How We Can Change the Arab Narrative
10 simple ways to represent ourselves more positively
In case you haven’t noticed, Arabs don’t look good right now. We don’t look good in the mainstream media – at all. From almost any angle you look at us, any space we exist in, the view is always, skewed, misinformed, ignorant or completely false. Terrorists, victims, hypocrites, refugees, sexists, violent, uneducated, extreme – quite an impressive list.
If you think these representations and assumptions don’t affect you, then you need to snap out of the matrix. Swallow the red pill my friend.
It’s easy to blame the mainstream media. It’s easy because it’s true. It’s easy to blame the people who have and still perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s easy because it’s logical. What’s not easy, and what we should do is start to look critically at ourselves both individually and collectively.
A different, positive, diverse and more realistic depiction of who we are isn’t going to magically happen. We need to take back the narrative that currently exists and we need to help ourselves by changing how we are represented. How do we do that?
Well here are 10 ways to help guide you on how to represent yourself positively.
It’s important to be up-to-date with current events across the Middle East. However, it’s equally important to know our history. Watch documentaries, read articles and novels, ask your grandparents about your history. How and why was the Middle East split up after WWI? Who was Gertrude Bell? Why was Gamal Abdel Nasser instrumental in Arab history? Why should we know the works of Edward Said and Jack Shaheen? Being informed about your country, and the whole region, gives you context to what’s happening now and helps you inform others when they make assumptions about Arabs and the Middle East.
I don’t mean go out and sing. I mean speak up. Say something. Make your voice heard in the manner and platform that is most comfortable for you. When you read, hear or see an injustice that spreads negative Arab stereotypes you don’t have to be quiet about it. Whether malicious or ignorant it’s up to us to engage with the person in question, to write, tweet, ask and talk to others about it. This isn’t about trying to change one person’s mind through one conversation. It’s about attempting to change the space around the issue and redirect the conversation out of ignorance and into understanding.
Being vocal about Arab issues is imperative. But so is choosing your battles. It’s pretty much proven that intelligent people don’t argue with idiots because they know it’s a waste of time. Convincing a fairly smart person that what they think might be wrong or offensive is tough but winning an argument with a stupid person is impossible. If you’re at a party and a person who might have had too much to drink makes a ridiculous statement, there’s no point in engaging with them. Walk away. When you find yourself sucked into the black hole, which is the comments section, (we’ve all been there) and you’re shocked by ignorance and racism, don’t engage. There’s no point in fighting with strangers online. To quote the great Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it”.
This is a tough one. The best way for us to engage in active discussions that push us forward is to be tolerant of the constant ignorance we read online and hear people say. Did your dad force you to wear hijab? What do you think of ISIS? So are you oil rich? It’s easy to lose your cool when you hear a variation of these lovely assumptions. Yelling your face off is tempting (possibly satisfying) especially when you’ve been asked the same questions over and over again. But it won’t help to solve the greater issue. Keep your cool.
The worst thing that we as Arabs can do is turn on each other. Country, creed, religion, sect – putting the blame or making clear and negative distinctions or promoting stereotypes against each other will not help us – ever. It’s our responsibility at this point to understand as much as we can about one another and recognise the fact that the rest of the world see us all as one thing – Arabs. If we constantly try to prove that we are better then this country, or that sect, we are literally causing serious damage to each other while looking stupid to the world.
There are so many reasons to be ashamed of being Arab these days. Some of the reasons warrant being ashamed and others are just hype. Don’t believe the hype. There are amazing Arabs right now doing some outstanding things to help change the world. Also, despite how we’re currently being depicted, our history is filled with some pretty cool achievements. From innovations in medicine, mathematics and language, the toothbrush, the guitar, glasses, coffee, hospitals, Arabs have invented many things that the modern world can be thankful for. And don’t ever forget – we introduced the world to hummus.
Being proud is good. But being obsessively proud will make you blind. I’m sure, like me, many of you have seen this first hand. Most of us grew up on stories about the amazing things our parents, grandparents, tribe, city, country and ancestors have done. Sometimes we are so overly patriotic that it might take us a minute to think, hang on, why am I so proud to be where I’m from? Being humble is like having a super power. It grants the gift of self-control and allows us to look at ourselves, our culture and pinpoint where the issues are and a possible way to solve them.
To me this is one of the most imperative ways that we as Arabs need to navigate in the world. Ask questions. Always. When we are confronted with assumptions about our race, history and culture as fact, ask as many questions as possible. And then ask more. Get to the root as to why this person would think and make assumptions about the issue at hand. On the flipside, we also need to ask questions, prod and poke the way that we as Arabs do things. Respect is steeped into Arab culture and one of the markers of respect is to not ask questions about why we follow certain traditions or social norms. Not asking why and not being able to tell the West why we do things simply because we do them, stunts our development as a culture and as individuals.
OK, we all know this happens and there’s no point in denying it. Arabs, like many other people, who migrate to Western countries, or even when they go on holiday, make a habit of sticking together. This makes sense in a lot of ways. But you need to also venture out of your own communities and experience the other. Sometimes by experiencing another culture you reaffirm your own, while also disproving the preconceived notions other cultures might have about us.
This one is a no brainer. We need to support, promote and celebrate Arabs who are trying to make a difference. Arabs who are writing novels, making movies, Arabs who are inventing things, Arabs who are actors and comedians, Arabs who are starting charities, Arabs who are musicians and song writers. Arabs who are authentic and Arabs who make you realise that you too can be Arab and do whatever you want to do. Also, Arabs who are making memes. There are some seriously funny ones out there.
Picture courtesy of Sarah Ben Romdane