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Volume 19, Number 3May/June 1968

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News From The Arab World

"That's a good story," she said: "Does it say who wrote it?" " Yeah. A guy called Joe Alex Morris, Jr. from the Los Angeles Times?

Written by Elias Antar

In the Canadian city of Vancouver one day last July, Dr. John Richmond sat at his breakfast table reading his daily copy of the Vancouver Sun. He read the headlines and glanced at the tennis results on the sports page as his wife put coffee, eggs, honey and toast on the table and sat down opposite him. Then a story on the front page caught his eye.

"Listen to this," the doctor said, "It's a story about Arab refugees from the war last month." "Go ahead, dear, I'm listening," Anne said between sips of coffee.

"I'll read you the beginning. It's written from Amman, the capital of Jordan," Richmond said. This is what the doctor read:

"The little girl stood patiently in line.

"She was barefoot, and her once brightly colored smock was grimy brown after weeks of continuous wear. In her right hand, she held a bright galvanized tin water pail.

"The line of women moved slowly forward, toward the back end of a Mercedes water-tanker truck. The driver, a big rough Bedouin with his kaffiyah wrapped around his head against the desert breeze, manipulated the rubber hose skillfully from one water pail to the next.

"Their pails filled, the women balanced them gracefully on their heads and moved off to their tents.

"At last, it was the little girl's turn. As she held forth her pail, the last drops of water splashed into the bottom. She just looked, and continued to hold up the pail.

" 'Ma feesh mai (no more water)' the driver told her, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. She stood there, as if she didn't understand, with the pail still proffered.

"The driver repeated it several times, his voice rising in volume each time. Still the barefoot little girl stood there. Finally he shrugged and turned away, got into the cab and drove off.

"The little girl watched him go, not a trace of emotion on her face, as the big Mercedes truck lurched across the desert towards the highway. She was a refugee from the recent Arab-Israeli war, and perhaps there was no emotion left in her, not even fear.

"Dickensian scenes like this one are everyday occurrences in the Middle East today in the wake of the war. This one took place at a spot appropriately named Wadi Daleil, or 'the Valley of the Lost'."

Richmond looked up from his reading at Anne, the eggs on the plate before her growing cold and her coffee momentarily forgotten.

"It goes on to say there are about 230,000 Arabs displaced because of the war, crowded in schools and camps like this poor kid, and the U.N. is going to need an extra S8 million to care for them," the doctor said.

"What a mess," Anne remarked, shaking her head sadly. "That's a good story though," she added. "Does it say who wrote it?"

"Yeah. A guy called Joe Alex Morris, Jr. from the Los Angeles Times ."

Two days earlier and halfway around the world in Beirut, Lebanon, Joe Alex Morris, Jr., chief of the Middle East Bureau of the Los Angeles Times , was just starting to read through the local papers when a messenger came in with a cable from his editors in Los Angeles. Morris tore open the cable envelope and read his instructions: fly to Jordan, investigate refugee conditions following the war and file a story within 36 hours. Morris booked a first class seat on the evening Royal Jordanian jet to Amman, phoned his wife Ulla, asking her to pack his overnight bag, and cabled an acknowledgment to his paper. Then he settled down to finish the papers.

That evening Morris boarded the red and white Caravelle and headed for Amman, a short hour's flight across some of the loveliest areas of the Middle East: the twinkling lights of Lebanon's mountain villages, the snow-streaked summit of Mount Hermon and, off to the left, Damascus, a spray of jewels glittering against the dark velvet of the surrounding desert. In Amman he breezed through customs, took a taxi to the al-Urdon Hotel, the city's biggest and best, where his familiar figure brought smiles of greeting from the staff. From his room, he telephoned a few Jordanian sources to say hello, tune in on the situation in Jordan and obtain the names of the officials in charge of the refugees who were still pouring across the Jordan River from Israeli-occupied land. The sources—Arab businessmen, Foreign Ministry functionaries and Royal Palace officials—warned Morris, an American, to be sure to take a guide along from the Ministry of Information. Angry refugees, they said, were showing open hostility toward Americans. Before turning in, Morris also set up an appointment with an official of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and walked the few hundred yards from his hotel to the Ministry of Information to arrange for a guide and a car to drive him to the camps.

