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Hejaze: Let art tell you what journalism can’t

Rhytha Zahid Hejaze, Columnist

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“I’m not sad for the martyr in you, but losing you hurts,” a weeping woman said in “The Square,” to her deceased son killed in an army attack on the Egyptian revolutionaries.

My heart filled up with overwhelming grief and tears trickled down my cheeks. In my head, I heard myself say the same words I said to myself ever so often, “There’s too much pain and suffering in this world.”

“The Square,” a documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim, depicted recent Egyptian revolutions through the eyes of revolutionaries, like Ahmed Hassan, Khalid Abdalla and Ramy Essam, who Noujaim followed around with her camera into their debate-heated homes, the tented Tahrir Square and the tear-gassed streets of Cairo.

“The Square” beautifully humanized the Egyptians by engrossing us in their personal journeys and built a bridge for us to connect with the perceived “other.”

For centuries, the East has been represented in Western media as an inferior crowd of savages, a practice called Orientalism. I remember a discussion we once had on ethics of journalism in my “Multimedia and Visual Journalism” class last semester, about how the Western media portrays the “other” in unrelatable ways: When Darren Wilson, a white policeman, shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, the media initially used photos of Brown flashing gang signs, portraying him as a menacing “other,” distracting people from the truth. In the study, “National Identity and Attitude Towards Foreigners in a Multinational State,” researchers found that if a person identifies with a nation that promotes preserving its own culture, he or she will be hostile toward foreigners because they will be seen as the “other” or a threat to his or her culture.

“The Square” diffused the otherness of the people of the Middle East and allowed us to even embrace their otherness. It cut beyond cultural differences and sent a message of humanness.

“I felt that if I could really bring people into the lives, personal lives [of the Egyptians] and humanize the people that are going through this so that when you see the Egyptian Revolution, it’s not just this massive crowd that you see on Television,” Noujaim said during a visit to my university, Northwestern University in Qatar, after we watched “The Square.” “You really experience the characters and what they’re feeling,” she added.

When you see a revolutionary like Abdalla, the protagonist of “The Kite Runner,” your idea of the savage men of the Middle East is thrown out of the window.

As I sat back in my seat in the cinema, I found soulful human connection in the cigarette-puffing of a distressed Hassan, the plucking of guitar strings of a passionate Essam and the tears of joy of the Egyptians, amidst flailing Egyptian flags, when Hosni Mubarak stepped down. How do you not connect with such moving humanness?

“The Square” has been criticized for being biased and telling just one side of the story. The struggles the characters faced, however, and the emotions they felt were truth. Just because “The Square” doesn’t focus on Egyptians outside Tahrir Square, doesn’t mean it’s any less true.

Even though journalism asserts to pursue the truth, its boundaries sometimes constrain the telling of the truth. As Jason Silva, a filmmaker, said on The Huffington Post, “Whereas a literal journalist might have certain facts straight, the articulation of a poet or artist, though less ‘factual,’ can actually reveal a deeper truth.”

As journalists, we look for black-and-white facts, but truth is rarely that simple. Truth writhes in the mysterious, the unknown and the misunderstood.

“He was willing to sacrifice a naive realism in order to achieve realism of a deeper sort, like a poet who, though less factual than a journalist in describing an event, may nevertheless reveal truths about it that find no place in the other’s literal grid,” Alain de Botton wrote about an artist in his book, “The Art of Travel.”

Maybe we can call a documentary like “The Square” artistic journalism, for art has the power to reveal truths mere facts cannot.

“You are expressing an emotional truth about who your characters are and their journey,” Karim Amer, the producer, said when addressing the audience at NU-Qatar with Noujaim.

Let art tell you what journalism can’t. Let it reveal shades of truth beyond the black and white. Give room to otherness — to all kinds of truths. You can then lie back in your futon and make your own judgments. Your perception of other people’s truths will be your truth, because there’s no one thing that’s true.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the gender of the woman’s child in “The Square.” Her slain child was a son. The Daily regrets the error.

Rhytha Zahid Hejaze is a sophomore studying journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar. She can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to