By Khaled Diab
Saturday 6 November 2010
“Have you got another wife in Egypt?” asked N with the trademark, but innocent, lack of tact which I had grown to expect with every one of her visits. “No, why do you ask?” I queried as Iskander, my baby son, put a whole strawberry into his tiny mouth and little streams of red ran down his chin.
“Most Arab men married to European women have another wife in their country,” she said, making a daring generalisation. I did a quick mental inventory of all the Egyptians and other Arab men I knew who were married to or in relationships with European women, and I could not think of a single one who had a second wife back home or anywhere else. Occupied as I was with Iskander, who was babbling incomprehensible instructions to his courgette slices as he watched them fall over the side of his high chair, I let the matter drop. I also knew that N, who is from Ukraine, meant no malice with her remarks.
N entertains some stereotypical views of Arabs that come straight out of Hollywood central casting. Thus, she has expressed her surprise – and approval – that I can actually take care of a baby and do household chores. Her views are all the more surprising considering she’s married to a Muslim from Bulgaria, a country where the Muslim minority is less religious than the Christian majority.
And N is not alone. Although certain Arab stereotypes are positive, such as our reputed hospitality and generosity, I regularly encounter people who make automatic assumptions about me based solely on my background. One recent incident almost startled me into dropping my glass of wine when a young woman I know shrieked in loud surprise: “You drink alcohol!?” Although drinking alcohol is strictly speaking haram, you don’t have to be a non-believer like me to enjoy it – millions of believing Muslims knock back their favourite tipple every day.
Some stereotypes of Arab men with which we have to contend are less harmless. For example, one American Jew to whom I was introduced through mutual Israeli friends and with whom I corresponded for some time in a bid to build better mutual understanding, was ultimately unable to overcome his prejudices and accused me of viewing America as the “Great Satan”, of lacking the faculty of self-criticism, of having a secret agenda and of being a terrorist sympathiser wearing a mask of moderation.
In the popular imagination, the Arab man is not so much fun as fundamentalist, never a fan but always a fanatic, and whose only claim to fame is infamy. After all, the world’s most famous, and infamous, Arab is Osama bin Laden. Although his video and audio releases are keenly awaited and garner the kind of global attention most pop artists could only dream of, he is not the kind of role model the vast majority of Arab men aspire to.
Simply sharing his first name can prove problematic, as my brother has discovered a number of times. One surreal incident occurred when he went to a bank in London to open an account and the clerk phoned his superiors to say: “We have a guy called Osama here, should I open an account for him?” My brother was so infuriated that he left immediately.
The media, particularly the rightwing and conservative end of the spectrum, has a lot to answer for in this vilification of Arab men. Hollywood – where the overwhelming majority of Arab characters are reel bad villains or aliens from some Planet of the Arabs – is an extreme manifestation of this trend.
Although contemporary British and some other European television and cinema tend to be more nuanced and human in their treatment of Arabs, the situation on this side of the Atlantic also leaves a lot to be desired. My wife is often confounded by the European fixation with Islamism and conservative Islam. While watching a recent Belgian documentary that featured women who had converted to Islam and married ultra-conservative Muslim men, she wondered why such programmes never featured mixed couples like us or our friends: modern, a-religious, laid-back.
In fact, given the endless torrent of negative images of Arab men in western popular culture, ordinary people might be excused for believing that elves in Middle Earth are less mythical than men in the Middle East who are secular, modern, peaceable and do not oppress women. Arab women, whose struggle for equality I write about regularly, garner far more – often genuine – sympathy in the west than Arab men, but much of the compassion is condescending and ideologically, even politically, driven for faceless, voiceless, invisible victims.
So, what is behind this almost casual hatred and vilification? Many cite the September 11 attacks in 2001 as an important turning point. While prejudice against Arabs, and Muslims in general, certainly increased after these atrocities, the growing demonisation and the public debate it sparked also, and perhaps ironically, led to more people developing greater understanding and sympathy towards Arabs.
But history did not begin on 9/11, nor did anti-Arab prejudice. It has a long history in the west, dating back to the colonial era and even the earlier, mutual love-hate relationship between “Islam” and “Christendom”. While there were some orientalists who were Arabophiles, particularly in their admiration for the “noble and honourable” Bedouin but not for the “wily and cunning” city Arab, orientalism as a whole lent a respectable academic veneer, as Edward Said so convincingly demonstrated, to crude racism.
In this view, the Arab is indistinguishable as an individual, unchanging, backward, passive, deceitful, ruled by lust and sexuality, and “in all the centuries has bought no wisdom from experience”, as Gertrude Bell, who played a crucial role in creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan, once put it.