Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Arabs Wax Lovingly and Lyrically over the US (and Boston)

(November, 2012)

In March of this year, the BBC Arabic spoke with a group of Arabs living in Scotland, all of whom like Scotland very, very much.

Well, in November of 2012, there was a similar program with Arabs living in Boston. That discussion was timed to coincide with the Obama-Romney election of 2012. It was before the Boston Marathon bombing happened.

The Boston discussion was also led by Samir Farah. Here he is:
Guess what, I have been in this exact square! Those statues in the background are commemorating the Irish dying of famine, many of whom escaped their "teeming shores" and came in huddled masses to start afresh in Boston during the 1800s.

The discussion took place in this building from the time of the American Revolution. Here's where the patriots gathered to speak and proclaim revolutionary thoughts!
You had to pay $6 to enter, if I'm remembering the right place, and I wasn't going to do that. But I did step into a bookstore in a little nook!

Here's the Arab-Americans gathered to talk about the United States, on a show that is broadcast to tens of millions of Arabs worldwide. They are all speaking in Arabic for the purposes of the show (though they speak English, too, of course). So what happened?

Samir Farah started with the question: does the American dream still exist?

First, this guy spoke. I think his name was Nasser:
He said: I came Mauritania, made a life for myself here, and of course this story is repeated every day. Yes, the American dream exists! The only thing is that you have to do is work. The way the US is set up is that everyone is given a chance, no matter your religion, identity, background - everyone has a chance to succeed. So the key for how people's experiences differ is how hard they work to reach their dream. I came here with $240 in my pocket and my clothes. Now I am a director in an American company. I began as did millions of other Americans - working in a restaurant. And on the first day of work they asked me to clean the place.

This Iraqi lady called Salma agreed with what Nasser said:
Salma: Here in Boston we have lots of opportunities - universities, work. But many Arabs come here and think that they earth is strewn with money and that they'll be able to find good work right away. When we come to live here in the US, we confront the same reality that all other immigrants and residents live through. We have to put forth effort - we won't succeed right away. But the Arab world thinks that directly from the first day, you get a job, an apartment - and if you don't, that the govt should give you some support. And lots of immigrants come here and live off of government support, and they never get with the program and realize they have to put forth some energy. As an Arab community here, we have to be more like the other immigrant communities and adapt better.

Samir the moderator asks Salma a follow-up: does the American dream just have to do with riches and money?

Salma from Iraq answers: I came here in 2002. I already have a bachelor in civil engineering and finished a master's as well. I am working for the Engstrom company in a hydrogen and nitrogen plant. I have American citizenship.

As you can see, she totally didn't answer the question, which is why I think Samir is giving her a puzzled look:

But Salma continues: The issue of becoming a citizen was one of the first things that was hard - the question of the papers and documentation. If you enter the US legally, then you can proceed legally. But if you came with difficulties from the beginning, then you'll keep on having problems.

And Salma finishes by saying: The US continues to have top quality education; and a person living here continues to be a respected person; perhaps I differ in religion or traditions from others, but the way people view me is with respect.

Samir the moderator: You feel respect and free to exchange ideas in spite of any differences?

Salma: Of course. Yes, that exists.

Next it was the turn of Mr. Ibrahim, who has lived in the US for 43 years, is originally Egyptian, and whom I therefore cannot understand. But I tried!
Mr. Ibrahim:  All my kids were born here and live here... something, something ... Every person comes to America for a different reason. Some for an easy life. For me, I came for freedom and for knowledge. I went to graduate school here. I used to work from 5 to 7 a.m. distributing newspapers, and then till 12 at night working at my regular job(?). And the important thing is not just working for yourself, but doing some sort of service for society... I can't always be thinking, I'm Egyptian, I came from Egypt, and I only want to do things for Egypt. I need to consider the country where I'm living. Right now, America is my country. And it should be the country for all of us in the community as well. The day that I asked for a US citizenship is the day that I took this for my country. And because I asked for that citizenship, my first loyalties are to the US. And finally, if I see a new Arab come here, dealing with the same problems I dealt with and struggling, I have to help him, because otherwise, he'll get lost. We help everyone we can. If they need help with translations, for example. 

