Foreign territory

Published October 18, 2020
The writer teaches journalism at IBA in Karachi.
The writer teaches journalism at IBA in Karachi.

THE weekend before I was moving to Chicago in 2016 to pursue graduate studies, 62 people were shot over the three-day Memorial Day holiday. The news flashed across American channels as I packed while family expressed concern about my moving to Chicago during such turbulence. When I relayed this to my audience at a panel about foreign correspondents, they laughed. It probably sounded hilarious to hear a Pakistani (terrorism, violence, bombs oh my) denigrate perceptions about Chicago. There is no real Pakistan, I remember saying, much like there’s no real America and asked them what it would be like if I parachuted into Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, report only about the violence, and then leave. That they understood, much like most of us hate explaining there’s more to Pakistan than terrorism or not all women wear the hijab.

Is the problem of a country’s perception in the media thus an issue of how a foreign correspondent reports on it?

Why, despite so much advancement in communications — language and technology as well as the nature of journalism itself — do newsrooms need foreign correspondents, especially when the notion of foreign in today’s globalised world is complex?

It’s unfortunate more Pakistani journalists aren’t writing their stories.

If I sound maudlin, I admit it’s personal. I’ve spent many nights in tears over rejection letters to editing jobs across the world where the sole requirement was “native English speaker”. When the naked racism wasn’t on full display in advertisements, it made its presence felt in newsrooms in Southeast Asia or the Middle East. I was too foreign to understand certain nuances — I nearly got fired for publishing a map which had Persian Gulf instead of Arabian Gulf — but not foreign (read white) enough to edit front pages.

Pakistan has seen its fair share of foreign correspondents show up on its soil without a clue about their new assignment, resulting in poor stories quoting the same 10 people, on the same themes of failed state.

It was especially infuriating to hear this when perfectly qualified Pakistani veteran journalists representing foreign bureaus were relegated to second fiddle roles like explaining everything to the person whose byline would be seen first.

The idea that a Pakistani alone can’t report a story for Amazing Newspaper in the West was — and remains — ludicrous.

However, there is a flip side to this: foreign publications pay stringers much more than local newsrooms and Amazing Newspaper report stories that often can’t get told in Pakistan. Local journalists too want to work for foreign publications not just because of the better pay but because editors are more responsive to their story ideas compared to editors here who follow the news agenda set by … well, you know the rest.

I found myself questioning a lot of my grouchiness about “writing as a foreigner” reading Declan Walsh’s book Nine Lives of Pakistan. I was reminded how surprised I was to read when the New York Times deputed Mr Walsh, then Cairo bureau chief, to cover the elections from July to November in 2016 — perhaps in a bid to have readers see how voters “of every hue” were thinking about issues — from an outsider’s perspective.

Mr Walsh spent nine years in Pakistan and his portfolio was vast as he reported on politics and Alcoholics Anonymous in Pakistan with equal aplomb. Ultimately his grasp of the country’s complexities — which can befuddle anyone — make him distinct from the white mansplaining reportage many of us have become accustomed to. He doesn’t deny his book is a foreigner’s perspective but does it mean it has no value?

I wondered this because of the criticism levelled against him on social media, some by folks who admit they have not read the book but were tired of the Pakistan-splaining by foreign experts. The discussion was akin to a policing about who is entitled to tell, in this case, Pakistan’s story. I’m not sure what the verdict was. Was it that Mr Walsh, because of his race and foreignness, thus limitations, should not tell others’ stories? This sounds dangerously close to institutes who also believe only X should tell a certain story.

It is most unfortunate more Pakistani journalists aren’t writing their stories; those who do manage to get a local publisher, don’t fare as well in the market and rarely make it to bookshelves out of the region. Of course, there are exceptions but they are far and few between and, at least, they stir healthy debates about, for example, representation.

I believe bookshelves like newspapers should reflect diverse viewpoints. Mr Walsh’s book should stand shoulder to shoulder with the late Ahfazur Rehman’s memoirs of his journalistic career which included a stint as an editor in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. No country has a monolithic story nor does it deserve to be described with adjectives, least of all failed.

The writer teaches journalism at IBA in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2020

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