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Jewish World Review May 10, 2002 / 28 Iyar, 5762

Julia Gorin

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Arab Chic

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Is it me, or has a new shade of brown been aggressively added to the usual patchwork of multi-ethnic identities we see gracing print ads, TV commercials, movies, magazines and news desks? A sort of off-brown or dark olive, distinctly hailing from the Middle East?

It must have been around November, a short two months after The Incident, that I began noticing a conspicuous abundance of good-looking, clean-cut, Americanized Muslim and Arabic couples, singles and families coming out of the woodwork to sell me wireless telephone service, investment firms, holiday gifts, clothes, magazines and cosmetics.

The news stations took the lead in inuring the American palate to the hot new minority, with CNN bending over backwards most glaringly. In the initial days and weeks after the attacks, for example, every forensics expert and medical doctor whom the network invited to discuss the Ground Zero excavation process or its health implications was invariably Middle Eastern. Then a British Arab was placed into the evening anchor seat. Other networks did their part, giving money market face time increasingly to financial reporters of Middle Eastern extraction, and doing cultural features on things like an Islamic art exhibit at the Met, with an Arabic curator guiding us through some gem-studded vases while the interviewer repeated "spectacular.absolutely spectacular."

Shortly, the message was reinforced when the holiday Macy's "Gifts for Men" catalog came in the mail featuring on its cover an elegantly suited-up male model, handsome, tall and Middle Eastern--a novelty that went on to dominate the inside spread. His agency must be running this gold mine ragged to fill demand.

The "real" people agencies have been busy too: Arabic-looking actors and commercial models have shown up everywhere: on a Parents magazine cover, in a Charles Schwab print-ad campaign and on posters for Verizon Wireless. Even the Arthritis Foundation felt the need to put an attractive Middle Eastern woman in her late 30s on the cover of its "Arthritis Today" magazine. Marketers also managed to find a gaggle of hip, Westernized young Arabs for an outdoor party scene in a Coke commercial before it cut to an African-American wedding. A Sears tractor and lawnmower commercial skipped the black representation all together, favoring a white male, white female and Arab male instead. And someone decided now was a good time to release Omar Sharif in Imax proportion, to pay tribute to Ancient Egypt and take us through its sites and treasures in a film called "Mysteries of Egypt."

September 11th may have awakened the public to some long neglected dangers, but it awakened business and advertising to a heretofore neglected market demographic and ethnic group to include in their multicultural casting sessions. And now every other billboard, phone booth and bus stop reminds us that these folks are in our midst, and wants us to like it.

Does this strike anyone else as being in poor taste?

A commercial for Smirnoff Ice shows three trendy young bachelors competing for chicks. In the end, the Arab dude with the slicked-back hair and the Smirnoff Ice gets all the girls, leaving the two dazed whities in the dust. Dominating a print campaign to promote a luxury high-rise complex in New Jersey is an interethnic couple: Lolling about on the bed are an upscale white woman and Pakistani or Egyptian male. The visual may be a twist on the traditional non-traditional theme, but the disclaimer on the lower right is familiar: "We are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion or national origin."

The pop epitome of this loving inclusion happened last month, when Sony Music celebrated the launch of Celine Dion's new album at the Virgin Megastore in Beirut. At the reception, Sony's regional vice president introduced Oumayma Khalil, the first Arab singer to be signed by the label.

And at the Kentucky Derby, when several celebrities were asked which horse they were rooting for, a few-including Dennis Hopper-showed their big, chic American hearts when they didn't skip a beat in answering "Essence of Dubai."

And I thought it was hip to be Muslim before September 11th!

That the world may tremble, let it be known: If you kill Americans, anyone who even reminds us of you will be dealt with decisively: They too can enjoy a bustling career in fashion, commercials, TV and the movies. Which makes me wonder: If a Hasid blows up the Sears Tower, can my Yiddisheh punum get a three-picture deal from a major studio?

Just as the world has learned that terrorism against Israel will be rewarded with land, so it is learning that terrorism against the U.S. will be rewarded with commercial success and professional prominence (e.g., just weeks after Sept. 11, Columbia University's theater department announced a new addition to the faculty: Dina Amin, associate director of something called The Arabic Theater Project.)

If the other ethnic and immigrant groups vying for their place in the fabric of American society knew how much easier they could have had it, Koreans, Hispanics and blacks might have skipped all the delis, singing lessons and sports practice-and just set up terror camps. Instead of building railroads, the Chinese could have blown them up; rather than joining the police force, the rest of the Irish could have joined the Westies in Hell's Kitchen.

More examples abound. On the cover of a Western Union pamphlet, the most prominent graphic is a photo of three college-age girls laughing together. The girls are not white, black or Hispanic (these groups, though more prevalent in American society, got the smaller graphics--and not all made it to the cover). No, at least two of the girls belong to that hot fifth minority column (no pun intended) of our diverse patchwork. Inside, a father and son duo follow up, in traditional Middle Eastern or Central Asian attire. A TV public service announcement from the Food and Drug Administration tells Americans to "Know your medicines" and is delivered by an Arab-American father playing around with his son. And at this moment, every other payphone in New York City features a huge color ad for the McGraw-Hill Companies, featuring a serious, bespectacled young businessman, indisputably Arabic, about whom is written: "Standard & Poor's taught him how to read financial markets. Businessweek taught him how to read market shifts. McGraw-Hill Education taught him how to read."

