This past summer, 20 Arab journalism students studied mass media at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. The students - who were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs - spent six weeks in the U.S. Their intinerary included trips around the Pacific Northwest, California’s Silicon Valley, and news outlets in Washington, D.C.
These radio essays provide personal insights into America’s image and influence on the Arab world. Students were asked to write essays with a simple headline: “This is America.”
Our first essay comes from Zainab Thamer of Bahrain.
Zainab Thamer, Bahrain: Through the four corners of the screen, I saw America. TV introduced me to the world of my dreams, a world where you can have fun, liberty and most importantly, opportunity.
Since a very young age, I was influenced by American values. To reach success, I knew I would need to work hard.
My life hasn’t been easy for me. Losing my father at a young age has locked me in my own world. I relied on myself to learn English. Back home, I didn’t have free chances and had to dig with my bare hands to create my own path.
It was hard to accept struggles with no promising results. But then I saw an American movie called “Pursuit of Happiness.” That movie, a true story whose main character goes from homelessness to Wall Street, made me believe bad things would eventually pay off. I’m now more willing to accept the misfortunes I face.
This influence has led me to become an American studies student at the University of Bahrain. The American Studies Center is like a small window into the United States. It has deepened my understanding of why individualism is a necessary quality to anyone who wants to be successful.
Nevertheless, visiting the actual American society is a good experience that will shape my personality for the better. No matter how different it is from what I know, one fact remains true: America is the land of opportunities. America has offered me the chance to let myself shine.
Talal Mubarak Al Shahri, Oman: Ten minutes before I was to leave to the airport to come here, I was confronted by my family and told “Don’t go to America anymore, we are against it… you’ll lose yourself and your culture…”
I was surprised at first, but I held my ground and told them that I knew what the challenges were. I told them to trust me and that one of my main goals there is to strengthen my faith in Islam. I would do this by observing the way Americans of different religions live and compare it with my own to better understand the differences between us and them. They didn’t like it, but they let me go without saying goodbye.
They were afraid I would get sucked in by the American culture that they see on TV. In other words, I would start drinking, doing drugs, having wild sex parties and acting in a very un-Islamic way. When I tried to explain to them that this was not true and that Americans weren’t all like that, they were not convinced. American media producers have glamorized the concepts shown on TV and other media. But in my opinion they distort the true image of America. Sometimes there are things that are completely untrue or at least exaggerated, about American culture but are made to seem true. When watching movies like American Pie, people get this idea that American college students spend all their time drinking and partying. I know that it happens, but not to the extent that is shown on TV shows and movies.
I understand my family’s fears. But, had they come to Pullman with me they would see the true face of America. It’s sad that America has created this negative image in foreign countries like my own.
Ala’a Jarban, Yemen: On a sunny afternoon, on the 11th of September 2001, I was just 12 years old walking in a crowded street in my city, Sana’a in Yemen. I was going back home from school. I noticed an odd movement in the streets. People were rushing and yelling at each other to watch the news. I joined them. I watched a person jumping out of a giant building in New York City. Before that, I knew very little about the United States. Little did I know that that day was going to change the world and affect my own life.
I remember how I spent that night crying, wondering how such cruelty can exist in our planet. Later when I knew more about the incident, I felt obliged to show Americans that we Muslims are not at all like this.
In high school, I applied for many scholarships to study in America, but it was difficult to receive any of them because the number of scholarships had been decreased. I started reading a lot of books about the American culture, my favorite was “United States Coloring Book.”
An American family from Minnesota with a kid my age had just moved to our neighborhood back then; soon David - their son - had become my best friend and helped me to get to know more about the U.S. I was even influenced by hip-hop music; I used to listen to Eminem and Kanye West and even sang along to their rhymes.
Now that I have had the chance to visit the U.S. and see how kind Americans are, I can vividly sense that what connects us all as human beings is the ability to overcome any obstacles we face.
Mohammed Bahashwan, Yemen: Growing up in Yemen, I have been taught that the American foreign policy intends to destroy our culture, our economy, and our sovereignty.
Being solely exposed to local and religious media outlet, which utilizes religious beliefs to trigger anger, I believed that the American people’s intention was to rule and take what was rightfully ours.
Yet, I kept wondering why people around the world dreamed of coming to America, and even dreamed of becoming Americans. So this summer I came to America to draw my own conclusions.
Before coming to the US, I was quite worried; I had a fear of being discriminated against, whether because my race, my religion, or the color of my skin. I had a constant worry of not being welcomed.
