Ending 2013 — A practice review
Mada Masr takes stock as it marks its first six months
Every once in a while, we get together to chat about our work and our evolving and mutating relation with it. We tend to turn these conversations into a public moment, with the hope of opening up our practice to critique and inviting further conversations.
As the year comes to an end, and Mada Masr marks its first six months of publishing, we thought it was time for a practice review. We started by picking quotes from Mada Masr stories that challenged our thinking.
“We want to live in peace. We have to say that we’re okay. If I tell you that we have problems you will go and write your report and have a good story, and then we will suffer the consequences.” — Father Yohanna, Minya, “After the dust settles,” September 2013
“After all of this injustice, we are still the ones being called traitors." — Basma Abouzeid, Gehad al-Haddad's wife, Cairo, “Being Brotherhood,” November 2013
“If they destroy the churches, so what. If this is the price to be paid for the birth of a new country, we are happy to pay it.” — Cleric Samer Farag, Beni-Suef, “The people, the church and the state,” August 2013
“Researching is also self-discovery.” — Electronic music pioneer Halim al-Dabh, Cairo, ‘Music permeates everything,’ December 2013
“Sisi, Morsi, Mubarak — it really doesn’t matter who is president. We are aware of politics and it affects us, but only from a distance.” — Wahaty Bedouin guide Badawy, Bahareya, “Searching for the stars in Bahareya,” November 2013
“We have not exhausted all our options and that means that the playground is open for change. We must organize and adapt our strategies both in the long-term and short-term in a manner which understands the needs and hopes of all Egyptians.” — Masr al-Hureya Secretary General Shahir George, Cairo, “Masr al-Hurreya,” November 2013,
Lina Attalah: Let’s start with questioning how much more than just scratching surfaces do we really do. How much do we feel there is depth in what we do?
Naira Antoun: Rather than having one big long story when we try and say everything, when you have lots of different stories overall it creates something. But overall, I think we’re quite holistic. Yet the story by itself can be taken and shared by people and circulated on their Facebook to say something very different than our narrative.
Ursula Lindsey: But what’s nice about a publication is that it’s this ongoing process and you always have the chance to get it better, or do it over another time, and your record and reputation is very much a cumulative thing. I think most reporters feel as good as the last story they put out, but actually you are really creating a body of work and everything together is creating something that can’t be at all judged singularly.
Lina: Okay, I want to jump in because one thing in what Naira said in particular, about the fate of the story not being what you necessarily imagined, I wanted to relate it to what we don’t end up writing. So to what extent do we actually consider how a piece of content is going to be consumed before we set out to write it or report on it?
Heba Afify: I remember the first time I thought this was when I wrote the story of the interview with Gehad al-Haddad’s wife, when I was reporting it and the conversations afterwards was the first time I felt myself self-censoring, and wondering how I would be perceived, and how we as Mada would be perceived. It was the first time since I entered journalism that I felt myself worrying about it. Even though I believe it was an important story, it was the first time I felt the need to try to make sure people don’t perceive us negatively.
Dalia Rabie: The issue came to my attention when I wrote a piece about the harassment of Islamists on the street, and we brought it up when we said we need to put it in a bigger context of not just Islamists being harassed in Egypt’s streets. So when I read Heba’s piece, I thought it could be perceived the same way.
Amira Salah-Ahmed: Journalism in Egypt has always been a form of activism or agitation. But it has now become a precarious situation where we can be perceived as taking a position on something. That now could land you in a very dangerous situation with regards to the way you’re perceived, and the way people label you, and that takes away from your credibility. I don’t see it as a form of self-censorship, but more a level of awareness we didn’t have before, and a level of precarity that didn’t exist before. If you know you’re going to cause harm to the people you’re reporting about or to yourself, or the place where you work, in a way that doesn’t actually achieve an end goal. I think it can be paralyzing, sometimes.
And this goes back to being disconnected from what’s happening in Egypt and a lot of things. And I’ve actually felt that way about journalism. I feel suddenly disconnected from the practice itself just because I feel I don’t have a grasp of things as much I used to before, even if before was a naive sense, you have a view of what’s happening and the “truth” and now suddenly that’s being called into question because there are so many truths in Egypt, depending on which angle you’re reporting from or which group you’re reporting from. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what’s true, I don’t know what’s right.
The information is so different from all sides. Everyone is lying. It’s a propaganda machine from all sides. And I always have an anxiety, more than ever before, that we are unintentionally playing into the hands of one narrative, whether we like it or not. I feel that is a risk now, and I’m always really anxious about that for us as individuals and for us as Mada.
Heba: It’s more like holding back, that’s what happened really. Not letting everything flow and being strategic about it.
