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Chasing the birds, walking into the grey zones
A collective practice review of Mada’s society section in 2017
 
 
 
Courtesy: Lina Attalah
 

Since we started Mada, we have published society stories that seek to unpack the realities of daily life in Egypt. These were published either in our politics section, or lifestyle section, where they sat uneasily among restaurant reviews. Then with our much-delayed new website launch in October 2016, we introduced the society section, only for the website to be blocked a few months later in May 2017 for our readers in Egypt.

In recent months, we have embarked on two ongoing series, “Abortion tales” and “Neither pathologization or romanticization.” Neither are typical journalism, but attempts to find different ways to explore the messiness of lived experience. In the first, Ghadeer Ahmed talks to women who have had abortions and weaves the themes her interlocutors raise into literary first-person accounts. In the second, readers were invited to share pieces of writing or art that emerge from their mental health struggles. The response to this call was far greater than we expected though greater in English and we have had poems and art, accounts of encounters with therapy and with everyday practices of ableism. All the contributions can be seen here.

Anthropologist Yasmine M Ahmed, who facilitated our end-of-year review conversation about Mada’s society coverage, asked if we had considered putting these two forms — the individual narrative and the regular journalistic pieces that frame issues — into conversation. She thought that such pieces would be important complements to both series. “I think after reading all of these stories on abortion, some of which they’ve maybe identified with or sympathized with, readers will be ready for a piece that discusses abortion in the law for example.”

To contextualize or counterbalance the personal nature of the mental health series, on the same day that we started it, we also published some infographs on mental health services and plan to produce an article on the same topic. Other than that, the only feature we had published on mental health in the society section this year was a piece that was part of our January 25 coverage exploring the intersection of mental health trajectories with trajectories of political hope and despair.

Image from our series on mental health by Noura - Courtesy: Noura

While emphasizing the importance of pieces that frame and contextualize, Ahmed also suggests the individual narrative is important because it can “allow you to explore the grey zones, and so many people are in that zone, between laws, institutions, social norms etc.”

Part of the scope of the abortion stories is that they are not simply tales of victimhood, tales that evoke our pity. Rather the accounts are challenging because they don’t conform to our expectations of victimhood, and this Ahmed thinks is “a cutting edge of the section.”

Pointing to the two-part story we did on Copts in history textbooks, Ahmed suggested that the theme lent itself to more exploration of the grey zone, pointing for example to how children of mixed backgrounds are treated and navigate school and the playground. She remembered her childhood curiosity in what Christian students did during religion classes, suggesting this is the root of sectarian violence. She thought we were perhaps being too indirect.

But that is a piece still to be written. The author of this piece was asked for something different. He is a researcher familiar with the Education Ministry’s textbook archive, and we thought rather than produce something in which this research and expertise is reduced to a couple of quotes in a larger story, he would write a piece — that is more essay-like, less journalistic (English published it as a feature and in the Arabic, more concerned with form, it was published as an op-ed). Engaging with researchers and academics is something we would like to do more.

Exploring the grey zones is another way of framing the section’s aim, which in an internal document we had phrased as “exploring and understanding how social forces — class, gender, disability, religion etc. — are lived in Egypt through a focus on personal experience and how people negotiate social structures and relations of power, where the macro and micro meet.” Where the macro and micro meet is often inevitably messy and contradictory, and the idea is to explore that grey zone, that messiness, not only to extract and distill for the purposes of a story.

Image from our series on abortion - Courtesy: Rana Rafik

Discussing the aims of the section, Lina Attalah, our editor-in-chief, pointed to the phrase, “Look at the bird” ( بص على العصفو) , a remark about distraction, suggesting that one of the things the section tries to do is subvert the journalism of urgency and relevance, the practice that says the bird doesn’t matter. “But the bird matters because it’s there, and because of the violence of journalism, we’ll never look at it or talk about it or do anything about it.”

The idea is not that the society section seeks to distract but to re-direct our gaze, to move away from always being responsive, and especially being crisis-driven.

So if the politics and news sections cover sectarian attacks, the society section seeks to look at how people of alternative faiths face everyday discrimination and non-spectacular symbolic forms of violence, at the structures through which these crises emerge.

We have struggled to balance between being responsive and intervening in debates already happening on the one hand, and talking about things that will otherwise perhaps not be spoken about, on the other. Sometimes we are able to tie longstanding concerns to conversations that are happening — in the aftermath of the contention caused by journalist Hadeer Mekawy public declaration that her baby was the outcome of an undocumented marriage, we published a piece on the struggles women face to prove the paternity of their children so they can be registered. Other times, we have missed important society stories that we may have covered if we were more responsive to the news. The drug shortages, for instance, were covered in our economics and politics pages, but the society section did not explore how people are coping, what decisions they have had to make, the trajectories of people’s actual health amid the fluctuations of drug availability and pricing.

In the past year, we have given particular attention to sectarianism, not because we think it is more important than other issues, but in part to address a gap in our own coverage. Amid escalating sectarian attacks, we realized that we had little content addressing the everyday life of sectarianism beyond bombs and blood, stories that might help us understand those bombs and their ramifications, and sought to rectify that. Contrary to state rhetoric that posits all Egyptians as equally victims of church attacks, we explored Coptic conceptions of martyrdom and the tensions between being understood as martyrs for the church or the state. We took football as a case study of covert and overt forms of discrimination.

