The first installment of Al Miskin’s Mediations column, 1988.

It may come as a surprise to some readers of Middle East Report that, long ago, when it was exclusively a print publication, the magazine featured a more or less regular column devoted to an eclectic mixture of media criticism, exposé and humor. (Other columns included Washington Watch, reports from the region and Joel Beinin’s informative Editor’s Bookshelf.) Titled Mediations for most of its lifespan, from 1988 to 1998, the column was better known by the pseudonym of its ostensible author, Al Miskin. Although it seems not everyone got the joke, Al Miskin was derived from the Arabic term al-miskin, meaning someone who is miserable or wretched. The identity of the author or authors of the column remains a closely guarded secret within the MERIP community, to be revealed only on pain of death. While the column lasted, it provided a forum for engaging with contemporary media commentary on the Middle East, for exposing stupidity, cupidity and malfeasance among US-based scholars focusing on the region, and—not least—for sharing with readers some of the latest jokes circulating on the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The first Mediations column appeared in 1988 with an introduction that described it as “keep[ing] one eye focused on how the major media cover the Middle East, and the other looking out for choice items that the arbiters of information have buried.” Given the times, with the first Palestinian Intifada raging, it is no surprise that this initial column was focused entirely on Palestine and Israel. The lead item went for grim humor by suggesting that readers could understand “how [the New York Times’] editors decide when it is appropriate to criticize Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza”—basically, by counting how many Palestinian protestors the Israelis had killed thus far. The Times, its often clueless correspondents and its rabidly pro-Israel columnist (and former executive editor) A. M. Rosenthal, would be frequent targets of Al Miskin’s invective in the years that followed.

Then, of course, there was (and still is!) the egregious Thomas Friedman, perhaps the only journalist (I use the term loosely) to merit multiple takedown websites: Check them out. Mediations was on to him early with a demolition of his laughable October 1990 Times column titled “A Dreamlike Landscape, a Dreamlike Reality” in which he expounded on the fundamental differences between East and West and thus between how (rational) Americans and (irrational) Arabs engage in politics. “The symbol of the West,” Friedman declared, “is the cross—full of sharp right angles that clearly begin and end. But the symbol of the Arab East is the crescent moon—a wide ambiguous arc, where there are curves, but no corners.” You can’t make this stuff up. In my opinion, this remains one of the best short texts for teaching students how not to think about the Middle East, or anywhere else. Enough said.

But Mediations engaged with a wide range of issues beyond the media, including state repression in Turkey, bombastic pronouncements and murderous actions by authoritarian Arab regimes, and the crimes and hypocrisies of the ayatollahs in Iran—along with, of course, what the US government was up to in the region. Amidst the horrors, it also tried to convey how ordinary people in the Middle East did their best to endure the unendurable by making fun of their rulers. The very first joke relayed by the column, about Ayatollah Khomeini, appeared in the January-February 1989 issue; many more were to follow. Mediations may also have been the only US-based news outlet to report Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s assertion, in a December 1988 speech in Tunisia, that among the many valuable gifts the Arabs had given to Europe (medicine, astronomy, etc.) was literature, because the person known as Shakespeare was actually an Arab named Shaykh Zubayr. I think he was joking.

Amidst the horrors, it also tried to convey how ordinary people in the Middle East did their best to endure the unendurable by making fun of their rulers. The very first joke relayed by the column, about Ayatollah Khomeini, appeared in the January-February 1989 issue; many more were to follow.

Al Miskin also reported on advocacy for Palestine in the United States ignored by the mainstream media. For example, the January-February 1989 column featured an item on how creative Palestinian rights activists in Washington, DC and Boston bought advertising space on those cities’ subway cars to get their message across. It also described the use of local referendum campaigns in Massachusetts and California to build public support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for ending US aid to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In those pre-World Wide Web days, this column was one of the only places one could learn that in 1988 a (non-binding) anti-occupation referendum, held in parts of Cambridge and neighboring Somerville, Massachusetts, was actually approved by the voters—a rare and (sadly) largely forgotten victory. Al Miskin also reported another story largely ignored by the media: In the 1980s the Anti-Defamation League had been secretly spying on many San Francisco Bay Area individuals and organizations deemed hostile to Israel. “One can only imagine,” Al Miskin told readers, “the extensive coverage and thundering editorials the Times would have devoted to revelations that for decades an Arab-American organization, intimately linked with an Arab government, had run an intelligence operation which used paid agents to gather information on the constitutionally-protected political activities and speech of Jews and Jewish organizations, obtained data from confidential police records and maintained close relations with the FBI (and perhaps the CIA as well).”

