Said Speaks Out Before and After 9-11: Muffling the Arab Voice

Judith Gabriel

With the one-year anniversary of September 11 approaching, and as recurring “terrorism alerts” continue to fuel waves of panic and paranoia, the American public remains overwhelmingly mute about violations of civil rights perpetrated against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. It is an old silence, one which has allowed the demonizing of Arabs to become woven into all aspects of the political and cultural fabric.

In these cautious times, Edward Said is one of the few speaking out about the situation, elegantly tracing the long, tawdry history of anti-Arab animosity. Said’s vantage point is tandem: first, as a cultural historian, and secondly, as someone who belongs to both sides of the discussion – he’s a Palestinian-Arab as well as an American. Born in Jerusalem in 1935, he moved to Cairo with his family in 1947 and then came to the United States in 1951, experiencing the discomforts of being a member of an often marginalized and demonized ethnic minority. It got worse after 9-11.

“I’ve been living here for 50 years, and I’ve never felt quite as alienated,” he told a crowd gathered at Chapman University in Orange, California. “American prejudice against Muslims and Arabs was one of the few culturally sanctioned forms of bigotry before September 11, and that has made the situation after the towers fell that much more dangerous.” This alienation is the common lot of those who share Said’s hyphenated identity. “I don’t know a single Arab or Muslim American who does not now feel that he or she belongs to the enemy camp, and that being in the United States at this moment provides us with an especially unpleasant experience of alienation and widespread, quite specifically targeted, hostility. For despite the occasional official statements saying that Islam and Muslims and Arabs are not enemies of the United States, everything else about the current situation argues the exact opposite. Hundreds of young Arab and Muslim men have been picked up for questioning, and in far too many cases detained by the police or the FBI because of their ethnic profile. Anyone with an Arab or Muslim name is usually made to stand aside for special attention during airport security checks. There have been many reported instances of discriminatory behavior against Arabs, so that speaking Arabic, or even reading an Arabic document in public, is likely to draw unwanted attention.”

Appearing at Chapman University to deliver the Delp-Wilkinson Peace Lecture in late February, Said noted that in the wake of 9-11 the media, long blamed as culprits in the demonization of Arabs in the United States, has continued to feed the xenophobic frenzy, presenting “far too many experts and commentators on terrorism, Islam and the Arabs, whose endlessly repetitious and reductive line is so hostile and so misrepresents our history, society, and culture, that the media itself has become little more than an arm of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” These more recent media images only compound the long-existing practice that Said calls part of “an unremitting cultural war against the Arabs who are principally, if not exclusively, known as camel jockeys, desert warriors, or murderous terrorists.”

Moreover, there is virtually nothing to counter the negative images. “The build-up against Iraq continues, and Israel prolongs its collective punishment of the Palestinian people, all with what seems like great public approval in the United States. In such a setting, therefore, it’s not surprising that there exists no available cultural narrative of the Arabs as a people, whereas this blocked human presence is in fact represented by a whole arsenal of negative anti-human and anti-narrative stereotypes, which associates the Arabs with unpleasant and unpalatable things.”

Although Arab Americans have been able to achieve some success in educating the public, such as “sensitizing people to the coarseness of equating the word ‘Arab’ with vagrancy, as Webster’s dictionary did, or of openly blaming Arabs and Muslims for global violence and human degradation decades before 9-11,” there still exists a vast lacuna in American cultural resources when it comes to any nuanced discourse on Arabs. Said finds it regrettable “that there is no massive literature, no fund of popular knowledge, no mobilizable discursive means to bring in as an antidote to writings about the Arab.” Thus, there are no “ready examples at hand for circulation that specify positive contributions of the Arabs to science, to world literature, to even so modest a thing as popular wisdom. These may exist in libraries, but the images, the values, and the knowledge they represent don’t circulate. There’s a prohibition against narrating the Arab story, as it were, which in the U.S. has been equated – not with a complex history of an entire people, but only with being opposed to Israel. That’s what the Arabs, in the end, are
mostly known for.”

