Seeing the Light: Righting the Balance Between Truth and Falsehood
By Greg Noakes
I can pinpoint exactly my first exposure to the politics of the Middle East, and more particularly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It came when I was five-and-a-half years old, during the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich. My family was visiting my grandmother in Ruston, Louisiana at the time, and amid the ABC television coverage of Mark Spitz, Olga Korbut and weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev there were more sinister images. I remember seeing grainy pictures of men in ski masks on the balconies of the Olympic Village and thinking that their system of signaling to one another by opening and closing doors was quite ingenious. I also remember the televised aftermath of the bungled West German operation to rescue the Israeli athletes held by the Black September commandos.
These first grim images of Middle Eastern conflict were reinforced the following year with the October 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. Again it is a specific television image that I recall, in this case CBS news footage of Egyptian soldiers celebrating after penetrating into what I now realize was Sinai. At the age of six I was confused about which were "the good guys" in this war, and asked a friend's mother for clarification. "The Israelis," she answered. "They're more like us." This conviction was only reinforced in the following months, when the Arabs began to hold up "our oil."
By 1975 and the age of eight my impression of the Middle East as a brutal and dangerous place was fixed. I held the firm conviction that there were three places in the world where I did not want to live: Cambodia, Belfast and Beirut. The TV often flashed pictures of the effect of the Lebanese civil war on the capital and its people, and I was thankful that I wasn't there.
Still, my interest in and exposure to the Middle East were marginal. Cairo and Casablanca were a long way from Fort Worth, Texas, where I grew up. Lawrence of Arabia and Sindbad the Sailor represented a whole culture for me.
This perception changed quickly and radically in 1985, during my second year as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Unlike many who develop a personal fascination with the Middle East as a result of some great political crisis, humanitarian catastrophe or personal contact, my sea-change came through more prosaic means--academic lectures and textbooks. Even as an architecture major, I had to take a certain number of social science and foreign language classes. Partially on a whim, and partially to learn about an area of the world of which I was wholly ignorant, I selected "Islamic History to 1258" and "Elementary Arabic 101" as my required courses. It was a decision that changed everything for me.
I quickly found the intricacy and beauty of Arabic and the vicissitudes of Middle East history far more interesting than Mies van der Rohe and the physics of designing basements. My old notion of the Arab world as a hotbed of violence, intrigue and fanaticism was replaced by a new appreciation of the history and cultures of the region.
Real understanding came only through time and effort, not sound bites and snap judgments.
I realized what a disservice was performed by sensationalist media coverage of the Mideast, interested only in the latest bomb blast or bloodbath and not in the complex issues underlying the political, social and economic problems of the region. It's not a bad rule of thumb when dealing with the Middle East to assume that anything facile is false, and I quickly came to the conclusion that real understanding came only through time and effort, not sound bites and snap judgments.
By the end of my third semester at Virginia, I decided to focus on the Middle East and transferred from the architecture school. In 1988 I graduated with a B. …