Interventions

Interventions is a feature in Middle East Report Online offering critical reviews of important Middle East-related books, films and other cultural production. Click here for past Interventions articles.

Never Too Soon to Say Goodbye to Hi

by Elliott Colla , Chris Toensing | published September 2003

Despite its deepening troubles in Iraq, the Bush administration maintains an audaciously upbeat outward mien. From George W. Bush’s macho landing on an aircraft carrier in May to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s victory lap around the Mesopotamian battlefields in September, the song Washington sings to the world strikes a chord of triumph. No matter that most people outside US borders, and some within, hear the sound of desperation in the American anthem of the studied positive attitude. If they do not want to bask alongside the US in the afterglow of hasty battle, they must not be listening very well. In the summer of 2003, the State Department began broadcasting a remix of this triumphalist tune in Arabic, in the form of a slickly produced magazine called Hi.

Hi is the latest joint venture developed by the State Department and media consultants, in this case the Washington-based Magazine Group, to “build bridges of communication” between Arabs and the United States. Described by its editors as a non-political, lifestyle magazine whose “target readership [are] Arab men and women aged 18 to 35,” Hi has become one of the most high-profile elements in the post-September 11 campaign of public diplomacy aimed at the Arab world.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Congress rushed to restore State Department public diplomacy funding slashed in the era of Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich. According to a September 2003 General Accounting Office report, public diplomacy monies for the Middle East have increased by 58 percent since 2001. The State Department hired former Madison Avenue executive Charlotte Beers (since departed) to design a comprehensive strategy for marketing the US in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and launched the Arabic-language Radio Sawa and the Farsi-language Radio Farda to beam American pop music and brief newscasts into Middle Eastern households.

According to long-standing theories in the field of public diplomacy, conflicts between the US and foreign countries can be greatly ameliorated if foreign populations can be made to see that Americans are people just like them -- hence the near exclusive focus of Hi magazine on cultural matters of “common interest” and its assiduous avoidance of topics on which the US government and Arab readers could be expected to differ. In its mission as cultural ambassador, Hi certainly has its work cut out for it, since Arabs know its cheery message coexists with another universe conjured up in Washington, that neo-conservative utopia where grateful Iraqi crowds were supposed to welcome foreign occupation with open arms, and where Iraq would magically morph into an American-style democracy within a matter of months. Even as this fictional world dissipated in the summer of 2003, Hi leaped onto Arab newsstands.

Spotlight on Sandboarding

With an initial budget of $4.1 million, Hi hopes to capture enough market share to become self-supporting through advertising. If the few companies who have purchased space so far are any indication, the magazine’s audience will remain restrictively small and privileged. It likes the daytime thrills of American-style water parks and the nighttime pleasures of Hotels Intercontinental, it craves fatty snack foods and prefers its chocolate Swiss, and most importantly, it is forever transferring its dollars via Western Express.

The elite character of the envisioned audience is signaled most clearly in the title of the magazine itself. As the editorial staff explains, “We decided upon the name Hi because of its connotations.... ‘Hi’ is a word for exchanging greetings between people, and thus is a starting point for conversation.” In recent years, the English word has in fact been integrated into colloquial Arabic in some cities, but it is a word that is more associated with the conspicuous consumption of young elites than with the lives of regular folks. This seeming orientation toward wealthy hipsters carries over into the editorial content. Hi magazine asks younger Arabs to dream of affluent American lifestyles -- and to shut off other brain functions.

The pages of the inaugural three issues of Hi have been so airy that its creators ought to have called it High magazine. Most of the glossy, Arabic-language monthly is filled with light-hearted articles on subjects like Internet dating, rock climbing and yoga, each concluding with lists of websites directing readers where to go for more information. In the July issue, author Robert La Franco writes of breathtaking sandboarding sessions in California, before quoting one stoked “duner” who crows, “The Middle East is the Disneyland of sandsurfing.” It seems that Hi’s editors actually imagine Arab youth living within a short distance of acres of pristine sand dunes, eagerly awaiting tips from California on how to enjoy them.

