The Opposite Direction
I never considered joining Al Jazeera when I left the BBC Arabic Service in 1996. BBC Arabic had been closed down after a dispute with its Saudi sponsors.
At first, I had no hope for Al Jazeera, thinking it would be yet another official Arab channel with no function other than to clap and cheer for this or that Arab regime.
At the time I was proud of my work at an international media institution that was well established and distinguished by its high professionalism.
How could I move from the BBC with its great credibility and renown to a newly emerging channel which, since it was Arabic, would be neither professional nor credible?
Throughout our lives we had become accustomed to low-quality propagandist Arab media, and every time I considered joining an Arab channel I would feel great pain and sadness, as I saw such a move as a backward step.
I had begun my journalism career in Britain, thus learning from western media principles and had never worked at an Arab media institution.
To be completely frank, those initially in charge of Al Jazeera did not ask me to join the channel. In fact I later learnt that I was not wanted for a number of reasons to do with those responsible for recruitment at the time.
I was therefore excluded from the list of individuals to be invited to join Al Jazeera. Destiny willed that I would sign a contract with Dubai Television to present financial news bulletins.
Though I was not interested in economics, I accepted the job offer on a temporary basis, hoping to find something better soon.
However, around the same time, there were some phone conversations between Mohamed Jasim Al-Alithe, the new director of Al Jazeera, and myself.
A few days later he contacted me to offer me a position at the channel. Mahmoud Al-Sahlawi, vice chair of the executive committee at the time, had asked during one of their meetings about “that person” who used to work at the BBC who moves his hands a lot and provokes and challenges guests.
He said: “Why was he not contacted to join Al Jazeera?” Of course, he was referring to me, and one of the ‘good people’ replied that I was not suitable for television.
However, God’s will is greater than anyone’s. After hearing that Al Jazeera would be completely different from traditional Arab channels, I began to accept the idea of moving to Qatar.
On the September 15, 1996, I travelled to Doha with my wife, my only daughter at the time Saba, and my brother, Farooq Al-Qasim.
The next day I was informed that the director wished to see me. I was slightly worried, what if he did not like the way I looked or thought I was not suitable for the channel?
Nevertheless, I composed myself and went on to be met warmly and encouragingly, being told: “Faisal, we want you to think of a show for us. You have two weeks.” I left in a happy state, and started to think seriously of a programme that could achieve distinction and renown.
Two weeks later I went back to the director and proposed the idea of a debate programme, which he liked very much, and asked me to find a name for.
I started consulting friends and acquaintances and compiled a list of possible titles, which included: The Fourth Dimension, Against the Current, Opposite the Trend, Front Lines, Cross Fire, and The Opposite Direction.
My personal choice was The Opposite Direction, but the executive management did not like it, and asked me to change it to The Fourth Dimension.
We designed a logo for the The Fourth Dimension and I prepared a test episode. The management were very happy with it, but I was not, so they said: “Do as you wish.” I called it The Opposite Direction.
I met His Excellency Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir Al Thani, the president of the managing committee, at the office of the director to discuss the first episode of the programme, which I proposed should be on the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), and we reached agreement.
We began our search for the two guests – I suggested Abdelbari Atwan, one of the most scathing critics of Gulf policies, together with Abdullah Bishara, the former secretary-general of the council, from Kuwait.
But I found great difficulty trying to convince the latter to participate. With the help of people at Al Jazeera he agreed, though he did not know the name of the other guest.
I was certain that if he knew he would refuse the invitation. On the day of the programme Mr Bishara asked me about his fellow guest, who was welcomed in a separate room.
I replied that it was Abdelbari Atwan whom I had invited as he was passing through Doha, which was not entirely true.
Bishara was worried and thought of withdrawing from the programme, but we convinced him to stay and took him to the studio.
Then came that famous episode, the like of which had never before seen on Arab TV, because of its daring character and challenge to political taboos, the mere mention of which normally led to dire consequences.
The direct participation of viewers expressing audacious views live on air was unprecedented in the history of Arab television, and to such an extent that Bishara asked me during the interval: “Is this programme really broadcast from Doha?”
He was astonished that Qatar would allow such a scathing attack on the GCC and Gulf regimes.
When I left the studio I thought the director would tell me: “Pack up your stuff and leave Doha.” I did not care.
I had convinced myself that the worst that could happen to me after that raucous episode was my dismissal, and since I had a British passport, I would be able to return to London.
