Saoussan Askar, Department of Sociology
HIV/AIDS is as much a social and cultural phenomenon as it is a biological entity. In 2011 there were 34 million people in the world living with HIV/AIDS, with approximately half a million in the Middle East (UNAIDS 2012). This data suggests a fairly low prevalence of 0.2% in the region, and although there are many reasons to trust this figure is underestimated (Abu-Raddad et al. 2010), this is one of the reasons that the Middle East has received little attention. Furthermore, HIV-related topics are still taboo, and very little research has taken place on HIV/AIDS in the Middle East (Jenkins and Robalino 2003). It is thus difficult for Middle Easterners to have HIV/AIDS awareness, report cases or seek treatment. To address this issue, then, we first need to understand it: My work is focused on analyzing the discursive properties of HIV/AIDS in Arab Middle Eastern popular news media; essentially, its’ discourses. Understanding these discourses can help us to understand how HIV/AIDS becomes a site around which various fears and moral narratives are asserted; this is significant because these interpretations can affect official policies and public attitudes.
As a pilot study, I reviewed five newspapers from Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia from November 2012 to January 2013. Newspapers are excellent artifacts because they provide a series of snapshots of Arab life and culture, and media is usually the only source of health and sexual information in the Middle East. From this review, I understood that articles on HIV/AIDS are mostly descriptive, and they exclude the more important ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions that address the increase of rates in the Arab world and the conditions in which transmission occurs. Little mention was made of the need for preventive and educative action, let alone mention of safe sex and injection drug use. Another interesting trend is the subtle but clear ‘othering’: An example comes from an article emphasizing that 667 of the total 928 AIDS cases treated in Jordan in 2012 were non-Jordanian patients, and making it clear that they acquired HIV outside Jordan. This process of transference of HIV/AIDS onto another is noticeable in these articles, sending the message that the root of this issue is not to be found within their societies. Ultimately, these pieces are what I like to describe as ‘fluff’: What is not said is far more interesting than what is actually said. They present a snapshot of the Arab world as either unwilling or unable to fully come to terms with the fact that HIV/AIDS has become a part of their reality.
For my dissertation project, my methodology consists of 2 main data collection efforts: discourse analysis of 29 Arabic-language daily newspapers from nine Arab countries for the two-year period of 2013-2014, and interviews with individuals who have spent a significant portion of their youth in the Arab world (see Table 1). The analysis will focus on four central questions: How is the virus presented and what are the dominant discourses around it in the Arab world? How are people living with HIV/AIDS characterized? What is the nature of the solutions which are being proposed? Are there differences among various countries within the Middle East in their discursive treatment of the illness? The hope is that this understanding can serve in the development and strengthening of initiatives appropriate for the Middle East.