On a drizzly early evening, the window of the Prince Cafe at Prospect and Wisconsin in Georgetown is lit by a neon rendering of a hookah. Inside, the light in an otherwise darkened room comes from a flickering big-screen TV. As an Arabic-speaking voice talks over video of Bush and Rumsfeld press conferences, middle-aged men blow smoke and chat idly in the front window, paying little attention to the pictures beamed by al-Jazeera.
The Qatar-based satellite news channel first came to the attention of mainstream North American audiences as the outlet for tapes released by Osama bin Laden. With the Iraq war, though, al-Jazeera’s image in the non-Arab world has improved. Though the channel was criticized by President Bush for showing footage of American POWs, it has generally been lauded by the Western press as an alternative to American-focused news networks.
In North America, the only way to get an al-Jazeera signal is with a satellite package provided by EchoStar’s Dish Network. Stephanie Thomas, the D.C. bureau manager for al-Jazeera, estimates that in North America, 140,000 to 150,000 subscribers pay up to $30 per month for one of the Dish Network’s Arabic-language packages. She says that 5 percent or less of that figure comes from viewers in the D.C. metro area.
Thomas says that the audience for Arabic-language programming has been rising since the start of the war. And for viewers without a satellite dish at home, restaurants and smoke shops that cater to
Arabic-speaking customers are the primary venues for watching.
At the Prince Cafe, the remote control rests on the table of Omar Bellous, the one customer who watches the news as intently as he smokes. The 22-year-old came to America four years ago from Tunisia, where he studied politics. He now lives in Rosslyn and works in a restaurant in Georgetown. Bellous follows current events assiduously: He watches the BBC regularly, checks the al-Jazeera Web site once an hour, and comes into the cafe about five times a week to watch al-Jazeera on television.
Before the war, Bellous says, “I watched, but not often….I like to see what’s going on. I don’t want to be told and have to believe it.” Bellous says that American news channels often don’t translate accurately from the Arabic and that they focus too much on the movements of the armed forces. “They don’t show the innocent get killed [on CNN],” he says. “They only show the military campaigns. They don’t show what happens to the civilian.”
Bellous explains that the sparse crowd at the Prince Cafe is no reflection of the business but is fairly representative of the shop’s afternoon al-Jazeera audience. “On the weekend, it’s full. Around 9 or 10 o’clock, you can’t find a place,” he says. That crowd doesn’t come to watch the news, though. On weekends, the television never stops on a news channel, and music plays until 4 a.m. “Some of them, they say, ‘We are sick of it. We don’t want to hear about this,’” Bellous says.
In the Shisha smoke shop on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan, the television is just as often tuned to old Egyptian movies as to al-Jazeera. Here, the owner wields the remote. One 28-year-old customer, who emigrated from Ethiopia when he was a child, explains that the owner doesn’t want to bring politics into his business. The regular patrons are happy to oblige, preferring to talk, smoke, and play chess. “You’ve got your own problems,” says the customer. “Here is freedom. You don’t want to go back where you came from.”
Unlike most D.C. residents, Georgetown University students have the option of watching al-Jazeera at home: The channel comes as part of the 66-channel HoyaNet cable system that’s piped into around 1,900 dorm rooms and public viewing areas on campus. In the lounge of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), Arabic-speaking students stop in between classes to sit on a couch and stare up at the TV that hangs from the suite’s ceiling.
At the top of the hour, a four-minute video montage chronicles the reporting of al-Jazeera correspondent Tarek Ayoub, who was killed by an American missile earlier in the day. There’s footage of Ayoub sitting behind a sandbag fort, out in the streets with his army helmet, and conducting interviews with the identifier “TV” on his shirt in masking tape.
Dr. Amin Bonnah, a professor of Arabic language and literature, walks into the room carrying his briefcase and a cup of coffee. In the time it takes him to walk from the door to the television, he asks “Is Saddam dead?” three times. Bonnah says he watches al-Jazeera at home, at friends’ houses, and occasionally in the CCAS lounge. He also uses the news channel in his advanced media class. When an Iraqi minister read a speech attributed to Saddam Hussein, he says, “We watched in the classroom, live on the air before it was reported by the American media.”
Bonnah says that, like American news channels, al-Jazeera’s coverage often doesn’t rise to his standards for news reporting. “Sometimes they get on my nerves. They will be less objective than I’d expect them to be, and sometimes emotional.” Bonnah notices the channel’s bias in its choice of words: Al-Jazeera reporters refer to American forces as al-ghuzzah, he says, a term for invaders that connotes illegitimacy and destructiveness.
Mohammad Raza, a 20-year-old junior who’s been studying Arabic for three years, says that he first stopped in to CCAS to watch al-Jazeera during an escalation in fighting between Palestinians and Israelis in 2001. His one complaint”They speak too fast”is shared by many of his fellow students. “We’re all up to date on our current events,” says one beginning Arabic student. “We understand the visuals and can read the text.”
“Part of the reason we have it here is as a language-reinforcement tool,” says Liz Kepferle, CCAS’s academic programs coordinator. “The folks who are in advanced Arabic and beyond are the ones who can really understand everything.”
Bellous says that Georgetown students often come to the Prince Cafe for help watching al-Jazeera. The native Arabic speaker often finds himself providing words to go with the pictures on the screen. “They come here to talk,” he says. “They are open-minded and ready to talk to Arab people.” CP