|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The making of a hero
A few days ago, as we were driving towards the city, we reached a huge traffic jam blocking the Corniche completely. "Let's try the Cairo-Helwan road," said my daughter, taking a left turn in the hope of an open road. It was not much better, and we crawled for nearly two hours along a narrow path where donkey carts and trucks were vying for every extra inch on the badly damaged asphalt. Young people coming out of school stopped to gawk at us, but instead of assaulting us with the usual dubious pleasantries, they nudged each other and looked inside the car with interest. They even smiled approvingly, it seemed. "The book," said my daughter.
I had placed on the dashboard a volume I was reading: the published PhD dissertation of a young French political science student analysing the relation between Bin Laden and the United States. A small picture of the elusive alleged terrorist featured near the title. My sister had brought the book back from Paris along with several others devoted to the events of 11 September -- all, no doubt, written and published in a mad hurry.
This is crazy, I thought. Here was a man, virtually unknown a few weeks ago, whose face, no matter how stylised, has become immediately recognisable to 10-year-olds in a shaabi quarter. In normal times, he would have represented everything an average Egyptian dreads. Now he was a hero in the back streets of Cairo, courtesy of the Western media.
The first time I heard Bin Laden's name mentioned was by a friend who had been about to marry one of his brothers. She had explained that the family was rich and powerful, and then mentioned that everyone feared Osama, of course. Who is he? I had asked. Some sort of crazy extremist, had been her dismissive answer. She was more interested in the reasons why she had not been able to hang on to a good thing. She was obviously still smitten and rued her loss.
After the events of 11 September, it took me a while to admit that the Bin Laden in the news was none other than the "crazy extremist." This discovery brought me back to my pet subject: the war of words waged by the media. As it goes on, I am more aware every day that the words and images do not have the same value or conjure up the same meaning for Easterners and Westerners.
Neither America nor anyone else knows for sure if Bin Laden has weapons of mass destruction, yet it is presented as a fact in the Western media. When spokespeople for the White house and respectable scientists appear on television to explain in all seriousness that "the villain" is about to manufacture a bomb not unlike the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- or, indeed, that he has already done so -- our gut reaction is to laugh heartily. That the American people believe the fable sounds like a good joke. Aren't they better educated and informed than we are? "Don't you understand?" guffaw the smart guys. "They want us to believe that they are fighting a powerful enemy. Like Sharon, when he calls the stone-throwing kids terrorists."
As viewers are given a chance to contemplate the devastation of miserable hovels and the galabiya-clad hordes fleeing for their lives, Arabs around the world cannot help identifying with the victims. At any rate, it is easier to do so than to feel at one with the affluent Americans who fear for their security at home. Poverty and persecution undoubtedly produce a sense of fraternity.
This feeling was at the basis of the demonstration of pleasure witnessed at the news of the attack of the World Trade Center. No one rejoiced at the death of the innocent occupants (many questioned the number of victims, preferring to believe that the towers had been empty at the time of the assault), but more than a few felt a twinge of pleasure at the thought that, after years of humiliation, "one of us" had finally succeeded in breaking America's arrogance.
In the following days, we were treated to many puzzling events and detailed commentaries, which did little to improve the image of the most powerful country on earth. Earnest statements followed the embarrassed explanations offered in the media for George W Bush's momentary disappearance on 11 September: a bevy of public figures rushed to inform viewers, listeners and web trawlers worldwide that the president had emerged from the ordeal as a real leader. Wasn't he one before? And if not, why was he chosen for the job?
Americans may be reconciled with the idea that democracy stumbles, that the system is not perfect and, in fact, is fraught with the same shortcomings as other, less democratic regimes; but since it has been presented to the rest of the world as perfect, should we now be treated to so much doubt and soul searching? We are informed on an hourly basis that American intelligence has not yet been able to determine what is really happening in Afghanistan; they have not managed to trace the source of the anthrax attacks; they are not sure why yet another plane has crashed in New York; and, most importantly, they have not located the mysterious Bin Laden. They know, however, that he has not been idle during his time in hiding: he has been producing a manual that may well be titled Terrorism for Dummies (dubbed an "encyclopaedia of terrorism" in the news) As the war drags bloodily on, America will really have to do better than that to improve its image. A good start would be to inform Tony Blair that the major ethnic group of Afghanistan goes by the name of Pashtun, not Pitshun as he elected to dub them in a speech to parliament. Errors like this one speak volumes about the arrogance of Western countries and their complete indifference towards those who are not members of their club.
So far, it seems that Bin Laden, with his haughty silence and measured words, has at least beaten the developed world at its misinformation game. No matter what happens now, dead or alive, he is in the process of becoming a popular hero admired by all those who have suffered at the hands of oppressive foreign powers. It will take more than the specialists currently "working hard" on improving the US's image to eradicate the charismatic icon they themselves have created.
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