There is much more to explore on sectarian relations, but we haven’t done much on other minorities. We haven’t done anything on Baha’i experiences for example, and we had just one story on Nubians exploring generational conflict and the efforts to preserve Nubian languages in a state that sees these languages as a threat. We only had one story on racism in the aftermath of the murder of a South Sudanese refugee school teacher. But even here, we have perhaps been too crisis-driven and we haven’t published anything exploring the lives of different communities in Egypt beyond the specter of violence.

Ahmed raised the question whether one of the section’s aims might be the exploration of alternatives, noting that while the existence of Mada is a source of hope for many of our readers, our content doesn’t reach beyond the pessimistic present. It is perhaps a law of history that dizzying hope is followed by gutting hopelessness and a belief in the immutability of the powers that be, and Ahmed tells us that the young people she teaches — coming of age at a time of defeat — believe that change is not possible.

She suggested one way to stimulate thinking about alternatives would be to have more comparative pieces extending our focus to the region, for example on LGBTQ rights and abortion, such that looking at other experiences in our part of the world might give us ideas about how change can occur. The histories of these countries are so disparate, however — in Tunisia, for example, the advanced state of women’s rights compared to neighboring countries is tied to how women’s emancipation was a central legitimizing feature of the country’s postcolonial authoritarian regimes — that it is not necessarily hope that these accounts will give us, but at the very least turning our gaze outward can help shake up stagnant thinking that cannot contemplate change.

Perhaps one of the more “hopeful” pieces we have had was a conversation we had with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights’ Gasser Abdel Razek and Dalia Abdel Hameed about LGBTQ rights — although it was published during an unprecedented peak in an ongoing crackdown against people presumed to be LGBTQ. In it, Abdel Razek and Abdel Hameed make the argument that social change has occurred under the surface and, though it is not apparent during these times, it cannot be reversed.

Image from Mada’s society review, December 18, 2017

 

That we have a few niches is perhaps inevitable. We can’t realistically hope to be comprehensive, or even cover everything that we think is important. But still we must attend to what the shape of the gaps tell us.

Most concerning is that there are themes that we should be attentive to, given our tag line of independent and progressive journalism, and we haven’t been. Much of our reporting, even in the society section, has been Cairo-centric. This reflects the traditional geographical blinkers of journalism in Egypt, and it means that is much more to tell and explore and understand. Also of particular concern is the lack of attention to the economic. There have been few pieces in the vein of an article that incorporated the economic by exploring links between food trends, class and health.

One of our staff made the uncomfortable observation that with the exception of mental health, our concerns are not dissimilar from those of western media women’s lives, religious and sexual minorities. “Even if we do it better, these interest areas are the same, and we must address the elephant in the room: economic violence.”

The question of the social impact of economic crisis was discussed in the end of year evaluation of both the society and the economy sections. While readers do not care too much about the traditional journalistic separation of content into sections such as politics, economy and so on, we spent a bit of time talking about it. We have not been brave enough to move beyond sections on our website, but we didn’t spend all this time talking about which sections stories belong in because we believe so strongly in them. Partly it is because our labor is organized by sections, and also precisely because we know that they are artificial markers, that many stories could sit in multiple sections or are in the grey zone between them, that we are aware that where we draw the lines is a question of knowledge and power, of politics.

We agreed that it is problematic that a story looking at the social effects of inflation or how people are coping with rising prices should automatically be cast as society stories (though a piece looking at how families of different means are making ends meet in light of devaluation was published in our society section). We want our economic journalism to move beyond a professionalized technical practice of economic journalism and so these stories should be economy stories. Meanwhile, a conversation we had immediately after the devaluation with Ahmed and her colleague Reem Saad exploring more deeply the ramifications of economic crisis and the nature of resistance as opposed to survival can sit easily in the society section.

Ultimately, Mada wants to socialize our economy coverage and economize our society coverage. There is economics in every story, and this is something the society section has been insufficiently attentive to. Many of our stories at the conception stage plan to interview people of different economic means whatever the theme of the story. This is not enough, but even that aim is not always realized because of difficulties of access and trust, and it is something that we seek to be more proactive about.

We don’t focus on the margins because we fetishize or romanticize the margins. Progressive journalism should turn its eye to the margins because there is a responsibility to tell the stories silenced by power. But more than that, if we do, as Ahmed suggests, also want to be part of thinking about change and alternatives, then looking to marginalized locations is essential. In an important piece pivotal to my own thinking and whose insights I try to bring to my editing of the section Chandra Mohanty describes this as “reading up the ladder of privilege.” She suggests that with an experiential and analytic anchor in the lives of marginalized communities, we are more “likely to envision a just and democratic society capable of treating all its citizens fairly.” She argues that looking up the ladder of privilege from certain marginalized locations “makes the politics of knowledge and the power investments that go along with it visible so that we can then engage in work to transform the use and abuse of power.”

We have identified many gaps in our coverage and we are a small team. Among our readers are freelancers, people willing to pursue these stories, and at times help push us beyond our comfort zone. We want to produce more stories from outside of Cairo, more stories on workers and class, more stories that are attentive to economic violence. We want more stories that are random and surprising, more engaging. We want more content on the messiness of the grey zone where the macro and micro meet, stories that read up the ladders of privilege and power.

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Naira Antoun