Then, in an attempt to cast from the same part of the world, jetBlue Airways showcased a handsome, congenial East Indian passenger to restore your confidence in flying.

This is the only country where within five minutes of countless of its citizens losing 3,000 husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, employees and co-workers, Priority No. 1 becomes to not offend the offending race. In any other country-and for the sake of contrast-this group would have found itself in a pogrom. But here they find themselves in Vogue. In fact, sometime between the Pentagon getting hit and the towers collapsing, the main concern became that I would start beating up Muslims. To head off my militant American predisposition toward violence, politicians, advertisers, entertainers and media stepped up their insipid, repetitive, simplistic and banal tolerance campaigns with renewed vigor. Within a week of the World Trade Center coming down, plans were formed for an all-star remake of the song "We are Family," proceeds to go to educate Americans about racial intolerance.

They bomb us-and we get lectured. So that now I have to hear about how many different nationalities and religions Sabrina the Teenage Witch star Melissa Joan Hart has in her family ancestry.

Indeed, not only did September 11th launch Islamic vogue, it gave license to expand the insufferably familiar diversity rhetoric, through agonizingly direct commercials and public service announcements that are as irrelevant as they are obvious. TV spots show 20 or so people of different nationalities, each one professing, "I am an American;" a pre-preview at the movies told me that just because someone does something bad, it doesn't mean everyone who looks like them is bad; child stars on the Disney Channel informed me that "all religions are about the same thing-love; and an Arabic child actor on the same channel broke it down for me: Immigration and diversity are "what we're all about."

Keeping pace, CBS ran a special two-hour version of the Dick Van Dyke mystery series "Diagnosis: Murder," in which his daughter on the show is killed by an angry town because she is married to an Arab. And Nickelodeon sent a 15 year-old all-American girl on her adventure through Islamic-American life during Ramadan. The program was part of a documentary series called "A Walk in Your Shoes" and it followed blonde and blue-eyed Nancy, covered in traditional Muslim garb, through her days at a private Muslim school and at a religious Egyptian family's home, where she became a surrogate member of a new friend's family, her days with them spent fasting and praying toward Mecca.

"They're not like the images the media puts forward," Nancy concludes to teen viewers. "That's a stereotype."

Millions of Muslims shouting "death to America" and 95% of the Arab world praising September 11th is "stereotyping," but Nancy, going on one Muslim-American family, isn't. So while they're teaching their kids to destroy us, we're teaching ours that they aren't.

How about a public service announcement saying it's wrong to blow people up just because you're jealous of their toys? Why doesn't the media establishment export its liberal orthodoxy to the West Bank? Why not promote positive images of us and educate them in the values of multiculturalism and tolerance? After all, the problem isn't how we perceive them, but how they perceive us. What a great opportunity for liberal indoctrination. If the easily influenced minds of the Arab world could absorb the values of hate and destruction so successfully, our liberal establishment could fill them with values of peace and love.

Except that would be imperialist. Imposing the notion that they shouldn't kill every last one of us would be unconscionably heavy-handed. We must allow their culture to evolve at its own pace, even if it means our extinction.

So since we can't instruct them, we instruct us. Whereby the group whose members attacked us requires a friendly and ubiquitous appearance, to offset our own potential bigotry. The message to Arab- and Muslim-Americans? You can feel safe here. Any mischief your countrymen here or abroad may be cooking up against the U.S. will not be projected onto you even if you sympathize slightly more with your homeland than with America. Because it's for us to look inside ourselves to find a solution.

Of course, Muslim- and Arab-Americans aren't worried. In fact, many have been indignant. At being asked extra questions at airports, at being stopped by police, at being visited by FBI agents for questioning. So all the spotlight attention is the least we could do.

Quite a different mentality, incidentally, from their Semitic cousins who, if a Jew-or God forbid a group of Jews-does something to embarrass the clan, the rest feel they can barely show their faces in public, much less accept TV offers to showcase their caricatures to the nation. (What Jew didn't cringe earlier this year upon hearing of the JDL plot to blow up a mosque?) Had September 11th been executed by Jews, as some in the Muslim world claim, the guilt and embarrassment would gave been so much that Jews would be stopping policemen in the streets, offering to have their bags searched and to spend the night in jail.

If the industry thinks force-feeding Arabia to Americans will help earn its good will, it's worth recalling that an official U.S. postage holiday stamp honoring the Muslim religion was issued on September 1st. Can everyone count to ten?

At a time when we're experiencing so much direct hostility from a people, and from a specific part of the world, where our journalists are being killed, our flag burned at daily hate rallies and our citizens targeted for massacre, our reflexive tendency as a country is to include them all the more visibly in our multicultural mosaic.

It was a little jolting, in the initial weeks and months after the attacks, to be confronted by the smiling images of Arabs on billboards, in magazine ads, TV shows and commercials. But by now it's become less jarring, less conspicuous, more commonplace, and I've stopped counting. Because I'm getting used to it. And that, I realize, is the plan. This ethnic group has literally taken center stage, thrust into the limelight to confront us inescapably at every turn until we, inured to the enemy, disassociate the images from anything negative, drop our guard and revert to a society of chumps as complacent as before.



JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2002, Julia Gorin. A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal