Learn from the best
Get a taste of their art
- Wrestling with Egypt
- Myths and merits of crowdfunding
- Treading the Iraqi minefield
- The mechanics of Arab visual identity
- Deciphering Syria
- Modern-day Socrates
- The melody of the interview
- Reconciling conflicting narratives
- The art of editing
- Illustration credits
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We are privileged, at Synaps, to frequently host experienced professionals, who share with our staff introspective feedback on aspects of their careers they view as particularly meaningful. On occasions we turn these encounters into a short interview.
All items are drawn from Synaps’ mentoring platform on management and methodology. Synaps doesn’t aim solely at incubating ideas: it ambitions to help build a brain trust of individuals who think creatively about the challenges we all face. This is why we invest heavily in human capital, through intensive mentoring and, we hope, effective management. This platform captures, unpacks and feeds back into that effort. For updates (typically less than once a month), sign up here.
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THE ARAB UPRISINGS, for all the ensuing violence, have left a legacy of bold and creative media ventures. Without them, the Middle East’s public space would be shaped in the image of failed regimes, whose answer to growing socioeconomic needs is mostly limited to repression and propaganda. In Egypt, the independent digital daily Mada Masr is fighting hard to protect what is left of freedom of expression. Founded in June 2013, in the crucible of massive demonstrations leading to a military takeover, the platform is officially banned in the country. Its staff, however, operate out of Cairo, pushing the limits wherever possible.
Lina Attalah, one of its co-founders and its current editor-in-chief, is as relentless a journalist as any in the field. She describes, with her characteristic intensity, how Mada Masr preserves its unique ability to produce a steady flow of quality reporting even within a stifling environment.
How exactly does Mada Masr go about setting itself apart, and what are the aspects of journalism you are keen, as a team, to reinvent?
As an independent outlet with limited resources, I think that what’s special about our output is that we keep gathering news and investigating tips until we have a verified story to expose. We focus less on analysis, of which there is plenty in the Arab world, because we believe that there isn’t enough empiric work out there. Our responsibility is to remedy that. We even like to borrow some research techniques from academia, as the firewall between disciplines makes no sense. Once I told a journalist that I would hire a researcher to sift through a large case file about a significant political assassination in Egypt. I assumed that the journalist would be put off by 5,000 pages of judicial jargon, read the research and write a story based on it. But he told me: “Well, if journalists are stripped of their research hat, what’s left of their mission?” He ended up diving into the case file himself.
At the same time, we try to invest in strong writing, through rigorous editing. In general, we care about all forms of delivery, be they textual or audiovisual. And while we may be traditional in our newsgathering and storytelling methods, we experiment with form. We don’t just emulate anything that worked for others. The idea is to develop our own style in touching and engaging our audiences. That is a beautiful challenge.
In what ways has the public been changing in recent years, and what lessons have you learned about engaging your audience?
First and foremost, I must say that we are capitalizing on an audience that built an appetite for good, independent media content in the late 1990s, when the Mubarak regime loosened controls over the media ecosystem, as part of broader liberalization measures. Several private TV channels and newspapers were launched, delving into a diversity of previously unreported topics: human rights violations, economic issues, life outside of Cairo, etc. Dailies would set the agenda in the morning, and the issues they brought to the public sphere would be discussed in TV talk shows in the evening. The media was eminently political back then. Today, we are witnessing the passing of that category of political media. But the audience is not dead, and this is what we are trying to capture.
At first, our public mainly comprised people who shared our opinion. We are getting past that stage and that is important for us. Our audience and its growth are a weapon. It’s also too easy to remain in the comfort zone of the margins, preaching to the converted. To be political, we must care about impact and find ways of reaching different audiences, which has entailed constantly changing skins and tactics.
For example, we may combine serious goals with a fun approach. One day, our main cartoonist came up with a vision for a web-series. His alter ego would give weekly advice to the dark-skinned Egyptian citizen, about an issue of public concern. The show, called Akh Kebir, or Big Brother, essentially mocked the authorities, who patronize people like that. It became a hit in Egypt and the Arab world. The least politicized people around me—and I still know a few!—were watching and repeating lines that have become Internet memes. It was impressive. Sadly, though, Big Brother had to go, facing threats from a Bigger Brother still. We posted a notice saying that he would go offline in coming weeks due to bad weather conditions. We hope the weather will get better.
How do you navigate the shrinking space for free expression in Egypt, and do you feel that Western financial and moral support really helps in promoting Arab journalism?
I always say that one of the things I struggle with the most is the unpredictability of today’s authoritarianism. Under Mubarak, there was a more or less clear space for us to operate in, and we knew what kind of risks we were getting into every time we ventured out of those margins. Now it feels like any act is punishable no matter how trivial. A banal joke can land you in jail for years, just as the most elaborate, damning investigation could. The new laws dealing with media and cybercrime, among other legislation, are mostly punitive instruments, as opposed to tools designed to regulate the media or the internet. What is hard to believe is that there is no space at all, even on the margins. I mean, can any system—no matter how hegemonic—really function without a margin?
We have internalized the premise that we can be gone tomorrow. We aren’t obsessed about surviving, but nor are we suicidal. We make political calls all the times, on how and when to publish critical content. But we won’t give in to fear and shy away from publishing altogether.