Samir the moderator: That's great! Especially because we're hearing that there's people who come here and don't have any idea of what it's like and what they have to do to survive.

Next, this person spoke. I thought he said he was Chinese, but that can't be right:
He answered Samir's question from a while back:
No, the American dream is not about money. It is that if you work well, if you work hard, it will lead you to a dignified life. When you talk to Americans, they'll talk about a house, a car, and a family, and dignity. And that your children will live better than you did. It doesn't mean that you have to become a millionaire. Arabs think if you come to the US, you'll become a millionaire. All you'll get is the chance to become a millionaire! The most important thing is a chance for a dignified life.

Then, this man in the jacket and glasses called Ayoub spoke:
He is a journalist. He said:
To me, the American dream is looking around and seeing people from Tonga, from Baghdad, people from all geographies from the Arab world. That truly is a dream come true. Before I came to the US, I didn't know anything about different people and cultures. Living in the US is an exercise that I live everyday - as to how I can be a fair, open person towards others. And this society gives me that chance.

Samir: But! this society surely has it's bad points. Let's hear them! Who says the United States is the best place for the Arab immigrant? (Good show of hands go up.)

Samir: Who says they were disappointed here?

A man called Luay from Palestine raises his hand:
Luay: For me, it was my life's dream to come to the US because of freedom. You know Palestine is not a country. and if you're in one city, you can't even freely travel to another city without passing through checkpoints. When I came to the US, it was my dream to feel freedom, and I've felt it. But - and I agree with what everyone else has said. That here you can improve yourself money-wise, education-wise, you feel yourself free in your religion.

Samir the moderator: alright, but somewhere in here you're saying there was a price for all this?

Luay: But the price is the loss of your family. Here, without generalizing, just speaking from people I know and my relatives, the price was the loss of family. Yes, my family paid a high price. Yes, I felt freedom. And I've been here just since 2009, so not long. Speaking about myself, I actually got divorced, and my daughter, every time I see her, I feel that all the things I achieved in the last 4 years - in education - more money - being able to send money to help my parents - but I've lost my little girl. That's my loss.

Poor guy looked like he wanted to cry.

Samir the moderator: Who else agrees the price for the American dream is your family?

A lady whose named actually is "Salam", like the greeting, chimed in. She's a Palestinian from Nablus.

Salam from Nablus: Yes, there's a price to pay for everything. When we come to the US, we come with our religion and traditions and cultures, and we speak Arabic. Eventually, we learn to speak with Americans, to understand them, to feel what they feel, but this takes time - a long time. When we have children, the children get blended in. You try to teach them: this is your religion, these are your traditions, but they're living here. And they travel back to the MIddle East every 5 or 6 years to see the grandparents. So you definitely feel that you get lost. And I work as a translator, and I see the newcomers, and I can tell you that many people - yes, many immigrants - and I'll repeat, many of them - the Iraqis or the Maghrebis or other political immigrants or from wars - many of them are in prison on account of drugs. When you go to the store here in the US, you can buy alcohol. All this is a price.

Samir the moderator: Yes, indeed, it is a price of the freedom you get here that you have the choice to do everything.

Samir took a break from the discussion, and showed instead some footage. The BBC Arabic had gone to Cairo, Egypt ahead of time and gotten random people on the street to ask questions of the discussion.

Question 1: When you elect someone, whether it's Obama or whoever, is it someone who benefits you or us Arabs back home? I mean, think about it. 

Question 2: Do you have an Arab-American lobby that has some sort of influence?

Question 3: Can't all of you Arabs in America please unify and choose a president that will be good for Arabs as we go through the Arab Spring?

Question 4:  Do you think you are voting for someone who will help realize your hopes and dreams?

Some other Egyptians wanted to know if the Arabs in Boston would be voting Republican or Democrat!

So Samir the moderator put the question to the group: When you decide who to vote for, what do you depend on? foreign politics, the candidate? and why is there no Arab lobby?