After one week in America those fears began to disappear. While thinking about the idea that we have been given an incorrect image of the American people, I realized that the American people have also been given an incorrect image of us.
The western media has lumped together all Arabs with uneducated extremists who have no respect for human rights and hate America. I held myself responsible for believing in the credibility of the ideas that had been provided to us by our local media outlets, and for having been misled into believing that all Americans are racists and bigots. Stepping outside of my normal frame of reference has enabled me to see these things more clearly and has begun to provide me with clearer perspectives on both America and my own country.
Reem Saif, Bahrain: This is my chance and I don’t want to lose it.
When I was 10 years old I started watching American movies. As a young girl in Bahrain, I felt very excited about all the things I saw. It is a big country with nice weather, buildings and language. A few years later some American teachers taught me a lot about American culture and they encouraged me to read English books and improve my English. They were very nice and helpful. It was one of my dreams to finish my study in America but I didn’t find a chance. Then September 11th happened and I thought I would lose that chance forever.
I still remember that moment, I felt very sad and afraid. September 11 was the worst date for the world. I remember sitting with my family while we watched the Bahrain news channel. Suddenly, I saw how the plane crashed and the building exploded. I thought I had lost my dream of to going to U.S. I am an Arabic and Muslim woman and I hate terrorists. They are not a part of us, and in every country there are good and bad people and because of this, America and many other countries seem to get wrong idea about us. But as they say, in time all wounds will heal.
After a couple of years everything began to settle and the relationship between Islamic and American people improved. Many good people in both countries did their best to return our relationship back to the way it was
Now, the dream becomes reality and I’m in America. I can see what I saw in the cinema when I was young - the nice weather, green places and beautiful buildings. I will do my best to learn a lot of things about journalism in Pullman. This is my chance and I don’t want to lose it.
Talal: In Iraq, our air is polluted, our streets are messed up. Our children and elders live in the streets. Our education is a complete joke and our rights exist only on paper. In America all of these are in order and everything is fixed, or so I thought.
I always thought that here in America I would taste the real meaning of food and drinks, that here I would experience the joys of life and the ecstasy of living the dream. Yet, reality is a shock indeed. The food is immeasurably terrible. Everything here is so complicated. It takes an hour to order a sandwich. There are ten types of cheese, ten types of bread and they even have four types of potatoes. Can’t I just get a chicken sandwich?
There are 20 types of ice cream and a thousand types of sauce. Their bathrooms are even more complicated; each has a different way to get paper towels, some even need passwords. Even the faucets function in a weird way. You have to move your hand and wave to them in order to get the water. Too many options, no simplicity.
All these experiences woke me up to one simple fact. It is never about the physical piece of land, it is about the people who live on it, the people who work it, the people who die for it. If there is something wrong in my country then it is because of us, the people. And if America is really a great nation, it too, is because of its people.
Nihaya Jaber: Before coming to America, I worried a lot about how the American people would look at me because of my scarf -- especially because I was in France last year, and people there looked at me as if I were a weird person.
America is everything I thought it would be; the streets, the buildings, the calmness. Now I am in America and I can say that I am so glad to be here, but also slightly disappointed. I’m glad because my perceptions of the American society, which were affected by my experience in France, were wrong. What really bothered me in France was the way people looked at me because of my Hijab, which is the scarf I wear around my head. My Hijab is a part of me, of my religion, my culture, and my beliefs. So, when someone looks at you as if you were a weird person, you may be offended and become nervous.
That made coming to America confusing because I did not want to live with the fear of walking in the streets or talking to someone. It is true when they say don’t judge a book by its cover. You have to wait so that you can build an image of what you are dealing with. In America, I have received many compliments about my Hijab which make me more confident and happy.
There was another large difference between France and the United States. In Paris I didn’t see as much of the landscapes as I see now in Pullman. The landscapes help me to feel better when I feel homesick. On the other hand, I am disappointed with the food. As you might guess, it is really hard to find Halal food here, so I have to eat things I don’t like. Muslims don't eat pork and our animals are required to be slaughtered in a specific way.
To me Pullman is a large city unlike the camp where I live. My camp has no wide streets, only narrow alleys and people live so close next to each other that I can hear every word my neighbors speak. So getting lost in a city like Pullman , stresses me out.
This is what I have learned about America up to this point, and I am sure there is more to learn.
This has been Arab Essays – personal insights into America from a number of Arab journalism students studying mass media this summer at WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.