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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For students, news is life and death

Arron Carter, an assistant professor at WSU, talks to a group of visiting journalism students from the Middle East on Wednesday.

PULLMAN – The journalism students on campus here this week aren’t preparing for careers covering things like the Casey Anthony trial.

The news that Halla Khoury, Sama Zeriea and their fellow visitors from the Middle East want to report is more along the lines of checkpoints and warfare and revolution.

It’s both refreshing and sobering for a journalistic true believer to talk to these young people, because they come from places where the job has such urgency and vitality, and because – unlike those of us engaged in it here – they are not consumed with fretting over technological change and the “business model” and the next round of layoffs.

They’re interested in the news – the life-and-death stuff – and for them, the stakes are high.

“I love journalism,” said Khoury, a 20-year-old Palestinian from Ramallah who wants to be a print reporter, of all things. “It’s, like, my passion to study journalism.”

Eighteen students or recent college graduates from Palestine, Lebanon, Oman and Iraq – which is the world’s most dangerous country for journalists – are spending more than a month in Pullman and other places as part of a State Department program to study new media and American culture. During their time here, they’re learning in classrooms and in the field, studying politics, American journalism and new technologies, and getting firsthand experience with the people in a country that, through Arab eyes, sometimes seems indifferent or hostile.

The past couple of years have been wild ones in the Arab world, with revolutions and democratic uprisings across the Middle East. That’s been accompanied by a surge in journalistic activity and expanded opportunity for dissent – especially online and through social media.

“Throughout the Middle East, being a journalist is – was, God knows what’s going to happen now – a dangerous profession,” said Mirette Mabrouk, a Brookings Institution nonresident fellow based in Cairo.

Mabrouk was in Pullman this week along with the student contingent. She said that the work these students want to do bears little resemblance to the comfortable world of the Western journalist. Most of us have no idea what tough is.

“Tough is when somebody turns up at your door at 3 in the morning and takes you away and you don’t come back,” she said.

If the students came here with preconceived notions of America, they were dispelled to some degree by positive experiences with people here. They also encountered preconceptions that Americans have of them – if not an utter lack of any conception.

Khoury and Zeriea, a lively, outspoken young woman from Ramallah, said they find it frustrating to encounter people with no notion at all of life in her country – Israeli occupation, constant checkpoints, political strife and violence. Khoury blames the Western media for providing little coverage or coverage biased toward Israel.

“They only show what Palestinians do against Israelis,” she said. “They never show what Israelis do to Palestinians.”

But Zeriea said, “They do show it, but people here don’t care to know.”

She’s got a point. There are a lot of ways you can learn about the Middle East these days, if you’re so inclined. But our country’s appetite for international news is less ravenous than, say, our hunger for “Dancing with the Stars.”

“At least have some knowledge,” Zeriea said, “like when I say ‘Palestine,’ at least know it exists.”

Marc Aoun, a 19-year-old from Beirut, Lebanon, said, “Maybe it’s because they live in peace here. If I lived in peace in Lebanon, I wouldn’t care. I would just sit and enjoy.”

Spending a little time with these young people will quickly disabuse you of the notion that the Middle East is a monolithic place. They come from different countries with different styles of government and different levels of cultural freedom. They are Muslim and Christian and religiously indifferent. Their dress and manner ranges from conservative to colorfully Westernized. Zeriea wore a T-shirt depicting drunken characters from “The Simpsons” and the slogan: “To Beer or Not to Beer.”

Kifah Farid, a 19-year-old woman from the Sultanate of Oman, said her government reviews and censors newspapers and magazines before publication. She refers to the sultan as “his majesty.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say anything bad about him,” she said. “If you do, you go straight to jail. But we all really like him.”

Aoun quickly added, “You are forced to like him.”

In Lebanon, he said, argument is a constant part of life. “You can’t live in Lebanon without criticizing,” he said.

The connection between Pullman and the Middle East may seem far-flung, but it’s actually close in many ways. A significant portion of the wheat grown on the Palouse goes to that region, and students met this week with a Colfax wheat farmer who explained the travails of agricultural life. The dean of the Murrow School of Communications at WSU, Lawrence Pintak, is an expert on journalism and the Middle East.

And there is a longstanding relationship between WSU and students from that region. A pair of Jordanian professors spoke to the group this week – both of them earned their Ph.D.s in Pullman and know lots of Wazzu grads at home.

“Three presidents of universities back in Jordan are Cougars,” said Kholoud Mashal, an environmental soil chemist from Jordan who is in Pullman over the summer for research work. “The minister of higher education is a Coug.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.