In its early years, Mediations often singled out scholars and pseudo-scholars promoting egregiously tendentious analyses of the region and its peoples. For example, in the July-August 1989 issue Al Miskin went after the notorious Daniel Pipes, director of the right-wing Foreign Policy Research Institute, for asserting that Middle Easterners suffered from an irrational “mentality of intrigue” and were thus uniquely prone to believe in conspiracy theories. The column pointed out that Middle Eastern countries had in fact been the target of covert operations by regional and foreign intelligence agencies, giving a belief in conspiracies some basis in reality. But it also reminded readers that just a few years earlier Pipes had himself asserted that Islamist activism in the Arab world was essentially the product of Saudi and Libyan funding and would subside when oil prices declined. Today Al Miskin might also note the prevalence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories among the purportedly rational population of the United States.

Mediations swiftly called out Bernard Lewis for a deeply ahistorical (not to mention silly) May 1988 Wall Street Journal op-ed defending “Western culture” from demands to expand college curricula beyond the often Eurocentric canon. Two years later, Al Miskin was among the first to critically respond to Lewis’s notorious September 1990 Atlantic magazine article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This article is where he framed many Muslims’ resentment of Western hegemony as the product of a “clash of civilizations” (a term used by Samuel Huntington soon thereafter), which Lewis described as the “perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival [i.e. all Muslims everywhere] against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expression of both.”

The context for Lewis’s article, and Middle East Report’s rapid response, was the crisis brought on by Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent US-led military campaign to expel the Iraqis. Mediations was also quick to go after scholars and journalists who immediately became boosters of the George H. W. Bush administration’s drive to war, among them Times correspondent Judith Miller and former Harvard assistant professor Laurie Mylroie, who co-wrote one of the first “instant books” on the Gulf crisis. Miller would later become notorious for purveying false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 invasion. As for Mylroie, Al Miskin reminded readers that just a couple of years earlier she (along with her ideological accomplice Daniel Pipes) had been urging the US government to more closely embrace Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, whom they depicted as a valuable ally unlikely to turn against Kuwait or Israel. Middle East Report and this column never ignored or covered up the Baathist regime’s crimes against the Iraqi people—unlike Pipes, Mylroie, the Reagan and Bush administrations and the mainstream media. Al Miskin went on to explore how the US media usually parroted the government line and why the more TV news Americans watched, the less they actually knew about the Middle East (as a 1991 study showed).

Al Miskin went on to explore how the US media usually parroted the government line and why the more TV news Americans watched, the less they actually knew about the Middle East (as a 1991 study showed).

In the early 1990s, Mediations hastened to excoriate the lucrative contracts from USAID-funded “democracy promotion” and structural adjustment programs (often one and the same thing) that consulting firms fought over. It also reported on the shenanigans that ensued as those firms competed to hire senior scholars as consultants. Scandals were, happily for the column, never in short supply. For example, in the January-March 1996 issue, Al Miskin told readers about Heath Lowry, who held the Turkish government-funded Atatürk chair in Turkish studies at Princeton University and had, at the behest of the Turkish ambassador to Washington, been involved in efforts to suppress scholarly discussion of the Armenian genocide. The very next column, titled “America’s Sawt al Sa‘ud,” explored how the government-funded broadcaster Voice of America collaborated with state-controlled Saudi media to cover up the Saudi regime’s repression of its people.

And so it went, issue after issue, for a decade, until Al Miskin (whoever he, she or they were) took a break and the column appeared only very sporadically (it last appeared in 2013). Al Miskin gave readers of Middle East Report a combination of hard-hitting (sometimes snarky) criticism of the US media; snippets that exposed the stupidities and crimes of governments and their lackeys both in the United States and the Middle East; amusing items and quotes gleaned from press releases and news stories; and commentary that paid close attention to the misdeeds of US-based Middle East scholars—all leavened with a sprinkling of jokes that showed what people in the region actually thought of their (mis)rulers. In short, a column whose content and tone very much partook of the organization’s larger mission and culture. For half a century MERIP has been a deeply collaborative project fueled by inextricably intertwined political and intellectual commitments, one where younger cohorts have repeatedly stepped up to take over from their predecessors and carry on the work in their own way.

 

[Zachary Lockman is professor of modern Middle East history at New York University and a contributing editor of this magazine.]

 

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Zachary Lockman "The Life and Times of Al Miskin," Middle East Report 300 ( ).
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