We like to believe that our international audience, especially policy-makers, civil society activists and academics concerned with Egypt and the region, are always ready to extend their support. But we are realists—not the subdued type, though! We understand that this is not a moment when international pressure is going to do much, by way of promoting independent media. There was a time for such hopes, but it’s gone. We enjoy the feeling that we are part of a broader, transnational community that empowers us. But we know that it cannot save us.
(18 October 2018)
THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGE has brought growing popularity to the premise of crowdfunding: Mobilizing ordinary people, via digital tools, to financially and morally support personal initiatives. The model offers an alternative to more institutional options, which small-scale actors may find overly bureaucratic, competitive, or at odds with their vision. Moreover, high-performing crowdfunding campaigns often make the process look easy, as if exciting ideas gripped a broad public merely by letting social media work their magic. In truth, crowdfunding hinges less on inspired messaging than on hard work and a major upfront investment, which will pay off the more one understands its underlying logic.
Synaps co-founder Rosalie Berthier has designed, coordinated or contributed to several crowdfunding campaigns, ranging from launching a magazine to buying an electric wheelchair to supporting rescue operations for refugees at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean. She shares lessons learned from successes and failures alike.
Rosalie, in your experience, what must people understand about crowdfunding to maximize their chances of reaching their goals?
Crowdfunding is a resource intensive and time-consuming way to raise money. Because the process rests on gathering micro-donations—averaging $75 per donor in a typical campaign—from a large group of individuals, it requires extensive outreach, careful strategizing and active follow-up to have any hope of success.
As such, if your only objective is to raise money, crowdfunding is probably not for you. Rather, it becomes rewarding when, on top of funding, you are interested in building a community to support your project in the long run. That means you need both to tap people’s pockets and connect with them on a deeper level.
Crowdfunding functions by extending your reach progressively to more remote circles of people, moving from relatives and friends to the public at large. First, you must secure the support of people you know personally and trust, who are enthusiastic about you regardless of your project—that’s your first circle. Then you’ll need to win over people within your networks who are less intimate—the second circle. Only then may you engage complete strangers, with whom you nonetheless expect, through your campaign, to build a lasting relationship—the third circle.
A successful crowdfunding campaign is not one where your relatives and friends fund your project, but one where they fundraise on your project’s behalf—getting involved to the point of carrying your vision to that outer circle of potential supporters. In other words, crowdfunding is even more about crowd than it is about funding.
Why would people buy into crowdfunding at a time when they are all overwhelmed with emails and social media? In other words, what makes us give?
A common misconception is that a great cause will attract money, no matter what. Wrong: There are hundreds of great causes to support on any given day. If yours is worthy of support, what makes the difference compared to others?
Because of competing requests, you must be aware of what exactly you are selling. In fact, you’re proposing something specific to each subgroup within your audience. To your closest supporters, you often sell your once-in-a-lifetime project. They support the project because you’ve asked them, because they like you and because you are doing something with your life that is meaningful. Those who don’t know you well will donate because someone they trust told them to, and because supporting what seems like a good cause makes them feel good.
Those who have no clue who you are will support you because your project is working, and they want to be part of a winning bet. Who doesn’t? Here is where public buzz becomes particularly essential. In short: What you sell is not necessarily what you fund.
What is your starting advice when you meet people who are tempted to crowdfund a project?
People tend to underestimate the amount of preparation required for an effective campaign. To succeed, your team must lay out a work-plan specifying each person’s responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, throughout the campaign—a process sufficiently time-consuming that doing it right often means postponing the launch date.
Don’t shy away from detail. A sound work-plan will include what message will be sent to whom and when by email; who is organizing a given event, and to what ends; and which picture to post on Facebook or Twitter on a specific day. Your preparation phase likely will take longer than your actual campaign.
Beyond laying essential groundwork for the campaign itself, the preparatory phase is an opportunity to build your team, assign tasks, roles and goals, and ensure that everyone involved is genuinely motivated. If things aren’t working, this is a good time to adjust.
Preparation also involves reaching out to people before you actually ask them for money. Your first circle must be ready to champion your project before you launch the campaign per se. Once the big day arrives, follow your strategy faithfully. An ideal approach includes multiple forms of outreach, allowing you to test which resonates most from the outset. Give your plan a chance to succeed, even if you do not instantly get the results you excepted.
Of course, be prepared to adapt. The “crowd” is not an amorphous mass of people enthralled by your ideas, but individuals who respond to the warmth, energy and pertinence of your outreach, and whose reactions must be taken seriously. An unfortunate event catches global attention and distracts everyone? You might as well delay your launch on social media. Several supporters express concern about your project description? Reconsider some of the wording—and thank them for their help. Most importantly, remember that crowdfunding is a chance not just to raise money, but to connect with people—so aim to enjoy the opportunity to engage. That in itself will help you set the right tone!
(14 September 2018)
FOR OVER TWO DECADES, Loulouwa Al Rachid has carried out groundbreaking fieldwork in Iraq, mostly in highly adverse circumstances: the grinding authoritarianism and grueling economic sanctions of the 1990s; the build-up to and aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003; the ensuing civil war; all the way up to the recent struggle to reclaim territory from the Islamic State. In the process, she has explored virtually every facet of Iraqi society, navigated countless threats, and developed a uniquely rich, subtle understanding of a country that is equal parts endearing and punishing for any researcher. She has been kind enough to speak to Synaps about some of the more personal aspects of her experience.
