Monday, June 14, 2010

My Arab-American Experience (2 of 3)

2.    The Museum

During my stay in Michigan, I paid two visits to the Arab American National Museum. One was on Monday, for a panel organized by Michigan Radio and BBC World Service on "Covering the Middle East," and the other, on Wednesday, was a self-guided tour of the museum. The events of Tuesday will be covered in the third part of this post.

The BBC event (can be viewed here) was very interesting. It would be difficult to assess what it is exactly that I have learned from it, but it was a heartening experience. See, in my lifetime, I have been exposed to a variety of venues for political discussion of current events, none of which resembled the Michigan/BBC discussion. In my youth, particularly in the Jewish-Israeli public school system, most of the discussions involved a great deal of polemics. Back then, I still had the energy, and perhaps naïveté, to vocally challenge my political opponents. Later in life, probably most notably after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November of 1995, I began limiting my political activism to fora in which we were either preaching to the converted or simply taking a stance as small groups of resistance amidst large crowds of conformists. Most satisfying in those days were joint Palestinian-Israeli rallies and discussions, before those became legally and logistically virtually impossible in the early 21st century. Then came the Penn years, with the Free Palestine Action Network and more polemics, then intermittent activism during my brief visits to Israel.

What struck me about the Dearborn discussion was that while the audience was not a monolith, the questions that people in the audience asked the BBC personnel on stage were genuinely about the media coverage of the Middle East. Typically, in my experience, any discussion about the region that is not organized by a single political entity (e.g., a party or grassroots movement) is destined to become a war of words, disputing facts and interpretations thereof. This must have the first time for me, definitely in the U.S., where I felt comfortable being around people with whom I mostly agreed. Now some of them were more pleased with the BBC (and to the extent it was discussed, NPR) coverage of recent events in the Mideast; others less so. The BBC executives were so gracefully elegant and eloquent, even when their responses were rigid and uncompromising.

In fact, Liliane Landor, Head of Middle East Region for BBC World Service, a Lebanese-born quintilingual seasoned journalist and editor, was so impressive in her defense of BBC's ethics, that it was tempting to forgive her one logical flaw. During most of the discussion, Ms. Landor insisted that her network adhered to a very rigid set of criteria for impartiality and objectivism. Yet when asked of the BBC coverage of the American- and British-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, she replied that the network had been critical of the Blair government's actions. A little "oops" moment, at least to my sensitive ears, but I give Ms. Landor credit that if engaged in a more elaborate discussion of this particular issue, she would come up with a reasonable response, such as that being objective and  loyal to the facts does not preclude challenging and critiquing the subjects of the reporting. I also take issue with BBC's polling of the Uganda anti-gay legislation, of which I just learned today (and for which Landor had some editorial oversight), but this goes beyond the scope of this particular post.

My subsequent visit of the museum was the subject of a series of (very amateurish) photographs, which are posted on Facebook for public viewing. Perhaps the two greatest fortes of the museum are its very existence, especially in these times of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment in the West, and its very elegant design, combining the aesthetics of the Old World — and the Arab and Arabized version thereof at that — with the amenities of a contemporary state-of-the-art facility. It is grand and humble at the same time. There is also something symbolic in its location, obviously, Dearborn bearing the largest concentration of Americans of Arab descent. As for the practicality of the location, well, Detroit is not the most sought-after tourist destination in North  America. So while n the one hand, the region has a large potential visitorship from local communities, including schoolchildren who ought to be encouraged to learn about their heritage, there is something to be said about the accessibility of such an important institution to the general American populace, who, too, need much education about the cultures of the Arab peoples, beyond the sensationalist finger pointing that is constantly streaming into their television sets, personal computers and handheld devices.

Finally, the exhibits themselves, while interesting and somewhat novel, do not always do justice to either Arab-Americans or Arabs in general. Asking for the latter may be unfair of a museum devoted to a particular diaspora. Yet i couldn't help thinking that the curation of the museum was dictated to a great extent by some unrepresentative sampling of artifacts, which happen to have been made available by prominent members of the Arab-American community (the name — and voice of — Casey Kasem appeared to be omnipresent throughout the museum, for instance). That is a good start for a budding museum, but as a lay user of such a facility (I am by no means an expert on museum curation), I look forward to future enhancements.

Despite my critique (it is in my nature, what can I say?) I am very glad that I took the time to visit the Arab American National Museum. I am still unsure as to how a visit to the museum can be incorporated into a liberal arts education, such as the kind that we attempt to provide at Franklin & Marshall College, but I have something to ponder, along with my colleagues and students. Like many museums, a visit to the museum store is also a must, and indeed I found some gems to purchase, some even prior to my visit, through the museum's web site.

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