Who They Are, Who They Are Not

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In this episode, Bill Moyers meets with a panel of experts on Arab culture and affairs to discuss the diverse heritage and history of its people. Scholars offer insight into myths, legends, and events that shape the region and dispel some commonly held prejudices against Arab people.


BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. All through the Persian Gulf Crisis, the American press and public talked about ”The Arab World.” But the Arab World stretches across a score of countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, its people number nearly 200 million. And far from being a single race, they are as diverse and original as people any-where. Many things divide them, and some things unite them. In this series, we’ll take a closer look at the Arab World. Today, ”The Arabs: Who They Are, and Who They Are Not”

Jack Shaheen is a professor of mass communication at Southern Illinois University. He tracks and analyzes the stereotyping of Arabs in the media. He’s of Lebanese heritage, as is Jim Abourezk, founder and National Chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the author of a memoir, Advise and Dissent. After a term representing South Dakota in Congress, Jim Abourezk was the first Arab-American elected to the U.S. Senate. Dr. Shaheen, have you watched many of the 400 films that have been done featuring Arab characters over the last 50 years in this country?

Dr. JACK SHAHEEN, Professor of Mass Communications Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville: Unfortunately, most of those, plus hundreds of television shows hundreds of comic books. The pervasive image, the dehumanization of the Arab, is all over our society. It hasn’t stopped, and it continues, unfortunately.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the image? What’s the portrait of the Arab that comes through all of these?

JACK SHAHEEN: Well, very simple, the portrait of men, you see them as Bedouin bandits attacking the Foreign Legion, or as billionaires out to destroy our economy, seduce our women, driving around in Rolls Royce’s. Or they’re the bomber, setting off bombs in shopping malls, or threatening to drop nuclear weapons on New York City.
The other image, of course, when we look at women, we look at the obese belly dancer, or black bundles of cloth. They’re almost chattel following the camels in the desert. And so, these are the prevailing images that persist in our society today.

BILL MOYERS: You took a survey some time ago, of high school teachers, was it?


BILL MOYERS: Tell me about it.

JACK SHAHEEN: Well, I asked 287 high school teachers to name one heroic or humane Arab, something in literature or what they’d seen in the movies or on television. Five responded saying, Ali-Baba and Sinbad. One said, those Arabs in Line of the Desert. The rest said none. And If educators are not aware of the dehumanization of the Arab, how can we expect others to understand that these insidious portraits are really helping us become more and more confused about the Arab World, instead of bringing the realities of the Arab World into our homes, into our psyches.

BILL MOYERS: I remember as a boy growing up in East Texas, seeing, you know, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on The Road to Morocco, even seeing repeats of that old movie with the first movie, Rudolph Valentino played Ahmed and the sheik.

JACK SHAHEEN: But he wasn’t an Arab. Did you know that?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m not surprised because most of the native Americans portrayed were not-

JACK SHAHEEN: No, but it wasn’t that Rudolph Valentino wasn’t an Arab, it’s just that the woman that he seduces is from England and she doesn’t willingly accept the seduction until she discovers that he in fact is an Englishman dressed in Arab garb.

BILL MOYERS: There’s that line that Ahmed, who’s the character he plays, says, ”When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her,” and that sticks, doesn’t it?

JACK SHAHEEN: Right. Even today. You never see, for example — Ed Murrow used to say, ”What we don’t see is as important, if not more important, than what we do see,” and we never see an Arab man with his wife and children doing things that other people do, or at prayer. It’s excluded. In other words, to humanize an Arab in our culture — particularly in entertainment; not so much in news, but in entertainment — there’s almost an unwritten law saying that we cannot do this.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the consequence of this consistent and persistent stereotype?

JACK SHAHEEN: Well, we’ve learned from history that when you de-humanize, de-legitimize a group, you can take action against that group and get away with it. We learned in pre-Nazi Germany, for example, what happened with Jews when the Jews were de-humanized; we learned the internment of Japanese-Americans, for example that internment was made possible primarily because of the newspapers, of William Randolph Hearst and the motion picture industry. We know what happened with black-Americans when they were portrayed as “step and fetch it.” None of these images really bring us closer together as a nation.

BILL MOYERS: But a Saddam Hussein doesn’t help your cause, does he?

JACK SHAHEEN: Of course-well, it’s not my cause. Saddam Hussein doesn’t help-

BILL MOYERS: I mean, the cause of trying to prevent the stereotype.

