Kamal Abdel-Malek is a professor of Arab literature at the American University of Dubai. He’s an affable sort, likes to tell jokes poking fun at himself, at the random absurdities of daily life. I met him at the Emirates Festival of Literature in March where he was giving a talk about his updated version of the book, “America in an Arab Mirror.” I wrote a review of the book in today’s New York Times.
The book is a travelogue of Arab writers visiting America. He and colleague Mouna el-Kahla translated a variety of stories, some fact, some fiction, some satire, and added in a new section of Arab women writers and also one with stories written after September 11.
Starting with the impressions of a visitor to Spanish colonial America in 1668, it portrays the many faces of the love-hate ties between the Arab world and the United States — a relationship in which Arabs seek to be accepted and are simultaneously repelled by a society so different from their own. Fascination and repulsion are woven throughout the travelogs: “At the same time you envy America for its freedom, you pity her for the price she pays for this freedom,” wrote Karima Kamal, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s.
Travel Anthology Looks At Arab Views of U.S.
By ANGELA SHAH
DUBAI — Kamal Abdel-Malek hopes that the story of Turki al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer who went to America as a college student, may one day be emblematic of a reconciliation between West and East.
Mr. Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai has compiled — with Mouna el-Kahla, Arabic program coordinator at the Dubai branch of the University of Wollongong — an anthology of dispatches written by Arab travelers to the United States.
The book, “America in an Arab Mirror: Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature, 1668 – 9/11 and Beyond,” was published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.
Starting with the impressions of a visitor to Spanish colonial America in 1668, it portrays the many faces of the love-hate ties between the Arab world and the United States — a relationship in which Arabs seek to be accepted and are simultaneously repelled by a society so different from their own.
Fascination and repulsion are woven throughout the travelogs: “At the same time you envy America for its freedom, you pity her for the price she pays for this freedom,” wrote Karima Kamal, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s.
Compiled from works by writers, journalists and academics who visited the United States mainly in the 20th century, the anthology includes sections devoted to Arab women writers and to narratives written after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In some ways “America in an Arab Mirror” is a reversal of what Edward Said described as the West’s Orientalist view of the East. Its stories are “an Arab way of saying, we, too, can subjugate you, Westerners, to our tourist, voyeuristic gaze,” Mr. Abdel-Malek said.
The section “America as the Seductive Female” offers fictionalized and true accounts of the writers confronting the country as a faithless temptress. In “New York 80,” the Egyptian short story writer and playwright Yusuf Idris writes a playfully fictionalized account of an encounter with a prostitute he is unable to resist.
But the story called “The America I Have Seen” is darker. Written by the Egyptian Islamic activist Sayyid Qutb in 1951, after a year spent at a university in Greely, Colorado, it describes a materialistic, soulless — even animalistic — society.
Seduction “lies in clothes: in bright colors that awaken primal sensations, and in designs that reveal the temptations of the body — and in American girls these are sometimes live, screaming temptations,” Mr. Qutb wrote.
Mr. Qutb’s Greely was a prohibitionist, conservative place, yet he came away from his sojourn disdainful of nearly all aspects of U.S. life.
Then there is Mr. al-Dakhil, the Saudi writer, who initially is skeptical of Wendy, a woman in the student services office who helps him and his wife get settled on campus.
What does she want, he wonders.
Yet, by the end of his studies, Mr. al- Dakhil comes to an appreciation that she “did what she did out of respect for her job, her career, her sense of responsibility” and not in search of a favor in return.
“This,” he wrote, embarrassed by his first assumptions, “cannot be done without a sufficient fund of human decency.”
Mr. al-Dakhil’s change of heart symbolizes the sort of recognition that Mr. Abdel-Malek hopes could occur more generally, if Arabs and Americans simply got to know one another.
The mutual distrust and hostility between the Arab and Western worlds “is not a clash of civilizations,” Mr. Abdel-Malek said during an interview. “It is a clash of misunderstandings.”
Certainly, the clash runs long and deep with resentment creeping into the narrative after the U.S. support for the creation of Israel in 1947.
Mr. Qutb’s perceptions from 1951 are said to have helped inspire the Sept. 11 attacks 50 years later.
Still, Mr. Abdel-Malek insists, imperfect perceptions can only be made better with continued contact.
He recalled his own confusion, as a new professor at Brown University, when early one morning he watched a group of joggers running in the streets.
“I just assumed they were running from the police,” he said. “In Egypt, this was the only time you would see people running like this.”
Chuckling at the memory, he added: “You can be highly educated, but if you don’t know, you don’t know.”