Gym Talk 2 "Why do Americans Think that all Arabs and Muslims are Terrorists?"

October 14, 2008

One of the questions I am most often asked by Egyptians is “why do Americans think that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists?”

Most Egyptians I have spoken to believe that Americans have a very negative view of Arabs and Muslims (can I just write A/M for now if I am refering to both?) . Some of them do. But just like some Americans have stereotypes about Arabs or Muslims, Americans shouldn’t all be stereotyped either.

Tonight in the gym, the Captain asked me why I was studying Arabic. I told him the usual, which I actually think I have explained to him before, the crux of which being that for whatever study or work I am going to be doing in the future, understanding Arabic will be crucial to understanding the politics, religion, culture, and people of the Middle East. With Ahmed, Walid, Mario (Mahmoud), and the Captain (whose name is also Mahmoud), we continued the conversation and spoke about Americans’ ideas about people in the Middle East. Of course I get very worked up about this topic and although I talked a lot, which I know I normally do in these situations, I thought we had a good conversation and in the end, I think we all learned something and for the most part agreed with each other. I wish I had a transcript of it so as not to miss anything, but I’ll share what I can remember write now.

Ahmed said that Americans believe stereotypes about A/M because of American media. This is interesting, because I having been watching more Al-Jazeera lately and although I think it is a good news channel, it is no doubt biased. So I explained that I think all news and every person has biases, and that the challenge is to gather as much information as possible and then sort it out for oneself. Fox News vs. Al-Jazeera. Neither are perfect, but I learn from both. Ahmed seemed to agree. I explained that part of the reason I am here in Egypt is, in this sense, to get as much information as possible and then go home and try to help Americans understand this region better.

You know what? I realize I sound pompous with some of this and frankly I am sick of writing about this stuff. What I really want to say in this post is how awesome it is and how lucky I am to be able to joke around, talk politics, and make friends with a bunch of Egyptian guys my age in a “ghetto” gym in the middle of Cairo. For me, that is such an important part of what this experience is about. That is the learning that takes place outside of the classroom.

Advertisements

Gym-talk

September 2, 2008

I had another interesting conversation in the Weider Gym today with the Captain and some of his friends. I had been trying to hide my water-drinking from them out of respect for the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, which began last Monday, and during which Muslims fast during the day, among other things.

I asked the Captain and his friends how they are able to lift weights without drinking any water, and he responded by saying “because Islam is strong.” “Good answer,” I thought to myself. They then preceded to speak in Arabic (Egyptian dialect, or “amiyya” to be exact) which I am supposed to be able to understand, but since these guys are not the most educated of sorts their Arabic is hard to comprehend, especially when they are speaking fast, and not to me. I picked up that they were continuing their discussion of the topic and I heard “American” and “Israel” in the mix. I asked what they were discussing and one of them responded by asking “Why is America always with Israel (these are loose translations, mind you)?” I responded by saying (and yes this is not a direct answer) by saying that America is with Israel just like it is with the Palestinians and other Arabs (and yes, there is a difference, but you will see where I took it in a minute). I said that the US gives Israel money, yes, but it gives Palestinians and other Arab countries like Egypt plenty of money as well. And I did not even go into the Saudi thing.

The Captain’s friend said that the Egyptian people do not see any of this money, and that they don’t need it and don’t want it. There wasn’t much I can say to this because frankly, he was right. I asked him, “whose fault is it that Egyptians don’t see any of this money? Isn’t it because of the Egyptian government?” He responded yes, and because of America, too. Fair enough.

I asked the Captain that if the Israelis and Palestinians make an agreement that they both think is fair, would that be acceptable in his opinion? He pretty much said that the problem will never end and it will never be acceptable, and that Israel really has to go. I asked him why Israel has to go. He said “Do you like blood?” I responded “no,” and he said “then Israel has to go.” That doesn’t make much sense to me.

The conversation continued with another gym goer who told me that one of the problems with Israel is that it was built on a Palestinian state. Yes, he used the term “dawla,” so in my mind that means “state.” I corrected by telling him that there has never been a Palestinian state and that the Palestinians historically considered themselves to be part of what was called “Greater Syria,” which includes what is now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. For the record, this to me does not mean that Palestinians are not a unique people with a shared identity and do not deserve to have a state. However, Palestinian Arab nationalism is a relatively new concept and should not be treated as if it has been around since the beginning of time. So I understand his argument (and have heard it before and I think that it is a valid one,. Yes, there were Arab Palestinians living in what is now Israel and the Territories before Israel was created, and yes, there were more of them living there than there were Jews) but I reminded him that the UN did vote to create a State of Israel and a Palestinian state (which the Arabs, as a whole, rejected) and that although the situation was unfortunate for the Palestinians and should be reconciled in some way, no one is ever going to be 100% pleased.

I asked him who was in Egypt before the Muslims and the Arabs, and he said with a smile, “the Ancient Egyptians,” and I added “and the Copts (who are still here and who have had some issues, to say the least, with the Muslim population. A movie called “Hassan and Marqos starring two of the most famous Egyptian actors, Omar Shariff and Adel Imam, talks about Christian-Muslim tensions in Egypt). After that, he turned around and said “who started this discussion anyway?” and walked away, which I thought was funny. Actually, he said literally in Arabic “who opened this topic?”

So there is me engaging with Egyptians on salient political issues.