August 19, 2009
By Iqbal Tamimi
Mostafa, an unemployed Palestinian refugee from Albaqaa camp in Jordan, unfolds a crumbled page of an old magazine in an attempt to read the stale news dated three years ago. This routine ritual comes usually after eating his falafel meal that was wrapped with the page. This is the only way someone suffering from poverty like Mostafa can read some news. It is common practice that the poisonous ink of the print hugs the meals of the poor in Jordan, where the 250 fills paid for the lowest-priced newspaper can buy such a humble vegetarian meal, described as ?the kebabs of the poor.?
Among the society of the poor and deprived Almastoor was born, the first magazine of its kind in the Arab world, focusing on investigating issues related to the poor. Almastoor is an Arabic word which means ?the concealed? or ?the hidden,? but in slang it means the very poor person whose suffering no one knows of because of his noble nature and the fact that he never complains. This magazine investigates the lives of the people who live in the dumps, living on what other people throw away.
The monthly magazine was controversial because the poor who are investigated can’t afford to buy it themselves. Still, someone in the struggling media business believed that such a phenomenon is worth the effort. Many considered that publishing such a magazine is a weird idea, especially since it does not bring revenues at a time when media and journalism have became a commodity. Besides, no one would be likely to advertise their products or services in a “poor people?s” magazine. The argument was, if the poor can’t afford to buy the magazine, who is going to read it? And who is interested in knowing about the hungry unemployed?
Although the magazine itself had very limited resources, it is the first in the Arab world to focus on investigating poverty, where people have almost zero income and where there is no adequate social security system. (This is due to the fact that Jordan itself is unlike other Arab countries, since it has no natural resources or oil. And it has been the only country in the area that embraced waves of refugees over the years, starting with the immigration of the Circassians and the Chechens in 1858, Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967, and Iraqis in 2003.)
The magazine not only faced shortages of funding, but it had to find its way in an extremely difficult position regarding investigative journalism, where self-censorship is still widely practiced. The first two printed issues were circulated in June and July 2005, bringing to local investigative journalism a new dimension because it tackled poverty with anthropology in mind.
Investigative journalism is a rare precious skill in the Middle East because it needs a fully committed journalist who works tirelessly for days or weeks, which results in high expenses. The mainstream media tries to escape employing investigative journalists because of their limited budgets, besides the fact that a good investigation brings trouble from the authorities and influential personalities involved. Publishing such a magazine resurrects the old question of why this journalistic art has been deformed to become only a poll-investigating exercise.
Ahmad Abu Khaleel, the editor-in-chief of Almastoor, said in in an interview that his magazine is unique regarding covering the lives of the marginalized from an anthropological perspective. Researcher and journalist Fahmi Abdel Aziz wrote about the poor community living at dumping areas like Alakaider, where all the people depend on what others have thrown away. Aebdel Aziz had to live in the dumping area to watch and investigate and record his comments, trying to understand their style of life. He confessed that he never knew that there are people actually living at the dumping areas in his city before; all he knew was that there were people who pick through the rubbish and use some of it or collect thrown-away empty cans to sell.
At a time when glossy magazines in some wealthy Arab Gulf countries like Dubai invest in investigating the lives of celebrities, and most of their revenues come from advertising the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy, one can?t help but thinking of the gap and the ethical message journalism bears. Some journalists even feel guilty when their assignments come to write about bathrooms decorated with gold while they encounter those who can’t afford even to have a glance at their articles.
Whose responsibility is it to write for and about the poor? Do we have to talk about the media always as an investment opportunity, or should we consider writing for the deprived as a must, keeping in mind that journalism is an educational tool that should come free some way or another?
Whose responsibility it is to enlighten the poor and inform them of their rights, tell them what harms their health, and who is taking advantage of them while producing bigger heaps of garbage?
Meanwhile, Mostafa, the Palestinian refugee, continues unfolding crumbled pages of old magazines after eating his falafel meal so he can read some free news. Maybe one day he will stumble upon a headline saying that he can return home to Palestine.
Iqbal Tamimi is a Palestinian journalist and poet from Hebron. She is the creator of a vibrant and important activists’ network Palestinian Mothers, open to all who share the vision of peace and justice, men and women alike. She is working now in UK.