Why I write in Estonia
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 06 October 2010

For those of you who don't know who I am, I'm a Black English journalist based here in Tallinn. I have been living in Estonia, writing in Estonian newspapers for almost two years now. I normally write about politics and economics.

There are some who say I shouldn't be writing. I knew one young lady, let's call her Liina, who said that it is arrogant of me to write, this is a view shared by many. Most writers get criticised for what they write, I get criticised for writing at all. I think the time has come to knock this on the head once and for all and answer Liina and her kind.

Liina and her kind would argue that I'm not Estonian therefore I shouldn't write about Estonia. It's true, that I am not Estonian and I had no profile in Estonia prior to living here. It's also true that I haven't lived here particularly long, though I speak the language only a little, but I can read quite well.

The Liina's of this world are deliberately misconstruing what is going on.

My situation is the same as every other hack. Here's how it works. My editor or somebody from the office will call me up and say that they want 7000 characters on such and such topic by Wednesday 3pm, sharp, no delays. There are times when they don't specify the subject. Quite frequently I have to come up with ideas of my own, all editors want journalists who can work independently and think for themselves. But there are other times when they want an article on a particular topic, by a particular deadline.

I don't make demands from the newspaper, the newspaper makes demands from me. I write because I am hired to write and I'm paid to write, it's as simple as that. It's a job.

That doesn't mean I have no ego. But Egoism and arrogance are not the same things. George Orwell in his famous essay on the same subject said all writers are egoist, though he did point out that journalists have less ego than novelists. If Orwell is right, without egoism nobody would ever write anything, nobody would ever accomplish anything. We would all still be running around in fur skins and throwing rocks at woolly mammoths.

Liina would say, she did say, maybe I can write, but I shouldn't write my opinions about Estonian society.

I'll answer that with a little story. I went to a very left-wing University in Britain where most of my peers were forever wanting to smash the class system. The few American students there noticed the canteen staff were all working class, whereas the students were mostly middle class kids from rich families. In America the students ran the canteen themselves. It took a few foreigners to point out the breathtaking hypocrisy of my peers. At the same time as they were railing against the British class system, they were perpetuating it themselves every time they took a meal.

The same principle is at work here. Newspapers hire foreign journalists because outsiders can sometimes see things that people living in the situation can't.

The Chinese have a proverb about a bird coming down to a frog pond and telling the frog about the sky and the mountains. The frog refuses to believe such things exist.
In Britain and other English-speaking countries, all quality national newspapers employ foreign writers. Why should Estonia be any different?

I am not the only foreigner writing in Estonia. I'm not even the first foreigner, others have been writing in the Estonian press long before I came on the scene. The fact we exist is a sign that the nation's media is maturing.

As to not being Estonian. I live in Estonia, I have residency, I can vote in local elections, I pay taxes. I still earn money in my own country, the UK, and I spend that money in Estonia. If I can vote and pay taxes, why can't I write?

In modern Estonia people from other parts of Europe are going to take a greater role in public life, whether it be in the media, business or public affair, that is what the country signed up for when it joined the European Union.

It is not good turning round now and saying as some people have flatly stated, and others like Liina would imply.

"Well but.....we, didn't expect this person to be black!"

It's unfortunately undeniable many people don't like me writing because of my skin colour. Others are sneakier, they don't say this; but that is actually the reason.

The truth is IT REALLY DOESN'T MATTER THAT I'M BLACK and I don't mean this in the spirit of racial tolerance. It doesn't matter because my audience in not black. I have to write for my audience. Apart from the first article I ever wrote, about the election of a black president, I don't write about black issues. Contrary to what some casual readers believe, I have deliberately never written an article about racism in Estonia. I usually don't even mention the fact that I'm black. If you read most things I have written carefully you wouldn't even know that the writer is black, if my face were not next to the article. I write about things that are of interest and relevance to the Estonian people, as I am expected and required to do by the paper.

What does matter on the other hand is that I'M BRITISH. This matters not only because this is the principle way I define myself, in the same sense that most Estonians define themselves as Estonian first. It matter's because a lot of what I do is comparing and contrasting; how does local government work in Britain compared to Estonia? How do the electoral systems compare? How do British politicians match up with their Estonian counterparts? Sometime I throw other countries into the mix which I am familiar with as well.

This gives me an anchor with which to work. It also gives my writing some authority. I have worked in the British government for many years, as a speech writer and civil servant. No-one in Estonia has this background.

Liina and her ilk would say I am telling Estonians how the country should be run. This, she would say, is arrogance.

There is a simple answer to this. I never tell Estonians how to run their country. I don't propose solutions, I ask questions. If I am asking questions that no one else is asking, is that not a useful function?

A good example of this was, when I asked Mart Laar how would he deal with the current economic crisis, since the economic philosophy he subscribed to was being blamed in the West for causing the crisis.

Mart Laar answered immediately, he also astutely worked out two things: one, the whole article was a question; two, this question had been asked all over Europe, all over the World, but not in Estonia. Mart Laar set forward his proposals which he must have known would get an angry response from some quarters, but he did it anyway.

Each time I sit at my computer to write an opinion piece, I am challenged to write something better than the previous piece. Sometimes I write satirically but I don't, can't and won't do this with every story. Sometimes it is not appropriate.

If there is a theme to my writing it would be something like this. Estonia is a great country and a good place to live in. This is actually quite boring, it is certainly not news-worthy but it has to be said because many people don't want to hear this, it's fashionable to be critical of the country. It is my challenge as a writer to find interesting ways of saying this.

It's ironic that I should have ended up as a columnist since as a reader I never much liked opinion pieces. I found them boring and lacking in useful information. Worse if you are familiar with the writer, you have pretty much worked out what he or she is going to say before you have even read the first sentence.

When I became a newspaper editor, I began to hate most opinion pieces, especially restaurant reviews. They represent lazy journalism. Most other types of journalism require you to do research or talk to people who know things and make conclusions based on what they tell you. With an opinion piece you can just mouth off about this, that, and the other, without annoying things like facts.

I use facts to back up what I am saying. The “sneaky people” always challenge the facts. They are always wrong.

My favourite example of this was when I mentioned that the British King, James I, made his fool king for at least a day by accident. Someone must have googled it and then wrote, I was wrong; it was James VI of Scotland who did that. The commentator did not realise that James I and James VI were one and the same person.

As a writer I still have a problems with opinion pieces even with my own. People judge opinion pieces on whether they agree with the opinion. If they like the opinion, they like the piece, if they don't like the opinion, they don't like it.

Is this a fair way to judge an opinion piece? Maybe a better way would be this:

1. Did the story make you think about things in a new way?
2. Did the story give you information that you didn't know beforehand?
3. Did the story elicit strong emotions in you?

If the answer to any of the above is yes then the writer has succeeded.
I write honestly but in different styles. At times I want to make people laugh, other times I want to make people angry, this is not to be deliberately provocative, it's necessary. I'll leave you to work out why. Like a magician I can't be expected to reveal all my tricks.

One final thing, I appreciate and am thankful for all the positive comments I receive but I am aware that I have a small following who read everything I write, and then curse me in the strongest possible language.

These people are doing me a favour. I rarely read comments . I don't have time, all I do is count up the number of comments. Comments are like currency. The more comments the better story, it doesn't matter if the comments are good or bad, more comments just shows more people are reading the story.

And a juicy comment like "Why is this Nigger writing in this newspaper? " will usually have a come back from someone more sensible saying something like "Get over it" which will then spiral into a row. The newspaper likes it, I like it. I don't read it, but I like it. Comments are currency.
Now curse me, I dare you!