First to answer was this man, who came from Iraq to the US in 1975.

You've got to love what he said:
So we heard comments about us Arab-Americans being more unified, coming from the Arabs in the Arab countries who don't know the first thing about unity and agreement.

Samir the moderator: But you came here to the US, and you still can't.

Iraqi guy from 1975: No, we can't unify because ... (didn't understand)

Samir: Of course, when the random Egyptians we heard talk about lobbies, they're talking about the Jewish lobby in the US. It's strong. Is the difference that the Jewish lobby is supporting a single country, while the Arab lobby is split amongst 22 countries?

This girl took the question. She is Egyptian by accent. But, also American by accent! (her stronger English skills give her an American accent when she speaks Arabic)
She said: Sure, there's wrong things in the US, but I don't blame the US for that. There's also bad things in Egypt; do we say that's all Egypt's fault? Egypt is a beautiful country with lots of history. We're the first and oldest country. So I don't like it when we say, oh, those Jews, they have so much money...

Samir: No, no! We're not talking about Jews and money.

Egyptian girl: Yes, Jews have structured power in the US, but they're very organized. And also, they have one country to support. When it comes to Arabs, (I think she said) our first loyalty is always to our own country. Like you'd put Egypt over the concerns of the greater Middle East.

I am going to post the link to this video on the BBC Arabic's YouTube page, and then go to minute 22 to hear her talk. It's great! As much English as Arabic!

At this point, they started talking about loyalties to which countries. 

A Syrian girl sitting right next to the Egyptian girl went first:
Syrian girl:
Sure, I'm loyal to Syria, but I'm also loyal to the US. The US gave me work, education, everything. And my parents came here for the American dream. In the beginning, of course, circumstances were draining for them. But we kids are born in this country. I think it's wrong for someone to be born here, but then say, well, I'm Syrian and that's that. No. Sure, you got nice things from the home country - religion, traditions, we take all that from our home country, and that's a very nice thing. But also, the US gave us many nice things. Here, I have freedom. I can walk in the street and say what I like. I'm not scared of anyone, I'm not scared of prison or political problems. This is true for people who are born here, or even people who live here and have become citizens.

Samir the moderator: You were born here. Is the price you pay different from the price that Luay [the Palestinian who lost his daughter] pays?

Syrian girl: Yes, I think so. If differs. I think the difference is: he came here, 4 years ago. I was born here. [I think she was saying that: my only loss is that ...] Every summer, we would go to Syria. We felt like: in Syria we were a little lost, and then in the US we were also a little lost.

Samir: Are you American first?

Syrian girl: No! I'm both.

Then, Najwan, an American citizen from Iraq, spoke:
Najwan: I was born in Iraq. But maybe I got more benefits from the US. Iraq remains my country, I like it. And I'm proud I'm from there. But I don't like for anyone to say anything about the US. Because I like it too. I enjoy it here.

The next guy to speak was also Iraqi: Sure, I'm Iraqi, but I'm also American, and I also worry about the US.

Samir the moderator: So if there was a soccer match between the US and Iraq?

Iraqi guy: oh, I'd cheer for Boston [room explodes with laughter:]

This girl from Lebanon explained her loyalties:
She said:
I was brought up here in the US. You have a struggle because when you're in the US, you feel Lebanese. When you go to Lebanon, they say, oh, here comes the American. You don't really know what your right place is. When I was little, I lived for Lebanon for a while, and all my love was for Lebanon. But later, after moving back to the US, I began to feel lost in Lebanon, because you get used to American society. If you want something, you go get it. Everything is done by paperwork, just follow instructions. But in Lebanon, you need a bribe, and so on. So here, I discovered after some time, that the US became home more so than did Lebanon.

Samir: So when your airplane touches down at JFK or whatever airport, do you feel that you've come home?

Lebanese girl: See, that's the problem that bugs me. When I go there, I'm happy I've returned to Lebanon. When I come back here, I'm happy to have come home.

Samir: Aha. Happy to have come home. So then the US is home.

Lebanese girl: Yes! hahahaha.