Early the following day, Morris and his companion from the Ministry drove some 25 miles across the desert north of Amman to the Wadi Daleil Camp, where the correspondent was introduced to the refugees as "a man from Finland." There, as he took copious notes on what the refugees told him through the interpreter, he noticed the little girl with the water pail, waiting so pathetically in the choking, windblown dust of the squalid camp. He went on with the interviews, but his mind kept returning to the girl. What better symbol, he thought, of these homeless, hopeless Arabs than this little lost girl?

Back in Amman, Morris called on the officials who had been gathering facts and figures on the refugees since the end of the fighting three weeks before, checked UNRWA offices to find out what the agency was doing to care for them—and also to cross-check his other statistics. Finally, he talked to a well-informed diplomat for a briefing on the political situation in Jordan. That evening he flew through the summer dusk back to Beirut, drove to his office, sat down at his Adler typewriter, clamped a Dutch cigar in the corner of his mouth, and began to write. When he had finished, he telephoned the Lebanese censor's office, told the censor what the story was about and got a prompt OK. He went down the corridor to the offices of United Press International (UPI), whose facilities he uses, turned it over to the UPI and waited while the story was telexed—at 60 words a minute—to a communications center in London used jointly by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. From there, the story was sent by high-speed tape relay at 750 words per minute to Washington, then on by direct wire to the head offices of the Los Angeles Times on the West Coast.

The story had taken less than an hour to travel from Beirut to Los Angeles. Along the way, a copy had automatically been made in London for distribution to the European subscribers to the Los Angeles Times /Washington Post news service. And from Washington the news service sent it out on leased wires to the American and Canadian subscribers to the service, one of which is the Vancouver Sun . Thus Dr. Richmond, in Vancouver, Canada, was able to read a lucid, moving story on the plight of the Arab refugees less than two days after Morris's editors sent him off to get it.

Joe Alex Morris is only one of the scores of foreign correspondents based in Beirut who report events in the Middle East to the outside world. They cover everything from war to peace, shipwrecks to art exhibitions, revolutions to bank failures, and their dispatches are published wherever newspapers exist.

More than 120 correspondents make their homes in Beirut, covering the area for publications in 28 countries as far apart as the United States and Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Indonesia, Yugoslavia and Senegal. One hundred and seven publications from all over the world receive dispatches from their own correspondents in Beirut, and news agencies with offices in the Lebanese capital provide coverage for thousands more in more than 100 countries.

The cream of the press, radio and television in the U.S., Britain, France and West Germany are among those represented in Beirut, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, United Press International, Time-Life, Newsweek, the National Broadcasting Corporation, the McGraw-Hill news service, the Christian Science Monitor, the London Times, the Daily Telegraph, Reuters, the British Broadcasting Corporation, Le Monde and L'Express of Paris, and one of West Germany's three nationwide newspapers, the Süddeutche Zeitung, and its news service, DPA. There are 19 American news organizations with correspondents in Beirut, 16 organizations from Britain, 11 from West Germany, 9 from France and 2 from the Soviet Union—TASS, the official Soviet news agency, and Pravda—and 1 from Yugoslavia, Tanjug, the Yugoslav agency. By comparison, there are only 17 resident correspondents in Damascus, and usually not too many more than that in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Not all of the 124 correspondents officially listed in the Beirut foreign press corps are full-time career newspapermen, however. Only some 50 correspondents, including three women, provide the bulk of serious coverage of events in the Middle East. Many in the press corps are not foreign at all, but Arab nationals working for overseas organizations—men like Time's Abu Sa'id Abu Rish, the magazine's anchor man in the Middle East for 18 years and Ihsan Hijazi, a New York Times stringer and editor of the invaluable Arab World, an English summary of news in the Arab press and radio. The remainder file dispatches only occasionally, or on special request, or very seldom, according to their disposition.

The 50 hard-core correspondents, like correspondents everywhere, tailor their work to suit the importance of the news and the needs of their newspapers, radio stations or wire services. The amount of copy they file—most of it focused on politics and economics—varies greatly, depending on whether the region is quiet or bubbling, but a conservative estimate of 10,000 to 12,000 words a day would not be far off. In times of crisis—such as the Arab-Israeli war last June—the sky's the limit and the daily average might leap to 90,000 words.

