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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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The end of the tunnel

By Fayza Hassan

Fayza Hassan My young friend Rami is down in the dumps tonight. He has just finished going through dozens of articles on the situation in Palestine and has watched television continuously, changing channels with rage, until his eyes have turned bright red and his finger has cramped. "The summit has come and gone and precious little has changed," he tells me angrily. "Why aren't we doing something for a change? We should stop talking and act." He punches the air, venting his frustration. He is young and still harbours illusions. Unlike most Arabs of my generation, he has not developed an instinctive distrust of Israelis -- or Americans, for that matter. Until a couple of weeks ago, peace with Israel was a possibility he contemplated with equanimity. Had circumstances been different, he might have had no objections befriending someone who hailed from Tel Aviv. The Balfour declaration, or Truman's instrumental role in the mess we are in today, are not things he normally pondered. Now he is forced to cast brand new eyes on the situation and, not surprisingly, seems to have come to the same conclusions as we did a little over fifty years ago.

"Many people just don't understand," he says, frowning. "They still go to the movies and see Arabs portrayed as nitwits, and they laugh because they don't identify with them. They wear jeans, sport trendy shades and think of themselves as superior. When I tell them that it is us they are seeing on the screen, the way America wants us to appear in front of the world, they simply shrug me off. Did you notice that on Titanic, the director felt that he had to include a bunch of Arabs dressed strangely, staring at the signs like idiots, unable to read them? They were the only ones in the film who looked like real fools."

Rami's passion is cinema and he seems to have made a note of every film ever made in which Arabs have been maligned or degraded. He goes on and on with his examples, rattling off names of directors and films that I have never heard of. "The Jews, on the other hand, are pictured as endearing, even when they are supposed to be made fun of," he says. "If we don't explain to young Egyptians the pernicious way in which American cinema is conveying this message -- namely, that Arabs are to be both feared and ridiculed like evil clowns, whereas Jews have to be cherished because of their alleged suffering in the past -- they will swallow the lies without ever questioning them."

Informing them has become his private crusade. I try to remind Rami that in my time Jews were not portrayed as the good guys, that this is a relatively new trend, that the Jewish lobby has worked hard to establish the image of respectable Jews in cinema. "We have to stand up for ourselves and correct the image," I suggest.

"We would have to educate young people first, give them pride in what they are and what they can do," he says impatiently. "Lift them out of their apathy, make them understand that there is more to life than the next meal, or the next football game. We should imbue them with a sense of their own power if they unite, and show them that they don't need to wait for handouts from developed nations. We should teach them that these handouts come with a price tag, and that to accept them may require sacrifices that they will one day be unwilling to pay. But we have no time to wait for the birth of a new and improved Arab world. Palestinians are being killed as we speak. And who," he demands furiously, "is going to teach them new values?"

I have no ready answers, though I understand and share Rami's frustration. "So what are we waiting for?" he shouts; "for them to massacre every single Palestinian, take their land, occupy their homes, while Madeleine Albright bleats that the Israelis are under siege?" I don't want to tell him that things may get much worse before they get better. "Think of south Lebanon," I tell him instead; "Hizbullah managed to scare the Israelis off. Look at Edward Said; people listen to him, they respect him. We are getting there. More Arabs will follow in their footsteps; don't forget what happened with the murder of Mohamed Al-Dorra; the world could not deny what took place before its eyes. For the time being, America is a sick society. Most Americans are wrapped up in misguided religious beliefs, as well as guilt and fear about the way they treated African Americans. They also have to deal with a large number of ugly skeletons in their closet. Israel is their way of atoning for their sins. They nurse and protect it and claim it can do no wrong. Israel is their good deed, they believe, a shining star in their flawed record. Of course they have created a monster, but they refuse to see it for what it is, like a father whose son is a confirmed killer but who continues to assert his innocence despite the blinding evidence. Mark my words, Israel will be their undoing."

I feel that I am losing Rami's attention; anything that will take patience is decidedly not attractive at the moment. "Meanwhile," I say quickly, "you can send donations to the victims, use the Internet to rally people, refuse to buy Israeli and American products and start thinking of the situation as temporary. After all, could the victims of the Holocaust have imagined that, half a century on, their own children would be in a position to inflict the same kind of suffering on an innocent people and boast about it?"

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