At that point, Samir the moderator directed attention away from the group for a moment in order to hear how Arabs watching the program live were responding on social media.

The responses were split into two equal parts. One side wanted to come to the US, the other said never!
Comment: going to your grave is better than going to America.
Comment from someone named Jihad: i am trying to go to America, because it's full of opportunities.

In general, the reasons people cited for wanting to go were freedom of expression, healthcare, education, human rights, science research.
Comment: "I spent 3 years in the US working on science research. It was so amazing. Unfortunately, I could not stay longer."

And the people who don't want to go cite: politics of all strips; American support for Israel; they just don't want to live there; the discrimination that Arabs and especially Muslims face since 9/11. Comment: "America was the land of dreams before 9/11. But now it's so hard to get papers, and the scrutiny is so intense."

Samir brought it back to the Boston group and asked: have any of you faced discrimination?

This was the response: see, no one was shooting their hand up in the air eager to badmouth the US in front of the Middle Eastern audience:

Shireen from Damascus said:
I've been living here for two years, and I'm Muslim. I have not faced any sort of any bad treatment when they know I'm Muslim, absolutely not. Sure, there's Americans who don't have a good picture of Islam. They have many distorted views they've gotten from the media. But when you talk to them openly about your religion or your country, they really accept you, and they look at you in a very nice way!

Samir, searching hard: Who's had a bad experience. You there, wearing the hijab. Tell me all your horror stories.

His eye has fallen upon the pretty Egyptian girl who doesn't speak Arabic so well.

She said: I didn't use to wear the hijab, and no one would ask me any questions then. But when I started wearing it, I became a symbol for all Muslims, and a symbol for all Arabs, and even a symbol of terrorism. People come and ask me, oh, is your uncle Osama bin dorkus? Do you know Saddam Hussein?

Samir asks in mock solemnity: and did you use to know Saddam?

Egyptian girl: haha, he was my uncle!

Samir: Is this a problem in every day life? Who suffers from islamaphobia, different treatment?

Samir searches and searches the room, and two people kind of raise their hands half heartedly, then they put their hands down, and try to explain better.

The Mauritanian guy says:
Let me explain something, and this is important for your viewers to understand. There's a difference between the US and Europe. In Europe, they ask immigrants to forget their identify. Here in America, the question of loyalty is open for you to decide. You can be Mauritanian-American, Irish-American, Egyptian-American. All people are proud of this. Now let me tell you as far as Islamophobia goes: here, I work with official people. One year and a half ago, there was a right-wing group that tried to do a thing called "Against Sharia" and the government in Oklahoma made a law against Sharia. The response of the civil rights groups - because there's groups in the US that fight for constitutional rights - was to do a systematic campaign against these laws in the courts. And lots of you remember the Ground Zero Mosque. There was lots of outcry. But the important point is: no one went to the courts and asked for the Mosque not to be built. Because in the American constitution you have freedom of religion. If that question came before the courts, it would never have passed.

Samir: But that doesn't have anything to do with every day life.

Salam from Nablus:
After 9/11, me and my family had an incident. Our neighbors came and attacked us and threatened us with weapons, and said, you're terrorists, go back to your country, we're going to kill you. And they had a dog, and they know from before that I don't like dogs near me. Before, the dog never got in my way. And then all of a sudden, they would release their dog and have him come and run at us. They did many things. And the wife even shoved me down the stairs. I was hurt and went to the hospital. And of course, I am proud of my identity and country (Palestine). Any case, we called the cops and the cops came and talked to them.

Samir: That was one incident. Do you face that everyday?

Salam: I face that because I fight for Palestinian rights in lectures. So i do find a lot of pushback. I work with an organization. All the others membersare American. I'm the only Arab. Because other Arabs are scared and don't have the daring to do it. What happened to me and my family gave me the daring to go travel to many countries and talk to them: what is Islam? and what is the difference between culture and Islam? And if Hitler had been Muslim or not, or Mussolini: why do they ask me about Osama bin dorkus? Why? When they ask me where I'm from, I tell them, I'm Palestinian, I'm Arab. Yes, my citizenship is American, but  my identify, my heart, my blood is Palestinian.