Some correspondents in Beirut cover only Lebanon, but the majority cover all the Arab Middle Eastern countries and Iran, with Turkey and Cyprus thrown in in some cases. The North African states—Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—are usually covered by correspondents based there or in Europe. Occasionally, a journalist in Beirut will have an extra wide beat, like Joe Morris, who covers all the territory from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to Iran. In extreme cases, the bailiwick may be intercontinental—George de Carvalho of Life magazine covered stories in Brazil and Nigeria and Tor Eigeland, a freelance photographer who works frequently for Time, Fortune and Newsweek , has been as far as Australia on an assignment for National Geographic.

Correspondents from the U.S. and Europe are also continually passing through Beirut on special assignments but the most experienced eye belongs to the resident correspondent, and among the best are Morris, Tom Brady of the New York Times, Eric Downton and Dick Beeston of the Daily Telegraph, Nick Herbert of the London Times, Roy Essoyan and Dave Lancashire of the Associated Press, and Rudolph Chimelli of the Süddeutche Zeitung , to name but a very few.

Morris, whose writing matches the excellence of his reporting, has been a journalist for 20 years, but although his father is a noted newsman (who wrote the story of his life with the UPI in a book called Deadline Every Minute), Joe never studied journalism or thought of it as a career. "I just fell into it, and I like it because it's better than working," he says with a grin.

A native of Denver, Colorado, he broke in with the Minneapolis Tribune summers while studying at Harvard, spent a year on the Hartford Times after leaving college, then, in 1950, switched to UPI. He left the agency a short while later and joined an overseas oil company as a public relations man, but returned to UPI in 1953. Stationed first in London and then in Frankfurt, Morris covered the controversial visit of Russia's Bulganin and Khrushchev to Britain in 1956, during which England's top World War II frogman, Lionel Crabb, disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Morris first came to the Middle East as a journalist in 1957, a year before the U.S. Marines landed in Lebanon. Except for short stints in the United States, he has been in the area ever since, some of the time based in Cairo, always on the run after such front page stories as Pope Paul's historical visit to Jerusalem in 1964, last June's war, and all the sudden upheavals of a land in ferment.

During this period, he worked for UPI, the New York Herald Tribune and Netvsweek before becoming the Los Angeles Times Middle East Bureau Chief three years ago. He met his German-born wife Ulla in Cairo, where they were married in early 1959. Although Ulla has never worked in the press and devotes most of her time to their three unbelievably blonde daughters—Maria, 7, Karen, 4 and Julia, 2—she wrote a first-person story for the Los Angeles Times last June on what it was like to be a housewife in Beirut during the six-day Middle East war. It won very wide play and Joe's boss sent her a congratulatory cable.

Joe Alex works in an office crammed with newspaper clippings, magazines, maps of the region, reference books, clipboards sprouting thickets of messages to and from his editors, and an overflowing wastepaper basket. On one wall is a British reward poster from Aden, offering 600 pounds to anyone turning in a bazooka. Next to it is a pencil drawing of "Daddy, by Maria" that looks like no daddy on earth. It is an office that somehow suits a man who still prefers a bow-tie and has just recently traded in a rakish French beret for a canvas hat that, to an unfriendly eye, looks as if it had just come out of the washing machine. It also suits a man who enjoys working by himself and playing by himself—at such loner sports as skiing (especially at Lebanon's famous Cedars) and swimming. (He once swam across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia.)

Joe Alex, moreover, is representative of the men who cover the Arab world, men like:

Tom Brady, a restless, energetic, gravel-voiced New York Times man who has been in Beirut for almost three years, ranges the Middle East extensively and once traveled the mountains in royalist-held Yemen on a mule. Brady works out of a spacious apartment over looking the Mediterranean, where he tends a flourishing balcony garden. An informal dresser, who rejects shoes for open sandals whenever he can, Brady is a familiar figure wherever a top story is breaking.

