ASILAH, a small town on the Atlantic coast in Morocco, is as perfect a setting as any for a knock-down, drag-out discussion of most controversial subjects. How American media portray Arabs fits the category.
Banners welcomed participants to the annual Afro-Arab Cultural Festival, a not-too-subtle effort to link the two dominant cultures on the continent, a theme of the dominant political figure in town, Mayor Mohamed Benaissa, who is also Morocco's ambassador to the United States.
He and the Moroccan government sponsored (truth in advertising here) a conference of journalists, politicians, activists and scholars from the West and Middle East last year. Several former ambassadors participated. Prince Bandar Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States was keynote speaker.
A lot of very serious and sensitive people were there, including Mohammed Sid Ahmed, an Egyptian journalist, intellect and former government official, and El Tayeb Saleh, a Sudanese novelist and the most popular figure at the meeting.
The conference's topic is particularly current and significant in light of the intense reaction to the recently released movie, "The Siege." It is a story about Arabs terrorizing New York City. Actually, they are depicted destroying Manhattan.
Arab-American groups have protested and picketed, to no avail, of course. The movie has reminded me of the most poignant appearance at Asilah of Don Ringe, an independent film maker.
Coming up empty
His presentation was the most powerful, provocative and stunning. He said he had conducted a thorough search of film archives in Hollywood, reviewing films depicting Arabs, and could not find a single example of favorable portrayals.
"Americans believe that all Arabs are terrorists and all terrorists are Arabs," he told the group.
His examples included scenes from such movies as "Executive Decision," "True Lies," Father of the Bride" and "Aladdin." He declared, "If Jews or blacks had been portrayed that way, there would be protests galore."
He also cited examples from CNN, ABC News and "Nightline" reporting on the crash of TWA Flight 800, and from anchor Charles Grodin on MSNBC.
"Why are we so anti-Arab? Because it's easy," he said.
Welcome to the club. African Americans could have told him and the world so. It was not too long ago that blacks were complaining, picketing and protesting about how we were depicted. Mainly, our gripe was about how blatant the sins were.
The media continue to perpetuate many of the stereotypes not only of blacks, but also of other nonwhites. The issue was addressed at a Unity Convention of the four minority journalists' groups three years ago. In a bulletin titled "News Watch, A Critical Look at Coverage of People of Color," the groups published examples of offensive articles and other material from the media.
The organizations will hold another unity meeting in Seattle next summer and, it is hoped, update their findings. I expect similar examples will reconfirm points made at Asilah.
Regarding Arabs, "News Watch" said that although Islam, the religion of most Arabs, is among the fastest growing religions in this country, "it still seems very foreign to most Americans."
"To many, Islam is the faith of fanatical terrorists and Middle Eastern dictators," the publication noted. "It was an inspiration to America's enemies in the Persian Gulf war, to the crowds who took U.S. embassy staff hostage in Tehran and to the people who were convicted of bombing the World Trade Center."
And then there was the Oklahoma City bombing. Many Americans almost routinely and immediately blamed Arabs; most the media featured anti-Arab "experts" to explain what types of Arab terrorists would commit such a horror. Arab Americans were terrified and terrorized.
The fact that it was a white, home-grown terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, is still a shock to many.
The conference in Asilah included a lot of venting by people who felt aggrieved by the way they are portrayed by the most influential and powerful media in the world. Many fumed at what they considered American domination and disrespect for their cultures. Much of the venting was in lieu of knowing exactly what to do about America and its bias media.
A host of suggestions came out of the sessions. American journalists need to be more responsible; there should be more contact between Arabs and Americans, such as the Asilah conference, and the media of both cultures; Arabs must get their messages into the American media, and must also be more responsible and accept some of the blame for the hostility.
Mr. Ringe suggested Arabs somehow show through television a sense of who they are and what they're about to Americans. Jon Broder, former Middle East reporter for the Chicago Tribune, criticized U.S. media for publishing less news about the region.
William Raspberry, Washington Post columnist, said Arabs should take more advantage of newspaper opinion pages and extend their focus beyond regional topics instead of being single-mindedly Middle East and anti-Israel oriented. This would allow Americans to see other sides of a multifaceted culture, he added.
My suggestions were that Arab Americans needed to form strong civil rights organizations as blacks and others had; to participate in meetings, such as Unity in Seattle; recognize that America is a growing and rapidly changing country, and to form coalitions with nonwhite groups.
One striking comment, perhaps, captured an unstated sentiment detected in even the most anti-American participant, and there were quite a few. Ibrihim Mihamed Shoush, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, said it:
"Arabs love the U.S. too much, and it's not reciprocated. That's frustrating and annoying."
I imagine "The Siege" is frustrating and annoying to the participants at Asilah and to many Americans.
Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.
Pub Date: 12/13/98