JACK SHAHEEN: But the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, weren’t we mature to realize that he did not represent Jews? Don’t we realize that the late Ayatollah Khomeini does not represent Islam or the Iranian people? We fail to take into consideration with Saddam Hussein that there were nine Arab nations with us in the Gulf, more than 200,000 troops that were standing alongside American troops.

BILL MOYERS: But one consequence of the stereotyping, it seems to me, showed up in a poll I saw many years ago, taken by my old colleague and friend Patrick Cadell. It found that Arabs were at least four times likelier than Jews in this country to be thought of as backward, underdeveloped, greedy and barbaric. Jews were at least four times likelier than Arabs to be described as honest, friendly and like us. Now what does that say to you?

JACK SHAHEEN: That says to me that there is racism, that says that there is ignorance, that there is greed, that the image-maker has abdicated his and her responsibility and made a buck off the Arab. It says to me that if in fact you stand up for anything Arab, that if you try to humanize the Arab — particularly if you have Arab roots — you’re accused of being pro-Arab, anti-Israeli, which makes no sense whatsoever. Universities in this country, did you know there is not one university that offers a course dealing with perceptions of the Arab peoples in our culture? And yet we actively go out and seek scholars to teach courses related to black images, images of Hispanics, women and others. That’s a national disgrace.

BILL MOYERS: There are two-and-a-half million Arab Americans in this country today. Jim Abourezk is head of a committee dealing with anti-Arab discrimination. Why do you let these stereotypes persist without trying to combat them?

JAMES ABOUREZK, National Chairman, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee: Well, you always try to combat them. I wrote an excellent book, as you know, called The TV Arab, which documents the injustice, and Jim and myself and others in this country speak out against these images. But there is not an American-Arab presence in the industry; we’re not shaping the images of American-Arabs or of Arabs. Also, I think that once a stereotype becomes embedded in a person’s psyche, it’s very, very difficult to shake it off. It has to come from the top. The president has to condemn it, members of the Senate have to condemn it, and image makers — men like Robert Redford, Kevin Costner; woman like Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda — have to take a stand and say it’s wrong to denigrate a people. That hasn’t happened.

BILL MOYERS: Jim Abourezk, you’ve spent much of your career dealing with these stereotypes. I said earlier you were the first Arab-American elected to the senate. One could make a case that you disprove the stereotype, that it didn’t hamper you in your political career.

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, it didn’t in South Dakota at all because I, as a matter of fact, bragged about being an Arab and the son of an Arab merchant in South Dakota, so I think it helped me out there. But the problem is not in South Dakota; it’s nationally, and in particular in Washington, where the images flow into the minds of policymakers.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me how that image has affected politics as you saw them.

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, for example, the Israeli lobby has played upon that image, the image of the bad, the terrorist Arab, or the Arab oil sheik, very handily in trying to prevent the Congress from voting anything in favor-see, the job of the lobby — and I hate to bring this into it but this is really an important part — the job of the Israeli lobby is make sure that money keeps flowing to Israel from the United States Treasury, and anything that interrupts that, they have to stop it. In fact, when the Arab oil countries became rich in 1973 and 1974, when the price of oil increased, the lobby, the oil industry and a lot of politicians went after the Arabs at that time to try to divide the United States from the Arab World.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever feel any personal discrimination because you were an Arab? Did anybody ever make ugly remarks or-

JAMES ABOUREZK: In South Dakota?

BILL MOYERS: No, anywhere in this country.

JAMES ABOUREZK: No, not toward me because I’m an Arab, but because of my politics, I think that’s probably where I was hammered. But the people who are hammered are not people such as Jim Abourezk or Ralph Nader or Danny Thomas; it’s the Palestinian immigrant, the Lebanese immigrant, who comes to this country, who speaks with an accent, they’re the ones who get hammered.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the best way to overcome stereotypes that Jack Shaheen just described?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, Jack said it, you have to start at the top. For example, during the Persian Gulf War, we requested, my committee requested, that President Bush make some public statement saying, “Look, these people here are different from Saddam Hussein.” You know, we didn’t approve of the invasion of Kuwait, nor did we approve of the war against Iraq, either. But in any event, Bush made one statement, and I looked at it and said, well, you know, he made a bigger fuss about not eating broccoli. You really have to have public opinion makers in this country make a strong stand against it, and come out against it time after time. That’s how you stopped what was happening to blacks, to Jews, to other ethnic groups.