Besides the negative stereotypes, Americans have little source material to help them develop any understanding of the Arab past and present. “For we Arabs who live in the West, it’s the source of acute frustration that none of the achievements of our tradition and our culture are known or recognized or admitted; that there are no cultural institutions of consequence that are dedicated to advancing appreciation and knowledge of the Arabs in the United States.” Pointing to Albert Hourani’s “History of the Arab Peoples” as the sole exception, Said protested that “The Arabs are not known as the authors of their own cultural works, and indeed, it’s considered a dangerous thing to get an Arab man or woman to write in his or her own voice. When the occasional novel or poem is translated, it is either immediately relegated to marginality as minor ethnic literature, or much more likely, it’s simply ignored. … In a relationship as peculiarly skewed and unequal as that between the Arabs and the U.S., no one can long entertain the illusion that there is free and open criticism, or that the right to say anything is available for Arabs in the U.S. It is much more, much more difficult to say anything positive about the Arabs than it is to attack them or say something that dovetails with the prevailing views.”

As an example, Said pointed to an interview with novelist Norman Mailer that appeared in May 1991 in Esquire Magazine, in which Mailer described Arabs as having had “2,000 years of living in the desert fighting over nothing very tangible until oil wells came along very recently. They have learned to negotiate and trick and play and maneuver and distort realities in such a way that we are encountering a mind, geopolitically speaking, that is
more evil than any mind we have encountered before.” Where, Said asked, did Mailer get this description? Nothing in Mailer’s writing “suggests any familiarity with, much less any real knowledge of the Arabs, their history, or civilization. As a semi-crazed construction left over from the propaganda of the Gulf War, it has some plausibility. But where did he get it? It comes, I believe, from a demonized geography in which the sand people – the Arabs – roam as the permanent opposite of and threat to everything that we hold important.”

Arab writers have been treated shabbily in the U.S., according to Said, who recounted that when The New York Times announced that Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz had won the Nobel Prize for literature, the article carried a quotation from the Israeli Consul in New York, “as if to say the readers of the New York Times want to know if Israel finds this award in any way objectionable or threatening.” During the Gulf War, the same newspaper ran a full page bibliography for its readers who might want to read further about Iraq. “Not a single book on the very extensive list was written by an Arab, or in fact dealt with anything about modern Iraq after Sumer and the Chaldeans.” In another example, Said told how a major U.S. publisher who wanted to publish third world novels
rejected Said’s recommendation of Naguib Mahfouz (before he won the Nobel Prize) saying that they couldn’t touch the Egyptian novelist “because ‘he writes in Arabic and Arabic ... is a controversial language.’ ”


Turning to the Arab world, which has its own informational shortcomings, such as the lack of any academic institution devoted solely to the critical study of the West or the United States, Said reported that, nonetheless, the level of popular awareness is high; the U.S. is the most widely portrayed of all foreign societies in the media. American films, television programs, consumer goods, and magazines exist in profusion throughout the Arab world. “In contrast, hardly any Arab fiction or cultural analysis is devoted to the United States. And if it is, virtually none of it is read in the United States, or has any effect at all, say in New York or Los Angeles, except among expatriate groups. There is, thus, even in culture, an almost absolute disparity in power, and it is this disparity that characterizes the relationship between the Arabs and the U.S., which results on the one hand in a bitterness and dependency leading to Islamism or fundamentalism in some cases, and on the other, on the American side, in triumphalism and ignorance that are extremely depressing, especially after September 11.”

“I’m not saying that Arabs are innocent,” Said said. “Nor am I saying that the fault is entirely the United States. ... There is no monolithic U.S., just as there is no monolithic Arab world or Islam – which has now been compressed into one rather narrow and unforgiving all-purpose formula signifying terrorism, fundamentalism, and fanaticism.”
Said lamented the “unfortunate triumph of all these idiotic, super-real, and atrophied labels, in which in the Arab world, the U.S. has become shorthand for all our ills, and in the United States the Arabs have become a universal symbol of violence and intransigence and anti-Americanism. The result promises to be unending conflict.”

This report appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 39 ( Spring 2002)
Copyright 2002 © by Al Jadid

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