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Dahlia Wasfi and the Tragedy of Iraq, Part 2

Mac McKinney: We've been primed for decades to think of Arabs and Moslems in general in three categories: camel jockeys, oil sheiks or terrorists. You don't find those booths on career day, but this is how we've been trained.
Dahlia Wasfi

Dahlia Wasfi

Dahlia Wasfi and the Tragedy of Iraq, Part 2: We've Got Problems, We've Got Problems

Last March 20, 2011 was the eighth anniversary of the Bush/Cheney Administration invasion and occupation of Iraq, an occupation that has increasingly fallen below the radar ever since President Obama ordered all American combat brigades home by August 31 of last year. The last unit, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, rumbled back into Kuwait around August 19th, handily beating the deadline.

However, the occupation did not end then, only any large scale American combat role. There were still some 50,000 American troops in country on September 1st, the day after combat was declared over, their official role to maintain order and stability as well as train Iraqi troops and security forces. However, in a treaty signed with the Iraqi government, ALL American troops are supposed to be out by December 31, 2011, but is that going to be end of the story? ( source )

Also in Part 1, I interviewed Ross Caputi, the ex-Marine so distraught with what he saw during the November, 2004 American siege of Fallujah, Iraq that it turned his life upside down until he ultimately became a fierce anti-Iraq War activist and advocate for justice for the still-suffering citizens of Fallujah. Now we turn to his colleague as well as newly-wed bride, Dahlia Wasfi MD, the outspoken international speaker, author and human rights advocate for peace and justice in Iraq, whom, like Ross, I also interviewed over dinner at the elegant Pasha Mezze Turkish restaurant in the Ghent section of Norfolk.

Dahlia brings a unique perspective and voice to the ongoing crisis in Iraq and the Middle East: She is half-Jewish, half-Iraqi, and although born in America, spent some of her early childhood years there as well as taking up residence with her extended family in Iraq several times since the American invasion in 2003.

Ross Caputi, Marine grunt turned peace advocate (photo by Mac)

Ross Caputi, Marine grunt turned peace advocate (photo by Mac)

Growing up American with an *Asterisk:

Dahlia : "My background explains what I do today."

Dahlia's father was born and raised in Basra, Iraq before going on to the University of Baghdad, where he studied chemistry, doing well enough to earn a scholarship to study overseas. He chose Georgetown University in Washington DC. While there, to quote Dahlia, "he met another grad student, a nice Jewish girl from New York." In 1968 they got married and soon had two daughters, Dahlia being the youngest, although Dahlia was actually born in New York City, not DC, an esteemed honor in the mind of any New Yorker.

After her father obtained his PhD in chemistry, he then had to pay back the Iraqi government by teaching back in his native Iraq for the number of years he was in grad school, so this meant that the first five years of Dahlia's life were spent going back and forth between America and Iraq before settling back in the USA.

However, Dahlia, a bit rebellious, refused to learn Arabic and became, by her teens, "pretty Americanized". Even so, she and her family intended to return to Iraq for another visit, but then geopolitics struck: in 1980, the bloody eight-year long Iran-Iraq war commenced, casting a pall over the idea of return, especially after her sister eventually began college while Dahlia herself became enmeshed in high school life.

Then in 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and "four days after the invasion, sanctions were imposed, and then six months later the first Gulf War took place", to quote Dahlia, "which devastated Iraq's infrastructure, and then the sanctions continued for the next thirteen years..."

During these years of sanctions commencing in the 90s, Dahlia complete Undergrad studies and began medical school, earning her B.S. in Biology from Swarthmore College in 1993 and her medical degree from University of Pennsylvania in 1997.

We all know what came after these years of deadly sanctions for the Iraqi people: the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 after the Bush/Cheney canard of lies and propaganda led much of the world to hop upon the Neocon War-Wagon. With that came a crisis of conscience for Dahlia, as she felt the glaring contradictions of being a citizen of an America about to go wild on the country representing half her heritage, hald her extended family, Iraq.

