By William Fisher
I recently sat down online with a remarkable young woman, Samar Dahmash-Jarrah, a Kuwait-born Palestinian-American speaker, journalist, and Political Science instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her book, "Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts," is an attempt to create a bridge of communication between the Arab world and the Western world. It consists of a series of different Arabs answering in their own little chapter/interview, questions posed by Americans that concern religion, politics, society, and common misconceptions. It is a fascinating array of Arabs who range from a business executive in Cairo to a hair stylist in Amman, a student, an engineer, a preacher, professor, and an attorney. While it is a mix of Christians and Muslims answering different questions posed to them, the views are quite different. Most of these differences revolve around Islam and religion in general. Some see it as a social entity, others see it as an individual belief or practice. Some of those interviewed are practicing Muslims, others are not.
After the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Dahmash-Jarrah was asked by many community organizations, churches, temples, and peace groups to speak about the Arab world. These events and the Iraq War served as the inspiration for her book.
Here's our online conversation.
Q. The activities, problems, challenges, aspirations, etc. of Arab-Americans are rarely reported by the mainstream US press. Is this because of lack of resources, perceived lack of reader/listener/viewer interest, media concentration and bottom-line orientation, uninformed journalists -- or what?
A. It is a combination of all of the above. It also has to do with how Hollywood managed to turn the villain from the Jew to the Native American to the black and for the past 25 years or so to the Arab. I am some one who grew up in Kuwait watching cowboy and Indian movies and mini series. I remember how at the age of nine, my sister and I would have a hamburger (British and was called wimpy) in one hand, ketchup coming out of the sides of our mouths, and the other hand cheering the cowboy to shoot the Indian. All we knew then was that a bunch of bad dark skinned people left India and came to America to kill the white people! With no educational background on the issue, no other TV source of information to explain to us the historical context and the bias of what we used to watch on a weekly basis, made me a biased if not a racist person who harbored negative feelings about red Indians all my adult hood till I came to live in the USA! Same analogy can be used to explain the image of Arabs (and now Muslims) in American media, psychic, movies, and most of all educational system. One could argue that acts of terrorism committed by Arabs is the cause of this image, but when was the last time an Arab gassed a people because they didn’t like their religion? Or when was the last time an Arab used napalms against a whole village? Or when was the last time an Arab dropped an atomic bomb on civilians?
Q. What are the main things the US public is NOT getting from the media about Arabs?
A. I doubt very much that Arabs are getting any type of half decent coverage of them, their culture, customs, history, or faith. Not even Christian Arabs get any coverage as if Christianity emerged some where in the West, in Philadelphia or in Rome. This is a historical crime committed against Christianity. The only time American media covers Bethlehem news is in the context of Palestinian violence
and never in the context of an illegal military occupation. I used to quiz my college students and ask them where Jesus was born. 45 out of 50 students would say that they have no clue one or two would say Rome, and one told me Bethlehem, Pennsylvania! This is why Arab Muslims and Christians in the Arab world were totally shocked and flabbergasted when I told them that one of the questions Americans want to ask you is: have you ever heard of Jesus Christ? Are you kidding me, an Arab would answer me back! No way, this cannot be true, can Americans be this ignorant? I was on a live popular TV show just a few hours before I caught my plane in April to come back to Florida and the announcer almost died from shock when I told him that Americans wanted me to ask that question to Arabs. He told me: this means we need to start from scratch when it comes to informing Americans about Arabs. My Christian friend who was born in Ramallah was asked once by a nurse doing an MRI on her when she saw her big golden cross: when did you convert? When you came to America? What on earth do Americans learn in schools? What do people learn in bible study in the churches? If this is the level of knowledge about Christ and Christianity in a Christian nation, then can you imagine the level of ignorance about Arabs in general and about Islam? Had there been a fair and balanced media in America, I do not think Iraq war could have happened, or Afghanistan or the total disengagement of this administration in the Peace Process.
Q. What can Arab-Americans can do about media attention?
A. Arabs are to blame too and this was my major message to the Arab world during my latest trip to Cairo and Amman. I strongly suggested that Arabs in the Arab world need to create English-speaking media to address the west from their own perspectives. It is interesting to see how people reacted to such a request: America will not let us! This is what most people told me and they gave me
the example of how Al-Jazeera is being targeted by the US government! It was very easy for me to answer them: well, I still watch Al-Jazeera from my couch in Florida! As for American Arabs, they are to blame too because they should have encouraged their young kids to go into the Arts and into media. Most American Arabs and American Muslim want their children to be physicians and study subjects that can get them good jobs. More of our young need to be in the Arts and in media.