But the fluff is intentional, and as managing editor Fadel Lamen asserts, it is part of what makes Hi unique. “This is a lifestyle magazine,” Lamen says. “It’s a new phenomenon in the Arab world to do a lifestyle magazine that doesn’t touch on the political.” In a press release on March 19, the editors state the official line: “[Hi] will fill a niche between political news publications and glossy beauty and fashion magazines by offering cultural information about the United States not readily available in the Middle East. With its vibrant editorial and eye-catching format, we hope the magazine can serve as a springboard for greater dialogue and understanding between young Arab readers and young Americans.” The editors repeat this line in Arabic in the September issue, which opens with an unsigned letter to the editor (perhaps an amalgam of several) asking, “Why is Hi empty of political content?”

The spotlight on sandboarding, a pastime limited to a tiny subset of Western tourists in the Arab world, so soon in the magazine’s life span might beg the question of whether the editors are already exhausting the available grist for the mill of inter-cultural dialogue. The better question, however, is not whether there are enough innocuous lifestyle topics to round out the pages of Hi in perpetuity, but rather whether, as a whole, these topics are truly “non-political.” Not only is there is something profoundly political about the editors’ assertion that the magazine contains no politics, but Hi’s process of presenting its content as non-political involves a significant amount of repression and revision.

Sins of Omission

What is truly remarkable in Hi is what is left out. For instance, the feature story in the August issue, “Arab Music Invades the West,” describes the current synergy between Arab and Western pop artists. Such Arab stars as Shakira, Cheb Mami and Khaled are hailed as cultural ambassadors opening up American ears and minds. The article merely reels off a number of pop collaborations as if they have no context or consequences outside the immediate milieu of MTV. The story begins by highlighting one such collaboration, “We Want Peace,” sung by American Lenny Kravitz with help from Iraqi pop star Kadhim al-Sahir, Palestinian-American oud player Simon Shaheen and Lebanese tabla player Jimmy Haddad. With lyrics like “It’s time to get together, it’s time for the revolution,” and “In a war there is nothing to gain and so many people will die,” the song suggests that culture might have something to do with politics. Furthermore, it was richly provocative of Kravitz to choose an Iraqi collaborator on a song that hit the airwaves just as bombs were being dropped on Baghdad. But, in a magazine whose avowed message is non-political, such seemingly obvious connections are not drawn in the narrative. Rather, author Jonathan Lesser points out that American artists like Kravitz have found ways to use Arab melodies in their music, yielding a danceable fusion that goes beyond “East and West.” For Lesser, “the Arab beat has an unrestrained magic that creeps into your body. Your body can’t help but to move to it -- it’s like Latin music.”

Similarly, Lesser refers to the Palestinian-American oudist, Simon Shaheen, but not to his outspokenness on Palestinian issues. The article mentions Sting’s highly visible partnership with Cheb Mami, which included a rai-inflected joint appearance at the 2001 Super Bowl, but omits information pointing to the political undertones in their collaboration which partly account for their popularity among younger Arab and Arab-American audiences. For instance, in April 2001 Sting and Mami performed in Jordan at a benefit concert whose proceeds went, in part, to Palestinian victims of the current low-intensity war in the Occupied Territories. When Sting and Mami played the Pyramids in Egypt, they were both photographed wearing kaffiyyas -- again to symbolize their support for the Palestinian cause. But such oversights are exactly the point: in Hi, there are no serious political or even cultural implications to this emerging collaboration between Arab and Western artists. Arab music becomes a decoration that can be added to the tapestry of American pop culture without seriously reconfiguring it. In sum, the article presents little more than a list of token Arab artists “making it in the US,” a hit parade which seeks to show that Americans are tolerant and open to Arab culture.

