Arabs glued to TV news - but not to US-sponsored Al Hurra

For the past two months in small, smoke-filled rooms carpeted with discarded khat leaves, I have been watching television.

Television usually isn't a big part of the khat chew, a daily but segregated ritual for most men and women here in which the leaves of the mildly stimulating khat plant are chewed and stored in one's cheek. Conversation is the rule at these affairs, and the talk is given over to poetry, politics, and, as the hour grows late, simply listening to the alchemic beauty of the language.

But when the US launched its new Arabic-language news channel - Al Hurra - on Feb. 14, television became politics.

I've watched the opinions of the small group of young Yemeni men that I usually chew with go from anger and disappointment to surprise and admiration and back over this latest US pitch to the Arab world.

Like many things the US does, Al Hurra - "the Free One" in Arabic - inspires mixed emotions in its Middle East audience. The station, with a first-year budget of $62 million, is intended as an alternative to pan-Arab news stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya. President Bush has said that Al Hurra will cut through the "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world," and promote debate in the region.

But for most of my friends, like Amar al-Audi, a quick-witted 24-year-old driver, the first day of broadcasting was insulting. After listening to interviews with President Bush and Norman Pattiz, who heads the US agency overseeing the channel, Amar was livid.

"It is just like everything America does, they say every other Arab station is wrong and they [the US] are right," he said as he tuned the TV to Al Jazeera.

The next day, as I walked into the khat chew, I asked jokingly if anyone wanted to watch Al Hurra. The response from the room was immediate: One man quickly quipped from the corner, using Arabic word-play to spin "Al Hurra" into a rhyming Arabic obscenity. The joke got lots of laughs from the room, but the television remained locked on Al Jazeera.

One week later, during a lull in the conversation, Amar looked at me, winked and turned the television to Al Hurra.

"What's this?" I cried.

He shrugged. "It's like this," he said, holding up a cigarette, "at first it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but then you get addicted."

I asked him if he'd been secretly watching the channel in his house. Sheepishly, he admitted he had, and that he liked it.

Abd al-Hakim al-Terhan, a 30-year-old guard, came to his rescue with an explanation: "It has a lot of new shows that we've never seen before. Just watch, by May everyone will be addicted to it."

"But what about the documentaries in English with only Arabic subtitles?" I asked, knowing that some of the seven people in the room were illiterate.

"Yes, it would be better if it was voiced over in Arabic like they do on Al Jazeera," Amar agreed. "But we've never seen shows like this, and we don't want to miss any of them," he said of programs such as car shows, documentaries on life in India, and features on the Oscars.

I continued to press them with questions on the news, curious as to whether a pro-US news broadcast featuring Arab anchors could gain fans in the Arab world.

"People still turn the channel when the news comes on," Amar said. "But in the future, as more people see the programming, no one will turn the channel because they won't want to miss even one minute of what might be following the news."

The real test, he continued, "will be how they cover a story that is bad for America, like another big terrorist attack or one of bin Laden's messages."

A few weeks later, Amar's big test came when his cellphone rang with the news that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, was giving a taped audio-message on Al Jazeera.

The television was tuned to Al Jazeera as we listened to Mr. Zawahiri talk about "lies" that Bush had told the US, and new terrorist attacks to come.

The moment the tape finished, the television was turned back to Al Hurra as we waited for the news. Time dragged on, as I prayed that Al Hurra would do this right, and lead the news with Zawahiri's tape.

But as soon as the news came on I knew the US had lost a wonderful opportunity to show the Arab world it was serious about reaching out. The story on al-Zawahiri was buried deep in the newscast with no analysis or discussion, simply the acknowledgment that it had taken place.

"That's it," Amar said. "It is just one more state-run news agency, and we already have plenty of official news."

By the time the Spanish railway bombings took place, frustration and disappointment had set in to such a degree that Al Hurra was only glanced at as we flipped between the coverage on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya. Those glimpses did nothing to stop the clicking of the remote: it was programming as usual, no news. And that's why no one here was clicking to Al Hurra last week for coverage of Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, nor to coverage of the Pakistani Army's fierce battle with Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Al Hurra is no longer watched at the khat chews.

Gregory D. Johnsen, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, is a Fulbright Fellow conducting research on the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war.

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