"I had gone to very good, very expensive schools in the US. I was in my training to be an anesthesiologist at Georgetown where my dad had gone to school and it was during that time that September 11, 2001 happened, and though what I experienced was nothing compared to the [overall] bigotry that escalated after 9/11, I had my fair share of negative experiences from that, so I was stuck being subordinate to people who were dehumanizing Arabs and Moslems in general and me specifically, although they didn't know it, because they had no idea what my background was, and they just spoke freely around me."

"So I found that I had this whole crisis of hypocrisy in my life, and after Shock and Awe, and actually also at that same time hearing about Rachel Corrie's story (Rachel was slain on March 16, 2003), how she went thousands of miles to learn first-hand what was happening in Occupied Palestine and, though I don't believe she thought she would give her life for it, literally stood up for what she believed in, well I took that personally.

"If this young woman, who could have turned a blind eye to what was happening in the world...actually died defending the home of a [Palestinian] family that she had no connection to other than her own humanity, then maybe I should go see my family!"

"So I went for the first time in 2004 for three weeks and then I went again for four months in 2006, and ever since my first trip I wanted to do something for my family. I didn't know what to do so since that time I have been making it up as I go along, but I wanted to try to use privilege as an American born in New York; I have no accent and my family had no voice under the dictator and continues to have no voice under the occupation, so I thought I could open my mouth to try to give expression to their experiences and say what I experienced for my brief time under occupation."

Dahlia Wasfi

Dahlia Wasfi

On Islamophobia:

At this point I wanted to touch on a topic with Dahlia that I think was a key driving force in the invasion of Iraq, Islamophobia, so I asked:

Mac: I'm curious. I've always intuitively thought that 9/11 simply unleashed a lot of latent Islamophobia, and a lot of anti-Semitism becaue I realize, and I know you do, that Arabs are part of the Semitic world.

Dahlia: Amen to that!

Mac: And I think that there's just so much of that latent that all it took was that one incident to just unleash it.

Dahlia: Well you know what, we've been primed for decades to think of Arabs and Moslems in general in three categories, and this is from the work done by Jack Shaheen, whose famous book is called "Reel Bad Arabs," showing the history of discrimination and negative stereotypes of Arabs and Moslems in the Western media, basically Hollywood, for decades.

They have been depicted either as camel jockeys, oil sheiks or terrorists - you don't find those booths on career day, but this is how we've been trained.

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I've been a victim of the stereotypes as much as the next person, I mean in terms of being trained to think that way. When I hear "Arab" I have been trained to think "terrorist" even though that's my own background, and when I hear the terms Moslem or Islam, I'm trained to think "Fundamentalist". That' what my society taught me, so even for someone like me, even with an Arab background, I still have to fight it every day.

So I remember at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, there was a 300% increase in hate crimes, documented hate crimes. That's after the first Gulf War, so certainly - I don't know the numbers after September 11, because as you said, that was a tremendous launching of Islamophobia, and really I think it just flows into a general xenophobia - but absolutely, we have been well-primed for directing our hatred toward a particular population. And you're right, after 9/11 anyone who even resembled an Arab or Moslem - if you were a Sikh you could be targeted, if you were Latino you could be targeted, if you fit into the general description of swarthy skin and dark moustache, and God help you if you wear a turbine or cover your hair - anyone with those characteristics could become a target for hatred.

Mac: I've been affiliated with the Sikhs for a long time and I'm aware that some Sikhs were just murdered.

Dahlia: That's absolutely right, absolutely right, so we've got problems, we've got problems!


Indeed so! We did after 9/11, and we do now, although tumultuous events such as the Arab Spring have helped shatter some of these deadly stereotypes, as millions of Westerners have witnessed on TV, in person, or on the Internet the nobility and bravery, under gunfire and club, of millions of Arabian Semitic peoples in their struggles for freedom and dignity.

So now many of us are schizophrenic in our mental constructs, clinging to those destructive Hollywood images of the past that were reinforced by 9/11 and endless propagandizing about what is really a tiny, tiny percentage of the overall Arab and Moslem population, the "sect", if you want to call it that, of al Qaeda, this negative fear stereotype versus the reality of millions of human beings in the Middle East and beyond who, it turns out to be, are just like us, struggling for freedom and justice and the right to have a good job so they can feed and house their families and raise their children.