No Politics Allowed

Indeed, the real challenge facing the Hi editors will not be to find material about Arab and American cultural collaborations. Rather, it will be how to ensure that the politics of such partnerships are kept out of the story. Here, the example of Hi’s July 2003 treatment of Palestinian-American Suheir Hammad’s participation in the Russell Simmons Def Jam Poetry Slam series on HBO is instructive. It is hard to imagine how one could blanch the politics from the work of a poet who, after the September 11 attacks, wrote such lines as: “one more person ask me if i knew the hijackers / one more motherfucker ask me what navy my brother is in / one more person assume they know me, or that i represent a people.” Yet, in its translation of Hammad’s poem, “exotic,” a translation which was not authorized by the poet or her agent, [1] Hi somehow manages to do so.

In a cry against the (white American) racial gaze that objectifies her, Hammad writes in English: “don’t wanna be your exotic / women everywhere are just like me.” But in Hi’s hands, the charged term “exotic” is transmogrified in Arabic to “farada,” a scarcely used term which means, roughly, “singular.” The above lines become: “I will not be that unique woman / The woman object of desire / All women might be my likenesses.” The translation as a whole is nonsensical, because it removes the context of US racism and racialized sexism spoken to by Hammad’s poem. Hi deletes -- without informing its readers -- more than half of the poem’s lines, such as those in which Hammad draws explicit connections between herself and a wide spectrum of women who share similar historical experiences with American and colonial racial stereotypes: “harem girl geisha doll banana picker / pom pom girl pum pum shorts coffee maker / town whore belly dancer private dancer / la malinche venus hottentot laundry girl.” In place of these lines, the Arabic version adds language so vague as to be meaningless, and more importantly, language that does not appear in Hammad’s original: “arise / fly me far away / from worldly things / and tangible things / that might lead us / to deviation or chaos / or estrangement.” By softening the tone of the poem and eliding, even rewriting, its forthright anti-racist, feminist politics, Hi attempts to present Hammad as just another pop Arab artist who is gaining popularity in the US. The charged racial context of her Arab-American poetry is literally whitewashed by scribes under the supervision of the State Department.

The omission of politics in Hi is generally more oblique. A splashy spread in the September edition, for instance, profiles Arab-American comedians who “are using humor to fight negative ideas and strengthen mutual understanding.” In the profiles, comedians such as Dean Obeidallah and Helen Maalik tell the interviewer how the September 11 attacks compelled them to address their Arab-American identity during performances, but there is no supporting detail to help readers judge if their comedy is effective. Obeidallah, who is half-Palestinian, says, “I haven’t lost my right to tell jokes about officials in the US government, even the president, just because of my Arab roots.” But Hi doesn’t let Obeidallah tell one of these jokes. Indeed, the best and most forthright illustrations of how the comedians’ humor might break down stereotypes -- excerpts from their actual comic routines -- are missing from the article. Only Egyptian-American Sherif Hidayet is given the microphone: “Arab TV broadcasts programs that might give a bad impression of American society, like the scandal-mongering ‘Jerry Springer Show’ or the real-crime show ‘Cops.’ In America, on the other hand, we also have a program that is great at showing negative images of Arabs -- the nightly news.” Oddly enough, some American audiences might interpret Hidayet’s crack to reinforce, rather than redress, ethnic stereotypes.

Distance Learning

Arab exchange students studying in the US are the subject of the centerpiece of the July issue of Hi. The article begins on a frankly Orientalist note: “It is said that the Egyptians are industrious, the Jordanians hospitable, the Saudis clever. The Moroccans are known for their richly diverse cuisine. The Syrians are distinguished by their ancient markets. And of course, one can’t ignore the Lebanese acumen for entertainment and tourism....” In fairness to the authors, the point of this assertion, despite its manifest superficiality and bad taste, is to assert that the US and Arab countries share something in common: diversity. It is not uncommon to hear Arabs making similar generalizations about other Arabs, though usually in the context of jokes. In this sense, Hi’s rhetoric seems like an attempt to adopt an authentic idiom, but the context makes it fall flat. To reduce diversity to such caricatures seems to mock the concept of tolerance which figures so crucially in the article that follows. It is an odd note on which to begin an article that, equally oddly, asserts that “America opens its doors wide to Arab students so that they can enjoy freedom of thought and gain from intellectual experiences.”

