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Saturday, 17 March 2007

Review: Us and Them: A Journalist's Investigation of Media, Muslims and the Middle East, Peter Manning (2006)

Dewey Decimal Number: 305.8927094

I've got plenty of course-related reading to do, but I had requested this book from Fisher Library on the recommendation of a colleague, and was only able to keep it for a week. So I read it straight through. This attempt by a very experienced journalist and media teacher to redress a percieved imbalance in the Australian media's coverage of Islamic people, is very readable. But it is less and more than its title proposes. This is something Manning is conscious of, as he says in the acknowledgements:

This is a book of love and passion. It is not the book that Random House initially asked me to write, which was more along the lines of memoirs or a life in journalism.

Moreover, it is more than just a treatise on Australian journalism and Islam. After covering his change in attitude toward Muslims, provoked by biased reporting in the Australian media, Manning begins to look at the people who are being clumped together and, he thinks, demonised.

This quest takes him to the Middle East. The bulk of the book revolves around his discoveries while travelling there with his partner, Carole Lawson.

He is scathing on Israel's de facto system of apartheid. He reiterates again and again that Palestine was densely populated at the time of the initial Jewish migration. These are basic facts, and are ones that cause Jewish stalwarts throughout the global diaspora much concern. The Palestinian birth rate is much greater than the Jewish. In a generation or so there would be more Palestinians than Jews. This is what the Israeli government fears.

In addition to teaching journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, Manning undertook Islamic studies at Sydney University. He is well-read. But the reality of life on the ground, especially in the West Bank, shocked him.

He is also well-connected. He had interviewed Mordechai Vanunu at the time of his first visit to Australia. He meets him again, twenty years later, in Jerusalem. Vanunu now, like many Israelis, is ferociously anti-settlement. Manning shows how those who take such a position in Israel are marked as traitors, threatened with loss of livelihood, and punished in verious ways.

If Israelis are treated like this, you can imagine how the Palestinians are treated by the military. No wonder Muslims hate the West, he says at one point.

In the 'Further Reading' section toward the back, just before the nine-page bibliography, Manning includes the titles of several good books that his readers may find interesting. What I found interesting is that he included Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big in This?. I have a copy that I picked up on sale recently. Abdel-Fattah is interesting, articulate, and engaging. In September last year she was interviewed for The Weekend Australian by Rosemary Neill.

When asked why she thought her book had received such positive reviews, and had sold so well, Abdel-Fattah knew immediately what to say. She attributes the book's appeal "to an overwhelming thirst for alternative narratives".

"I think most intelligent people can see past the demonic and one-dimensional images of Muslims and are thirsting for an insight into the Muslim community."

Manning's book, which had been borrowed from Fisher Library when I looked it up and is again on request by another potential reader, fills a similar gap. Recommended.

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