BILL MOYERS: Have you seen, noticed or chronicled an increase in acts of violence or threats to Arab-Americans?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Yes, ADC, the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee’s violence log increased dramatically the minute Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait. And there’s a direct correlation, we found, between the demonization of Saddam and violent acts against Arab Americans in this country, and always when something happens in the Middle East, it bubbles up over there, we get hammered here. For example, during the Achille Lauro hijacking, one of my employees, Alex Oda, was assassinated out in California by the Jewish extremist groups, that’s what the FBI told us. So there’s always something happening to us each time.

BILL MOYERS: But Jack Shaheen says that these images have actually been used to hurt Arabs as a group, but yet individual Arabs in this country have succeeded, been honored — F. Murray Abraham, the wonderful actor, and yourself and Danny Thomas and many others, so how do you account for that?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, I think we do it as individuals and not as a part of an Arab ethnic group, is what it amounts to. I just believe there’s a separateness in that respect.

BILL MOYERS: How do you think the Arab-American community has been affected by the Persian Gulf War because, as Jack said, many Arab nations were on the side of the U.S.-led coalition and that should rebound in their favor, shouldn’t it?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, actually, but people don’t distinguish. The average American doesn’t distinguish between the Arab countries who are allied with the United States. But for the most part in this country, most Lebanese and most Palestinians and most other Arabs in this country were opposed to the invasion of Iraq; they were opposed to the invasion of Kuwait as well. But they didn’t want to — they saw a double standard, and that’s the real source of, perhaps, Arab-American anger in this country at what happened, was that there was a double standard, nothing has happened to Israel because of its invasions and occupations, and when they saw that the President made such a tough stand against Iraq for the same thing that Israel has done, that they became very angry. And of course, the President didn’t help much when he sent the FBI out to announce an investigation of all Arab-Americans — many Arab-Americans in this country, the interviews and so on.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the typical image of the Arab in the American mind?

JAMES ABOUREZK: If you ask an average American, he’ll say, “I think of Yasser Arafat,” or “I think of an oil sheik.” It’s one of the two images. You can’t escape that in this country until something changes drastically.

BILL MOYERS: Quickly, each of you, what’s the one thing you would most like us to understand about Arabs?

JACK SHAHEEN: To treat Arabs as we would treat other groups. Simple.

BILL MOYERS: Which is to?

JACK SHAHEEN: Is to humanize them, as we humanize other groups, to be fair. That’s not so much to ask, is it, just to be fair?

JAMES ABOUREZK: Well, for example, in television, you’ve never seen, as Jack said, an Arab who is humane, or kind, or had a family. You never see that in a television program. You see only nasty Arabs. You see other ethnic groups who have families, who do things with their kids and their wives and so on. But not an Arab. You have to really start with the media, I think, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Jim Abourezk, and thank you, Jack Shaheen.

JACK SHAHEEN: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: Joining me now is Edward Said, a scholar and professor of English at Columbia University. He’s also a member of the Palestinian National Council, Palestine’s Parliament in Exile, and speaks out often on issues affecting Arabs. He was born in Palestinian Jerusalem and educated in Cairo and the U.S. Dr. Said, in what important ways are Arabs different from the stereotypes we heard about?

EDWARD SAID, Professor of English, Columbia University: Well, I think, the first thing is that Arabs are fantastically diverse. I mean, there are many different kinds of Arabs-I mean, a Syrian is very different from a Moroccan, there are regional accents, there are traditions completely local to various parts of the Arab World, traditions of dress, of cuisine, of accent, of dialect, of history. I think that’s the most important thing. To think of Arabs as just one large group of screaming fanatics who are practically faceless is, I think, the first myth that has to be set against the reality. The second one is that it is — and this is the most important, to me, difference between the cliché and the reality — is that Arabs are the inheritors of an extraordinary civilization, one that stretches back now, in its modern forms, for about a millennium-and-a-half. First of all, there’s the language. The Arabic language is one of the, in my opinion, one of the most extraordinary constructions of the human mind.

BILL MOYERS: The language of poetry.

