My grandmother loves me very much. The feeling, of course, is mutual.
So, with that qualifier out of the way, please forgive the following anecdote. I am a good boy at heart, and my grandma’s English is poor enough that she will never read this.
In early June 2007, I flew to The Middle East (“The” has to be capitalized, for reasons that will become clear). I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport and made my way to Ra’anana, one of the satellite communities around Tel Aviv, where I presented an academic paper on a Polish journalist who interviewed the famous (and infamous) Avraham Stern shortly before his death.
My grandmother, who raised me in my youth and with whom I enjoy an Obama-ish relationship, was quite proud that I was presenting my research at an academic conference in a foreign country (“My grandson! Look at him!”). However, she was worried. A conference was great, she said, but why did it have to take place in what she still refers to as the Holy Land, which, in her mind, is a country of bombs, raids, irate settlers and marauding bulldozers, each liable to maim or kill her eldest grandson.
“Why don’t you present the paper in Canada?” she asked when I first told her about my trip. “Or come visit, and do it here?”
Although I had no answer for her at the time other than my customary “don’t worry,” I began to consider my grandmother’s anxieties.
She has never been to Israel, Palestine, Jordan or Egypt (my itinerary), and the last time she set foot in “The Middle East” was in the 1980s when she travelled to Libya to visit my grandfather who was among the Polish engineers helping the then-evil Gaddafi regime build highways in exchange for oil.
Since her very successful visit(she found Libyans to be kind and engaging, and she recalls the archeological ruins near Tripoli with a smile in her eyes) her only exposure to “The Middle East” came from the same source as for the rest of us, from the international press. And, with the Cold War in the rearview mirror, international reporting in Poland and the rest of the old Soviet bloc has come to be dominated by the same international news agencies, the BBC, and, of course, CNN, which has scrutinized the region with increasing frequency (and increasing anxiety) since its rise to prominence during the first Gulf War.
While the term “CNN effect” has been used by television pundits (sometimes on CNN) and by international scholars to denote the influence of the 24-hour news cycle on foreign policy formation, there is another, non-elite, CNN effect at play. While scholars (such as George Washington University’s Steven Livingston) tend to focus on the effect images of wars, natural catastrophes, terrorist attacks or man-made humanitarian disasters have on policy-makers, fewer studies look downstream, to the types of opinions and prejudices formed among the general population that outlast each particular crisis. What happens after the headlines change to the next earthquake, explosion or massacre? What is the residual CNN effect, and how long do the headlines echo, beyond the initial flashpoint that draws in and consumes the nomadic international press?
Because my grandmother devours the news (some of my first memories involve being told to be quiet as we listened to jammed Radio Free Europe broadcasts in her Warsaw apartment), her views on “The Middle East” are just as firm as her thoughts on her most beloved topic—Polish electoral politics. She wascertainthat Israel was a dangerous place to visit for her favourite Polish-Canadian academic/journalist, just as she iscertainthat the Kaczynski twins represent Poland’s best chance for maintaining sovereignty within the EU. (Needless to say, grandma and I do not always see eye-to-eye on the issues.)
Because she does not travel much anymore and because Middle Eastern geopolitics have never consumed her (she does, after all, have a compelling geopolitical chess match taking place in her own backyard), I am not certain that she can distinguish between the first intifada and the second, or between Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Dahlan. Yet, as far as the CNN effect is concerned, this does not matter. The emotional triggers that help to shape her views are fully formed, and she is not likely to be dissuaded.
Of particular pertinence is her view of Gaza, which, in her vocabulary, has become something of a four-letter word. Although she sympathizes with the Palestinian cause (and sympathizes very strongly, as one of an ever-diminishing number of Europeans who know firsthand what a military occupation looks like), the word “Gaza” evokes particular dread. When I first mentioned the conference in Ra’anana, she said that “at least it wasn’t Gaza.” This theme would continue throughout my visit.
Now, considering the timing of my trip, grandma was not entirely wrong to be worried. This was early June 2007, Hamas and Fatah were about to engage in a battle for Gaza, and the entire region was tense. The BBC’s Alan Johnson was in captivity for almost three months at that point and the almost-daily reports on his fate dominated the international coverage. When I told grandma that I was planning to do some minor freelance reporting once my academic duties were fulfilled, she became uneasy. When I told her that I was going to the Palestinian territories, I could hear her heart stop, and hesitate a little.
I wanted to visit Bethlehem and maybe Ramallah (both West Bank towns), partly because I wanted to write that it is a shame to form one’s opinion of the Palestinian people from CNN alone, and partly because some of my Israeli hosts kept insisting that I not go for reasons of ideology.
Now, my grandmother’s only ideology is that her eldest grandson stay safe, so when I phoned to say that I was off to Palestine, I took an earful. I tried to explain away Bethlehem saying that I wanted to visit for biblical reasons, but grandma wasn’t sold on such a flimsy explanation.
“You don’t even go to church,” she said wearily. “Please stay safe, and please stay away from Gaza.”
Of course, my visit to the West Bank was quite pleasant, and, although it should go without saying (but sadly it does not), the Palestinian people were quite unlike the angry masses one occasionally sees on the evening news. I could happily report to my Ra’anana hosts that the Israeli portrait of the average Palestinian seems just as off base as the Palestinian portrait of the average Israeli, and that despite the obvious tensions, people remain people, even when politics can make daily life incredibly difficult.
After making my way back through the structure that some Israelis insist on calling a fence (it sometimes is a fence, but where I crossed it looked like a ten-meter concrete wall with a Berlin-esque watchtower), I called from the safety of Jerusalem saying that with my conference finished, I was off to Egypt.
“You’re not going to go to Gaza, are you?” my grandma asked in a nervous tone.
“No, grandma. Just the Sinai and Cairo.”
Just as I crossed the border into Egypt, the nervous situation momentarily erupted into something much more violent. As I struggled against the heat on an Egyptian bus completely unaware of the world around me, Hamas drove Fatah from the Gaza Strip leading to the current equilibrium (or stalemate) in Palestinian politics.
Before I knew that anything had happened, I was in the Sinai backpacker haven of Dahab, many many miles away, watching the images, like my grandmother, courtesy of CNN International and the BBC.
I sent grandma a brief note telling her that I was safe, and a week later, after I made it to Cairo and after I took the metro to see the pyramids (that still sounds a bit surreal), I called grandma to let her know that I was ok.
“Grandma, I went to Giza today!”
“No, no! Giza! G-i-z-a!”
“No, the pyramids, the Sphinx!”
At this point, my innkeeper, by then fully briefed on my grandmother’s fears, almost doubled over from his chair laughing.
“My friend,” he said, “sometimes, you just don’t think.”
“But I cannot lie to my grandmother,” I protested.
“And besides, it’s just the CNN effect.”