Loulouwa, how does your status as a woman—in a context where politics revolves around men—affect your fieldwork?
Indeed, many of the people I engage with are men—all of them, in fact, when it comes to senior officials, religious authorities, tribal leaders, and warlords. My policy is to be flexible: if I must wear not just a veil, but socks and gloves to meet a mujtahid [or high-ranking cleric] in Najaf, I will.
But I also draw a line to preempt any ambiguous behavior on the part of my male interlocutors. I don’t let them venture on more intimate topics; I don’t accept meetings that contravene local norms—such as a dinner one-on-one; I dress well and make a point of always being on time. In a sense, I must be “irreproachable” in my behavior, to receive the respect I demand. Your reputational capital is key, and it is something you must invest in constantly. It precedes you in any new encounter, in a society where people generally inquire about you preemptively.
Being a woman has been, all in all, both a small handicap and an enormous asset. To give you an example of the disadvantages: a big shot will speak to males within a delegation of visitors, and take me for granted. I also have to deal with intrusive questions—whether I’m married, why I don’t have kids, whether I am sterile even! It’s hard for many men to figure me out. Rather than get offended, however, I analyze that as I would anything else—asking what that tells me of Iraqi society.
Anyway, the advantages by far outweigh the downsides. First, a female researcher evokes a lot of curiosity, which is positive and something to play with. Second, a woman is presumed innocent—both intellectually limited and harmless. Let’s make the most of it! Because people are instinctively less wary of us, we can collect more candid narratives. Third, we have open access to an extremely important part of society that male researchers struggle to reach: other women! They play a less visible role, but often a critical one. It’s up to us, female researchers, to refrain from abiding by the patriarchal model, which we often do unwittingly by talking mostly to men. I admit it took me a while to break with that tendency.
What advice would you give to young researchers on how to interact with their interlocutors when conducting their research?
My first piece of advice is to analyze yourself, continuously. When we start fieldwork, we have a lot of baggage that predetermines our choices and our views. Societies are complex, but we are too. We must therefore try to understand ourselves: why are working in this or that place, or on this or that topic? How are we going about it? What exactly is at stake? We all have our own social, political, linguistic “coordinates,” which the people we meet are sensitive to. That will open certain doors, close others, define a space we move in, and partly govern the behavior of others around us. Meanwhile, we also change as we do fieldwork, which is another variable we need to think about.
Secondly, I believe we must be transparent and consistent. You may be more ambiguous about some aspects of your identity, or play up others: my identity is a mix of tribal, intellectual, Saudi, French and other attributes, which provide resources I can use differently in different circumstances. I won’t necessarily correct someone’s benign but inaccurate assumptions if they happen to facilitate things. And I frequently joke about what may be problematic, such as being foreign, Sunni or whatever, to defuse potential tensions. It is essential, however, never to lie. In a society as distrustful and inquisitive as Iraq’s, that would be irreparably damaging.
Here, there is also a matter of principle. There is no reason why we should ask people all kinds of questions about them, while not satisfying their own, legitimate desire to pin us down. We have no claim to being smarter, more analytic than our interviewees. And we should not take advantage of natural Arab hospitality, which makes it difficult to simply brush off a stranger as Westerners would do. Sometimes, people can be paranoid and aggressive, but they usually have good reasons—which is again something we must both accept and analyze.
In other words, you should be generous with your time, your emotions, yourself. Interviewees may easily feel, more or less unconsciously, robbed by the researcher: they give a lot of themselves, and what do they receive in return? Of course, it shouldn’t be about money. But there are many other ways to make the interaction valuable: by sharing useful analysis with decision-makers; by publicly relaying unheard views; or simply by making time for people and their problems, big and small. Fieldwork doesn’t stop with the research; it entails a more personal follow up, sometimes for years to come. The patient, giving relationships we develop are precisely those that prove most fruitful. So that would be my third piece of advice.
Finally, I find that researchers tend to have an excessively narrow understanding of the material they collect to analyze, or “corpus.” They will look at archives, or current events, or narratives, or iconographic products. I believe in making the effort to extend the corpus creatively, to include whatever may be relevant to my interlocutors’ lives: TV shows, the poetry books on their shelves, the genealogy of their ancestors, Facebook commentary, you name it. The point is to immerse yourself in their intimacy, to display knowledge that speaks to them, to acquire their “intelligence” of their own situations.
How did you deal with the many dangers you faced while working first under an authoritarian regime, and later in a war-torn society?
I’d start by saying two things: one is that the researcher is essentially alone in the face of danger, so it’s all up to us. The other is that threats are, increasingly, multifaceted and ambiguous. When I started off in the 90s, the problem was the regime. I had to manage a security official who would show up at my door now and then, and I was interrogated on several occasions. But had I disappeared, the regime was also the solution. My well-wishers would have known where to find me, and on what doors to knock. Now you have a multiplicity of players, whose violence is more equivocal. They may protect or kill you, depending on circumstances. Uniforms and other markers have become meaningless. And criminality is rampant, even within formal security structures. Threats are as confused as the political landscape is.
