It’s obvious that since September 11, 2001 Muslim Americans have been under the spotlight in many arenas of society. At times critiqued by their own neighbors and targeted under national law, it’s safe to say that they have been living differently the past nine years. Yet this is not to say that Arab Americans and Muslim Americans haven’t gone to great lengths to try to clear the air around the way they are perceived in modern American society.
Najee Mondalek, a Lebanese immigrant living in Dearborn, Michigan, has taken an interesting approach to the situation as a whole. While many go out and campaign for their cause, Najee writes plays. One of his latest plays is entitled “Me No Terrorist” and, though a comedy, depicts a Middle Eastern tourist’s experience in the US. When he is asked at customs what his purpose is in the US he is misunderstood: instead of hearing “I’m a tourist from the Middle East” officers hear “I’m a terrorist from the Middle East”. Guilia Loli, a Middle Eastern DJ in New York, makes music. But it’s not just any music: she gathers traditional music from her hometown in southern Egypt and splices it with Western hip hop and dancehall.
Both of these people are working in unique ways to creatively combat the established government and media take on Middle Easterners in a western society. The first thing they do is debunk the idea of the Muslim or Arab as un-American. Her East-meets-West style is what makes Loli’s music so popular with such a wide crowd. For Loli, it’s important that the American majority stop taking action making it easier to discriminate against Arabs and Muslims in the US, but rather embrace the fact that the US is about the blend of cultures. From the very beginning, there was no essential American identity. All that exists today is an identity that has been crafted in the past few hundred years and is largely one of symbols, values, and documents.
Najee works to try to expose xenophobia present in current US government and politics. “[I just want to] teach that not all Arabs are bad guys” Najee said to the Detroit News in May of 2004. Through his comedy he is able to deconstruct the idea of an official Middle Eastern culture and replace it with one that is very similar to that of the United States. Even though a Lebanese immigrant, Najee is now producing very accessible comedy that has gained traction among Arab and non-Arab communities. Though he confronts themes pertinent to the Arab world, his style has often compared to that of Jerry Seinfeld.
Edward Said has famously analyzed the ways in which Orientalist discourse has been created in an attempt to preserve Arab/Islamic society as exotic and outside the influence of modernity. When the Middle East is represented as an undeveloped region of the world where human rights are treated with complete disregard it only further reinforces the Western tendency towards the colonialist mentality. The mentality that large groups of people exist that “need saving” is not only in many cases inaccurate, but often insulting to the targeted groups. It’s my belief that the use of soft power is the most substantial way of combating the illusion of “the Orient” as an Other. Najee Mondalek and Guilia Loli are both important examples of the real-world effect of soft power. By producing high quality music, plays, and other artwork that can be easily consumed by the Western public, Mondalek and Loli have become some of the most successful players in disassembling the incorrect construct of the Middle Eastern Other. By exposing the ways in which official cultures never reflect actual diversity within countries, competing perspectives can be better exposed in a public light and eventually (hopefully) understood.
by Grayson Smith
"NPR : Arab-American Artists Respond, Voices of Reflection." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. 8 Sept. 2002. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <http://www.npr.org/news/specials/091102reflections/arabart/index.html>.