In an era when Attorney General John Ashcroft’s “special registration” program for non-citizen Arabs and Muslims is the subject of teach-ins, the life of Arab students on US campuses is presented as free of complications. One Lebanese student on a Fulbright scholarship says, “The Americans were really different from what I expected. People are very friendly. I had the impression that they were closed, but I found that they were interested in their neighbors and wanted to interact with them.” Nevertheless, she “had some real fears about people’s interactions with me. Most Americans don’t have a good impression about Lebanon.” But, the authors assure their readers, “She was happy to find that people were hungry for information about her country and wanted to learn about it.” A Yemeni student who was scheduled to arrive in the US on September 11, 2001 found his plane rerouted. In his profile, he says, “Americans are very tolerant, and can handle any ethnic or religious difference” and that he “was not anxious about the few who do not like foreigners.” Invited to speak on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, this student was impressed by his American hosts: “You found people really listening to you, wanting to know what you felt and what you think about these issues.” Another student who was the target of racial threats and hurled objects says, “For the most part, this behavior is the exception, not the rule.”

Arab-American and Muslim American organizations that tracked the post-September 11 backlash would concur with this student’s overall conclusion, though their reports also list numerous chilling examples of the “exceptional behavior,” sobering details that are absent from the Hi story. But it would be wrong to be disappointed that Hi does not deal in greater depth with the more difficult aspects of Arab student life in the US, because that is not the point of the magazine. Rather, the article tries to argue that the US is a hospitable place for Arab elites to study. Again, this message involves a bit of whitewashing. For example, to paint US universities as a popular destination, the authors present statistics showing that the number of Arab students in the US rose 21 percent between the academic years 1997-1998 and 2001-2002. This seems impressive until one considers a November 2002 study by the Arab American Institute (AAI), which found dramatic drops (56 percent for self-sponsored or company-sponsored students and 12 percent for state-sponsored students) in Arab enrollments in the academic year 2002-2003. AAI reported that a major reason for the declined enrollments was student concern that “delays caused by new visa procedures would make them ineligible to start their programs on time.”

The contradictions are not lost on Hi’s target audience. In the September issue, a reader, one Hussein from Cairo, asks the editors to explain why the magazine extolled the virtues of US campus life when it is so famously difficult for Arab students to acquire entry visas. (The editors promise that the October cover story will provide the explanation.) Meanwhile, to encourage Arab students to return, the Hi story in July offers a list of Internet resources for researching study at US universities. Another item describes the internship possibilities at American multinationals. No mention is made of the huge budget cuts throughout the public university systems of the country -- but again, such details would be off-message. Some readers of Hi might never even notice the changes on US campuses: In a follow-up piece published in the August issue, Hi reports on “distance learning” opportunities for Arab students, presumably those who would like a college degree from the US, but would rather skip the rigmarole of obtaining a visa.

“All About Dialogue”

Readers might finish an issue of Hi without appreciating the full extent of its sometimes subtle fiction, but it is hard to imagine them missing the patronizing tone. As the magazine’s editors have repeatedly asserted, what is innovative about Hi is that it beckons its readers to engage in dialogue. As Christopher Ross, special coordinator for public diplomacy at the State Department, told the press, “One of the most important features of this magazine is its emphasis on interactivity, on connections.... Wherever it’s possible, we have invited people to submit opinions, comments, recommendations, stories, questions about the US.... It is all about dialogue, through the magazine and the website.” (Corrective note to the editors: Since the 1870s, Arabic newspapers have regularly published letters to the editor.) To this end, the magazine has set up a website that posts (so far skimpy) readers’ comments. Within its pages, this invitation to dialogue is made in the form of a small box that follows each article.