EDWARD SAID: It’s a language of poetry, it’s a language of rnysticism and theology, it’s a language of law, it’s a language of extraordinary humor, for example, narration. I mean, some of the great feats of narrative skill — The Arabian Knights and The Travels of Imba Toota, et cetera are written in Arabic. So there’s that.
It’s also one of the great religions of the world, which is in Arabic. I mean, the Koran is the word of God, in the Arabic language. And this tradition encompasses such things, not only of the learned traditions that we just mentioned, but architecture, city planning. For example, the city of Baghdad was considered one of the great summits of Arab art, because of the structure, the circular structure of the city, and the way it was constructed, with fountains and then, the range in geography is fantastic. You have the great civilization of the fertile plain, like Syria and Iraq, and then you have the Andalusian civilization of the Arabs in Southern Spain, really up to the center of Spain. And then you have an entirely different kind of, sort of hybrid Arab civilization in North Africa, mingling with, you know, Southern African art and tradition and customs, with Islam. And then you have Egypt, which is a sui generis kind of — a combination of Arab and Pharonic civilizations. And above all, in all of this, there is the diversity of many different, not only races, if you like, but· also different religions and cultures.

BILL MOYERS: A lot of sects.

EDWARD SAID: Lot of sects. But, for example, I happen to come from a Christian minority in the Arab World, which is — there are Christians throughout the Arab World, and we consider ourselves Arabs, and our civilization is Islamic. It’s a rich enough civilization to make place for all of them. The idea of separation between Arabs and the rest of the world is a relatively modern idea.

BILL MOYERS: Then, how do you account for this obvious stereotype that has come across to us in all of the movies and television programs and literature, that Jack Shaheen and Jim Abourezk were talking about?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I think one has to analyze it, not a problem of the Arabs but a problem of our society, of the United States, which has packaged people, which have no long-for example, Britain and France have had much dealings in the Arab World, and there are clichés there, too, I mean, there are racist portraits of Arabs in Britain and France.
But there is also another tradition, which is long residence and encounter, mostly colonial; the British and the French ruled the Arab World for many decades. So there’s at least the knowledge, the intimate sense of what the Arab people are like, as a people.

In the United States, we don’t have that; we don’t have a long encounter or residency. We’re relative newcomers to this world, and we tend to see it in terms of packages, in terms of quick images, sound bites.

BILL MOYERS: The entertainment culture.

EDWARD SAID: Entertainment, and above all, politics, a very dehumanizing kind of politics, in which Arabs are seen, essentially, in this country, as enemies of Israel and fanatics of one sort or another. And that, of course, has nothing to do with it.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck the other day, during the Persian Gulf Crisis, by a piece you wrote in The New York Times magazine, in which you referred to a remorseful propensity to violence embedded in the Arab culture.

EDWARD SAID: Well, I was talking about contemporary political culture, that is to say, we have had, in the 20th Century, a series of periods-for example, the period between World War I and World War II was essentially a period, as we look back on it now, of liberal democracies, you know, mostly monarchies of one sort or another, that took up from where the British and the French had left off. And there was a great deal of building in that period you know, universities were built, schools were made available to large numbers of people, and the general somnolence of the Ottoman Period, before World War I, was coming to an end. After World War II, when the United States came into the region, and the British and the French had terminally left, with the founding of Israel, we get a new kind of culture, which is based upon militant nationalism, which is the nationalism of the Third World.

BILL MOYERS: Meaning, “My country, right or wrong?”

EDWARD SAID: Exactly. And the one-party state.

BILL MOYERS: Military government.

EDWARD SAID: Military government, people defending the
security of the Arab Nation, and using the rhetoric of Arab nationalism, which is a grand and marvelous thing, in cultural terms, but it’s used in these ways of which Saddam Hussein is a pathological symptom, you see. But there are similar governments like that now.

Now, that culture has, in effect, marginalized many of the great writers, the great artists, who are still writing. And what instead you have are these national security states, which are abusers of human rights, you see, in the Arab World. But that’s not the whole Arab World, that’s just the governments with which we do business, whereas the largeness of Arab life, with the 200 million people that we’ve been speaking about, goes on.

BILL MOYERS: I was saddened by something else you wrote, which I realized, when I read it, was true, that I had experienced but hadn’t thought about. You referred to the fact that, during the colonial period, when the Europeans were-well, earlier in this century, you could travel from Syria to Egypt without any kind of-

EDWARD SAID: Well, I did it in my own life.

BILL MOYERS: But today, every country has a border.

EDWARD SAID: Exactly, and we’re living through this new kind of nationalism, which is widespread in the world, generally, where boundaries and the separations between people-for example, the idea that there should be a holy, homogeneous Syrian state, or Israeli state, or Lebanese state, is really not part of the history and culture of that part of the world. The Romans, for example, ruled what is now the Arab World as one large country, with different races living together, and I think that’s a much healthier attitude. My feeling is that it still persists.