Some basic rules can help operate nonetheless. It’s important to trust your instinct, which sharpens as you go. If you’re going to meet someone who worries you, slow down and wait to know more about them—or to know more people around them. Patience is all the more indispensable in a fast-paced, dangerous environment. In connection to this, you must define consciously the kind of risks you are willing, or unwilling, to take. I, for example, never go into an area that hasn’t been demined—full stop. Making such decisions is important not least because your fear, when it settles in, shows through. That in turn changes the way people see you, and introduces new threats by making you more conspicuous.
I also recommend avoiding the places where “things are happening.” Typically, there isn’t much to learn in a combat zone, say. There is a lot of waiting and occasional bursts of violence and confusion. It makes more sense to talk to people once they have had a chance to collect and process information. Finally, I would warn, at the other extreme, against any sense of comfort. It’s a great sensation to “feel at home” after years of fieldwork, but it’s a deceptive and hazardous one. However much we may love a place and its people, we’re not a home, which takes us back to constantly questioning ourselves, our motives, our progress, and that creeping self-confidence.
(13 November 2017)
A WELL-ROUNDED PHOTOGRAPHER, Ammar Abd Rabbo has covered, over the past 25 years, anything from catwalks to military parades, and back, from political leaders to ordinary citizens taking them on. Throughout his career, he has opted for provocative, uncompromising views: condemning the esthetics of misery rewarded by photography prizes; embracing unapologetically the Syrian uprising, which he photographed for all its magnetism and with all its warts; and pushing hard against all barriers to visual representation in the Arab world, through artistic exhibitions tackling such issues as cults of personality or taboos pertaining to the female body. His thoughtful and introspective photography has much to say about the region’s “graphic identity,” and thus how it portrays itself and is perceived by outsiders.
Ammar, to what extent have politics and conflict shaped the use of photography in the Arab world over the decades?
Photography originally was introduced to the Arab world by European orientalists, and then adopted as a hobby by local aristocrats. The first Arab photographers can be traced to the middle of 19th century, but the bulk of pictures that form our vision of the modern Arab world were taken by photographers embedded in colonial forces and reporters deployed by foreign press agencies. The regimes that took power in the 50s and 60s started using pictures for propaganda reminiscent of Stalinism—personality cults, the aesthetics of model societies, and so on.
The emergence of an Arab press photography, offering a real alternative, occurred only belatedly, in the late 1970s, with the Lebanese civil war. Local photographers proved indispensable to cover a particularly fragmented conflict, and the militias themselves sought to document their successes. A modern “martyrology” appeared using portraits and scenes taken on the frontlines. The Palestinian Intifadas, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the uprisings that swept the Arab world as of 2011 favored the emergence of a whole new generation of Arab press photographers. Due to deteriorating security conditions, locals were trained and equipped in large numbers to produce the images needed to feed global media.
So photography in the Arab world is intrinsically political. If you ask children in Europe to recall photos they have seen, they’ll mention advertising and then family pictures. Here they’ll mention their president, perhaps some conflict imagery, and finally commercials.
Part of why photography is so political comes from all the constraints that have long made it difficult to photograph these societies normally. In Tunisia under Ben Ali, you weren’t allowed to show veiled women. In Mubarak’s Egypt, photographers were arrested for broaching the topic of genital mutilations, although it concerned most women there. In Syria before 2011, you couldn’t take pictures of desperate poverty, religious symbols, or even high-end neighborhoods, where officials resided. So, you’d end up framing people reading newspapers in a café, say, because that’s all the regime would let you say about society.
In most places around the world, a photographer seeks the “ideal photo” that fits their artistic vision, or the “profitable photo” that meets the market’s standards. In this region, you tend to go for the “doable photo,” namely what’s left when all the political, religious, social and sexual taboos are done censoring the rest.
That has been changing, of course, since 2011, with the breakdown of order and the multiplication of smartphones, which mean that every Arab has become both a photographer and a distributor. Images used to challenge political icons have become more banal, as in the photo above—which captured a gesture unthinkable prior to the uprisings. People now picture what they see and publicize it, for better or worse: from shooting their own crimes to showing their society unfiltered.
How do you explain that photography—which at its inception was believed to be so truthful as to literally capture the soul of the people it pictured—now evokes as much distrust as any other medium?
“The camera doesn’t lie,” goes the saying. But that is a lie in itself. Images have long been manipulated, to the extent that Western countries in the 1980s began setting out legal frameworks to roll back widespread abuse. In a sense, a more cautious and discerning response to photography is the sign of a maturing public, which doesn’t take things for granted. As a matter of principle, that is a good thing.
But today we are going overboard, distrusting everything obsessively. Part of the problem comes from access to technology: virtually anyone can Photoshop an image, circulate pictures taken out of their context and so on. Images from Gaza will be used to talk about Syria or vice versa. The portrait to the right, for example, is a conservative Syrian woman who took arms in Aleppo, which served to illustrate all sorts of articles on female foreign fighters in Raqqa or Mosul… The public is partly to blame, because it is all too keen to buy into whatever supports its biases. We’ve ended up in a very paradoxical situation, where virtually any picture can grab people’s imagination if only it is pitched as “unseen on mainstream media.” Whole websites now function on the basis that mainstream media supposedly lie, staking a claim to circulating more authentic material—which usually is fabricated. They prove that the media lie by lying themselves, and their lies catch on nonetheless. That’s how you get pictures from the Arba’in pilgrimage in Iraq repackaged as “the 30 million Muslims demonstrating against the Islamic State that mainstream media didn’t want you to hear about.” It’s a vicious circle that further undermines trust.
