Sunday, May 11, 2003

The ‘Beautiful’ American

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Months after Sept. 11, I was walking with a couple of Saudi friends toward the White House. We were part of a Saudi press group invited by the State Department. One of us suggested going on a guided tour of the White House, so we approached one of the guards to ask for directions. She told us that tours were canceled at the moment except for school kids, but suggested this could change the following week. Then she asked in a friendly tone: “Where are you from?”
I thought to myself: “Oh boy, here comes the tough part.” One of my friends wore a beard. We all fitted the profile of young Middle Eastern males suspect in American airports and government offices.
That very morning we had had to undergo rigorous checks at the National Security Council, and a colleague’s passport was kept for extra checking. The bearded friend cut my thoughts short with a clear and loud answer: “We are Saudi, madam.” I looked carefully at the guard’s eyes as she answered without any apparent change in tone or attitude: “Welcome to America.” Then she went on to suggest alternative landmarks to visit that day, reminding us to check next week for possible change in the White House tour policy.
After we left, I said to my friends: Now this is the real America, and those are the real Americans.
With hundreds of e-mails from American readers in answer to my question: “What does America want from us,” I was reminded again of this beautiful lady. Storms calm, fear subsides, anger boils down, and the true nature of people rises and shines. After years of living in the States, and more with fine American friends, I do have great faith in the American people. With so many polite questions based on misinformed intelligence and misled goodness, I felt guilty. While our enemies have been working for ages to manipulate American knowledge of the world, we were busy helping them achieve their goals with our shouts and calls for war.
While pro-Israel groups took to the stage in every academic center, publishing house, media unit and information channel to propagate their side of the story, we were competing with the high-pitched rhetoric of the like of Nasser and Saddam.
Israel’s friends were making alliances with every religious, business and political powerhouse in America, while we were either fast asleep or working on our relations with administrations captive to internal politics and subject to change in every election. They focused on getting their message across to the public, and we forgot that in democracies, governments come and go, but the people stay and...rule.
When I was asked on Saudi TV the other night what I thought of the PR campaign we sanctioned last year in the US, I said it was “counterproductive.” If we were to sell our culture and values as a product, at least we need to make this product available for checking. How can an American know what we are and what our country is all about if it is so difficult to visit and meet Saudis?
We need to open up and establish human links and channels. We need to send groups after groups of Saudi intellectuals, professional and school kids to communicate with their peers in universities, schools, community centers and the media. We should, in turn, open our doors for the curious to come and check us out. We don’t have things to hide. In fact, we have a lot of good things to show. That was not my conclusion but what I heard from many American visitors, mostly in the media and academia, who came after Sept. 11 to “check us out.”
“But what about the biased media?” I was asked. They might not be on our side, in part due to our own failure and our rivals’ success, but the professional Western media would welcome good Arab communicators any time. With the invention of the Internet, we can reach the American public directly. The space is wide and clear for those who understand their audience and communicate in their language. Our problem has always been that we have the best case and the worst lawyers, while the competition has the best lawyers for the worst case. If we improve our lingo, our image will follow suit.
Will this be enough? If it is well done, it can certainly help. Americans are good people.
They are the best fighters for what they believe in. Most charities, environment and human rights groups in the world are either American or get lots of American support. Their stand on the Palestinian issue is mostly a result of communication errors on our part, and of masterful work from the other side. Talking to the American consciousness will work. It worked during the first intifada. It could work today. What is missing is a concerted, consistent and well thought-out communication project to build a human bridge between us — the people of two great cultures and civilizations.
Arab News Features 11 May 2003

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