For example, a great Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, is the most popular poet in the Arab World, read everywhere, from Morocco right through to the Gulf. The language is that of all the Arabs, there’s a lingua franca, which is amazingly alive, and a literature that goes along with it. There’s a political culture, not of individual countries, but of Arabism, of a sense of a nation and of a people, which is tremendously important to every Arab, despite these divisions that are now plaguing our contemporary reality, and that is unknown in this country.

BILL MOYERS: You really are fascinated with that language, aren’t you, as a writer and professor?

EDWARD SAID: Well, it’s not only a rich language, it’s been so much maligned, because, it’s considered to be a very difficult language; in fact, it’s not. But it’s characterized it’s interesting — a lot of the attacks, and the cultural at-tacks, on the Arabs focus on the language; it’s considered to be a language of violence, of bombast, of sort of awful portentousness. It isn’t, in fact; it’s a very flexible, athletic language from which the-

BILL MOYERS: Athletic?

EDWARD SAID: Athletic. Oh, fantastically so.

BILL MOYERS: Can do many things.

EDWARD SAID: Many, many things.

BILL MOYERS: Like Greek.

EDWARD SAID: Exactly. Most of the great classics of the Greeks, the scientific classics, the logical classics, the works of Aristotle, came to the West through Arabic translations, I mean, that’s how they were known. So that sense of the language unites us, because it’s a language of religion, it’s a language of everyday life, it’s a language of courtship, it’s a language of society, and its possibilities are as many as the Arabs are many.

BILL MOYERS: Many of those great romantic, if not erotic, poems came out of that certain Arabic style that you’re talking about.

EDWARD SAID: Yes, but not only that; I mean, that has a certain kind of stylized thing. But if you look, for example-one of the great creations of the 20th Century is the Arabic novel; I mean, Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, writes in Arabic, that is particular to him because he’s an Egyptian writing out of a particular quarter in Cairo, but it is intelligible to, for example, a reader in the Sudan, or a reader in Baghdad, and each of these countries has produced its own literature, which reflects the architecture, the design of the city, the customs and the traditions of the past, for example, the relationship between a certain religious tradition that is unique to the Sudan or to Iraq, or to Egypt. Those things are very much part of the everyday life of the Arab, and they’re completely hidden, you see, to the American public.

BILL MOYERS: Are politics and nationalism going to be the ultimate undoing of this great civilization?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I don’t think so. No. I think one has to take the long view; it’s a civilization that has had many peaks, many heights. Some would argue that we are at perhaps a low point now in the 20th Century. I myself am not sure of that. I think, politically, there is a division now between the rulers of the Arab World, who are, really, a handful of men, effectively, and the people, with a great deal of skill and competence in modernization. I mean, you know, after all, in my lifetime, when I left Cairo in the early 60s, it was a city of three million; it’s now a city of 15 million, and it supports these people with astonishing-I mean, it’s crowded and dusty and so on, but there are tremendous changes occurring in the Arab World, and I think to look at them just from this perspective of the moment and the present despair that a lot of us feel at this terrible war is, I think, not the way to look at it.

BILL MOYERS: What do you most appreciate about your Arab past?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I think precisely that, that there is an Arab past and a people to which one can point and see these tremendous achievements in-I think cultural is the main thing. This great culture of philosophy, of literature, indeed of daily life. There is something about Arab life on the level of minute by minute that has a certain esthetic to it; the relationships between members of the family, for example, is quite unique to the Arab World, it doesn’t exist in this country, where we think of the unit, of the nuclear family-

BILL MOYERS: Kinship. There’s a strong bond of kinship.

EDWARD SAID: Exactly. And the complexity of it. The Arab mind is capable — I mean, I hate to use the phrase — but the Arab mind is capable of tremendous complexity of human relationships, relationships between members of a family, members of a clan, members of a society, members of guilds with each other; the Arab guilds of the Middle Age continue into the 20th Century.

BILL MOYERS: So, like all the rest of us, the, quote, “Arab World,” is many worlds.

EDWARD SAID: Is many worlds. Exactly. Large and small. Right.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much. Dr. Edward Said of Columbia University. Over the next four programs, we’ll be talking about some of these issues in greater depth: the culture, the religion, the language, the humor, the economics of the Arab World. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 13, 2015.

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