We’ve reached a point where people tell me “I can’t believe anything anymore…” That doesn’t make sense either. A balance must and can be found. With modern technology, it has become extremely easy to trace an image’s origins and misuses. There are also basic rules that people should familiarize themselves with, as they produce and consume imagery. A picture is valueless without a date and a caption, both of which can be verified. Contextualization is key. And there are red lines not to cross, such as removing any component of a picture. This is where visual education, in schools, via social media or on television, would be an obvious tool.
Why does an image bring into play a certain “visual education” that will determine the way it is perceived by the viewer?
A picture draws on a broader cultural context, which puts it into perspective. A photograph may, for example, hint at all sorts of cultural frames of reference: great artistic movements; the personal styles of famed artists and photographers; religious and cinematographic iconography; and so forth. This backdrop contributes a lot of meaning to the image. The viewer’s ability to detect these influences and use them as interpretative tools is what I call “visual education.”
Our relationship to our visual environment is something that we build over time, starting in childhood. European children will critically discuss photos and artwork at school, and visit museums and exhibitions. They develop a sensitivity to various styles. They naturally associate black and white photography, for instance, with higher quality—when Arab viewers do the opposite. The visual environment itself is shaped by the public it caters for. Advertising will be more sophisticated in a place where the target audience is visually educated, and more literal elsewhere.
Photography is a medium that can connect very directly to people, who may feel enthused, revolted or otherwise touched, regardless of their level of visual education. But the exact nature of their reactions will be very different depending on it. Some people perceived the American soldier in this photo as a symbol of arrogance, bringing out extraordinarily aggressive feelings in them; others were struck first and foremost by his diminutive size—a human speck lost in the magnitude of events, insignificant in the greater scheme of Iraq’s history and civilisation.
These variances may have a cultural, geographical basis. People in different settings display distinct pictorial “aspirations.” In a pacified European environment, raw violence, for example, is a no go. In the Arab world, which is instilled with all sorts of violence, people expect it, as if they were saying “this is what we are going through, and this is what must be shown”—even if it entails dislocated body parts and dead babies. In Aleppo, for example, Syrian photographers could not understand why the pictures that best captured what they were going through were completely unsellable on a Western market.
There is, generally speaking, a more literal rapport to photography in the Arab region than in Western circles. Arab newspapers, most of which don’t even have an official photo editor, typically publish images that simply repeat what is said in the text. Pictures are not seen as having more than a basic illustrative value, which is reflected in how often they are used with no respect for copyright, context and captions... In Europe, publications invest in graphic design and sport ambitious visual policies. A photo tends to add something and speak for itself. Many cover photos are chosen precisely for their unique expressiveness, rather than their direct relationship to a given headline.
The issue of lagging visual education in the Arab world is important in at least two respects. On one hand, perceptions of the region are deeply influenced by the flood of imagery that emanates from it, which occupies a disproportionate space in global media while often contributing to reductive perceptions. Many prizes go to powerful pictures from the area, but the region must play a much more active role in portraying itself on its own terms. For now the Arab world is largely underequipped: we don’t understand visual representation enough to produce and disseminate imagery that suits us.
On the other hand, in the absence of a solid visual education, people are more susceptible to manipulation. They fail to deconstruct and question a picture, rather dismissing it or, on the contrary, taking it at face value. This is something the so-called “Islamic State” (or Daesh) turned to its advantage. It developed sophisticated visual products that were quite effective on people with limited ability to interpret them.
(1 November 2017)
AS THE CONFLICT DEEPENED in Syria post-2011, Kheder Khaddour turned to reporting and research. His meticulous work quickly surfaced as offering some of the most valuable and durable insights, standing out in a flood of instant commentary. A scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, he focuses on civil-military relations and social boundaries.
Kheder, what are the different phases of your research process?
First, I usually start a research project independently from any specific publication format—whether a think tank briefing, an academic paper or an essay. I let the research question take shape, develop my hypothesis and arguments, before the constraints of a particular format come in to curb my thoughts. Format should be a means, not an end
The research question emerges in the course of data collection. This process, in my case, takes approximately four months, during which I investigate different aspects of the research topic. I put together a questionnaire organised around “units of analysis” (wahidat al-tahlil) in order to map out the field of study and chart a number of landmarks. For example, a unit of analysis may unpack a political institution, in which case I will look into membership, from senior to lower ranks; the social environment of members (family ties, living conditions, habits, etc.); and whatever data sets describe the institution itself, such as its geographic realities and organisational makeup, or the areas of overlap with other institutions. Later on, to formulate the research question itself, I look at the intersection of these variables.
If the initial focus is geographic rather than institutional—a neighborhood or city, say—the process is similar but draws on somewhat different variables. On one side, I will explore the population’s social and political fabric—local institutions, local elites, channels for political representation, etc. On the other, I will survey the context in which such social and political life takes place—locations, historical legacies, population size, economic activities, and so on. All the information I gather goes into an Excel spreadsheet, which distributes it into relevant categories while bringing it all together in one place. Whenever possible, I collect data through my own fieldwork; alternatively, I use a network of trusted contacts to do so.
