Bridging the cultural divide between the Arab world and the West may be an old debate; it remains our duty to fight every word that is anti-Arab or discriminating against us.
But I would urge against seeing a systematic plot everywhere. There is a lot of innocent or naïve ignorance about who we are. And here we have another duty: to inform the other about who we really are and help them stay away from stereotypes. That means making sure a proper and accurate image of us is reflected in every possible field: sports, cuisine, art, the media, etc.
This means the role of culture within our societies should come first and not be relegated to the backburner as is the case in some countries.
At the end of the day, is it not our role to work on our image as Arabs, rather than expect the West to take up our battles?
But truly changing stereotypes and misperceptions goes beyond just projecting a desired image and expecting it to be “bought.”
Today’s children are tomorrow’s consumers
For us to establish a two-way communication that is based on mutual respect and knowledge of the other, I believe that we need to start at the roots.
"Is it not our role to work on our image as Arabs, rather than expect the West to take up our battles?"Her Royal Highness Princess Rym Ali
In the West as in our region, primary education is an obvious place to begin with, not least because today’s children are tomorrow’s consumers but also producers of content via social media. And then, of course, efforts are to be made within the various traditional media, and that includes news and entertainment.
As far as our region is concerned, I would suggest bringing back a better knowledge of our own history, as well as the teaching of philosophy, which no longer exists in some high school curricula.
There is also little acknowledgment or pride taken in the great diversity that we host.
But it is only after we teach our children about diversity and we embrace it within our own societies that we can confidently be open to dialogue with others, without feeling threatened by anyone in any way.
If we look at our image as Arabs in the movie industry for example, there is little point in hoping that big blockbuster movies will be “kind” to us and make us look good; which is why today, we’re seeing efforts throughout the region to tell our own stories. And it is certainly worth investing in local movies and helping the quality of what is done improve.
To bridge the communication gap we need to have people on both sides convinced of their mutual appreciation and understanding of one another and in some ways, there has been some improvement.
The fact that in recent years Western networks have spent considerable efforts in covering the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, has, I believe, done a great deal to demystify at least some aspects of a religion that is seen with suspicion by so many.
Owning our own stories
We Arabs were once known for our culture of story-telling. I would love for a young filmmaker to write his or her version of the Great Arab Revolt that does not necessarily revolve exclusively around the mythical figure of Lawrence of Arabia – much as I like that film personally and enjoy watching it again and again, and as proud as I am that it was shot in Jordan.
We do need to re-appropriate our narratives, as Edward Said wrote. But, today, that doesn’t only mean wrestling them from the remaining orientalist thinking. It means wrestling them also, at least in some countries, from government discourses where a lack of freedom of expression has prevented us from truly owning our own stories!
Journalism education can play a crucial role in re-balancing the misperceptions and bridging the cultural gap.
Much funding has been poured into various aspects of media training in the region, over the past decades. I believe, however, that we have to be very demanding, when it comes to content.
Here, as in all fields of education, we should make sure that no media course involving technology or technical skills for example is devoid of a minimum of human sciences, as well as cross-cultural understanding.
Placing humanism at the core of journalism education is not a luxury but a necessity. Because it is by truly celebrating humanity in all its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that we realize how powerful humanism is, as a force that brings us together.
In this respect, the vision put into the re-launch of the Al Arabiya English website and the plan to offer translations of regional stories can only help to bridge the cultural divide, as it will offer people around the world an opportunity to hear our stories from our perspective and in a professional manner.
Her Royal Highness Princess Rym Ali founded in 2007 the Jordan Media Institute (JMI), a non-profit institution which aims to establish an Arab center of excellence for journalism education with a Master’s program at its core and training-modules in parallel. She has also been a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Royal Film Commission - Jordan since July 2005.
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