It is in these boxes that the arrogant tenor of the Hi project comes through most clearly.

Surprisingly, the patronizing tone is not accidental, but rather the consequence of Hi’s understanding that its readers are immature. As Ross put it to the Washington Post, Hi is trying to “build a relationship with people who will be the future leaders of the Arab world. It’s good to get them in a dialogue while their opinions are not fully formed on matters large and small.”

Following an article on yoga, Hi asks: “What sort of yoga do you prefer?... Have you tried yoga? What are the popular forms of exercise in your country? Send us your answer to the magazine’s Internet address.... We will translate your contribution into English so that the American people can see it.” Alongside this invitation is a list of yoga styles -- Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, Hatha -- presented blithely as if Hi was being marketed to residents of Marin County. In another article, on the merits of the Atkins Diet, the editors ask: “Have you tried the Atkins Diet? Did you achieve your desired results? What were the difficulties you faced? Was it easy for you to avoid starches and sweets completely, so as to maintain the Atkins diet, or any other diet? Write to us...and we’ll publish your letter on our website.” Will the lack of mutual understanding between Arabs and Americans be remedied by dialogue on dieting? Ignoring this, the real question becomes: Why do the editors write in a style reminiscent of that used to speak to American pre-teen children? Condescension in fact riddles the pages of the magazine.

From its first issue, Hi has attempted to get conversation going between young American men and women and their counterparts in the Arab world. But, as the questions show, this conversation will not go very far. In a section entitled, “Questions from America,” Sarah from Morgan Hill, California, aged 26, asks readers in the Arab world: “Do you get American television programs like ‘Friends’? If yes, which is the most popular character? (Personally, I love Chandler).” On the letters page of the September issue, a Jordanian named Tariq replies that he prefers Joey and Phoebe. Tom, 31, asks from San Francisco: “Is there any encouragement for students to complete their university studies outside their country of origin?” Meanwhile, in a section called, “Questions for America,” Muhammad 26, inquires from Amman: “Which is the coldest US state during winter?” From Beirut, Maya, 23, asks: “Where do the late-night comedy talk-shows get their material?” Yusra, 26, from Tunis asks: “Are there Internet sites that provide information on travel to American tourist landmarks like Hollywood and Disneyland?”

It is hard to believe these are the sole or most pressing questions on the minds of young Arabs and Americans, but in the universe of Hi, these are not just the most important topics of conversation, they are the only topics of conversation. The kind of dialogue offered by Hi is one where all substance, and especially all politics is avoided -- except as regards issues which have no bearing on the Arab world. In seven words that capture this dynamic perfectly, large-point type on the cover of the September issue screams “Conflict.” Then in smaller type, the headline continues: “over dividing the waters of the Colorado river.”

Conquering with Culture

In a sort of manifesto published in July, the Hi editors claim they want to correct celebrity-driven images of the US by introducing Arabs to “those millions of Americans who labor from dawn to dusk in the factory,” not to mention “the fathers and mothers who take their kids to soccer games.” But working-class Americans have yet to feature very prominently in the pages of Hi; despite its populist rhetoric, it remains focused on repackaging the images of celebrity Americans. Tony Shalhoub speaks of his experiences as a Lebanese-American in Hollywood. Lebanese-American Rony Seikaly tells readers about his years in the National Basketball Association. Another item focuses on the Sundance Film Festival, and still a fourth features six celebrity chefs and their outrageously delicious culinary creations. One exception to this rule is a story on US Latinos, entitled “Many Ethnicities: One Country.” Yet, even as it enumerates the social and economic hardships faced by many Latinos, the article cannot resist paying undue attention to Tito Fuentes and Jennifer Lopez. To be sure, this editorial strategy conveys something true about the middle-class American sensibility promoted by mainstream corporate culture: an America in which nearly everyone is affluent or has the opportunity to be affluent, and in which lifestyle and consumption habits are more important than ideas or politics.

