Speech to the 1999 Arab Writers Conference
By Ray Hanania
This was the opening speech delivered to the first conference of the National Arab American Journalists Association on Saturday evening, 7:30 pm at the Radisson, O’Hare Hotel in Chicago attended by more than 125 Arab and Muslims journalists, writers, ethnic newspaper publishers, radio talk show hosts and poets.
What a wonderful weekend this is. Thank you for coming and supporting this weekend … so many great voices, writers, … poets, novelists, filmmakers … talented artists with a powerful medium of creativity that can overcome any hurdle and any challenge …
At the very end of the evening, I would like to ask you to support three resolutions … they are not political resolutions, per se, but resolutions that support the very reasons why we are here …
The first has to do with the obnoxious, unprofessional and unjournalistic article that appeared recently in Commentary magazine that attempts to strip away the humaness that makes Edward Said so significant to our community …
The second has to do with the Palestine National Authority and the recent wave of arrests of journalists …
The final resolution is offered by Elie Chalala of Al-Jadid who urges us to publicly stand firm behind Marcel Khalifa, who in recent weeks has become the target of individuals who criticize his expressions in the name of defending religious sanctity … In Lebanon, they are preparing to put him on trial … It’s not that what he writes in his lyrics is true, proper or acceptable at all … the issue is, does he have a right to express himself even when we sometimes dislike the expression ???
I remember as a child in my 7th Grade English class, the teacher asked us to write something about our experiences.
I was only 12 at the time, but I wanted to write about my family life. My mother was from Bethlehem. My father was from Jerusalem. Their families were now refugees from Palestine.
That’s about as far as the teacher would let me read. She stopped me and in front of the class, corrected me. Palestine is not a country. It is Israel.
It’s a tough challenge for a 12 year old, and I folded up my paper, and quietly walked to my seat in the back of the classroom, disappointed. Not knowing so much about the politics behind what she had said, but more embarrassed because all my other friends in class had been allowed to read their papers.
I hated English class. I hated my teacher. And I was angry. That feeling never left me, until later when I found myself, by circumstances out of my control, managing my High school newspaper … where I wrote an editorial critical of the Haganah and making comparisons with the Nazis.
The newspaper advisor to the newspaper pulled the editorial, and admonished me about bring “my politics” into what I published in “the school’s newspaper.”
I hated English class. I hated my teacher. I hated journalism. And I hated the newspaper that I had so proudly managed that senior year. I was the only Arab student in my high school at the time. But with several other friends who had another agenda, I was asked to be the editor of an underground newspaper that didn’t exactly serve the needs of my ethnic roots, but allowed us to write a lot of four-letter words.
That, the principal said, was alright, as long as I used the words in a deliberate and principled manner.
I look back at all of that, today, and I realize that I was being shut out of a system that encouraged others to write about themselves … and by writing about themselves, they were able to write about politics, issues, controversies and everything they felt was important.
Today, I realize that we, Arab Americans, have had a long hard struggle, not just to get published, but to also overcome the assimilation of our minds with the pressure to keep our Arabness locked inside and away from the rest of society.
At libraries, I would hunt for books about Palestine and my community. And there were a few. Deeply thought out, dry dissertations that were as interesting to read as were books on Quantum theory … Where was the Arab version of The Catcher in the Rye? The Grapes of Wrath? All the books that I was forced to read in school about other people.
Today, I make good money. I go on vacation at least twice a year. It was on a vacation recently that I was laying on the sand enjoying the warm sun and the scenery of all the vacationers around me. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them on the beaches at the Cayman Islands.
And I quickly noticed one important thing that I had missed all these years. They were reading books. Pulp fiction. Popular non-fiction. Works by so many authors … and among the pages they devoured with their eyes and their minds baking in the hot Caribbean sun, it came to me.
All this time, I thought the fight for Palestine and freedom was at the rostrum of the United Nations … at the negotiating tables in the Middle East … in the Situation Room at the White House and in the offices of our local Congressmen and Senators.
It wasn’t. It was being fought on the pages of those books. Every mention of Arab or Middle East was offered to the readers in varying degrees of negativity. Stereotypical Arabs presented in stereotypical situations in stereotypical scenarios and stereotypical plots … terrorists … killers … womanizers … wife beaters … a disjointed social structure that was subtlely being planted in the subconscious-ness of each reader.
That is the real war for Palestine. That is where the real battle against discrimination and bias and hatred is being played out every day … and when I examined where we, as Arab Americans stood, I realized were not even in the fight. We were being beaten every day … on every page … in every plot and book title and content … and we could not defend ourselves.
That observation hit me in every social environment. Whether it was from being among commuters on the rush hour train riding to and from work every morning, to the cappuccino tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble … we were missing from the battle for American minds there, too.
What did we have?
Well, we have done an excellent job of defending ourselves from the onslaught on the academic scene. Hundreds and hundreds of books have been published explaining and re-explaining, and responding and reacting to false claims in our society, about the Nakba … and Palestine.
