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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