporting from over here, first of all, they were very surprised to see an American correspondent talking to them about anything other than the politics and the foreign policy. So they seemed as enthusiastic about hosting me and showing me around as Americans were to Shereen. It’s a little bit of a curiosity to see a reporter in some of the neighborhoods and some of the off-the-beaten-track places that we’ve been going to. So I think there’s a natural curiosity that they have about us.

The stereotype is, is that we don’t know much about the rest of the world, and we don’t care and we’re not listening to what the Arab world is saying. So that is the first stereotype and kind of the misconception that we have to overcome. And through the benefit of the journalist exchange, Shereen helps me with that.

We were at a movie studio today, and there was a reluctance of some of the actors to really speak out with me, but fortunately Shereen was there. She kind of explained the process and then they were very open and they gave us some very, very interesting and very heartfelt information.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both, do the people you speak to “off- the-beaten-track,” as you put it, Mike, in Egypt consider the United States to be something of a tool of Israel? Do you hear that?

MIKE CERRE: Well, Shereen and I have always tried to impose our Palestine rule, which is we try to hold off any debate about that issue until the last ten minutes of any hour, because otherwise nothing else gets done. That totally overwhelms whatever we’re trying to do.


MIKE CERRE: So we try to stay as far away from that as we possibly can initially. But mostly when that does come up, yes, they think of us being almost synonymous with the Israeli cause. And that is a very important issue to them and something that is so central to all their ought patterns and their thinking, that it’s hard once that issue comes up to get beyond it.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Something happened today that really surprised me. When Mike was interviewing, you remember that guy who works with the camels…

MIKE CERRE: Oh, yes.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL:…Who said about Clinton and Bush and…

MIKE CERRE: He was able to… he was very familiar with all of our Presidents, all of our foreign policy. He was very up to date on it.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Yes. He said that he doesn’t… the governments goes and comes, but people are the same, and he cares for the people, the American people. He doesn’t care for the government. And I have… when I was in the United States, I had nearly the same answer from Bob Osborne, and he told me, and I… if you remember, I ended up with this, what he said. He said that, “I can work for anybody anywhere. I don’t care.” I only need to deal with people.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, Shereen, you mentioned that point in the last line of your piece that we just ran, you said that you found in your reporting in the United States, more common interests than differences between Arab and American peoples.


TERENCE SMITH: I wonder if that has changed or been affected in any way in recent weeks as the violence has increased in the Palestinian-Israeli situation.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: Not exactly, but people, of course, are quite angry with the American administration. But let me tell you something, having people dying in front of you will rouse the sympathy of anybody. We all… nobody’s happy for killing civilians or killing a human being, whoever he is, whatever he is, Israeli or Palestinian.

TERENCE SMITH: Mike Cerre, have you heard some of that anger? I know you’ve been in the Middle East I know you’ve been… you’ve been in the Middle East at least a couple of times since September 11, and of course you’re there now. What are you hearing?

MIKE CERRE: Terence, I’ve noticed a very distinct difference. I was here in October and then passing again through in November. And the issue really was Afghanistan and the tragedy of September 11. But now the issue is really what’s happening in Palestine. It is so central to their thinking here that it is very present in reading the newspapers here and in talking to the people, it is the central subject of discussion.

And so I know even when I was talking to Shereen and we were setting up this trip and setting up the stories, Shereen said, “it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for you now because the acceptance and the openness that was one once here is closed down a bit.” But so far being on the streets, just as I think Shereen had a fear when she came to the United States as to would there be any backlash to Muslims, I was a little bit concerned of what backlash there might be to Americans. And so far, there hasn’t been much.

TERENCE SMITH: Shereen, I wonder how your attitude was changed or affected about the American media. You got to see how it worked, you got to see how it reports on the Middle East. I know that your… Egypt TV is controlled by the government. We think of ours as objective and free. Do you?

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: I don’t know. I’d rather not answer this question. You wouldn’t like my answer. (Laughs)

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I think…

MIKE CERRE: It’s free TV. Let them have…

TERENCE SMITH: I think we can stand it. Go ahead. I mean, I know you have some thoughts on that, on the commercialization of American television.

SHEREEN EL WAKEEL: In my case, I’d rather prefer it to be controlled by government because any government fears the media. The government or the government people fears the media, fears to be criticized by media, so we’re not really dominated by government. But to be dominated by commercials and people who are paying, this is more difficult because you broadcast what they want to broadcast. I know it’s different for the PBS, but still I don’t find that we’re sort of controlled by the government.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s, of course, what this sort of exchange is about. Thank you both for sharing your impressions of it. We appreciate it very much.