The Flavor of Cultures

by Weam Namou

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Originally, years and years ago, all I wanted to do was write books. My design changed one day in the mid-1990s when I realized the extent of stereotyping that exists in the West regarding the Middle East in general and the women of that region in particular.

I was on transit at Heathrow Airport when I entered a bookstore and saw a rack of novels about Middle Eastern women written by western authors. Each front cover showed a veiled woman in distress and on the back, a synopsis told of her attempts to flee from an abusive husband, father or brother. I was disturbed that that was the only type of lifestyle displayed for the public, since I didn’t personally know a woman, not in America or the Middle East, who lived under such circumstances – although I realized they did exist everywhere.

When I returned to America, I searched for books, articles and movies that depicted stories with either influential or simply everyday Middle Easterners, stories that portrayed the healthier or more realistic part of the Arab world. There were hardly any out there, especially not when it came to the women. From that point on I was determined to write nothing but true life stories and reports of the people and culture from that region.

Stereotypical representations of Middle Easterners and Muslims have manifested in society’s media, literature, theatre and other creative expressions. They often have real repercussions for Americans of Middle Eastern descent and Muslims in daily interactions and in current events. Though not legally prohibited, stereotyping could put innocent people in danger.

False ethnic stereotypes can gain acceptance as fact through frequent repetition and could cause stereotype threat. Stereotype threat was first articulated and documented by the social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who have conducted studies on this topic. In one of these, Steele and Aronson administered a test in 1995 known as the Graduate Record Examination to white and African-American students.

Half of each group was told that their ability was being measured, while the other half thought the test was not measuring their ability. The white students performed almost equally in the two conditions of the experiment. African-Americans, in contrast, performed far worse than they otherwise would have when they were told their intelligence was being measured. The researchers concluded this was because stereotype threat made the students anxious about confirming the stereotype regarding African American IQ. They found that the difference was even more noticeable when race was emphasized.

The negative images I saw in Heathrow airport’s airport have become a reality. Twenty years later, women in the Middle East are more oppressed now than they were at that time. And has the publishing industry changed much? Not really. Today there are some 30,000 books about Iraq, but there are less than a dozen Iraqi-American authors, and they are mostly poets. This is despite the fact that the U.S. has been involved with Iraq for over a hundred years. Since 2003, lifelong contracts have been signed with this country and almost 100,000 Iraqis have fled to the U.S. And now with ISIS having popped up, a new political relationship has been formed.

Hopefully, my third novel, The Flavor of Cultures, which was just published will help put a little weight on the empty side of the scale.

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