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New Texts Out Now: Salim Yaqub, Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s

Salim Yaqub, Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s (Cornell University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Salim Yaqub (SY): I wanted to continue my previous work on the history of US-Arab relations but to focus on an era I personally remembered. (I was born in 1963, so the 1970s coincided with my childhood and teenage years.) Also, when I started the project in the early 2000s, the US and British governments were starting to declassify secret documents in large numbers, giving scholars a much more detailed and candid view of official decision-making and action than had previously been available. A number of Arab American manuscript collections, too, were becoming available at that time.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SY: My book looks at diplomatic and political relations between the United States and Arab governments and groups, at domestic US debates over Middle East policy, at Arab American political activism, at US government surveillance of Arabs in America (US citizens and noncitizens alike), and at portrayals of the Arab world in American popular culture.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SY: My first book, Containing Arab Nationalism: The Eisenhower Doctrine and the Middle East, examined U.S. political and diplomatic relations with the Arab world in the 1950s. The current book continues the focus on official relations between the United States and Arab actors, but it also looks at the behaviors and outlooks of nongovernmental actors, both American and Arab.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SY: I hope my readers will include scholars and students of Middle Eastern affairs, of US foreign relations, of Arab American life, of cultural studies, and of political and ethnic activism. I also hope to reach general readers interested in any of the above topics. I would be very happy if the interventions I make in the various scholarly literatures (on US relations with the Middle East, on Arab American history, on US literary portrayals of the Arab world, and so on) generated lively and fruitful debates in those areas and stimulated further scholarship. More broadly, I hope Imperfect Strangers will make the connections among diplomatic, political, cultural, activist, and discursive realms more visible and interesting to readers of all stripes.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SY: At the moment, I am focusing on promoting Imperfect Strangers. I’m not sure what my next project(s) will be. I may write a book on U.S. interactions with and around Lebanon during the 1980s—a time when Lebanon became important to Americans (at multiple levels of government and society) in ways that it hadn’t been previously and hasn’t been since.

Excerpt from Chapter Two, “A Stirring at the Margins: Arab American Political Activism, 1967-1973.”

The following excerpt describes the harshly anti-Arab climate in the United States during and shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the resulting formation of the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG). The passages immediately preceding the excerpt lay out the more general demographic and political context, in both the United States and Middle East, for the upsurge of Arab American activism in the late 1960s.

If the new Arab American activism grew out of broad transformations in American and Middle Eastern life, its immediate catalyst was the 1967 War, and in particular U.S. responses to that tragedy. In the Arab American collective memory, the war and its immediate aftermath were a time of rampant anti-Arab hostility, in which much of the American public and news media denigrated the Arab world, often in starkly dehumanizing terms. With important caveats, there is considerable truth to this portrayal. American news coverage of the war was generally factual and straightforward, no doubt reflecting journalists’ sincere desire to “get the story right.” But the inclusion of some facts instead of others, the use of framing devices that privileged Israeli views, and the occasional reliance on cartoonish stereotypes did portray Arab behavior, both official and societal, as implausibly cruel and fanatical. American commentators, moreover, were often unabashed in their sympathy for Israel, treating its decision to fire the first shot as a justified response to intolerable pressures and threats.

In itself, such partiality did not demonstrate antipathy toward Arabs in general. A persuasive, and surely nonracist, case could be made that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders were deeply culpable for the carnage that suddenly engulfed their region. But some of the pro-Israel commentary did suggest a callous indifference to the suffering of ordinary Arabs with no say in state policy. The Egyptian army’s collapse in the Sinai was, among other things, a vast humanitarian disaster. Thousands of stranded Egyptian soldiers died horribly, some strafed by Israeli aircraft against which they had no defenses, others succumbing to thirst and exhaustion in the blistering desert. Yet the syndicated columnist Frank Getlein saw only humor in the “losses to the Arabs of land, arms, treasure, lives, credibility, shirts, pants and shoes.” Even the travails of Arab civilians drew contemptuous responses. “The screams about helping the displaced Arabs have echoed in the [UN] Security Council for endless hours since the war,” wrote former New Dealer-turned-columnist Raymond Moley in Newsweek, referring to the tens of thousands of Palestinians made refugees by the war. The United States had no responsibility for them, Moley insisted. A Life editorial on the broader Palestinian refugee population, titled “1.3 Million Causes of Tension,” contained not a word of sympathy for the men, women, and children inhabiting “the hate-filled camps.”

A rash of jokes, most of them stressing Arab cowardice and incompetence, swept the country during and after war. How could you tell an Egyptian tank from an Israeli one? The Egyptian tank had backup lights. How fast were the Israelis advancing into Egypt? So fast that the Cairo Hilton was now taking reservations for bar mitzvahs. Another joke had a South Vietnamese general asking Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to explain the secret of his success. “Well, to start with,” Dayan replies, “it helps if you can arrange to fight against Arabs.” Admittedly, the anti-Arab humor was accompanied by a spate of jokes that American Jews—professional comedians and ordinary people alike—told at their own expense, sometimes appropriating anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Why were no Israeli tanks destroyed? Because they didn’t have collision insurance. Why did Israeli commanders go only so far into Arab territory? Because they were renting the tanks at eight cents a mile.) But there was a world of difference between spoofing one’s own kind and enduring mockery by others, and the existence of the first pattern could scarcely ease the pain that Arabs and Arab Americans felt on account of the second. It’s doubtful that many of them were even aware of the self-deprecating Jewish humor, as it seldom, if ever, appeared in the national print media, circulating instead by word of mouth or via the occasional late-night television variety show. The anti-Arab jokes were published widely, in an atmosphere of sanctioned levity.

