Having worked as one of the few Muslim journalists in the United States in the 1990s, I had an inside view of how the media not only reports events, but actively shapes the public narrative about the Middle East. I discovered that my editors would often change my articles in subtle (and not so subtle) ways to reflect their own biases, which invariably seemed to mirror the views of the foreign policy establishment. In particular, the Arab-Israeli conflict was an area where I found that my perspective as a Muslim was unwelcome. I discovered that there were many sacred cows around America's support for Israel that could not be questioned by journalists.
The narrative that I witnessed being promulgated by my media bosses was a simple one -- a heroic, democratic Israel was under constant threat from violent and tyrannical Muslims and it was America's duty to support the underdog in this clash of civilizations. When I suggested that the Middle East was a region shaded in gray rather than simplistic black-and-white paradigms, I was met with antagonism. When I posited that the Palestinian narrative was being ignored or misrepresented in the news, my superiors would become uncomfortable.
I finally left the world of journalism in 1996 after I lost a job opportunity at a major news bureau in Washington D.C. At the time, the bureau chief told me that the reason the offer was being rescinded was because there were concerns that I had a "Muslim agenda." Setting aside his foolishness from a legal standpoint for admitting that he was denying me work because of my political and religious beliefs, what struck me was how utterly oblivious he was to the fact that he himself had an agenda. And that agenda was to keep the current narrative about the Middle East intact at his news organization. A Muslim reporter who could share other perspectives on the events in the region was a threat that could not be tolerated.
I was stunned. I walked out of the office, quit my job and went on to law school in the hopes of learning how to protect others from this kind of discrimination. But I remained a writer at heart. Ultimately, my passion for sharing stories that were being ignored by the mainstream media fueled me to take an even more unusual path -- I became a successful filmmaker in Hollywood. I have worked on TV shows such as the Golden Globe nominated "Sleeper Cell," which portrayed a Muslim FBI agent fighting Al-Qaeda. While I have no delusions that I can single-handedly change American perceptions of Islam, I continue to do what I can to add another voice in the media and challenge the mainstream narrative about the Muslim community.
Much has changed in the eighteen years since I lost a job at a news desk because of my "Muslim agenda." September 11th happened. The Iraq war happened. The Afghan war is still happening, even if the mainstream media largely ignores it. The image of the Muslim enemy has only intensified in the eyes of many Americans. The political narrative I confronted at my news organization remains in force and continues to fuel the military industrial complex in its quest for never-ending war.
But there are also many new voices challenging that narrative. In the 1990s, there were few reporters from Muslim backgrounds on the news. Now media analysts like Fareed Zakaria are respected members of the journalistic elite. In Hollywood, there are still very few Muslims in positions of power, but even that is slowly changing as a new wave of filmmakers take the first tentative steps toward confronting the anti-Muslim narrative that remains the norm in movies and television dramas.
And one filmmaker in particular is poised to lead them -- Abdallah Omeish, a Libyan-American director who has dedicated his career to presenting stories that people in Hollywood would normally be too afraid to touch. Stories of the Palestinian experience. Omeish's first film, which he co-directed with his brother Sufyan, was "Occupation 101" -- a documentary that presents the Arab-Israeli conflict from the perspective of the Palestinian community. His film won The Golden Palm as Best Picture at the 2007 Beverly Hills Film Festival and remains the finest presentation of the Palestinian narrative I have ever seen. Omeish's documentary ruffled many feathers in Hollywood for its political message, and yet even his detractors cannot deny the artistry and sophistication of the film.
"Occupation 101" set the bar for "alternative" storytelling about the Middle East in terms of seriousness, savvy and production value, and as a result presented the first real challenge to the mainstream narrative about Israel that has been entrenched in American media for decades.
And Omeish has continued his impassioned efforts to present the voice of the oppressed through his latest film, "The War Around Us." The documentary presents an inside view of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. At the time, the Israeli government banned foreign journalists from Gaza as part of its effort to control the narrative about the conflict. And the Palestinian side of the war would have indeed been erased from history -- except that there already were two Western journalists inside Gaza when the shooting began who were able to provide live coverage of the war and circumvent the Israeli media blackout. "The War Around Us" is the tale of these two reporters who risked their lives to tell a story that the Israeli government and its "amen corner" in America didn't want the world to see.
In December 2008, Ayman Moyeldin, currently a reporter for NBC, was assigned by Al Jazeera English to head their bureau in the Gaza Strip, which at the time was under an Israeli siege. Sherine Tadros, a Jerusalem-based producer for AJE was transitioning to reporter and was asked to go to Gaza for 24-hours to file a story. That 24-hours turned into two-and-a-half months as they found themselves trapped in the middle of a war zone.
On December 27, 2008 an onslaught of aerial strikes by the Israeli military began on the Gaza Strip and did not end for 23 days. Ayman and Sherine were the only international broadcast journalists inside Gaza. During the war, the two journalists on the ground in Gaza would recount the horrors of the violence in a way only those on the inside could have witnessed.
But war took a toll on Ayman and Sherine as individuals and as colleagues. Differences emerged between Sherine and Ayman that threatened not only their friendship but also the very mission they set out to do at the beginning; cover the war for the whole world to see. Amidst the tensions, the two friends found themselves surrounded by extraordinary life-changing experiences, grim humor and a determination neither one of them realized they had.
As the film's powerful trailer reveals, "The War Around Us" is the raw story of Gaza and how two journalists reached the rest of the world from inside one of the most deeply divided and silenced places on the globe.
Watching the film as a former journalist, I was struck by the heroism of these two reporters. History had placed them in the middle of a story that the power structure that I myself confronted as a journalist didn't want the world to see. While I lost a job, Ayman and Sherine could have lost their lives.
The documentary contains heart-wrenching scenes of human suffering in the war, images that were never allowed to be shown in the American media, but were broadcast to the rest of the world. Watching "The War Around Us," one realizes the disservice that the American media does to its viewers, as it denies them information that the rest of the planet is able to access with ease. Information that would allow voters to make informed choices about the kind of foreign policy that the United States should support in the Middle East (which is, of course, the reason that information is suppressed in the first place).
While the war footage is compelling (and at times emotionally overwhelming), Omeish's triumph in this film is that it is an intimate story. It is the tale of two friends trying to do their jobs and keep each other alive while the whole world around them is consumed by destruction. The film is a story of courage and personal transformation, of hope in the midst of death and despair.
This documentary is required viewing not only for those that wish to hear another perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is also a primer for what it means to be a journalist, someone who tells stories that would otherwise be forgotten by the world. And it provides a spark of hope that, despite all the machinations of the powerful and the cruel, truth will always out.
"The War Around Us" reminds us of what journalism should be about -- a voice that risks everything in order to speak truth to power. And it gives new meaning to the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."