Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arab-American relations through the eyes of travelers

Kamal Abdel-Malek and Mouna El-Kahla: “Arab-American relations through the eyes of travelers”

Kamal Abdel-Malek in an interview with and reported by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE

Arabs have been visiting America for over three centuries. Many of these travelers have written about their experiences in essays, books, articles, and short stories. Kamal Abdel-Malek and Mouna El-Kahla present some of the best examples of this literature in a new anthology, called “America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1668 to 9/11 and Beyond” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
Kamal Abdel-Malek is a Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Dubai. He previously taught at Brown and Princeton Universities. He is the author of “The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film” (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2005), and co-author of “Tradition, Modernity and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature” (E.J. Brill, 2000). Mouna El-Kahla is the coordinator of the Arabic program at the Australian University of Wollongong in Dubai.
Abdel-Malek and El-Kahla feature the work of academics, journalists, students, tourists and writers. Their observations and reflections on America are serious and hilarious; scalding and flattering. Above all, they are fascinating accounts of cross-cultural exchange and dialogue between Arabs and Americans. Professor Abdel-Malek discussed “America in an Arab Mirror” with Saudi Gazette.

What was the inspiration for your wonderful book?
We were surprised at the dearth of publications in English about how America is viewed in Arabic literature in general and travel literature in particular. So much has been written about Arabs and the West, the West in Arabic literature, Europe in Arabic fiction, attitudes of modern Arabs towards the West, etc. But very little about America and Americans has appeared in print, despite the extensive relations between the Arab world and America in recent years. So you could say that the inspiration for this book came from a surprise in discovering the dearth of publication on the subject and fascination with the whole idea of how we in the Arab world have viewed America in the last hundred years.

Was it a difficult process to select the works in your anthology?
Yes. The first difficulty was in hunting down the accounts of Arab travelers to America. We are talking here about travelogues that were published in diverse places over a long period of time. Take for example the challenge of finding the first Arab travel account. For some time we regarded the book, “Stranger in the West,” penned by a Lebanese immigrant and published in New York in 1895, as the first account by an Arab traveler to America. But as it turned out, we realized that there was a much earlier account, as early as 1668, by an Iraqi priest—we are referring here to Fr. Elias al-Musili’s, “The Gold and the Tempest: The Journey of Elias Al-Musili to America, The First Journey to the New World”. The second difficulty was in how to classify the travel accounts—by date, theme, country of origin, gender, or other criteria. The third difficulty was in selecting the passages from each account—which passages and why and how representative was it, etc. In the end we chose a thematic-chronological approach by which selections were divided up among different themes but are placed under each theme according to the date of publication.

Do you consider your book as a bridge between two cultures?
We hope so particularly when we see the widespread misconception and conflicting views that characterize American-Arab relations.

Do you think your book will deepen Arab-American relations?
We wish to send copies of our book to President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Susan Rice, and other decision-makers in America and our own Arab world. We think that it is important for key players in the world of politics to be well-informed about how America is viewed in the Arab world.

What fascinates you about America?
Several things, we must admit that America is not only a geographic place but also an ongoing human experiment in how to live freely and happily. There are very few societies where the pursuit of happiness is given such importance. The other thing that is fascinating about America is the idea of frontiers—who are these people who have never stopped pressing forward and expanding their frontiers of geography and knowledge? For Americans there are no fixed frontiers for knowledge—how else would you explain the towering buildings they had the audacity to call “skyscrapers” and the Saturn V rockets they launch into outer-space to expand human knowledge of what is beyond?
– Saudi Gazette




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