Naira: But either way, with whatever story you write, you’ll never be putting everything into it. Your concerns determine what you choose to put. So I think one of the nice things about being in this terrible, polarized, precarious condition is being more conscious.
Lina: I want to bring up self-righteousness as the other extreme to disconnection. There are questions of self-righteousness that go to the basic level of choosing what story to cover and what story not to cover. Some had expressed concerns over more activism than journalism going on here, and it’s interesting this concern is there even though people are talking about disconnection. So how do people feel about this?
Amira: I think at one point, when we collectively decided not to take a position and that we could be the third stream, that was valid at one point. But then not taking a position itself became a position, with its connections and associations, whether they are moral or journalistic.
Mohamad Adam: I think it’s better to present every period as it was. It wouldn’t have made sense, for example, to say on July 1 that it was a coup. Or even on the day Mohamed Morsi left. There were still people in the streets, and a lot of pressure. But a month later lots of people were saying emphatically that it was a coup. We should keep having conversations but also be attuned to how events develop.
Maha ElNabawi: Maybe it’s not about streamlining what we individually write, but more about getting opinion writers from really different voices, because I often find they’re all the same. If we are all in that same voice, we’re obviously going to be perceived as an activist project, in a certain regard.
Sarah Carr: As business owners, we would compromise ourselves if we published someone, for example, [writing] about how State Security has to be revived. It would be very controversial and it would get a lot of traffic but it would affect our credibility.
Ursula: But you could get people who have fields of expertise that are more specific, so they are not just people who are speaking from a certain political stance but who can write about things like the economy or the law. So it’s not just publishing them because we agree with what they’re saying.
Sarah: Who is there? I cannot even think of one person who’s not a douche who’s supposedly an expert.
Lina: But I think we have also collectively decided to have the word progressive in our name. In fact, Amira usually waves a knife when it comes to the word progressive. In that context I think it means that there are certain things we’re not going to be interested in publishing for the sake of being objective.
But at the same time, to be progressive means so many different things, so I would be opposed to having only opinion writers speak about street politics, for example. I want reformists to write, I want revolutionaries to write, I want people who look into institutions, but also people who look into the street. And that’s the kind of diversity that actually turns you from being an activist project to a project that tries to put out different propositions.
Amira: I think, also, when we say progressive, we need to be sure that that is reflected in the issues that we deal with. I think some of the strongest articles we have had recently about the constitution haven’t been for or against, or the politics of it, but more the issues at hand. So the article about education in the constitution was really strong and people were really interested in reading that. Also the one about Nubians in the constitution.
Maha: It’s still activism.
Amira: It’s activism in the sense of deepening our understanding, so people can be well-versed on these issues that no one else is writing about, that are important in terms of political implications. I think we really need to get out of that whirlwind, because it’s a no-win situation because no one is right, and everything is true and everything is false at the same time.
Lina: You know, the other end of being self-righteous or ideological in what we write is to actually be challenged and to think of journalism as an inquisitive act. How much have we been learning through our reporting? How much have we been hearing voices that actually broke news to us, made us think of things in a different way, or made us actually challenge ourselves?
Adam: At some point, I used to be convinced of something and I just wanted people to confirm it. But something I developed since we started Mada, is to talk to lots of people when I am writing an article, and that confirms to me that what I am thinking might not be right. Maybe my last story about the Brotherhood. I was expecting this guy from the group to say something like, “No, we’re against negotiation. We will carry on,” and actually he said something completely different. He said that they have to start negotiating, and that Morsi coming back is part of the past, and this guy is a radical Islamist.
Heba: I do agree that this is a problem. I mean, speaking for myself, I would definitely like the proportion of my stories that I know how they are going to turn out to be less than this. Most of my stories I know how it’s going to come out. I feel we’re somehow trapped in a narrow place and we’re not really putting ourselves out as much.
Lina: Are we being curious enough? Are there enough curiosities here?
Amira: In your curiosity, you’re searching for answers and the answers are no longer in the street like they used to be. It’s so much harder. The answers are in sort of insular boxes of communities of people who won’t let you in. I feel sometimes as if I wake up with a question, but then I think it’s almost impossible to get the truth out of it. And so I just put that curiosity to sleep. It’s a paralyzing thought.
Ursula: So, the difficulty of finding an answer. There are tons of questions I have, and I feel the stories I get excited about with reporters are the stories where there are questions.
Lina: I feel that one of the problems of this lack of information is that we are in a moment of higher politics, where the state is somehow reconfiguring itself and performing itself out to us through the security apparatus, the military and the nationalistic rhetoric and so on. And the problem is that we have sort of lost the plot. We were in a much better reporting position when the plot was in the streets, because we could be part of that. But we’re not part of the state.