The mapping phase leads to the research question, which typically comes into light in ways that are unpredictable and hard to systematize. The process is chaotic but vibrant, involving a back-and-forth movement between a range of conversations with colleagues, people living in the field and other sources of inspiration, and reading-up on relevant literature. These conversations and readings allow me to test the validity of hypotheses as I form them. Basically I stage a dialogue between these various voices, the end-result of which is a solid conceptual framework that contains several hypotheses supported by empirical data.
In what way does the region’s political culture, in connection to information collecting and research, affect your fieldwork?
In the Arab world, the process of acquiring information is broadly understood as a security breach rather than as knowledge generation. People, by and large, ascribe information a security-value (amn) rather than a knowledge-value (alim). “Research” and “search” are conflated in one word (bahth) that literally means looking for something that is hidden. Research, also, is often interpreted as a violation of privacy, placing the researcher in front of a wall he can only overcome through the delicate process of trust-building. This is one, essential thing that cannot be learned at school; it depends on our individual personality and sensitivity, and will only improve with experience.
Does the fact that you are from the region in question play a role, positive or negative, in your research?
Being Syrian does not, in and of itself, grant any particular legitimacy to my research on Syria specifically or the Arab world generally. Not all Syrians can be researchers, and not all researchers on Syria must be Syrian. Simply, the process through which a native researcher conducts research on his own society is different from that of a foreigner. To keep my work as objective as possible, I strive to reach beyond my immediate social networks (relatives, friends from same locality, etc.), and make a point of looking even at familiar phenomena through new lenses.
Paradoxically, the greatest challenge in breaking out of your own bubble is, precisely, the rest of the world. Syrians and outside observers expect you to speak and write from a narrow perspective, as if you had to represent a specific constituency, and could only be interested in, and qualified to discuss, things closest to home. Therefore, the challenge is twofold: on one side, you must make the decision to step over your social boundaries; on the other, you must also surmount external forms of stigma that constantly push you back within those very same confines.
(17 May 2017)
A PARADOXICAL JOURNALIST AND RESEARCHER, Mongi Abdennabi articulates inspiring analysis that he never shares, other than through oral exchanges. A Tunisian intellectual who lived much of his adult life in Syria before moving to Egypt, he has traveled to and has friends in most Arab countries. Although he hardly writes himself, he has a keen eye for what others publish. Meanwhile, he forms his own opinions through an ad hoc process that makes him a modern Socrates: he spends hours with random people hearing out their narratives, bringing their contradictions to the surface and exploring alternatives with them, using one tool only-questions.
As someone who reads or scans much of what is written on the region today, what do you feel is most missing?
To me the greatest gap in most publications is sociology! In this part of the world, we need, now more than ever, to understand the social dynamics at work. That cannot be done without first getting rid of any form of orientalism. Tribes and sects have changed dramatically in nature. The urban and the rural have been profoundly transformed. All conflicts are deeply informed by social undercurrents, and we lack a lucid analysis built on a much stronger, contemporary and locally-rooted understanding of them.
Where do foreign publications in particular, which continue to play a disproportionate role in shaping narratives on the region, fail to make themselves relevant to a local readership?
Beyond the language barrier and the issue of poor translation, which are obvious, I think we face two problems. On one side, foreign writers almost inevitably address foreign audiences, and that shapes everything they say and how they say it. The view is generally top-down, with a focus on topics, categories, interlocutors and formats that make most sense abroad. The bulk of the work available is based on encounters with usual suspects who serve as “entry points” to the region, such as officials or intellectuals, through which you cannot access the more relevant dynamics in societies that have changed beyond their ability to keep up.
On the other side, texts tend to be either short and shallow or long and unreadable. Some are very rich in detail, sophisticated in their analysis, and potentially of great interest to people in the region, but miss their audience because they are not packaged the right way. Format is key right now, and you can’t ignore the filter imposed by social media.
Indeed, so how do social media affect the way analysis will reach its audience in the region?
I feel that analysis, to become relevant, must be very different in how it interacts with the concerned. Fieldwork will be more granular, digging deeper into societies, and more dynamic, sensitive to new factors of change or even shifts of mood. Any elitist approach, based on high-level interviews, great paradigms and static conclusions, will fall flat.
You should be nimble even in the way you convey your analysis. Of course in-depth work is necessary to support your views, but in the end, what will reach the public are discreet but compelling insights: three great paragraphs will carry more weight than the twenty page document they belong to. I believe the best of our thinking must be pulled out and shared effectively, through shorter pieces that will circulate on social media. That can be 2mn videos too, entirely devoted to unpacking one key aspect of a phenomenon or answering a question that is really on people’s minds.
It goes without saying that format is not an end in itself. Superficial thinking won’t improve from being packaged for social media. But deeper analysis loses from not doing so. It’s not just that it won’t be heard. In today’s confusion, it must in fact be built in constant interaction with the concerned, whose feedback is indispensable. That connection brings the researcher closer to being an activist. But I have become convinced that, in this time and age, the researcher who doesn’t have the heart of an activist, at the end of the day, won’t understand a thing.
(23 March 2017)
THERE IS A MUSICALITY to all interviews, big and small. The tempo will change and the conversation may explore various tones, but a good discussion is one where the rhythm never really breaks, and phrases respond to each other harmoniously. Even a vivid debate, or a tough negotiation, can become a pleasant and fulfilling experience, when different people playing different tunes are brought into accord by some form of orchestration. Gisele Khoury is a renowned talk show host who has interviewed, most lately for BBC Arabic, hundreds of statesmen and other personalities, touching upon difficult topics with a keen ear for what she calls the interview’s “melody”.
