The Cultural Misrepresentations Among Us

The Cultural Misrepresentations Among Us

Yousef Munayyer

Special to AAF

Every time I walk into a so-called “Arab” themed establishment in the United States the same question comes to mind. What ideas are we in the Arab-American community exporting about our culture and ourselves?

I am sure many of us have ventured into some of these places. The experience that prompted this article was something like this: I walked into an “Arab” themed restaurant. The outside glass was adorned with a picture of a large water pipe. Inside, across the hall in the back was the bar. In between were tables packed with patrons and a small dance floor.

As the evening went on it was your typical show. The band played some watered down music with what I could faintly recognize as a traditional Arab melody and the occasional Arabic word could be heard if you focused closely. A Belly dancer, with far more than her belly exposed, would soon grab the attention of many. And of course, we cannot forget the water pipe that has become the symbol of this so-called “Arab” culture in the United States.
I took in all that surrounded me and tried to understand how it had come to this. How did a culture as rich in tradition and high art become a watered-down fornicated stereotypical display I was seeing tonight? At first, I thought that the answer was simply consumerism but in actuality, it was an inveterate problem that reached far beyond simple market demands.

I tried to trace the origins of these displays and understand their rise to preeminence. It was hard to imagine a 16th-century Arab family in the Middle East watching a belly dancer or smoking a water pipe. Some of these things may have been enjoyed at the Imperial Courts of the Sultan in Istanbul but I doubt that the average Arab family was busy or even concerned with some of the trivial aspects of the culture we see today. Yet somewhere along the line, it came to fruition. A demand for this type of culture had to come from somewhere. Then an image came into my mind.

I pictured a room somewhere in Alexandria in the late 19th century. French or British officers occupy the tables and much more of course. Were they there to discuss the emerging Arab renaissance or even the topics being debated in the neighboring coffee shops? Not exactly. Rather they were sitting in a smoke-filled room sampling the east’s imitations of the western culture they longed for. And so a market was born.

Is this precisely what had happened? Probably not. Yet there is no denying the impact western culture has had on Arab culture and Arab values. The intermingling has produced, among other things, byproducts of Arab culture that are of value in the west. The water pipe, (or shisha or argileh or nargileh or whatever) like so many other things, reached the west via the cultural crossroads of the Middle East. Originally Indian the pipe has now become the trademark of many an Arab establishment. We have carried it, exported it and then welcomed it as our own.

Does the pipe have no place in Arab culture? That would be a stretch but the fact that it passes for the main attraction of Arab culture here in the United States speaks to the sorry state of authentic Arab culture and the efforts to advocate for it.

We are prepared to stand in resistance against the stereotypes that plague Arab Americans. We do not want to be lumped into a group of fanatical, angry, terrorists that represent Arabs on the big screen. Yet we have raised little objection to the cultural stereotypes here in the United States and often we propagate them. The water pipe is as accurate a representation of Arabs and the Arab people as the Marlboro Man is of Americans. In a search for an accurate depiction are we trading one set of stereotypes for another? I will not even speak about the belly dancer. Even popular cultural music in the Arab world is suffering a similar fate.

A traditionalist would probably be hesitant to listen to music produced with the technological innovations that have replaced the Oud , Daf and Qanun but every Arab should be disappointed with what has been passing as Arabic lyrics. Much of the music today is straying far from anything that resembles Arabic. Often English, the new French in the Middle East, dominates songs. Some artists even fail to pronounce the Arabic they do use correctly. This is the culture being produced for a particular market.

Culture cannot be a market-driven export. Yet here in the U.S. that is what it has become. Too often the only representation of Arab culture is what westerners, or westernized Arabs, will pay for. So here one must ask why. Why are the Arabs in the United States dropping the ball on preserving an Arab culture untainted by the west?

First, let me say that some efforts have been made by Arab-Americans to hang on to what we are loosing. Unfortunately what we see as representations of Arab culture make it clear that these efforts, though noble, have proven insufficient. What is required is a community-wide discussion on the status of Arab culture in the United States. We the Arabs in America today, not consumerism, colonialism or globalization, must decide how we want to be represented in this country. Are we the shisha-smoking generation of Joe Camels that we all grew sick and tired of decades ago? This is for us to decide.

It is time for a community discussion, reflection, and reevaluation of who we are as Arabs. The problem of cultural misrepresentation is not even our biggest problem. I fear that the greatest danger to the Arab-American community, and perhaps at the root of our cultural problem, is the failure to preserve our language through the generations in the United States.

Some may look at other ethnic minorities in the U.S. and think that they have maintained a distinct and rich community while still abandoning their mother tongue a generation or two after arrival. Yet we Arabs cannot afford this. Our common identity is not necessarily tied to any one particular geographic location. Our common identity is the Arabic language. If we gradually lose this how we will remain a distinct community? The so-called Arab culture here in the United States is not even Arab. If this continues to rapidly conform to the demands of western consumerism and our language simultaneously disappears like ascending shisha smoke, how long will it be before the Arab in America ceases to exist?