Taking Sides: Exploring the line between those who chronicle and champion our stories
Taking Sides is a memoir about the life of Sherine Tadros, an Egyptian Brit who charts a successful career in journalism and later dedicates herself to full-time activism.
It jumps across different key experiences, such as her encounters with racism as a young girl in London, covering Gaza in 2008-2009, Egypt in 2011 and joining Amnesty International at the United Nations.
Each episode builds a picture of how Sherine got to where she is today, and together they explain why she was motivated to take this particular journey.
For the compassionate soul and eager human rights defender, the book is an enticing read about brave journalism, sustained activism and what it means to truly help others in the fight for freedom and equality.
However, the narrative also raises questions about the role of positionality and privilege in journalism as well as the value of impartiality — some of which it answers, and others it leaves you wondering: what is the line been those who chronicle and those who champion our stories?
April 5, 2023
"I guess, like a cheap way for me to say it is that if you’re taking a side, but the side you’re taking is the truth, you’re going to be fine," said Sherine Tadros in an interview with The New Arab.
The Brit of Egyptian descent spoke from the United States, where she is now based as head of Amnesty’s New York office and their Deputy Director of Advocacy.
She was asked if taking a side damages your credibility.
As an activist, the central idea of the book is how for Sherine taking a side has become a form of salvation — allowing her to enact real change and find fulfilment.
The final chapters describe the gruelling but rewarding work of operating within the UN system to hold states accountable and protect the vulnerable such as in the Syrian civil war or the prosecution of Rohingyas.
She writes: "Advocacy was different; progress could be very slow and difficult to measure. But even if my mission would always feel incomplete, that was better than the unfulfilling finality I had felt for so many years as a journalist."
Taking a side, in this context, is framed as a form of hope and empowerment.
"Whether it’s personal or career struggles, it's surmounting that, and surmounting it because you have inside of you this greater cause — because essentially, that’s what saved me in the end," she continues in her interview.
"It saved me when my best friend died. It saved me when I was assaulted. It saved me when my fiance left me because I had a strong sense of purpose that superseded anything else."
The recounting of these traumatic life events, told in such a compelling way, engenders a feeling of empathy and awe in the reader, leaving you genuinely full of admiration for how one person can constantly strive to do more.
However, this question of taking a side in journalism — what this means, where the lines are drawn and what impact this has on audiences — is of course more complicated.
"There are different types of journalism," Sherine told The New Arab. "And it’s not that [taking a side] damages your credibility, it’s that it puts you in a certain direction in your journalism."
Large parts of the book are devoted to Sherine’s entry into journalism and time spent covering the Middle East for Al Jazeera English.
You are struck by how her journalism was always orientated by a need to tell human-centred stories that reflect the reality of life on the ground. The goal was to deliver the facts but ensure those who often go unheard or who are misunderstood get time to tell their story.
Her experience in Gaza in 2008-2009 is most telling of this.
Sherine found herself in the besieged enclave as one of only two foreign journalists. This was one of her first experiences in a warzone.
She writes about the day-to-day struggles of life in Gaza and goes into detail about the people she meets and the dangers encountered.
Sherine also explores the difficulty of reporting on a story where there wasn’t easy access to information on both sides and where realities on the ground were routinely skewed by a dominant Israeli narrative.
"For me, it was really just very emotional. [I thought] I must tell the story of these people.
"And I was very aware too that there were, you know, dozens and dozens of journalists on the other side, like all over Israel," she said.
In the interview, Sherine talked more about how to combat this reporting imbalance through context and careful vocabulary selection.
She mentioned specifically the growing use of the word "apartheid" to describe Israel’s systematic mistreatment of Palestinians.
Perhaps, in the book, there could have been more about how you become a trusted voice covering Palestinian-Israeli conflicts without being seen to be biased. How do you take the side of the truth? And make sure you continue taking it. Can you chronicle these struggles without becoming its champion? Or must you do both simultaneously?
Instead, Taking Sides focuses on personal experiences, understandably so for a memoir, and offers a departure point in order to discuss these difficult questions.
"The toughest part was watching the innocent suffer. Men, women, and children were being denied their basic right to see or to access life-saving medical care," she writes.
With the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the book also centres on the personal, with Sherine recalling both the euphoric and deeply troubling moments when was in Tahrir Square.
Her detail and powerful writing place you right in the middle of dramatic events, and as a result you get a gripping sense of what was at stake for so many.
Yet, again, there is also an interesting further discussion here that could have had more real estate in the book; namely, a conversation about positionality in journalism and how you strike the right balance when coming at something from a particular background or point of view.
In the interview, Sherine elaborated more: "I think where I got swept up was in this belief that these protests and this sort of uprising were an end in itself. And that, you know, once removed, that's it, we've won, and there's no going back.
"I think that's where I sort of, that's where I think more critical journalism was needed to sort of take a step back from the euphoria."
But overall, Sherine’s honesty and retrospection are what make Taking Sides a true page-turner.
For, within this narrative what you find are moments that move you and moments that make you go away to think about how we can make space for both critical journalism and activism, allowing everyone to take their side.