Gisele, why is this rhythmicity so important? How does it help the host coax a guest into opening up more than he/she would do in a discordant interaction?
I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.
Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions. You’ll move from one tone to the other in response to your guest’s reactions. Isn’t that like composing a musical piece?
What are the instruments you can use to create that musicality you seek?
I use a lot of psychology. For example, I can sense that I have gone too far with a guest; after that I will always find a wall between my questions and the answers I seek. In such a case, it is up to me to find another way in, or to dismantle the wall with softer questions and a more seductive approach.
How do you prepare and condition yourself to perform, and get the best out of an interview?
First of all, it is important to note that there should be no surprise on TV. At least I need to be fully prepared. So I study the issues, I think through and rehearse my questions, I anticipate the possible answers, and I always keep key documents at hand. It’s a critical mistake to make a contentious assertion without being able to immediately back it up.
And I have my routine. Before a significant interview I make sure I get my hours sleep, I eat very light, I keep my energy, and I need ten minutes of silence to focus before I go live. On top of that, one tablet of dark chocolate is highly recommended.
(14 December 2016)
LEBANON IS A COUNTRY POLARISED between conflicting narratives if there ever was one. Most often, Lebanese genuinely entertain perfectly incompatible views of any meaningful event, to the point of making it difficult to establish facts or forge an opinion of one’s own. As the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Lebanon, Sahar al-Atrache has been grappling with this issue for years. In her reporting, she must clarify sensitive political dynamics for an audience abroad; but she is also read and held accountable by her interlocutors on the ground. To gain their respect and maintain access, she can neither ignore or espouse their views, nor fall back on a bland and benign no-man’s-land that would amount to self-censorship.
Sahar, how do you square that circle in practice?
Because Lebanon is crippled by divisions and conflicts, facts are of little importance to the people I talk to. But the truth is that any given story typically has several, very different angles to it. Rather than making things up, many Lebanese simply ignore some aspects and focus, self-servingly, on others. By conducting interviews with the full spectrum of stakeholders, you get to understand the dynamics that involve many parties and see them as part of a bigger picture. Once that is established, it is the actors’ perceptions and interpretations that become more relevant to your analysis than objective facts.
Polarized narratives are interesting in themselves, for what they tell us about the emotional structure, the interests and the strategies of the different camps at play. That’s why it’s important to let your interlocutors speak for themselves rather than project your own “rationality” onto them. Give them space to clearly and freely articulate their opinions. You must hear out a narrative and understand its architecture and nuances before laying a claim to analyzing it. Challenging it from the beginning will usually rob it of its genuineness and sophistication.
So to make a strong argument, you must take diverging narratives seriously. Don’t dismiss them: put them into context, by bringing in the historical, political, social, economic and cultural factors that combine to shape them. Only by respecting the voice of your interlocutors can you acquire a voice of your own that they will respect in return.
To what extent do the highly subjective views you encounter and collect enrich your analysis, even when they distort the facts?
How players recount, interpret and distort the facts is a very important source of analysis, because it pushes us to question our own narrative and dig deeper. It also points to something essential: the perceptions, the beliefs, the symbolism, the grievances, the fears and the fantasies that interact with them is the real stuff of our thinking, and any given viewpoint, however outrageous it may seem, typically is highly representative of a broad constituency. A major fact, such as who carried out some political killing, can become trivial in analyzing the overall conflict.
However, it is necessary, at times, to challenge the narratives we hear, to confront people with incontrovertible facts, and to share diverging sentiments. Contradiction will rarely shake someone’s belief. But it can point out inconsistencies in a narrative, lay bare its underpinning logic, or simply help build a stronger relationship. It shows that the analyst doesn’t take everything at face value and has a personality and depth of his/her own.
As a Lebanese citizen, you certainly have biases, or at least strong feelings, on some of the issues you cover professionally. Do you contain or harness them? How do you turn this potential weakness into a strength?
Of course, I have biases on quite every subject I cover. But working as an analyst teaches you to keep an open mind toward others, and creates constant opportunities to revisit or at least nuance your own opinions. Your prejudices can in fact become part of your motivation to look for better answers, which usually come from talking to the concerned. The close-up view on any given situation almost always produces more shades of grey than you perceive from afar, especially through the prism of journalism or social media.
Sometimes, I even share my biases with some of the people I meet. This gains their confidence, and acts as an open invitation to challenge my thinking. Many Lebanese would assume anyway that, being a secular, a woman, or from Tripoli, I must have matching preconceptions. By sharing my subjectivity, I can either prove them wrong and invalidate their prejudgment, or on the contrary come clean, get this out of the way and move on. In both cases, it gives the conversation a more sincere, personal and deeper quality, which is what interviews are all about.
(11 December 2016)
A GREAT PIECE OF WRITING is always a collaborative product. We seek inspiration from others and generally borrow more ideas than we are aware of. We improve our writing skills through critical feedback we take into account, iteratively. And a good text will always gain from a good editor. But that is a rare bird: many editors impoverish or confuse a text by projecting themselves into it, rather than bringing out its intrinsic qualities. Synaps is fortunate to have Alex Simon, a core member of its team since its inception and a natural born editor among other things.