Eric Downton of the Daily Telegraph, one of the most experienced Mideast hands. A 50-year-old Canadian whose first tour was in 1947, Downton has covered most of the climactic events in the Arab world, starting with the 1948 Palestine war and including the Egyptian revolution and the war last June. In 1952, just three days after the coup that expelled Farouk, an Egyptian journalist friend pointed out a colonel called Nasser among a group of officers. Downton said: "Who?" but interviewed him anyway. The study in his flat overlooking the sea is lined with ancient silver daggers, a flintlock rifle, poisoned arrows from the Congo, and a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Nick Herbert of the London Times, a specialist in sparkling writing and inter pretation particularly suited to the leisurely format of the Times. Herbert has been a journalist for 10 years, sweated out the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in Washington and came to the Middle East two years ago. He was in Jerusalem during the fighting in June and found it hard to sleep "because of the firing and the shells, you know." Herbert, 33, would like to find more time to potter around his thatch-roofed house in England, painting a wall here and repairing a rafter there.

Dave Lancashire of the Associated Press, a recently departed veteran of seven years in the Beirut foreign press corps. Although he concentrates much of his time on bright features, 37-year-old Lancashire, a former jazz trombonist, has been strafed by jet fighters in Pakistan and jailed in Syria.

Rudolph Chimelli of the Süddeutche Zeitung, whose adept mixture of color, solid political information and background, is perfect for the paper's sophisticated readers. A newspaperman for 15 years—part of the time with the Louisville Courier Journal—Chimelli has been with the Süddeutche Zeitung for 10 years and has been reporting out of Beirut since 1964. Chimelli's fluent knowledge of English helps him in covering an area where relatively few people know German. His study is crammed with the usual array of maps, books and newspaper clippings that are the trademark of the serious journalist, but over in a corner is something from another world—an authentic mummy of an ancient Egyptian dog representing the pharaonic god Anubis.

John Lawton of UPI who joined the wire service the hard way: by hitchhiking across Europe four years ago. A 29-year old Briton, he worked for local newspapers in Manchester after he quit school, then spent two years in the British Army and a further two years doing different jobs all over Europe. But newspapering was what he did best, so he applied for a job with UPI in London one day, and was told there was a post available for him in Istanbul provided he accepted on the spot and made his own way to Turkey. "I had enough money to pay the fare from London to Dunkirk, but no more, so I hitchhiked from Dunkirk to Istanbul in four days," Lawton recalls. An energetic traveler and crack reporter, Lawton has been based in Beirut for two years and settled down to married life a little over a year ago.

Ivor Jones, correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation. In the Middle East for only a year, he has covered such stories as the first British atomic bomb test, and the Hungarian up rising in 1956, and he made the first public broadcast from over the North Pole.

Ed Hughes, newly arrived correspondent for Time, A Wall Street Journal foreign editor, Hughes joined Time in 1954, spent two years in Africa, three in Germany and in 1962 became a senior editor in New York.

Americans, Britons, Indians or Swedes, foreign correspondents in the Arab world all face substantially the same problems and frustrations in covering the area. In quiet times, when pressure on newsmen is relatively slight, the frustrations can be shrugged off with a grin, but when the area heats up they can lead to exasperation and seriously hinder the correspondents' work.

Most correspondents consider Beirut now as the only possible place from which to cover the many countries in their territory because of its openness and the availability of communications. One reason is that Lebanon, like Switzerland, offers asylum to spokesmen for so many politically opposite elements that correspondents can always hear all sides of any given story. Beirut is also a major junction for international air traffic and a correspondent can usually be on the scene within a few hours of a story break in most of the countries of the region. Most important, telex, cable and telephone communications to Europe and the U.S. are very good.

There are problems. Censorship, for example, has long been the most difficult part of a newsman's job in the Middle East Witness the experience of Joe Morris in one country one night during a particularly inept military regime.

"We spent half the night sitting with a colonel at the post office, arguing virtually over every line in the story," Joe recalls. "He'd read a line, then say 'Why did you say that?' and I'd say 'because I saw it' or 'because a diplomat told me' or 'because it was in the General's last speech.' And he'd say 'No, it wasn't in the speech' and I'd say 'Well, it was in a copy of it that I have,' and he'd come back with 'No, I'm sure it wasn't. Just a minute.'

