Chaldeans On Line

Portraying the other in the Arab world

The Daily Star (Lebanon)

March 21, 2001
 

Ramez Maluf has a problem with minorities. “All we know about Armenians here is that they have bad grammar, eat basturma, and celebrate Christmas on a different date” said the chairman and assistant professor of the arts and communication division at the Lebanese American University.

Do not get him wrong. Maluf is not making fun of the Armenian community or anyone else. Rather, he is trying to demonstrate that minorities in this country suffer from being stereotyped in one way or another.
“Being called Kurdish, for example, has a bad connotation in this country, as if you were telling somebody that he is a peasant,” he adds, explaining that both these minorities have a rich and beautiful history, heritage, and culture that the average Lebanese is oblivious to.

To help dispel peoples’ misconceptions, Maluf is organizing a conference in early November at the LAU titled “Arab Stereotyping.”

The conference is meant to promote research in stereotyping from many angles, with emphasis on how Arabs are stereotyped in the media and the arts, and how they portray themselves and others. Maluf is currently accepting paper submissions for the conference.

Maluf stresses that there very little has been done to show how Arabs depict others. “The conference has two objectives,” he explains. “On the one hand, we want to promote the scholarly aspect to this subject, and on the other hand we want to make an impact, create hoopla around the issue, and stimulate interest and debate regarding the subject with everybody.”

Maluf wants people to take notice of the conference, and hopes that they will become aware that “there’s an Arab institution devoting a conference to this subject.”

He plans to promote the conference and its cause by inviting prominent speakers.

“We are trying to secure the presence of famous Arab and Arab-American speakers who have contributed toward an image of an Arab identity through their works,” he said, without divulging the names of these prominent speakers.

The conference is certainly attracting the attention of many scholars around the world. One Spanish professor from the University of Barcelona is interested about the perception of Arabs in Spanish history. A Tunisian participant wants to focus on why the Moors are portrayed in Spanish literature with a vindictive grudge. Ronald Hawkins from the University of the Arab Emirates is presenting a study on how the Bedouins see themselves after being bombarded by the media and its image of them.

The conference has also attracted many scholars from institutions like New York University, Harvard, and the American University of Cairo. So far, the number of speakers is in the high 50s. Maluf is hoping more scholars will sign on before November.

Generally, Maluf sees that “not much research has been done on the subject of stereotyping, although everybody knows something about it.”

He became inspired by the subject after attending a conference on communication in Jordan last October.
During this conference, many papers were presented that were technical and uninteresting. When two papers on the subject of Arab stereotyping were presented, however, “everybody in the room ignited and joined the debate,” he said. “It was certainly the most lively part of the conference.”

The professor is not only concerned with how the Lebanese see minorities. He is also concerned with how Arabs are viewed in other countries as well. He cites one of the studies presented in Amman by a Palestinian and a Chinese-American. The study examined how three minorities in the US ­ Arab-American, African-American, and Chinese-American ­ are perceived.

“Not surprisingly,” says Maluf, “the study concluded that the Arabs came at the bottom.”
Maluf, in line with the general consensus of the Arab world, attributes this negative image mostly to the American media, which tends to portray Arabs “as villains or associate them with negative roles 70 percent of the time,” according to the studies presented in Amman.

In its defense, Hollywood claims that “it is using an existing stereotype, not creating one,” and that “this is the image that people buy into,” says Maluf.

To support this, the professor cited tests designed as word-association games that were administered to the general public in the state of California, considered more tolerant than other areas in the US. The results found that nearly 75 percent of Americans associated the word “Arab” with “terrorist.”

Nevertheless, Maluf believes that Arabs can dispel these myths by gaining more self-awareness of how they portray themselves. “We should look at the issue of becoming more savvy about how we portray our self-image as a people.”
Maluf would not go as far as saying that a country can propagate its own stereotype, but he does believe that a country can participate in engineering it. He commends Dubai, for example, for how it turned around the image of the camel, associated in the West with “backward desert nomads” and the lack of progress. Even in the region, there are many people ashamed of the camel. Today, however, “the Dubai camel represents fine races and gala dinners, and is considered a beautiful animal,” says Maluf.

Similarly, he observes how the Americans have managed to glorify the bald eagle, “a very unattractive bird in itself.”
All in all, Maluf sees a lack of studies on how Arabs are perceived, in addition to how they perceive the West. Interestingly, he points out that one scholar considers it “a necessity to think in stereotypical ways up to a certain extent,” because this will help us navigate through the world better.

For example, driving in Lebanon requires one to make certain assumptions about drivers, while driving in Germany requires another set of assumptions. “In Lebanon, I assume that the driver is going to cut me off or rush in before me, while in Europe he may give me the right of way,” Maluf explains.
Having said that, he insists that much more research on the subject of stereotyping is needed, concluding that “the yardstick of success for this conference is if we are able to generate research in these areas that have not yet been explored.”

Those interested in presenting papers at the conference  should contact Dr. Ramez Maluf at: zmaaluf@beirut.lau.edu.lb

Iyad Keyali

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