The talented, self-effacing editor will not allow his subjectivities to intrude. He will focus first on recognizing the text’s strengths, and second on lifting whatever arrests the reading process. Such blocs include: lack of clarity; uncorroborated or overly abstract statements that may demand references, examples or color; unnecessarily complicated structures or vocabulary; lengthiness, which implies cutting every superfluous word, sentence, and convoluted formulation; and typos. A third, more abstract and ill-defined aspect of editing consists in ensuring an optimal flow in the narration itself, by helping the author find the right framing and sequencing for his ideas.
Alex, as an author yourself, what advice can you give to writers to facilitate the ultimate editing of their work?
I think the single most important—and the single most challenging—component of any editing process lies in figuring out what you are trying to say. That’s really self-evident, but it’s surprisingly elusive: many of us don’t truly figure out what we’re getting at until we’ve written hundreds or thousands of words. My litmus test is that, if I cannot articulate my point very explicitly in one or two sentences, I don’t know what my point is. Another good barometer is whether a moderately informed reader can look over my work and tell me precisely the crux of my argument.
Again, this is a lot harder than it sounds, in part because we often fixate on one aspect of an argument that is not in fact the most important part. I often have a moment of revelation while editing, where I make it two-thirds of the way through a text before hitting what is truly interesting and novel, and realizing it needs to be the centerpiece. That’s easier to do in someone else’s writing than in my own, but the former is good practice for the latter.
A second challenge pertains to taking that clarity of purpose and spreading it, paragraph by paragraph, throughout a piece of writing. Above all, that means walking back through this “what is my point” thought process at every subsection and every paragraph. Do I know what exactly is the takeaway here and how exactly that is rooted in my larger argument? If so, will the reader recognize that immediately, or will he/she have to squint? A huge part of achieving that clarity will stem from “transitions” and “topic sentences,” which sound elementary but which almost nobody gets right 100% of the time. If the first sentence of a paragraph isn’t obviously rooted in the last and doesn’t clearly indicate what is to come, it needs work.
Another key step is figuring out what you’re bad at, and being vicious with yourself about it. I use too many descriptors, sometimes get carried away with commas and semicolons, and occasionally drift into passive voice. It took me a while and some good editors to recognize that, but now that I know it I am ruthless in editing myself on those points.
Two additional points are really clichés, but are clichés for a reason and are easy to overlook sometimes. First, write a draft and leave it alone for a day without looking at it, especially when you hate it and think it’s awful. It’s (probably) not as bad as you think. Second, if you think something can maybe be cut, cut it.
What lessons have you learned yourself from others editing your writing?
A big one, of course, is humility—it’s nice to be told that something is perfect, and demoralizing to be told that something needs to be reworked or rewritten. I’m an inveterate perfectionist, and the process of learning to embrace constructive criticism has been a painful one. But I’m there now, and much better for it; I have a go-to set of friends, family and colleagues to whom I turn when I need aggressive criticism.
Meanwhile, and as noted above, having good editors has helped me realize and get better at addressing my own weaknesses. Even more importantly, though, a good editor picks out your strengths and tells you how to build a piece of writing around them. That’s extremely useful at the level of a particular piece of writing, but also in an iterative sense: the more times I have other people help me strengthen my work, the better I get at that process of sifting through my own ideas and pulling out the most important ones.
Lastly, being edited helps me recognize what’s important to me in my own voice. I have one frequent editor who constantly harps on my long sentences and sometimes tells me I’m being too flippant; he’s almost always right, but sometimes I like my long, flippant sentences and feel that parting with them will compromise my voice.
Heavy editing, verging on rewriting, is tempting when you are confronted with a text that is far from reaching the expected outcomes, but that also means that the author will not progress. How do you edit in ways that get the writer truly involved and respect his/her limitations, while nonetheless pushing toward improvement?
Of course this depends a lot on the type of writing, the timeline, who the writer is, and so on, but in general it comes back to the point about recognizing what’s strongest in our own and others’ writing. Under ideal conditions—with real time for someone to think hard and make real structural revisions—I won’t even edit in the text itself, but give macro, paragraph level feedback specifying the recurring problems that need to be redressed and the strongpoints that need to be brought out: I’m not clearly getting the argument from the beginning; there’s passive voice throughout; paragraph 6 is the strongest one in the piece, and the argument in there needs to be at the heart of your text and brought out right from the start.
With a bit less time, that can be done on a paragraph by paragraph level, without rewriting: This section needs to follow more closely from the last; this would be stronger with an example or quote; you’re switching back and forth in how you spell this faction’s name. The process of receiving and implementing that sort of criticism is incredibly useful.
(21 November 2016)
- Cover: A Shaolin Monastery mural depicting sparring by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Wrestling with Egypt: mural showing wrestlers in action by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Myths and merits of crowdfunding: wave by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Treading the Iraqi minefield: Metal detector from World War 1 by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- The mechanics of Arab visual identity: Ammar Abd Rabbo photographs / licensed via firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of Ammar’s work, follow his accounts on Flickr, Facebook and Instagram.
- Deciphering Syria: Enigma plugboard by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- Modern-day Socrates: Brett Jordan Typewriter by Flickr / licensed by CC.
- The melody of the interview: Cantando! by Pixabay / licensed by CC.
- Reconciling conflicting narratives: Maestro Benjamin Wade by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
- The art of editing: art restoration by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.