After reporting for years from Beirut and Jerusalem for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman is now featured as that newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent and resident expert on the Middle East, his status enhanced by a cozy tennis court relationship with Secretary of State James Baker. An article in the Times of October 28, 1990, gives us some insight into Friedman’s thinking — and should make us worry even more about how elite policymakers and their buddies in the media think about the Middle East.

Friedman’s title — “A Dreamlike Landscape, A Dreamlike Reality” — just about says it all. Unlike the rational and straightforward US of A, Friedman asserts, the Middle East is a “land of circles within circles within circles,” a place where it is hard to distinguish reality from fantasy. As authority for this rather sweeping claim, Friedman cites Robert Strauss, a former Democratic Party boss and Carter administration envoy whose talent for double-talk and behind-the-scenes string pulling makes most Arab politicians look like amateurs. Friedman also throws in the usual quota of Arab proverbs, without which no American discussion of Arab politics would be complete. (How is it that we never hear American journalists or political scientists explaining George Bush’s desire to obliterate Iraq by citing that old proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine”? Or depicting Ollie North’s lying to Congress as simple compliance with that hoary dictum, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you”?)

As Friedman sees it, the real problem is that Arabs just don’t think like we do. The US tends to inject lofty principles into its foreign policy, while Arabs are motivated primarily by crude self-interest. Indeed, there is an unbridgeable cultural gap between the West and the Arab world. How does Friedman “prove” his case? He declares, with what we must assume is a straight face, that “the symbol of the West is the cross — full of sharp right angles that clearly begin and end. But the symbol of the Arab East is the crescent moon — a wide ambiguous arc, where there are curves, but no corners.“

The stupidity of reducing complex, heterogeneous and internally conflicted cultures to a pair of arbitrarily selected symbols is self-evident. But these Orientalist images, given prominence and authority in the New York Times, help shape the way many people in the US and elsewhere think about the Middle East and its peoples. They help, for example, make it possible for apparently sane and decent people to contemplate with equanimity the terror bombing of Baghdad, a city of 4 million men, women and children. After all, Friedman implies, this is a struggle that pits “us” (rational, principled, unambiguous) against “them” (irrational, possessors of a “bazaar mentality” who are always ready to sacrifice principle for expediency), and “we” have got to do what must be done.

Friedman has so far not been viciously bellicose, unlike some others at the Times. But by representing Arabs as fundamentally different from ourselves, as partaking of a completely different (and morally inferior) culture rather than of a common humanity, he helps prepare the ground for the warmongers and the racists.

In the course of his disquisition on Arab culture, Friedman notes that the Bush administration is short on trained Middle East experts with a command of Arabic. He acknowledges, however, that “speaking Arabic…and living in the region is no guarantee for understanding it.” One wishes he had taken that caveat to heart.

While we’re on the subject of Western clarity, principle and rectitude, one more item from the Times. As that newspaper’s editors are no doubt well aware, how a story is initially “framed” often shapes the way readers understand what happened, regardless of later corrections. Take, for example, the headline of the Times’ first story on the October 8, 1990 bloodshed at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem: “19 Arabs Killed in Battle with Jerusalem Police.” By using the passive voice and the word “battle,” the Times not only conveyed a sense of vagueness about who had killed whom, but subtly implied that perhaps, as in warfare, the killings were mutual and justifiable. By contrast, the headline of the Boston Globe’s front-page story was a lot closer to what actually happened: “Israeli Police Kill 19 Arabs in Clash Near Wailing Wall.”

The run-up to war in the Gulf apparently did not deprive people in the Middle East of their sense of humor. Two jokes that reached us recently, the first from Cairo and the second from Amman:

In the Egyptian press, one might find a restaurant review column entitled “What Is Your Opinion About The Food?” In Sudan, the column would be called “What is Food?” In Iraq, it would be called “What Is An Opinion?”

President Bush wanted a new suit. So he bought a piece of fine fabric and flew to Cairo to ask President Mubarak to have it made for him. “Sorry,” said the Egyptian president, “but you don’t have enough fabric here for a whole suit. At most we could make a jacket from it.” Frustrated, Bush went to see Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad. “I’m very sorry,” said Asad, “but there’s only enough fabric here for a pair of pants.” An annoyed Bush flew on to Riyadh, only to be told by King Fahd that there was barely enough fabric for a vest. Finally, in desperation, Bush went to Baghdad and asked Saddam Hussein to make him the suit. “No problem,” President Hussein said. “There’s plenty of fabric here, for the jacket, the vest and two pairs of pants.” An astonished Bush asked Saddam why Mubarak, Asad and Fahd had said there wasn’t enough fabric. “Ah,” Saddam replied, “that’s because they think you are very big, and we think you are very small.”

How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Al Miskin," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).
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