Blue pencils and red lights

A recent flurry of articles continues: after 48 Hours in Tel Aviv, something about the deserts of Abu Dhabi and the Traveller’s Guide to the Red Sea (all published in the Independent in the last month or so), my non-travel feature about gay and lesbian issues in Israel appeared in the Independent’s Saturday magazine over the weekend.

I had a great time researching this: everybody I spoke to, without exception, was open and willing to talk to me – a foreign, straight journalist – about their lives and the challenges (or lack of challenges) they face in everyday life. I loved it all. Seeing the Middle East through gay eyes was a revelation. And I’m absolutely thrilled to be off the travel pages and in the Indy’s Saturday mag.

The most difficult task came during the writing process. After roughly 7 days of research I had a mass of material – six or seven hours of interviews recorded on an iPod and an A6 notebook (160 pages) literally full to the last page. In a way, I’d done too much – but, then again, without all those discussions, I could only ever have skated over the surface of the issues. Every meeting and every conversation helped me to understand the situation better, and shape the article.

But, with only 2,500 words to play with, I had to leave several interviewees out of the final edit altogether; several others, despite long talks and – in one case – hours of sightseeing around the city together, ended up reduced to a couple of lines of backstory and a single quote. One interviewee has already emailed to say how disappointed they are in me (and in how ‘negative’ the article is); others have so far been universally positive and supportive.

The problem, I think, is that I went in with an open mind: the conception of the article changed several times – from the pitch, to when I first arrived, to when I left, to when I sat down to write. The final piece has a quite different tone from how I originally imagined it – due entirely to the people I spoke to on the ground. If I had fixed on an angle before arriving and stuck to it, I could have interviewed fewer people, for a shorter time, asked more targeted questions and come up with 2,500 words to suit that agenda.

But I preferred to see this project as a journey of discovery for me, too – I genuinely wanted to find out about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) life in Israel… but perhaps that held me back and made the resulting article a little too quote-heavy. Not sure. It’s all a learning process. Might do things differently next time.

Then there was the Palestinian issue – lots to talk about there, in relation to gay issues, civil rights, the occupation… but, in truth, it’s a whole other article. I thought, early on, to bring in Palestinian perspectives, and I also had gay friends & contacts in neighbouring Arab countries ready to give quotes and insight – but, in the end, I decided that the subject of gay life in Israel merited discussion by itself. Expanding the boundaries of the subject would only have made the article fuzzier and less focused than it is. Tough decisions, these.

One thing that did jar was the images chosen by the picture editor to accompany the article. The Independent commissioned a Jerusalem-based freelance photographer, Ahikam Seri, to shoot the story – and he did an outstanding job, in interview situations, portraits and reportage. But the story ended up being illustrated with voyeuristic nightlife images on every page – men kissing, women kissing. I barely mention clubbing or Tel Aviv’s reputation for hedonism, but Ahikam’s portraits of the people I did write about, and his brilliant visual insights into ordinary gay life in the city, don’t get a look-in.

Instead, the newspaper thought: it’s a story about gays and lesbians – therefore, we must pack it with images of same-sex snogging, preferably in red-lit nightclub basements. Such a pity. Reinforces tired stereotypes, when there was an opportunity to undermine them. Opportunity lost.


  1. Hal

    Matthew, while I understand your frustration at the stereotypical photo support you received on this topic, it does also beg the question – didn’t you just open a door that was inviting that very stereotyping? Writing about “gay capitals” is just another route toward finding a niche travel topic that editors perceive as safer to put out there in these times rather than the “hot” topics that might in fact be more relevant, more (genuinely) timely. I’m talking about such real talking points in that part of the world as being any and all the elements that have ever stalled a comprehensive Mideast peace – and you don’t have to be a “political” correspondent to tackle any of those, surely. For instance, the impact on the daily lives of Palestinians of having a wall running down the West Bank, or the inability of Gazans to rebuild their lives because most communication and transportation, or the status of Arab Israelis and people in refugee camps.

    But even if you leave all of that aside, then surely that killing in your clip about “gay capital Tel Aviv” should make you think twice about labelling quite so rapidly. And seeing Israel (or anywhere) through “gay eyes”? I mean, how about through “black eyes”, “yellow eyes”, “straight man’s eyes”, “people suffering from ADD eyes”, “dog lover’s eyes”? You see the point – it’s actually a ridiculous proposition in a way, and why it becomes dangerous as the premise for any writer to use to construct a travel narrative that can be honest about what’s going on. In fact, maybe that killing might have been more useful for you to continue an exploration about the “myth” of tolerance in certain societies that affect to be tolerant only to the degree that certain rules about dominance, political and military force are not challenged. There are so many avenues you might have researched or interviewed about that would probably not have been comfortable research or conversation but might have been more revealing. For instance, looking at the reality beyond the mask of big city life in Tel Aviv and finding out what attitudes like are among settlers towards gays? Settlements and settlers being the core constituency of the current government that allowed you into the country, after all. The notion of “tolerance” is often a very clever marketing ploy used adroitly by certain governments, certain elites and certain countries as a sort of sentimental draw to liberal travelers who think this is a valid reason for visiting certain places. In this instance, how ironically appropriate that Israel manages to go on creating a modern desert mirage that doesn’t have much to do at all with the hard facts on the ground.

