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Lost in Translation

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Photo credit: Communicator archive

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Written by: Communicator StaffDecember 11, 2015

Written by Bernadette Becker

Amid the national debate about Islam, terrorist threats and accepting refugees into the U.S., Farah Combs, Dr. Assem Nasr and Laila Salem offered their experiences and perspectives as Middle Eastern faculty members.

Middle Eastern Culture

“I honestly don’t look at myself as the minority, I just look at myself as a person,” said Combs, an Arabic professor at IPFW and an immigrant from Kuwait (although originally from Palestine). Combs explained that she feels such emphasis only serves to create more of a cultural divide.

There are many different perceptions about how life is in the Middle East, particularly for women. Combs said that even though her choice of dress is the same as she had in Kuwait, many people expect her to have dressed differently there.

American aversion is something Combs feels, although it was never something she would complain about or point out. One concrete example that she gave was that her dad would experience interrogation by American authorities whenever he came to visit because, “he fit the stereotype … very dark skinned, he has a mustache,” said Combs.
Eventually, he decided to stop coming to America.

Combs said that she understands the reasoning behind America being careful of who it lets into the country; however, she hopes people “know not to group all Muslims together with a group of terrorists.”

She believes ISIS is not representative of the Islamic faith.

“[ISIS has] hijacked the culture,” said another IPFW faculty member, Dr. Assem Nasr, a Lebanese immigrant and professor in the Department of Communication.

“How do human beings allow themselves to that point?” asked Nasr, thinking about the various recent acts of violence in Colorado, California and abroad.

Nasr came to the U.S. in 1997 and saw the cultural change after the 9/11 attacks. He lived in Washington, D.C., at the time and had people come to question him after the attacks.

“[You] always feel constantly watched for no particular reason,” Nasr said. “There should be a conversation rather than a series of accusations,” said Nasr.

Nasr elaborated that it is concerning to him that people are able to overgeneralize and stereotype Muslims.

He stated that ISIS is not an accurate representation of Islam based on his cultural knowledge and exposure to Islamic people in Lebanon and here in the U.S. What Nasr sees occurring in the U.S. media reminds him of the way other groups have been scapegoated throughout American history whether it be Irish, Italian, or Japanese Americans.

“How is it that we’re doing this all over again?” Nasr said.

Laila Salem is a current IPFW teaching assistant for Arabic classes and Fulbright Scholar from Yemen. The Fulbright Scholar Program is a competitive international scholarship exchange program, according to the Council for International Exchange of Scholars’ website. Salem was excited to come to America; however, when she was in Turkey with international students, she was warned by the other Fulbright scholars that Indiana was one of the most anti-Islamic places in America. Her experiences here proved otherwise.

“People are so kind and so good,” said Salem, who has had many positive interactions with people here.

She did receive many questions about Islam — specifically, regarding her traditional head covering, the hijab.

Salem elaborated that the hijab is a traditional cultural practice for some regions (though some countries enforce it for all women after they hit puberty). The hijab also has roots in reverence for God. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is often depicted with her head covered, too, explained Salem, who mentioned how the Qur’an has an entire book dedicated to Mary.

Moreover, Salem brought up that the Qur’an is often misunderstood as the violence it references was meant for a specific historical situation, not as a prescription for current Muslims. Just because one person makes bad choices, it is not indicative of the entire culture of a group, explained Salem, saying, “I don’t blame [the people who oppose ISIS]; we hate them, too.”

Combs, too, has seen people mock the Qur’an, a holy text in Islam, without hesitation. She explained that the violence referenced in the Qur’an was based on historical situations rather than mandates of the faith for today.

Salem emphasized that ISIS does not represent Arabs nor Muslims. Salem also explained that “Islam” is derived from the word “salam,” which means “peace,” and commented that it is nonsensical for a religion with the name of “peace” to be warlike.

Salem has noticed that generationally there are different responses to her hijab when she sees people in public while wearing her hijab. Older people are more likely to give odd looks, said Salem, noting that while no one will comment on it, she can feel the response. Young people are much more positive, she said.

Another difference Salem experienced is the professor-student dynamic in America. Arab culture usually proscribes a more formal separation of students and professors. In Yemen, one would never see a professor going out to coffee with students, she said.

One Translation Error: The Media

“The media is not doing the people here justice,” said Combs.

Combs elaborated that when she watches American media she feels it does not show every angle of the issues it covers, nor the reality of what people are going through in the Middle East. She also feels that it evokes outrages toward certain groups of people.

“I feel like the media, not people, values certain groups of people more than others,” said Combs, who cited that the day before the Paris attacks there was an attack in Lebanon, and around the same time there were attacks in Kenya and Beirut, but they did not get nearly the same publicity.

When tragic events occur by an Arab or Muslim,“you feel like you’re guilty by association because you’re from that part of the world,” said Combs, who elaborated that there should not be a sense of guilt since individuals have not done anything to deserve it.

Nasr alluded to the consistent message of U.S. media and Hollywood portraying Middle Eastern people as violent, rough and uneducated. He said that it is an Orientalist viewpoint (a stereotypical representation of Asia and the Middle East through the colonialist perspective), instead of just seeing people with the universal identity as human beings.
It appears that media professionals are unwilling to research and challenge the prevailing stereotypes, and “that’s dangerous,” according to Nasr.

Nasr believes that the American public is “not getting the truth or the extent of horrors” abroad because of agendas and how issues are framed in the media. This, he says, becomes “a double-barrelled gun” because American people are not only unaware of all the issues, but they are unable to understand what it is like to live in a war-torn country.

Nasr brought up the popular historical anecdote of how Marie Antoinette said, “let them eat cake,” to starving French people. Misinformation or lack of information precipitates egregious errors of judgment.

The American media has also left Laila Salem, a Fulbright Scholar from Yemen and current teaching assistant for Arabic classes, dissatisfied. She wonders why the media chooses not to show everything, or the truth of what is happening — could it be that the media tries not to scare people? Or is it that they hope the public does not see the clear picture? Mostly, Salem attributes the skewed media to politics.

Salem came to the U.S. in 2014 “excited for new experience[s]” during her one-year commitment at IPFW. Her trip changed drastically when her country was overtaken by a brutal civil war, and she was detained for an additional year because Yemen closed its borders* She was also surprised by how little the American media reported on the status or events of her country.

Faculty Encourages Education

Nasr noted that education is the remedy to cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations. He advocates that people think about other parts of the world and to be critical about what they hear in the media. Nasr feels through exposure to other cultures there is “further development of humanity,” stating that experiencing other cultures and value systems “breeds better understanding.”

Combs explained how it’s hard to read comments she sees in social media. Those remarks make her wonder:
“How many [Americans and Fort Wayne residents have] met an Arab person and actually sat down and talked to them?” asked Combs, especially hoping people talk to Middle Eastern people and experts about cultural and religious issues — before making judgments.

Intercultural conversation is the goal for Nasr. He hopes that people will investigate the truth regarding the history of Islam and the causes of violence.

As a solution to all the misinformation, Salem encourages people “go and sit with [Muslims and Middle Eastern people to get to] know them,” and to withhold judging people until time is spent with them.