“They say Arab-Americans are the new African-Americans,” Dean Obeidallah says a few minutes into his set on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour Special. The audience nods in acknowledgement. Indeed, Arab-Americans are now the minority of choice for racial profiling, discrimination and hate crimes in this country. But Obeidallah continues, “When I heard that expression, I was excited. I was like, â€˜Oh my God, we’re cool!’ Kids in Jersey are going to start acting â€˜Arab.’ They’ll be smelling like lamb, wearing gold chains and open shirts, detailing their cars to look like taxi cabs.”
Obeidallah’s joke is funny because it taps into something true about being America’s persecuted minority of the moment. Yes, it is a terrible curse, but with that dubious honor comes a certain cultural capital. With keffiyehs wrapped around the necks of hipsters coast to coast, one of the hottest bands of the moment going by the name Beirut, and Comedy Central snapping up shows like the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” and _The Watch List_, it seems like America’s pop-cultural tastebuds are primed for Middle Eastern flavors—for better or worse, it’s becoming cool to be Arab-American.
It is hard to deny that keffiyehs (a traditional headdress of Arab men, the checkered variety has been associated with Palestinian nationalism since the 1930s and the symbol was reinvigorated by Yasser Arafat 50 years later) are one of downtown’s favorite accessories these days. So much so that Urban Outfitters—the fast-moving giant that neatly packages fashion trends for the striving masses—has been selling them on their website and in their stores across America. Back in January, after vitriolic online criticism over its “anti-war woven scarf,” Urban Outfitters removed the item from its stores and released an apology: “Due to the sensitive nature of this item, we will no longer offer it for sale. We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.” But one month later, due to overwhelming demand, the scarves were back on the stores’ shelves.
The controversy was brought to bear mostly by Jewish, Muslim and Arab bloggers, frustrated that people were buying keffiyehs without understanding their complicated history and significance. To many Jews, the keffiyeh recalls decades of violence; to many Arabs and Muslims it is a symbol of pride and hope for the future of Palestine. The website KABOBfest, an online forum for Arab-Americans, posted this message about the keffiyeh’s commodification: “With a great deal of discomfort and a tad bit of pissed-off-ness, I regret to (re)inform the KABOB-o-sphere that Palestine has officially become a trend… That’s right folks, for a mere $20 (or 75.0127 Saudi Riyal) you too can jump on the socially stupid hipster-doofus bandwagon by rocking your very own â€˜Anti-War Woven Scarf!'” And on Jewschool, a popular Jewish blog, the site’s Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski wrote: “Every ignorant [keffiyeh] wearer (of which there will now be thousands) is a potential anti-Zionist convert, whether engaged by the pro-Israel camp or the pro-Palestinian camp.”
To be sure, most kids who sport the patterned scarf are more likely concerned with whether it goes with their oversized sunglasses and skin-tight leggings than with any political implications it may carry. Nevertheless, their attraction to the keffiyeh is actually spawned by the garment’s “whiff of danger,” according to Ted Swedenburg, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “The keffiyah is seen as a global symbol of resistance because of its association with the Palestinians. It’s not mainstream, which appeals to hipsters.”
May Alhassen, a contributor to KABOBfest, agrees. In American culture, she says, “Arab-Americans are now associated with terrorism, with resistance in the same way that African-Americans have been associated with â€˜gangstas’ and Italian-Americans with the mafia.” These groups “are cool or have the potential to be cool because the idea of them appeals to that rebel ethos, to that celebrated image of an American renegade cowboy.”
So it’s no surprise when Arab-American artists seek to tap into that rebel ethos. Iranian-American Maz Jobrani (Iranians are actually Persian not Arab, but few people make the distinction in this post-9/11 world) started a comedy show called “Arabian Nights” in 2000 (with comedians Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader), but changed the title to “Axis of Evil” after President Bush let loose that evocative phrase in his 2002 State of the Union address. After the name change—a self-conscious reframing of the project for a shifting cultural climate—the three comics saw more and more success. In 2005, they started the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” and a few months later Comedy Central offered the group a special, which first aired in March on the network.
It is perhaps more of a surprise when non-Arab- or Muslim-Americans tap into the new Arab cool. Zach Condon was a 19-year-old indie musician when he chose the name Beirut for his coming-out band two years ago. The band’s music shows no traces of Middle Eastern musical influence (its album Gulag Orkestar is heavily inspired by Balkan melodies and was recorded in Santa Fe, New Mexico) and Condon has never set foot in Lebanon. In a recent _New York_ Magazine interview, Condon explained why he chose the moniker: “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position… but it was such a catchy name.” Condon’s attempt to absorb the Middle East’s newly minted “dangerous chic” image has indeed helped him: With a hit album, a sold-out cross-country tour and a new album on the way later this year, his band is now the No. 1 Google search result for “Beirut.”
So what’s the harm of new forms of Arab- and Muslim-American identity mixing and mingling in American popular consciousness? Shouldn’t everybody’s identity find expression in the marketplace? Isn’t this just an extension of multiculturalism’s positive reach?
