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Pundits & Prose

When Arabs And Americans Talk, Do They Listen?

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

ASILAH, Morocco (Aug. 7) -- It was meant as a compliment.

"Until now I've only respected two Jewish writers," the Arab journalist told me. "But after hearing what you said today, I now respect three."

But I am not a Jew.

My colleague was well-meaning. The suggestion was not insulting. The disappointment lay in the fact that for three days Arab, American and Arab-American journalists, scholars and diplomats had engaged in an intense dialogue about how to avoid stereotyping and misconceptions in the reporting of both Arab and American media.

"But I was told you were Jewish," the Arab explained.

"You were misinformed," I said.

Just like Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca."

Why did you come to Casablanca?

I came for the waters.

But Casablanca is in the desert.

I was misinformed.

Asilah is not in the desert, but on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It's a small, whitewashed town just a 40-minute drive from Tangiers and the Straits of Gibraltar. It's staging its 19th annual International Cultural Festival inside the walls of the old Portuguese fortress.

Mohamed Benaissa is the mayor of Asilah. He's also the Moroccan ambassador in Washington and prime mover for the forum. Benaissa gathered this eclectic group to verbally hammer at the problem of stereotypes in the media. Sometimes we hit the nail on the head. Sometimes we hit our thumbs.

"We have to realize that the United States and the Arab world come from different histories," said Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, who delivered the keynote address. Bandar cautioned that the "great revolution in communications ... comes to our land against the will of many people." Indeed, Saudi Arabia continues to make it difficult for American and other Western journalists to enter the country, let alone report from it.

Prince Bandar went on to complain that many American journalists are "not familiar with Islam" -- all too true -- and "continuously biased" -- not that likely.

American journalists do tend to like linear stories that begin and end somewhere. The discussion among the 40 of us around the table was more of an intellectual thrill ride. The pendulum swung wildly from practical journalism to political philosophy, but always passing through the meridian of Arab-Israeli relations.

"The Arabs' view is colored by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict," said Mona Markam-Ebeid, a member of the Egyptian parliament.

At its extreme: Houcein Fahmi -- "I'm an Egyptian movie star" -- delivered an undocumented conspiracy theory that Jews run all American movie studios and other media and are out to "character assassinate Arabs."

Disparaging caricatures

There are, to be sure, gratuitously disparaging caricatures of Arabs in many American-made movies; Arnold Schwarzenegger tracks Arab terrorists in "True Lies" and Steve Martin sells his home to an arrogantly rich Arab in "Father of the Bride II".

One Arab-American journalist called it "Islamophobia ... the Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming."

An Egyptian professor asked if "Americans always need a stereotyped villain?"

Maybe Americans do. There's little point left vilifying the Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Fidel Castro is an anachronistic and vestigial Communist. The Chinese have not returned to the full-fledged villain status the achieved with the suppression of the Tiananmen protests. The campaign finance investigations in the U.S. may only reveal the Chinese to be dastardly political manipulators, like a lot of other politicians.

But the Middle East has its quota of either demonstrably or potentially sinister characters. We passed the seventh anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait during our conference. Saddam Hussein still is the strongman of Baghdad. George Bush likened Saddam to Hitler. Now, that was stereotyping.

Moammar Gadhafi survived an American bombing raid launched by Ronald Reagan as retaliation for terrorist actions. But Libya has yet to surrender two men believed responsible for blowing a Pan Am plane out of the sky. How else to describe Gadhafi?

Yasser Arafat has made the tricky transition from revolutionary to statesman, from PLO chief to Palestinian president. But Arafat's not yet shed the impression that he's soft on terrorism.

Arafat's "prepare for battle" call this week did not help calm the atmosphere in the region since last week's suicide bombings in Jerusalem.

Nor did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comparison of Arafat to Gadhafi. The U.S. State Department chided both Netanyahu and Arafat to back off.

Too quick to assume

Are Americans, though, too swift to assume that terrorist acts are carried out by Arabs?

The Oklahoma City bombing is certainly instructive. U.S. officials, including an Oklahoma congressman, were quick to suggest that Arabs were the bombers. Many in the media unhesitatingly repeated those assertions or, worse, leapt to their own conclusions.

They were, of course, wrong. That has instilled a greater caution among American journalists. But contrary experience also cannot be dismissed:

  • Two Palestinians arrested in Brooklyn just this week suspected of plotting bombings of the New York subway system.
  • The U.S. Air Force barracks at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
  • The World Trade Center in New York.
  • Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
  • The U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
  • The cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean.

"Terrorism is not a legitimate act of protest," former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Mideast Affairs Richard Murphy explained to our Arab colleagues.

Murphy also conceded the U.S. has a short list of interests in the Mideast -- Israeli security and oil access. Remember then Secretary of State James Baker's ultimate acknowledgment of why the U.S. wanted the Iraqis out of Kuwait? "It's about jobs," Baker said. American jobs.

Yet some Arabs conceded the problem starts among themselves.

"There will be disparity until the Arab world gains self-confidence," said the Egyptian Markam-Ebeid.

This year's forum echoed last year's in its wrestling with Arab images and the Israeli question. No Israelis accepted the Moroccan ambassador's invitation. No Libyans, Algerians, Iraqis or Syrians showed either.

"Are we going to repeat this same dialogue next year?" one Arab participant asked. Indeed, we might.

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