‘Arabhood’: A political story in ‘American’ English

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad
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Currying favors with the American president is not the most effective way for leaders of other countries to advance their national interest. Although a personal connection with him can be helpful, having the support of his constituency will take leaders farther.

The American electorate oscillates between Republicans and Democrats, thus making it necessary to exert effort to win the hearts and minds of the voting American population. This is a sure long-term strategy that trumps the fleeting situational mutual benefits that leaders around the world labor to strike with the US.

The drawback of securing the support of the American people is the long lead time it takes and the amount of sustained effort and financial investments it requires.

The upside is once the majority of Americans have a favorable view of a nation, so will the president regardless of the personality or political affiliation of the occupant of the White House. So how is it done? Simple, by creating an appealing narrative.

Arab politicians don't know how to speak “American.” In order for the Arab governments to create a long-term positive rapport with the US, each for its own national interest, they will need to supplement their approach to go beyond forging a personal relationship with their counterparts in the US government.

Arab countries are “nations of men,” while the US is a “nation of laws.” Men come and go, but the law endures. The Arabic model provides a certain type of stability throughout the tenure of the leader.

While in the US it’s a relay where the baton of American law is passed from one president to the next every four or eight years (and there is a precedent for presidential resignation).

Arab countries are “nations of men,” while the US is a “nation of laws.” Men come and go, but the law endures

Walid Jawad

Arab leaders find themselves building new relationships with each elected American administration making for a volatile relationship. When the political calculations of the US changes so does its relation with Arab governments.

Numerous governments around the world have managed to create bonds with the “American people” ensuring a lasting affinity that transcends the American presidential election cycle. The British people, for instance, were able to move from America’s enemy, let us remember that America gained its independence from the British Crown.

But the most impressive case study is of the Jewish people who gained popular support leading to them wielding exceptional political influence.

It is the “story” of a people that compels a nation to sympathize with the Jews despite widespread conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic crimes and ongoing discrimination. Once the masses accepted the positive narrative, governments find it easier to create a bond with the White House and Capitol Hill.

Political reality check

The road to societal change anywhere in the world goes through Washington, DC. Regardless of country, change architects must factor Washington’s influence; support, neutrality, or opposition.

Securing political influence in the capital of the world is an identifier of success, if not the ultimate aspect determining the success of political and social change in countries around the world. America’s military, political, and financial powers are unparalleled.

The White House and Capitol Hill are the ultimate friends of world leaders, public figures, and activists. Washington does not do the hard work for any one leader or country, but it does empower.

Arabhood as a brand

Arab governments are negating their own efforts as they focus exclusively on advancing the flag of their own nations. This tactic only works government to government, thus for any Arab country to capture the imagination of the American people the story needs to be about the human condition captured through an Arabic story.

An inspiring example from other cultures which succeeded in winning over the American people is the Jewish example. All of us as human beings can’t help but feel for Anne Frank and her family. We all sympathize with the Jewish people who endured the Holocaust and mourn those who perished.

Despite the lack of public expressions of sympathy for their plight in light of today’s political complexity between the Israelis and the Palestinians, our humanity overrides our political stance on an individual level.

As we sympathize with the historical pain of the Jewish people we feel deep indignation on behalf of the Palestinian people as the offspring of Holocaust survivors relive their trauma, but this time as the aggressor in a twisted reenactment of the WWII tragedy.

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Notice here how we can have sympathy for our Jewish cousins yet object and strongly condemn the Israeli tactics against innocent Palestinians inflicting oppression, inequality, and apartheid (particularly after passing the latest Israeli law, the Jewish Nation-State bill that abolishes the rights of Israeli Arabs).

So the question becomes how is it that the Arab world is unable to tell stories that resonate with the American people? The disastrous fate of the majority of the Arab people is being witnessed and recorded, but none of it is memorialized; no stories, fables, poetry, or songs.

The irony is that Arab artists, writers, and poets who can express the suffering in a way that would allow the audience to walk proverbially in the victims’ shoes are the same Arab citizens who will speak truth to power; the same people who if they dare to express their observations are quickly silenced.

The cockroach

This is not to dismiss all of the admirable attempts by many honorable men and women who dared tell stories, sing songs, and compose poems. The tide of the negative news cycle is beyond the power of those voices to make long-lasting change, yet it does help expand the narrative.

Arabs and Arab Americans have a duty to tell our stories – it is our burden. Thankfully, others who sympathize with us or have an affinity for Arab history and culture have been doing it in the “American” language that is most effective.

In Washington, DC 2004, I was walking in the neighborhood around 11th st and E St, NW, when I stumbled upon a sign that read “The Fate of a Cockroach,” a play by Tawfiq Al-Hakim. I walked down a few steps to sit in one of 20 seats in that makeshift theater.

It was an accurate translation and an impressive performance by an all American volunteer company (non-professional actors). I walked away wondering why can’t Arab embassies and well-off Arab American sponsor such events.

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Last month the Mosaic Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center concluded its run of the play “The Vagrant Trilogy.” A wonderful story by Mona Mansour about a Palestinian scholar who gets stuck in the UK as the 1967 war broke out.

This play was brought to Washington DC by the Artistic Director Ari Roth. Ari is someone who earned the respect of Jews, Arabs and the greater DC community through his previous work for J-Street and the applauded work of his Mosaic Theater. He is a Jewish American committed to peace by exposing the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he features human stories from the conflict zone.

Positive change

It is humbling to have him effect positive change, with the support of his community, in ways that our communities never did. Out of the 300 or so donors contributing to his theater, I identified less than a handful of Arabic names.

Shirin Ghareeb, a second-generation Arab American has been single-handedly offering the Washington DC community Arabian Sights, an annual film festival featuring some of the most powerful movies from around the Arab world.

I have been surprised each year for the last 20 plus years when she pulls a miracle announcing the festival’s lineup. Truly, a labor of love built on hard work, dedication and a budget next to nothing by a staff of one.

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Arabs must tell their stories in more effective and compelling ways. There is no lack of suffering in the Arab world to fuel inspiration. And it’s not a lack of talent or vision, but a lack of resolve and the scarcity of resources in an era of diminished believe in Arabhood.

Arab governments must keep in mind that the flags they honor and protect are not even a century old, while their Arab heritage goes back for millennia. Protecting the nation and the national interest is the ultimate duty, but know that without a long-term proactive strategy in dealing with the US, leaders will expend their resources and energy in a perpetual reactionary mode.

One element of a proactive strategy must be storytelling that connects with Americans on a human level. A human level that is deeper and lasting beyond the politics of the day.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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