It is a good synchronicity that Dahlia referenced Jack Shaheen whom I happened to write an article about a few years back, because he has been a valuable educator in helping Americans to see how they have been conditioned culturally to denigrate Arabs and Moslems, and how from that first step it has led, ultimately, to a costly war that has still not ended while continuing to cost American and Iraqi lives and treasure. It would be timely at this point to re-convey some of what I wrote about Jack back in November of 2007, in an article entitled "Reel Bad Arabs - Confronting Stereotypes" based on an interview he had with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! So meet Jack Shaheen:


November 27, 2007

Reel Bad Arabs - Confronting Stereotypes

By Mac McKinney

Recently Amy Goodman interviewed Jack Shaheen about a topic that has helped fuel the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as our largely carte blanche bias toward Israel's policies in the Middle East. And that topic is the stereotyping of Arab peoples in particular, and, I should add, as well as Moslem peoples in general, even though most Moslems are not Arabs. But in the superficial mass-American mind, quite often Arabs and Moslems are equated, and even Sikhs, who are an entirely different religion, are often thrown into this stereotypical mix. In fact, one Sikh was murdered right after 9/11, mistaken for an Arab, and over a half-dozen men in total were slain as part of a frenzied backlash against those who happened to look Middle Eastern at the time.

In fact, if you Google "Destroy Islam", you get some 5,050,000 hits. Of course not all of them are screeds on attacking Islam, but a significant portion of them are, mostly coming from Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian websites, which tend to equate Islam with Satan and who have invoked the Flag, the Cross and the Smart Bomb to wage war with.

Thank God that the Catholic Church, even with its ultra-conservative Pope Benedict XVI, has refused, despite some earlier criticism of Islam on the Pope's part, to pick up the rusty Crusader's sword that Pope Urban first invoked in 1095 at the Council of Clermont. That was the great and demagogic speech that launched the First Crusade leading to several centuries of brutal warfare in the Levant and beyond, the Fourth Crusade actually diverting itself north to Christian Constantinople, to sack the imperial city and usurp control of the Byzantine Empire. The Franks, Normans and Venetians could not resist the glitter of Byzantine gold and jewels.

So, against this violent historical background, deep racial prejudice and religious intolerance, comes Dr. Jack Shaheen with a rather remarkable movie, based on his 2001 book, that sheds a great deal of light on this odious stereotyping of Arab peoples in the American media and entertainment industry. Both the book and movie, which is also on DVD, are called Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

Jack Shaheen, by the way is, to quote from Wikipedia's blurb about him:

Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University. He was also a consultant on Middle East affairs for CBS News.

He studies portrayals of Arabs and Islam in American media. Being a committed internationalist and humanist, Dr. Shaheen addresses stereotypical images of racial and ethnic groups. His presentations illustrate that stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum, that hurtful caricatures of Asians, blacks, Latinos and others, impact innocents. He explains why such portraits persist, and provides viable solutions to help shatter misperceptions.

Among Dr. Shaheen's awards recognizing his "outstanding contribution towards a better understanding of our global community" are the University of Pennsylvania's Janet Lee Stevens Award, and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for "his lifelong commitment to bring a better understanding towards peace for all mankind." (source)

So on Oct 19, Amy Goodman did a piece on him on Democracy Now! at her firehouse studio, prefacing it with this statement:

Where are the human images of Arabs and Arab Americans? That's the topic of a new film called "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People." It's based on a book by the same name by acclaimed media critic Jack Shaheen. Both the book and the film explore the American cinematic landscape to reveal a stark pattern of Arab stereotyping and its disturbing similarity to anti-Semitic and other racist caricatures through history.

mac mckinney

We'll be joined in the studio by Jack Shaheen, but first I want to play some excerpts from the film version of his book. It's directed by Sut Jhally, and the New York Premiere of the film was at the Cinema East Film Festival on Thursday. (source)

The excerpts she mentioned include statements from the trailer for the movie, which you can view right now.

Mac McKinney