On the NYTimes Article

So there has been some debate about the NYTimes article “Revolution, Facebook-style” which I posted about below and on the Foreign Policy Egypt Blog. Semi-Expert has taken issue with the article here for being what he calls “social pornography.” I am not about to criticize a Georgetown professor (I mean that respectfully-seriously), but I do agree that he is being a little harsh.  I think he makes some interesting points about how articles like this paint Westerners’ perceptions of political and social issues in countries like Egypt, and he is not really incorrect in his criticisms but just maybe a little too critical.

The fact is that for the average New York Times reader, this is an informative piece touching upon a number of important political and social issues facing Egypt today. I think the positives here outweigh the issues Semi-Expert raises. And that fact that Ms. Shapiro does not speak Arabic to me is trivial, even if the “bint” issue was completely missed. While it would be nice if journalists were better linguists, being someone who does speak Arabic relatively well, I think it is unfair to discredit a whole article on this point.

5 Responses to On the NYTimes Article

  1. Maxwell says:

    I just read that semi-expert post. I don’t think he makes any good points. He seems to think people just shouldn’t describe places like Cairo at all unless they are Arab or possess sage like Arabic knowledge like him. Well, Cinnebons and dogs and trash and women in Hijabs DO exist in Cairo…surprise surprise.

    Also it seems that he misunderstood the writer on several counts. I’ll mention two. The first has to do with the part where he criticizes her for naming facebook as an “unlikely source” of social activism. He claims that the writer “is almost patronizing in implying that it would be so unusual that Egyptians should be on Facebook.” This is completely incorrect. She isn’t expressing surprise that Egyptians are on simply using facebook. She is only pointing out that Egyptians are using facebook to organize an opposition movement, a relatively new phenomenon and one for which facebook was not designed.

    Second. The Bint issue. It was implied from the article that she meant that she had not been raped. It was crystal clear. You don’t need to know Arabic to infer what that phrase meant. It seems like semi-expert is more concerned with showing off his deep Arabic skills than thinking carefully about what he’s actually writing.

    There are more criticisms I can make of his post, but I don’t want to through all of them.

    It seems like these people with some linguistic knowledge and regional experience automatically assume they have a monopoly on “understanding” and everyone else is an orientalist. That’s total nonsense.

  2. semi-expert says:

    Well, when blogging, one doesn’t always get the point out exactly right. Here is a greater objection of mine, which I added in the comment section:

    why does Shapiro not talk about what wael nawwara was wearing or the cute little cafe where she met him or any of the other men she interviews – like Ethan Zuckerman, for example? Because it is entirely irrelevant. By the same token, so is the mention of the woman’s veil. Entirely irrelevant. it is as if she is some kind of curiosity – “well what do you know, an oppressed muslim girl who can dress stylishly and express an opinion.” Shapiro ought to be ashamed of herself.

    It gives the impression that she puts this junk in there to titillate her readers with the exoticism of Egypt and to demonstrate her credibility for her ablility to get round in it.

    And, I should point out that as a professor of Arabic, I encourage my students to study abroad and I would hope that they would write about it (and some do, mostly on blogs). But they don’t get published in NYT or WAPO unless they toe the party line. It is the party line I object to, not the reporter’s limited knowledge of Arabic. Limited knowledge can be ameliorated; apparently the party line cannot be.

  3. ibnyaaqub says:


    Thanks so much for responding to my post. I think the issue you raise about “titillation” here is important and interesting. I do think there is some romanticizing of the Middle East in a lot of the news and such related literature which has been coming out recently, and people need to be aware of it. However, I think the writing in a publication like the New York Times Magazine is by nature a bit romanticized, it is not a straight up news magazine, and I am not aware that it claims to be. That being said, it would have been more “balanced” had the author talked about what other bloggers were wearing, or not at all. But I think it’s hard to get around the fact that these days wearing hijab in Egypt is often a type of statement, whether religious, political, or simply fashionable, and had the young lady been a wealthy, educated, and maybe not-particularly religious AUC student, noting that difference would have been warranted.

    I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean by “toeing the party line,” but fair enough if it’s not the limited knowledge of Arabic to which you are objecting. I will say that I have found a lot of recent reporting on Egypt a little static, which may be an expression of Egypt in general, but also of the level of reporting. Maybe that is what you are getting at?

    As I said before, though, I think the article as a whole was informative for Americans to read and despite maybe a couple of drawbacks was a good piece.

  4. semi-expert says:

    Hi Ibnyaaqub, I meant to say something about your initial comment “I am not about to criticize a Georgetown professor (I mean that respectfully-seriously)”. Please do! We are not sacrosanct (BTW, I am not a GU professor anymore; I was a visiting professor there; now I’m at AUB). Some professors stand justifiably accused of force feeding their students their own ideologies; but many of us are concerned with helping our students broaden their horizons, and eventually by helping them along in their careers. I hope I don’t sound patronizing. My greatest pleasure is in seeing my students go on to do things they really wanted to do and to achieve great things in their own lives.

    Toeing the party line. Maybe I should have said “mouthing the party line” or “flogging the party line”. A figure of speech, really. What I mean is that if a writer doesn’t adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy, she cannot usually be published.

    Occasionally the orthodoxy can change. Roger Cohen has a piece in the Times today that is startling in its turn of direction (but then he can always be counted upon to say something appropriate and well thought out.)

    I think I might have balked at the mention of an AUC student’s attire too, unless it was part of pointing out that AUC students are a very small, unrepresentative sample of Egyptian public opinion.

    I didn’t mean to fault Ms Shapiro at all for her lack of knowledge of Arabic; that is surely no fault. (To tell you the truth, I was more annoyed with her invisible interpreter – I’ve trained many an interpreter, and I have seen the horrors that a poorly trained interpreter can produce). And perhaps she is trying to learn. And in any case, she is to be commended for taking an interest at all. I had always hoped that the American public would become more interested in the Arab world, and perhaps pieces like Ms Shapiro’s are a sign of that. That is all for the good. And I am coming round to that opinion more since I criticized Ms Shapiro’s piece. I found myself inquiring, “Well, isn’t what you wanted after all”? The more people writing about the Middle East the better. And I think back to my own initial impressions of the region and its people. I too was somewhat entranced by women in veils.

    I think that some of the vehemence of the response to my blog was that I stepped into the territory of the so-called “digital natives”. I am what they call a “digital migrant”. 😉

  5. ibnyaaqub says:

    Hey Semi-Expert,

    For sure I understand “the party line,” but what in this case is it? I feel like much of what we read about Egypt, at least in the American media, is a lot of the same old: Mubarak, Gamal, Ayman Nour, Muslim Brotherhood, bread riots, Facebook, bloggers = no hope. And not to say I don’t propagate some of this myself. Is this what you are hinting at? Which Roger Cohen piece is it? Egypt? I must have missed it…

    I think it’s great to criticize these pieces, and the debate around this criticism is exactly what gives the American public the real insight into the region, and not just an overview or as you said, the “prevailing orthodoxy.”

    If we were all “digital natives” then this wouldn’t be no fun and no one would learn anything.

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