When I first did an Internet search for news items in Arabic related to universities, the most prominent results that I got turned up phrases such as “Student killed … teachers on strike … student protests … exams postponed.”
I repeated my search again and again, each time using different search terms that fell under one big umbrella: “Higher education in the Arab region.” Each time the search engine would take me to such places as the Accidents page on news sites, or at best to the Local News page. Even university websites did not offer much more than commemorative photos of students in their hallways, registration information, or annual examination dates.
I couldn’t find news related to scientific research or academic studies, reports on the state of education, performance evaluation or development plans, or interviews with college professors. There was also no information on university events or activities, except for recreational ones. Was my mission then impossible?
When I first applied for a job with “Al-Fanar Media,” a publication dedicated to covering higher education in the Arab world, I was well aware that I didn’t have any experience working in that specialty. However, because of my experience working as a business and economy reporter, combined with my three university degrees and numerous training workshops with major news agencies, I felt that it would be worth it to give it a shot. As a kind of audition, I was asked to write a report on media coverage of Arab higher education, and on whether Arab reporters would be interested in writing more about education. At first, I thought this would be an easy task. But I was wrong.
I have been an editor and reporter for eight years, and for even longer I have been an avid reader of local and international news on arts and culture. But I never really noticed how lacking Arab media are in higher-education coverage until I did a Google search and found only three pages of related results. Even Arabic publications that specialize in higher education issues—and whose number is no more than a handful—all have, with no exception, outdated websites. This clearly shows a decline in their work and an inability to sustain it, which also triggered fears of my own. Was I seeking a job with a publication that might not even find enough readers?
Perhaps the search engine betrayed me or there simply wasn’t enough Arabic content on the Web. I thought I could turn to my journalism colleagues to get the information I was seeking. But there again I drew a blank. “I have been through 22 journalism workshops but none was about covering higher-education issues,” said one of my colleagues who has more than ten years of journalism experience, most of it covering development issues. And when I asked if the reason for this was that he didn’t believe education was important enough, he vehemently denied it. “I have never even heard of a journalism training that focuses on covering higher-education issues in the Arab region,” he said.
The editor-in-chief of a website that covers youth issues said that writing about education is not a luxury, it is a duty. “Education is first and foremost a human right,” he said. “It constitutes a major stage of our lives and is also the main engine of development in our Arab society.” The problem, according to him, is that there are no open and permanent channels of communication with academics who work in the field. In addition, people tend to shy away from reading academic reports because of their dry scientific language. In interviews, twenty-five journalists from Arab countries all expressed their interest in writing articles that cover different sides of higher education, and their desire to attend training workshops that would enable them to write about higher education in a more-professional way.
As for me, my enthusiasm for writing up the report doubled, this time not only because of my desire to get the job, but also to describe the state of media coverage of education in the region. I wanted this research paper to contribute to the beginning of an innovative media project that would serve this development sector in our region at this critical time in its history, in the midst of revolutions demanding change and reform.
I later submitted my research paper and proposed the name of “Al-Fanar” (or “the lighthouse”) for the publication that the Alexandria Trust wanted to launch. The name came from the fact that throughout my work on the report, I kept having visions in my mind of the Lighthouse of Alexandria—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And that happened for two reasons: One is that the lighthouse was located in the city that the Trust was named after, Alexandria, and the fact that the Trust is committed to restoring world-class standards of education across the Arab region, recapturing the ancient reputation of Alexandria as the world’s center of learning.
The second reason is the important and historic role the lighthouse played in helping visitors to the city find their way to its port, since its light was visible at a distance of 70 miles across the sea. And this is the role that “Al-Fanar Media” seeks to fulfill in terms of shedding light on the main issues in higher education and opening the door for discussions and debates between those who work and those who are interested in this field. This would hopefully help set in motion a reform process that is necessary to ensure regional organizations will expand their powers and support the talents and capabilities of Arab students so that they can fulfill their role as active citizens and leaders.
Today I am happy, not only because I have formally joined the “Al-Fanar Media” team and they have chosen the name I proposed as the final name of the publication, but also because I am now part of a pioneer media project that focuses on higher education and supports it as an essential part of development in our Arab world.
I am well aware that the new mission at hand is not easy. It won’t be easy to gather rich and professional articles, data, and commentary, but I am certain that the whole “Al-Fanar Media” team will spare no effort to spread the light of “Al-Fanar” to the Arab region.
Rasha Faek is a senior editor for “Al-Fanar Media.” Follow her on Twitter: @RashaFaek