A girl called Nahla spoke next. Nahla studies political science at Simmons College.
Nahla: I came here in 2004. No incident has occurred where a person attacked me in the road or in the college. But you feel that there are barriers between yourself and others.

Samir: Barriers that stop friendship?

Nahla: Yes. Because you're different. But when it comes to Islamophobia, I don't think that's the issue. I think it's more cultural. I have close American friends.

Samir: Who here does not have close American friends?

No one raises their hand.

At this point, the camera again cut away and we listened to opinions and questions from random people on the Lebanese street:

The questions and comments:
Do you think Obama is good for Arabs?
Who do you want to vote for?
I say to the Arabs in America: pick the president that will be best for the Arab countries.
Of course, when they pick, they first have to pick as American citizens. But at the same time, they have to think about Arabs, about Palestine.
Do they give you Muslims living in America freedoms? Like freedom of work, opinion, getting to be in the senate? I think that's who you should vote for, because that will support your positions
I want to know, when you vote for someone, do you think about who will be good for us Arabs at home? But [answering her own question] I don't think so, they forget us!

Back to the group in Boston, and they start answering who they want to vote for.

One guy: Historically, Democrats have always been more supportive of immigrants.

Another guy: Sure, Obama took the troops from Iraq, but when it comes to Palestine, it's all been a disappointment. But, I'll vote for the least evil, and so, Obama it is.

The Egyptian man living in the US 43 years: You can't pick based on just one topic [American policy towards Israel]. I have to think about the country I'm living in.

Samir: But right over here [pointing at the 'lesser evil' guy] is a guy who is voting based on just one issue!

Egyptian man: what I want people to notice is that you have to study a candidate from all sides.

Samir: Have you studied?

Egyptian man: Yes, I studied everyone.

Samir: And you don't have to answer, but who are you voting for?

Egyptian man: [gives a preamble before he'll answer, which means he's nervous about saying it.] I like to vote for the person who will give me the greater freedom to be who I am.

Samir: You don't want to tell me?

Egyptian man: So I'm going to vote for Romney.

Disgusted looks for the Arabs sitting across from him:
Egyptian man continues: When I first came here, I thought, democracy, Democrats, I guess I'd better vote for them. Then I studied the positions better, and I realized that the Democrats aren't truly democratic. The Democrats coddle people more. The republicans are more for work.

Soon as he said that, the hands went up:

Samir: You know there's those that don't agree with you here.

Egyptian man: Freedom of opinion!

Egyptian girl: If I was going to vote based on international relations, i would have to vote for the Green Party. But any case, I'm with Obama, because the Republicans don't care about poor people, he wants them all to rot.

Laughing at her choice of words: "Romney wants all poor people to rot!"

Egyptian girl continues: And by the way, when Hurricane Katrina happened, all my relatives and friends from Eygpt called, are you okay?! and they saw that all the trapped people were Black, so they know there's a racial disparity in America.

Syrian girl: First of all [defending the Egyptian man], all of us are from Arab countries, but, we all have the right to study the candidates as we choose, to vote as we please. It's not like the Arab countries where you just vote for your tribe - where you don't have an opinion in the matter in the least. So you are free to choose between Obama and Romney. For myself, I'm going to vote for Obama, of course, as a female, as an Arab, yes, and Obamacare is important and good! and Romney wants to bring things back to Bush-times.

Luay the Palestinian who lost his daughter: In spite of the disappointment with the Palestinian issue, I'm going to vote for Obama, because you know what Romney has said! He's said that he doesn't think Palestinians shouldn't have a country at all. So I'm going to vote for Obama, and Inshallah he'll get us a country.

The Eygptian man listening to Luay repeat Romney's infamous words.

And as they only had time for about 50 minutes, by this time Samir had to rush to close the program. He just had time to mention that an online poll had been taken by those following along at home, and it split 50-50 between Arabs who want to move to the US, and those who don't. And that was a wrap!

Full video on the BBC Arabic's YouTube page by clicking here.

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