So I think part of being journalists is not to stop there. The revolution gave us this ease of being out there and able to report because we were somehow part of it. But I feel like it’s a moment of submission and defeat to decide we are no longer able to do this just because we are not part of it. I mean, I feel we are not hacking the state as much as we should be. We’re not asking enough questions, and even if it’s just in the form of asking questions at this point.
Ursula: Getting partial answers and getting stonewalled. But I also think that, actually, maybe we were under the impression that we were right there in the middle of the story in the street over the last few years. But there was a lot going on always that was completely untransparent, obviously very powerful, and we were not even sort of looking at it, right? So, in a way, now you know more where the story is.
Leyla Doss: I think, also another problem that we reached a dead end in, there is other talk besides politics that is also very political: about services, healthcare, and all things that affect people every day. So if you expand the scope there, you can write about so many different things. Obviously, the military and Brotherhood are really important because they shape the context, who takes power, but politics doesn’t have to be just that. I think that’s why we feel like we’re stuck.
Lina: Okay, we’re left to talk about disconnection and hope. Disconnection first?
Sarah: I think covering the Maspero violence was a bit different because of the brutality and everything. The shock value of it maybe made it a bit special in some way, in terms of writing about it. In terms of comparing it with other events, I didn’t attend Rabea al-Adaweya’s dispersal, and I would have liked to so I could know if my reaction would have been like my reaction to Maspero. I was watching a film the other day and there were police cars going very fast and people were running, and I immediately connected it to Maspero.
I mean, it stays with me a lot. But in terms of writing about it, I don’t think if I wrote about it now it would be emotionally exhausting. I think too much time has passed. But yeah, it has stayed with me in a way that other events haven’t, but just because it was so horrible. And I don’t think it has more significance than that. I think probably if I had seen Rabea, it would have had the same impact.
Amira: When I look at the coverage that we’re giving to Alaa Abd El Fattah for example, that case is getting coverage but not as much as it was before, which I think is a direct byproduct of a collective disconnection from everything, even the revolutionary side. This feeds into feeling desensitized as even when your close friends, who are also activists, are arrested and these spaces are being oppressed, you feel there's only so much you can do. And you know that the media coverage is not going to lead to anything practical or tangible in the end.
So there’s this unspoken, dulling effect, that leads you to not really cover that story as much as you used to before. It’s not just the Brotherhood massacres and arrests, it’s also affecting our own community and people.
Lina: So, khalas, we’re on the hopeless, disconnected path …?
Ursula: For me personally, indignation works as an engine for writing sometimes, you know, a certain commitment to getting the truth out there, to getting something down. You don’t always have to hopeful to be inspired to write.
Naira: If people haven’t read it, I think it’s really interesting. When Ania curated a show called “Ugly Feelings” she wrote a short pieces about feelings that are motivating, and the opposite feelings in relation to the revolution. It relates to what Ursula was saying about indignation. In Ania’s words, it’s linked to agency. So it’s not just hope.
Ursula: If you’re clinically depressed, then we have a problem here.
Maha: That’s a good question, is everyone okay?
Adam: I think it’s important to write that at some point we were hopeless. I think it is important to document this.
Naira: I think there’s a lot to be learned from this disconnected moment, from our own experiences of dealing with feelings before. Let’s say I deny I feel like crap. I might get drunk and burst into tears, right? So it just doesn’t work for me to deny that I feel like crap. I mean, it never gets me anywhere constructive in my personal life, and I’m not sure it gets us anywhere, collectively, to battle against the hopelessness. Accepting that we feel hopeless, if we do, to whatever extent, sitting with that, until it passes, turns into something else, and that’s it.
Heba: In terms of how it affected the work, for me it turned me off certain stories. But it’s also motivating me to do different things that have nothing to do with the cycle that we’re stuck in. I feel like it’s actually pushing me outside of a cycle.
Lina: Okay, resolutions? (Silence…)
Heba: More culture writing.
Amira: More issues. More personalized travel writing.
Heba: More personal.
Naira: More stepping out of Cairo. We talk about ourselves as independent and progressive but then we are reproducing the same power dynamic when we talk about Cairo and everything else is in the background.
Maha: And I think that will make us feel a little less hopeless and clinically depressed.
Heba: Less expected stories.
Naira: Less stories that are trying to look at something overall … Like what Amira was saying with the constitution, we got into some really nice angles, so like asking more specific questions and not try to say everything about something.
Heba: More discussion of our editorial choices.
Lina: More food reviews.
Leyla: More constructive. You want more food reviews?
Lina: Yeah, I go to our lifestyle section when I want to decide where to dine.
Naira: Some people eat, Lina dines.
Amira: More conversations!