"Then he'd call up the Information Department, and it would take him three calls to get through, then another call to get the right man, and after the salutations he'd get around to the point that Morris was here with a story and that he had said that the General had said such and such, and was that true?

"And of course the guy at the other end didn't know either, and said he'd have to go and check, and it went on like this all night."

Morris, at least, was able to argue. In other cases the correspondent hands in his copy at the cable desk and hears no more about it—until an anguished message arrives from his editors asking why they got only two sections out of a three-section story.

Censorship on outgoing news in the Middle East is by no means new, however. Downton recalls jousts with Egyptian censors in the days of King Farouk. "They had a great habit of intercepting all service messages from the paper in London," he says. "The editors would send me a cable requesting such and such, and the censors would hold it up. So of course, the paper would get no answer from me, and send another message, which would also be intercepted. More frantic messages from the paper would follow.

"Then the censor would walk in one day with a great pile of messages and ask accusingly: 'Now then, what's all this about?' "

Apart from sketchy communications and censorship, which most of the correspondents have learned to live with, there are obstacles inherent in the region which are difficult to surmount. In some countries officials refuse to talk for publication and consider just about everything as secret. There are also difficulties with visas, postponed appointments and the inaccessibility of top leaders. With the exception of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan, few leaders ever give interviews.

Another part of the problem, correspondents say, is that the complexities of Middle East politics, both national and international, require simplification, if they are not to be meaningless in Europe and the United States. Another is, quite simply, Arab rhetoric that has misled many newly arrived correspondents into misinterpreting sheer enthusiasm for serious statements of policy.

Such conditions have led on numerous occasions to serious distortions in information coming out of the Middle East and to the belief among many Arabs that the western press corps has often presented an unfavorable picture of the Middle East. That this has happened, no one denies, but almost to a man the correspondents reject accusations of bias and deliberate distortion.

"Without access to top figures, without access to verifiable statistical data, with censorship and with the always dangerous problem of translation from a particularly fluid and difficult language, there are undoubtedly distortions going to the West about the Arab world," said one journalist. "But deliberate bias? Never."

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the correspondents in Beirut do their best and this is often excellent. After Vietnam, in fact, the Middle East was the top foreign story in the American press, and a leading one in Europe for most of 1967 and 1968. The dispatches of Morris, Brady, Herbert, and the others are given wide play and, if the news is important enough, are splashed on the front pages of their papers. By and large, correspondents say, the dispatches are printed as written without significant change in editorial content.

"What misleads many people in the Middle East," one correspondent said, "is that all papers reserve the right to print editorials attacking or criticizing the events, speeches or other activities reported in the dispatches. And this is fair as long as the factual reports from the scene get a proportional play."

The myth that says a correspondent can learn all about the Arab world by having a few drinks in the bar of the St. Georges Hotel in Beirut is just that—a myth. Correspondents in the Middle East work hard to get their stories and some of them are away from their homes in Beirut up to hah0 the time—but wouldn't change it for the world. Despite the rush of events memorable moments are frequent.

Downton, who has had so many narrow escapes in so many wars that he has stopped counting, remembers with nostalgia an assignment that sent him out with the pearl divers of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf. Paul Delifer, correspondent of Agence France Presse, was in Jerusalem when hundreds of people threw themselves on the ground trying to kiss the feet of Pope Paul. Lawton was in a jeep in Aden that was peppered with five hand grenades in the space of 20 minutes. Tom Brady, on that mule-back trip in Yemen, was seized by a band of guerrillas who held him for ransom. He was released when other tribesmen interceded. "So I never got to know how much I was worth," Brady quips.

But for Morris, one of his most memorable recollections doesn't concern the Middle East at all. He was sitting on top of a bus careering through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan and every time it went round a bend, the whole bus leaned over into space. Why was he on top of the bus? Because the passengers along for the 20-hour ride inside included several goats, and the windows were closed.

Elias Antar is an Associated Press correspondent who works out of Beirut and who has covered the Middle East for six years.

This article appeared on pages 22-29 of the May/June 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1968 images.