Dalia Ghanem might agree. Three years ago, she started _T-shirtat.com_, a company that creates and sells T-shirts with phrases like “Got Falafel?” or “Arab King” (which is in the style of the Burger King logo). “I noticed there was a T-shirt for every culture out there except Arab culture,” says Ghanem, who also works for a New York fashion company. A quick search through popular DIY T-shirt websites like Cafepress turns up thousands of Arab and Muslim-themed designs from hundreds of individual vendors and designers. They range from the religious (“Convert or die”) to the political (“What happens in Guantanamo stays in Guantanamo”) to the unoriginal (“I’m not late… I’m on Arab Standard Time”) to the mildly clever (“If you don’t ride a camel, you ain’t Shiite”). While more and more of these pop up each day—a testament to increasing demand and a growing eagerness to supply new designs—one wonders if something may be getting lost in translation.
“There is always a tendency to adopt the vernaculars of the oppressed for consumption,” says Dr. Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College and the coeditor of _The Edward Said Reader_ (Vintage, 2002). “The problem with that is it tends to evacuate all the theory from its subject. You can take a look at hip hop as a clear example. I think a clear line can be drawn from the civil rights movement to the black power movement to Public Enemy up to Jay-Z. At each moment it gets less political and more consumer-oriented.”
While companies like Urban Outfitters and record labels are grabbing hold of the current fascination with Middle-Eastern-flavored culture, the challenge for many young Middle Eastern American artists and entrepreneurs becomes capitalizing on the country’s newfound interest while striving to prove that there’s more to being Arab-American or Muslim-American than that fleeting aroma of exoticism.
“A lot of those people have been working on these projects since before September 11, 2001,” Professor Bayoumi points out. “But now there’s definitely more exposure. On one hand, that’s because popular culture is interested in consuming. But on the other hand, there’s an onslaught of misunderstanding to the point of demagoguery at times about what it means to be an Arab and a Muslim that comes out of Fox News and places much worse than that. And there’s a sense that [young Arab-Americans] are not going to be defined by the powers that be; they’re going to define themselves.” Past generations founded organizations like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Arab American Institute to protect and promote the image of their cultures, and secured high-paying and high-profile professional positions. But so many young Middle Eastern-Americans today are choosing the arts instead.
May Alhassen, certainly a part of this new generation, believes firmly that “the most political act for a member of an underrepresented group is to speak, to write, to be heard, to present a multi-dimensional picture of a person who is informed by his or her ethnic identity.”
Lisa Farjam, a native New Yorker, agrees. “I was meeting a growing number of artists who were tired of being generalized, exoticized, fetishized.” Farjam started the art and culture magazine _Bidoun_ in 2003 to “to bring together cultural expressions from a vast and nuanced region” and “fill one of the last remaining gaps in the magazine market: the cultural life of the Middle East and its Diaspora.” Before they found an outlet for their distinct cultural identities, many of the magazine’s contributors found themselves being included in group shows with titles like “Contemporary Art from the Islamic World.” “These artists were making work that did not reference religion or nationality, and those sorts of survey shows do no one justice,” says Farjam. Distributed internationally, the sleek, glossy quarterly is just as much for the jet-set art world as it is for the Middle Eastern-American community: The magazine is published in English (although its editors hope to soon offer translation), boasts full-page ads from top-tier art fairs and galleries around the world, and has featured interviews with well-known figures like Christopher Hitchens and downtown darlings such as Hisham Bharoocha. It’d be naÃ¯ve to expect a publishing monolith like CondÃ© Nast to come knocking at Bidoun‘s door, but the fact that 85-90 percent of the magazine’s U.S. readership is not of Middle-Eastern descent speaks to America’s voracious appetite for culture from the region.
Launched in January of this year, Comedy Central’s Web show _The Watch List_ is, according to its press release, “the first show ever released by a major American entertainment company starring all Middle Eastern-American comedians.” Featuring a cavalcade of comedians doing sets against a backdrop of a police booking photo, the web show has been an unprecedented hit. “They were shocked it got so much press,” Dean Obeidallah, one of the creators of the show and a founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, says of Comedy Central. “We had pitched it a year before, but they didn’t really believe us. Now they’re seriously considering a pilot for a prime- time series,” says Obeidallah who recently appeared on _The View_.
Despite the watering-down that can occur when an ethnic group finds itself at the cornerstone of cool, who can blame Arab-American artists for wanting to capitalize on this peculiar moment in American culture? A group that has long been invisible or marginalized from mainstream audiences, and, more recently, violently harassed and stereotyped by their fearful fellow citizens, they are working to give legs to the current surge of interest in all things Arab. A lot will depend on the artists themselves and whether they can resist the temptation to package their identities into easy-to-consume commodities, and continue to produce vibrant and nuanced expressions of their cultural identities. With a screen version of Iranian-American artist Marjane Satrapi’s _Persepolis_ graphic novel series premiering this summer and another film about Arab-Americans in Los Angeles starring Lebanese-American actor Tony Shaloub in the works, the future for Arab-American artists does look promising. Only time will tell whether or not Obeidallah gets his prime-time series, but who can blame him for dreaming?