In short, Arabs were losers, and no sensible American would wish to emulate them. A cartoon in the December 1967 issue of Playboy succinctly captures the sentiment. Behind the scenes of a school Christmas pageant, a little boy in a shepherd’s costume, consisting of robe and headdress, looks up at the woman directing the show and asks, “I’m not an Arab, am I?”

The 1967 debacle was traumatic to Arab Americans and Arab residents from all walks of life, but it posed special challenges to academics and professionals, many of whom had arrived in the second, postwar wave of Arab immigration. These people tended to be less rooted in ethnic communities than their working-class counterparts. They lived and worked in white-collar settings where Arabs were few and support for Israel was articulate and often pervasive. Because of their privileged status, they felt a special obligation to challenge what they saw as the distorted, disparaging, callous, and even racist discourse that surrounded them. After all, they had access to facts and insights missing from the national conversation and, in the case of academics, a presence in institutions that shaped public attitudes. More recent immigrants often felt guilty about having left the Arab world for comfortable lives in the West; they simply had to speak up for the abandoned homeland. And yet many educated Arabs, like Arabs everywhere, were so stunned by the military defeat that they could scarcely make it intelligible to their own minds, still less interpret it to others. As much as they needed to combat the widespread ignorance and defamation, they also had to explain the Arab predicament to themselves, and each other.

[ . . .]

In August 1967, the International Congress of Orientalists held its annual meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During the event, Rashid Bashshur, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, hosted about fifteen Arab and Arab-American attendees, apparently all of them male, at a barbecue in his backyard. After dinner, the group having moved indoors, Bashshur asked his guests to share their thoughts about the Middle East crisis. He later wrote:

We went around the room, one by one, each of them describing his own feelings. Some recounted their seismic reaction first to the news of Arab victories then the total failure. As I recall most everyone mentioned a feeling of despair, some were simply despondent, some afraid of further retaliation or possible loss of jobs at their institutions as a result of the strong anti-Arab sentiment so rampant at the time. A few mentioned that they did not go to work for several days and avoided talking to colleagues or others when they did. There was also mention of feeling of embarrassment or shame at being Arab.

 

What to do? Although some of Bashshur’s guests proposed individual actions—letters to the editor, approaches to congressional representatives, and the like—the group quickly embraced the idea of launching a collective effort: an organization of “professors and professionals of Arabic extraction” dedicated to addressing, in ways yet to be determined, “the urgent problems facing our communities in the United States, Canada, and in our land of origin.” The group authorized Bashshur and Abdeen Jabara, a young Lebanese-American attorney based in Detroit, to organize a general conference at which the goals and contours of such an association could be defined.

Bashshur and Jabara were an unlikely pair. Born in Syria in 1933, Bashshur had attended the American University of Beirut before relocating to the United States for graduate study. He did not have an extensive activist background and was politically moderate. Years later, Bashshur lamented the militancy of the organization he had catalyzed, and after 1968 he was only modestly active in it. Jabara, just shy of twenty-seven, was a committed radical. Though born and raised in northern Michigan, he had been steeped from boyhood in the Palestine issue and Arab nationalism, and in the early and mid-1960s he had paid extended visits to the Arab world. Jabara was now active in the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, and emerging Third World solidarity movements, had close ties to the Socialist Workers Party, and was sharply critical of the U.S. government’s behavior around the globe. (In that same month of August 1967, his antiwar activities triggered an FBI investigation that would continue for eight years and eventually enlist the services of the CIA and National Security Agency.) Jabara threw himself wholeheartedly into the new Arab-American organization and would serve as its president in 1972. He would also find time to work on Sirhan Sirhan’s defense team . . . , edit a newspaper devoted to the Palestinian struggle, defend the civil liberties of Arabs and Arab Americans, and organize Detroit’s Arab auto workers. In the decade and a half after 1967, Jabara’s was arguably the leading radical voice in Arab American politics.

Despite their differing outlooks, Bashshur and Jabara successfully collaborated on their assigned task. They scheduled the founding conference to take place in Chicago in December 1967, to coincide with the first annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. Forty-three Arabs and Arab Americans (now including two women) met at the University of Chicago to approve the bylaws of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, as the organization was to be called. The AAUG would seek “to promote all aspects of knowledge concerning the Arab world, especially in the cultural, scientific and educational fields . . . and work to achieve a better understanding in these fields between the United States and Canada and the Arab world.” This innocuous mission statement gave little hint of the bracing critiques to come. The attendees named a board of directors and elected Fauzi Najjar, a Lebanese-born social science professor at Michigan State University, to be the AAUG’s first president.

[...]

Though calling itself “Arab-American,” the AAUG was more closely tethered to the Arab half of this identity. Most founding members were Arab-born, and many were more fully invested in Arab affairs than in American ones. “They were Arabs whose heads were in the Middle East,” Jabara later said, “but whose feet were here in the United States.” While this orientation ensured a high degree of expertise and commitment with respect to the Arab world, it made it harder for the AAUG to appeal to the wider Arab American community or gain a hearing in the U.S. mainstream media. On the other hand, simply by functioning politically in the United States, the AAUG could not help bringing its members somewhat more fully into the American fold. As Michael Suleiman, the association’s president in 1977, recalled, “intentionally or not, [the AAUG] worked to make some disgruntled and alienated Arab Americans feel part and parcel of the American political system. Indeed, at times, for some, it gave them a feeling of civic competence.”

 [Excerpted from © 2016 Imperfect Strangers, with author permission.]

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