Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To tell the story of Egyptians with humanity

I'll be honest: sometimes I wonder why I'm a journalist in Egypt.

Cairo is a dirty, polluted, crowded city. The streets are littered with trash; sand incessantly finds its way into my living room; my family is six timezones away. Everyone is always late, it's impossible to get sources to answer their phones, and Tweeps are more reliable fact checkers than state media.

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I was reminded why I bother: it's because I want to tell the story of the Egyptians. It's because of the never-ending Egyptian humor; the smiles in the face of poverty; the perseverance in the face of persecution. It's because of the slow, steady determination that has kept Egyptians and the Egyptian identity intact over millennia, through invasion, occupation, and oppression.

It's because Egyptians inspire me.

Last night BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet spoke at a gathering of Egyptian and American journalists in Cairo. Her frank speech moved me - and others - nearly to tears. She spoke of objectivity; of obligation; of what it means to be a journalist in a conflict zone. She reminded me why I am a journalist, here and now, and why I care about reporting on Egypt.

"When you cover a happy story, cover it with joy," she said. "When you cover a sad story, cover it with compassion."

To be objective does not mean to be heartless. A good journalist must write with humanity.

I've often wondered what, exactly, is my role - as a foreigner and as a journalist - in Egypt. Both foreigners and Egyptians have told me I don't belong here, and both foreigners and Egyptians have told me I tell the story better than anyone else. I've written before about the line between professionalism and humanity, and that's something that comes to mind again and again.

Before Egypt's January uprising, as a foreigner, I was looked upon with suspicion. As a foreigner, I was thanked profusely. After Egypt's January uprising, as a foreigner, I am looked upon with suspicion. As a foreigner, I am thanked profusely.

It's a bit strange sometimes.

As a journalist, I am obligated to tell the truth as I see it at the time. I am obligated to tell both sides of the story. I am obligated to be objective.

But on January 26, 2011 I watched as a group of young men - unarmed, with their hands in the air as they chanted peaceful, peaceful - were without warning attacked with tear gas, tasers, sticks, and firearms by both uniformed and plainclothes police in the streets of downtown Cairo.

What is the other side of that story?

I don't know.

So what can I do, as a foreign journalist in Egypt? I can write. I can tell the truth, and I can tell it with joy and compassion, which so often seems to be lacking from mainstream media. I can tell the stories of a people and a place that have become dear to my heart, and I can do it in a way many other journalists either cannot or will not.

I've been told I have a way with words. I've been told I can draw people into my writing. I can use that way with words, coupled with common sense and a solid understanding of Egypt's politics and people, and I can tell the story of Egyptians.

That's why I'm a journalist in Egypt.

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