Dry, but well written scholarly dissertations fill the halls of our colleges and universities. And people are reading them. And they are important, as a foundation for the professional debate …
But the average American isn’t in the room where these scholarly debates are taking place … they are not they to read the footnotes and the long, endless argumentative analysis that accompanies even the finest point.
That’s one of our challenges. How do we now take our literature and transform it from one dominated by this important, but sometimes redundant scholar, and replace it with something that touches the minds and the hearts of the average American … the average world audience for that matter, not just Americans?
How do we go from footnotes to anecdotes?
Recently, my company commissioned a poll of Americans. The results are published in the back of the program book for this conference. It’s really stunning, if you take the time to really consider and weigh what it says.
Exodus? A Book based purely on the fiction of one writer, commissioned and paid for by a politically motivated public relations firm in this country … and sold as one of the most recognizable and most read book by Americans on the history of Palestine.
Our story is not in it.
The truth is not in it.
But the truth is not what Americans want. Oh, they will tell you they want it. But you can’t offer them truth when the alternative is good entertainment. A well written, fiction book like Exodus … and the thousands of other books that are as equally inaccurate as Exodus, selling by the millions each year to the hapless, naïve American public.
They don’t care about Palestine. They really don’t care about Israel. They want a good, touching story. And we need to be clever and cunning in how we satisfy this hunger for a good story.
And why can’t we do this?
We did it once before, providing the world hundreds and hundreds of years ago … maybe even thousands of years ago … in the first books …the first compelling tales, folklore and tragedies … passed on in written and in oral form to generations who looked toward Arab world literature as the guiding light of expression and education and, yes, even entertainment … because entertainment, mind you, is more powerful in affecting the views of Americans, than the most precise, clinically constructed polemic.
Imagine if the author of the Thousand and One Arabian Nights had written the tale in the format that dominates us today … There would be a politically correct preface, followed by a clinical dissertation as the Forward on the substance and meaning of the stories. Every paragraph would be meticulously footnoted and documented with facts, culled from years of research and presented in clinically precise English.
But before the reader could get through the first story, they would have been told, rather authoritatively, that Shaharezad did not exist and probably never did exist, and is a metaphorical composite of generations of story tellers … documented by a lengthy debate about the underlying political structure of the society that would in fact create such as contradictory confluence of un-provable actions …
Who would buy that book?
Tell me the story of who you are … and how you came here. Strip out the obvious political message, and allow the tragedy of the story that took place to maneuver the reader to the final conclusion … put in the truth about our tragedy in even a fictional scenario … as Shaw Dallal has done in Scattered like seeds. … Give me the unwashed truth about what it is to grow up in an Arab American family, as Diana Abu-Jaber has done in Arabian Jazz …
Too often we measure the importance of our books selfishly … by the number of footnotes and citations .. ibids, jibids and khibids …
I am not here to condemn academic dissertation … it is so valuable and important … I am here to argue that we have more academic literature than non-academic, and that is our problem. We need more novels that tell our story … we need entertainment and humor … there is no proper footnote or citation for a good joke, yet humor is the key the unlocking the American mind … the solution to how to overcome generations of brainwashing by people who have doing exactly what I have been urging us to do these past few minutes ….
Let go and tell our story … We don’t have to prove our tragedy by citing white papers, United Nations resolutions, minutes of ancient and long gone committees ….
It’s normal for victims to believe that they are on the defensive and must justify every word, every thought, every sentence … as if we have to prove the proof of what occurred.
Our writing is defensive … we’re making an argument, rather than telling a story. No one wants to listen to someone who argues … but they do want to listen to someone who tells a compelling story …
The hard sell doesn’t work … the soft sell does …
Perception, not the truth, is reality in this country. Let’s start addressing the perception …
I have been a journalist for some 20 years or more … and I must speak out on events that we see occurring overseas.
This isn’t about the peace process, whether it is right or wrong. It’s about what is right and what is wrong.
Free speech is right. Censorship is wrong.
The government that censors its people is the weak government that fears the spoken and the written word. Those governments are not strong … The word is powerful, but the government that can tolerate the spoken word or the written word without applying censorship, is truly the strongest government …
The Palestine National Authority has a terrible record when it comes to free speech … and the right of people to criticize. Have we become our own jailers?
In recent months, several journalists have been arrested by the PNA and that is a disgrace … it’s not a debate of the rightness or the wrongness of the peace process … should we or shouldn’t we … it is about what is right and what is wrong.
Criticize me…. Denounce me… call me names … challenge me … publicize your anger against me … and if I can stand up and allow my critics to express themselves … I am a stronger person than they are … but if I respond by trying to silence them … to stop them from challenging my actions, then I am a weak, feeble leader
Criticism is not intolerance … but intolerance is also not criticism …
We don’t need to stop criticizing each other … but let us not become intolerant of each other … let’s work together, network together, take pride in each other even when our vanity is urging us to jealousy. Let’s recognize that when each of us succeed in our community as Arab Americans … we all succeed in the bigger community of people …
The average American is incapable of distinguishing between us as Muslims or Christians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Iraqis or Syrians … Egyptians or even Iranians … to them, we are all the same …
So why should we continue to treat each other as if we are different …