How Ireland looks on Al Jazeera

I was gazing around the room during a quiet spell at work yesterday when I was startled to see Jesus Christ pop up on O’Connell Street. He’d appeared on one of the display screens featuring rival TV stations. The channel was Al Jazeera.

The Qatar-based news channel was reporting on how the economic crisis in Ireland is affecting women seeking to travel abroad to have an abortion. The piece is 2 minutes and 57 seconds long. It begins with some black and white shots of Jesus in his plastic display case on O’Connell Street, then cuts to a church and a lady with a pram. Finally it turns colour to reveal the reporter, Laurence Lee, formerly of the BBC, standing in a park.

It is an embarrassing watch. Ireland is painted as backward and its society described as “conformist.” We’re mentioned in the same breath as Iran and Afghanistan.

Travelling for an abortion from Ireland works on the same principle of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which used to apply to gay members of the American military.

Nobody I know has told me they’ve had an abortion. Conversely, I’ve never asked if they’ve had one. But according to Lee’s report, the number of requests to a UK-based charity offering financial aid to women travelling to get an abortion has tripled in the last three years.

While I strongly support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, the report left me feeling slightly defensive. Do we really live in a culture of silence? Is abortion really taboo?

Sadly, yes. But things are changing. The Irish Times ran a series on abortion a few months ago which invited women to tell their own stories. It got a huge response. Scores of women who had never before shared their experience finally elected to, spurred on by the sudden knowledge that they were not alone.

I do have one concrete objection to the report. Lee says that in Ireland a woman cannot have an abortion even if the fact of her pregnancy is putting her life at risk. Following the X case ruling, that isn’t quite accurate. However, so far there has been no legislation to support that judgement. The European Court of Human Rights is on our back about that too and it’s deeply embarrassing.

On the same day that the Al Jazeera report ran, at least 2000 people turned up in Castlebar in Mayo to demand Fine Gael live up to their pre-election “pro-life” promise.

Mostly the report left me dissatisfied because I thought, “What an unfortunate and reductionist view of Ireland to beam throughout the world, one which ignores the enlightened existences of my liberal-minded friends and me.”

Then I remembered that simplification and exaggeration are the hallmarks of a 3-minute news report. And that in a way, a piece like this might actually give me more of an insight into my country than my restricted and evidently unrepresentative social circle does.

I got back to writing my own three-minute international report, a little wiser about how little I know about everything.

Bridging East and West: Katekatharina needs your help

Last weekend, LSB and I got the DART to Dalkey. We stumbled across a charming independent bookstore and I found just the title to assist me in my continuing quest to familiarise myself with the Arab world and its beautiful language. It’s called Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News challenged the World and is written by Hugh Miles, a young award-winning journalist who was born in Saudi Arabia and studied English Literature at Trinity College (there’s hope for us all!) and Arabic at Oxford.

I first mentioned Al-Jazeera in a column for Teen Times in The Irish Times five years ago. Then as of now, I knew very little about the network, but since we used to pick it up on our makeshift Satellite dish from Aldi, it became something I’d watch when in a curious mood. Part of the reason I want to learn Arabic so badly may be because I associate its sounds with Irish, or because learning it poses much more of a challenge than acquiring a European language. But I know a big part of it is my wanting to be able to understand more about the Middle East and to find out how ideology, the human brain and culture interact.

The first Arab person I got to know was a Syrian asylum seeker, whom I met when I was volunteering at Hatch Hall . His English was quite good and he was very kind. The differences between my worldview and his began to emerge over time though and the nature of these fundamental oppositions fascinated me. He once gave me some sweets, which he had bought with a large part of the €19 a week to which he was entitled. I accepted them gratefully but was perturbed to find later that my mere acceptance may have been an unintended indication of my special regard for him. Since then, I have come into daily contact with students from the Middle East, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. I have had some fascinating discussions with them and invariably these talks have left with the desire to find out more about this large area and its people.

I wish I had the time to devote myself to study but I feel these days that what tiny, little precious time I have left over from work and writing, I am inclined to spend with friends and with LSB rather than over a book or in front of a screen. I’m determined to fit it in though, and over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of my attempts at learning more about the Middle East and the Arabic language. I need your help though. Would you prefer to join me in learning some basic Arabic or in learning more about the politics and geography of the region? What do you know about Islam? If you played Sporcle, could you name every country in the Middle East? What assumptions do you make about the Arab world and do you have any Arab friends? What about the Uprisings? Suggestions on a postcard, please or – alternatively – if I’m not worth the stamp, do post them below.