    1. Matthew Teller

      hi Hal, thanks for commenting in such detail. Much appreciated.

      First, a heads-up about how newspapers work. I did not write the words “gay capital”, and would never have done so. The journalist writes the text: any headline you see, in any newspaper, anywhere in the world, is NOT the responsibility of the journalist. Headlines are written by editors (or sub-editors), without reference to the credited author. They are shaped to fit the space available, and are dreamt up by the editor to suit his/her ideas about what will draw readers in. If anyone had asked me I would have refused to allow the words ‘gay capital’ to run in print. Same as I would have made a different image choice. But nobody did. And nobody ever would.

      So much for my choosing to write about a ‘safe’ topic under a ‘safe’ headline.

      I don’t really understand what you say about other topics that I could (should?) have written about. Why are your topics any more “relevant [or] genuinely timely” than the topic I selected? Do they say any more about the country under discussion? The Palestinian-led topics you mention are all extremely valid – but they are other articles. Not every article about Sri Lanka needs to be about the tsunami; not every article about Texas needs to be about the justice system; not every article about Israel needs to be about the occupation. Other issues are at play.

      I’d also like to challenge your idea that gay people – or, as you suggest, black people, dog lovers and others – do not see the world in different ways from each other, and from everybody else. I don’t find that proposition ridiculous at all.

      In what sense is my article a “travel narrative”?

      Then you expound at length about what I might have written about. Well, thanks very much, but this was a story tightly focused on gay and lesbian issues in Tel Aviv – if I’d written about the settlements, about rightwing attitudes to LGBT, about the wall, about the status of Palestinian Israelis, I’d need a heck of a lot more than 2,500 words! But don’t let me stop you: if you think they’re good subjects for the Independent Saturday magazine, you go ahead and pitch them, along with issues of social dominance and the myth of social tolerance in Israel. I’d be very happy to read the result.

      Incidentally, on the issue of how Israel uses tolerance to validate its image, see this interview with Haneen Maikey.

  2. FeeliaBeniove

    True words, some authentic words dude. Made my day!!

  3. Hal

    “I’d also like to challenge your idea that gay people – or, as you suggest, black people, dog lovers and others – do not see the world in different ways from each other, and from everybody else. I don’t find that proposition ridiculous at all.”

    I adhere to all I stated previously, Matthew. If you step back and just take a look within your own article at whom you interviewed and the premise you imposed on selecting them for inclusion in that article, it all just underscores what I pointed out. In other words, the Palestininan that you quote and Israelis from that gay youth club have absolutely nothing in common except their biological sexuality. Not a single other commonality beyond that — so, yes as people who happen to each be gay, how they each see the world is indeed different, *but* the significant difference is their differing perceptions of each other and the different social, economic and yes political realities each is situated within. So, you may as well have as your basis for an article any two random straight people, any two random vegetarians, any two random dog lovers. In other words, not much of a basis. I think that point is also voiced in the great article you linked from Haneen, wherein she states in her own way that she really doesn’t want that part of her identity to be patronized and manipulated by people like the Israeli ambassador to Denmark.

    As far as timeliness and relevance, well…if anyone needs “good luck” as you say with getting the editors of The Independent to be willing to give editorial space to those issues I suggested are more significant, perhaps you also allude to their underlying unwillingness not to offend their nice educated readers in Golders Green and diverge instead into red herring topics about gay social meccas in Tel Aviv? Yes, not every article about a place has to be about one or a limited number of issues or aspects on the ground there, but in my opinion when those major issues and aspects are front and foremost not only right in that geographic location but in discussion and concern on the world stage, then I’ll go on disagreeing about how appropriate it is to fiddle while Rome burns.

  4. Matthew Teller

    Thanks again, Hal. Maybe I am especially stupid, but I’m still not clear about your objections to why I should have written about those people in that way – or why I didn’t choose to write something else about some other people. But if we can’t understand each other at this kind of length, maybe we’re destined never to!

    It seems you don’t know The Independent very well: with their usual stance on Middle East affairs, I doubt they have very many ‘nice educated readers in Golders Green’ (presuming you mean Jewish readers: Golders Green is a very mixed, multicultural area), if any at all.

    And as for fiddling while Rome burns, there are more ways than one to put out a fire…

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