This piece is part of a campaign in Los Angeles to convince the mayor to provide funding for a cultural and community center that represents Arab/Muslim communities. Sign a petition in favor here.
I must be out of my mind.
For the past 13 years, I have relentlessly militated for the creation of a Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) cultural arts center in Los Angeles—a place for fresh ideas and challenging programs. I’ve asked that we work together to build an institution akin to the Hammer, the Getty, MOCA or the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve lobbied city officials and federal functionaries, written letters to millionaires and celebrities, nagged TV and radio stations, bugged newspaper and magazine editors, applied to foundations, and even circulated a petition—I’ve done everything imaginable short of lighting myself on fire.
Why? Because we all need a place to meet, a space where we can speak freely and learn about the cogent issues facing Americans and the Middle East. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu just pointed out, “In legislatures in Maryland, New York, Illinois, Florida, and even the United States Congress, bills have been proposed that would either bar funding to academic associations or seek to malign those who have taken a stand against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”
Whereas it seems to me that Arabs, Jews and others who care about peace can benefit from breaking bread and sharing a conversation, or the experience of a concert, a film, an art exhibition, a lecture, a poetry reading, even a comedy show.
It’s called cultural diplomacy.
After all, 87% of us are moderates. And 99% of Americans love to eat.
We need an oasis in the city devoted to peaceful exploration of each other’s cultures. Imagine the good that a museum-quality Middle Eastern arts institution could do.
For years our pleas for major funding fell on deaf ears, so we decided to take action. In June 2001, with friends of Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage from the MENA region, I cofounded the Levantine Cultural Center. We set up our grassroots storefront project on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where many in the entertainment community live and work. This was no accident.
In our view, folks in the film and television industries have knowingly or unknowingly stereotyped, maligned or otherwise diminished Arabs, Muslims and others from the MENA. More often than not, we’re depicted as terrorists or religious fanatics.
As we know, fear sells. But while 9/11 brought about a heightened awareness of Arab/Muslim societies and was a turning point in East-West relations, anti-Arab/Muslim biases in academia and Hollywood go back decades. The scholarly work of Edward Said and Jack Shaheen et alia documents years of Orientalism, film and TV caricatures, and Islamophobic profiteering. The Center for American Progress in 2011 published a detailed study, Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, exposing an entire industry dedicated to inciting fear of Islam among Americans.
Admittedly, Arabs and Muslims make good bogeymen. In spite of our ample contributions to American academia, science, medicine, business and the arts, we are the least known among 20th-century immigrants to the United States. Most Arabs/Muslims from West and South Asia came to the U.S after World War I, World War II or following any number of post-war conflicts, such as Lebanon’s civil war or Iran’s 1979 revolution. My father, an economic refugee, came to California in the late 1950s and was considered exotic at the time.
Growing up in Los Angeles the son of a French-Moroccan national, there were no positive references to Moroccan culture. Indeed, there was nothing about Morocco available to an inquisitive young boy, other than the film Casablanca, which my father impugned as having nothing to do with the real Casablanca of 1942, where he lived at the time.
Whether out of delusion, compulsive obsession, despair or a longing for peace and awareness, I have become willy-nilly a cultural diplomat. I advocate for Los Angeles to take its place as a world cultural capital by welcoming, including and adequately representing Middle Eastern and North African communities.
I bet you didn’t know that in the worldwide diaspora, Southern California is home to the largest community of Arabs, Iranians and others from the MENA.
Isn’t it about time for a cultural institution that amply reflects our rich past and present contributions?
Or am I indeed crazy?
The other day while getting my young son ready for school, he gave me the most profound look of concern and asked, “Daddy, are you a freak?”
I didn’t answer yes, but I couldn’t say no, either. Maybe it’s true that children tell the truth, and maybe I’m just a lunatic for peace. Yet, hundreds of people have supported my efforts over the years, and more than 5,000 stay on our mailing list. Maybe there is a place for a MENA cultural center in L.A. after all? I keep the faith.