To my surprise, the director welcomed me in his office with a very wide smile, praised the episode, and jokingly asked me to have the next one on the Arab Communist Baath party.
Encouraging reactions continued to come from various quarters, my spirits were raised, and I began thinking of the next show.
Each new episode turned out to be a megatonne bomb according to the standards of the Arab media at that time.
One programme featured a debate between the two thinkers, Mohamed Amara and Nasr Hamid Abuzid, on opposing trends in Islam.
The programme provoked a firestorm of Islamist complaints for merely having invited Abuzid who was considered a heretic for his daring views, and who had been forced to separate from his wife and flee to Holland. Many demanded to know: “How could you invite an ‘apostate’?”
The next episode was a heated battle, possibly the first of its kind on Arab TV, between Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the well-known secular thinker, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm.
By bringing together a well-known Islamic scholar and a secular agnostic, the episode provoked an extraordinary reaction. Recordings of the programme were sold in the Gulf for $100.
But the episode which caused the greatest furore was that on polygamy, which included Safinaz Kazim, the Egyptian writer, and Tujan al-Faisal, the Jordanian former member of parliament
It became a model for the episodes that followed in terms of how to maintain a discussion between two guests who can barely be convinced to sit opposite one another.
When Safinaz Kazim asked the name of her fellow guest, and I told her, she burst out in anger shouting in my face: “You want me to have a discussion with Tujan al-Faisal?”
It had been with enormous effort that I had managed to convince her to come, accompanied by her daughter, on a first-class flight.
Her antipathy towards Tujan quickly resurfaced during the episode in which she suddenly stood and threw the microphone on the table after a violent dispute due to her shock at Tujan al-Faisal’s attack on the concept of polygamy even though it is approved by the Quran.
When I warned her that “we are live on air”, she responded: “Even if we were on Mars, I’m leaving – cancel my trip!”
That was the first time in the history of Arab TV that a guest angrily left the studio while live on air before millions of viewers.
The episode became a topic of conversation on Arab streets and in local and Arab press, not to mention the criticism and condemnation we received from Arab mosques all the way from the Atlantic to the Gulf.
We spent our time clipping articles that attacked us and compiling them in scrapbooks.
I began to deal with the level of freedom granted to me in the programme, using the principle: “If they give you one metre, take three.”
Following the first exhilarating episodes we began to delve into the world of politics and unsurprisingly provoked the exceptional fury of various governments unaccustomed to this kind of political television.
First, the Kuwaiti information minister visited Doha to protest at an episode of our programme.
Other protests soon followed, to the extent that the appearance of articles in the Arab press defaming and condemning the show became a daily occurrence. We bound a whole new volume of them about once every month.
Had protests been confined to press campaigns against us, dealing with them would have been simple.
But matters became more grave, leading to closure of our offices in some Arab countries.
Kuwait shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau and banned our correspondent from working.
After a heated episode on the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, Jordan did the same and mobilised all its media outlets to launch a systematic campaign against the programme and against me personally.
This included Jordanian poets composing satirical poetry, a TV play defaming The Opposite Direction and its presenter, and tens of programmes criticising, attacking and ridiculing our show.
All this of course, was in addition to the pressures exerted on Al Jazeera offices in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere due to the programme.
Matters also escalated on the diplomatic front. After an episode on Libya in which a Libyan opposition figure launched a caustic attack on the regime, Libya withdrew its ambassador to Qatar and it was over three years before it returned him to Doha.
The same was done by Tunisia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. One Arab ambassador only half-jokingly told me: “Did you know that my role has been reduced to waiting for The Opposite Direction, to see if my country is highlighted, in which case I would be summoned back from Doha?”
Another Arab ambassador was in a state of real fear when I announced that the next episode would deal with the regime in his country.
He contacted me repeatedly pleading that I tone down any criticism to prevent him being withdrawn from Qatar.
Fortunately for him, one of the two guests could not travel because the authorities prevented him from participating in the programme by arresting him at the airport.
I contacted the ambassador after that and said jokingly: “Good news, your residence has been extended.”
I do not say these facts in order to boast, but rather to highlight how much things would have changed had the Arab media really been a fourth authority.
Ten years after the emergence of Al Jazeera, I feel as if I began only yesterday. I am immune from boredom and despair, and I hope that viewers share the same feeling!