Perhaps some will be tempted to dismiss Hi’s embrace of commercial pop culture, its two-dimensional boosterism about American life and its reluctance to engage meaningfully with the substance of American politics, whether at home or abroad, as the spawn of evanescent right-wing dominance. But the magazine is the brainchild of the State Department, supposedly the most sensitive organ of the foreign policy apparatus. Moreover, in many ways, Hi embodies key tenets of theories of public diplomacy espoused by the centrist core of the foreign policy establishment.

An influential paper published in July 2002 by the Council on Foreign Relations calls for massively increased expenditures on public diplomacy. Chief among its recommendations is that these efforts “increase customized, ‘two-way’ dialogue, as contrasted to conventional one-way, ‘push-down’ mass communications, including an engagement approach that involves listening, dialogue and debate.” The paper also recommends greater involvement of the private sector in selling US policies abroad, even the creation of a Corporation for Public Diplomacy. Most importantly, however, the Council’s authors argue that to increase foreign “receptivity” to US policies, “we should find ways to tie them more closely to our cultural values, including the nation’s democratic tradition and extraordinary capacity for self-criticism and self-correction. Values that should be highlighted include strength of family, religious faith, expansive social safety nets, volunteerism, freedom of expression [and] the universal reach of education.” If the bipartisan consensus at the heart of American foreign policy thinking believes that US social safety nets are “expansive” and US education “universal,” and that skeptical foreigners can be won over by “cultural values,” it is no surprise that the editors of Hi believe these things as well.

The pages of Hi read as if the State Department’s public diplomacy team has realized the futility of their self-appointed task to help Arabs understand US foreign policy and encourage a meaningful exchange of ideas. In its present form, Hi suggests to its target readership that the US administration has no substantive reply to sincere questions about US policy, nor even to adult questions about US society and culture. At a time when the US really ought to be engaging in frank dialogue and genuine debate about ideas with people from the Middle East, it is hard to imagine Hi failing more spectacularly. There are no ideas in the pages of Hi and the terms of its “dialogue” are ones that grown-up readers will resent.

Not Up for Discussion

A dubious truism advanced by American commentators these days is that the Arab press is moribund and censorious, if not brimming with hateful incitement. While aspects of this pronouncement are true, it has been puffed up by journalists like Thomas Friedman, and the pro-Israel translation project Middle East Media Research Institute, to the point where it is now accepted wholesale by people who do not know Arabic, but think they have access to the total range of opinion expressed in Arab media. In this atmosphere, the State Department may honestly believe that its lifestyle magazine fills a void in the Arab world.

But in its many failings, Hi is not particularly unique or innovative: it is only the latest in a series of public relations drives to divert attention away from the conflicts exacerbated, if not fostered, by US policies in the Middle East. Again, the words of the Council on Foreign Relations paper are helpfully blunt. “Some of the animosity against America is related to serious policy issues. We cannot always make others happy with our policy choices, nor should we.... We should not leave the impression that all differences are resolvable or could be if we could be nicer or more empathetic.” Exhibit A in the Council’s report is US support for Israel, which the authors contend can be better explained to the world with reference to the constraints imposed on Washington by democratically expressed domestic opinion. Public diplomacy, the Council avers, “does not mean that the US should change policies in order to make them easier to sell.” Hi reflects this mentality with its implicit message that, while sandboarding and yoga are up for discussion, US Middle East policy is not.

Should they return to the drawing board, the public diplomacy mandarins might recall how the Egyptian historian al-Jabarti reacted to the French occupation of his country in 1798 by trying to read what the French proclamations actually said. The French Directorate, like the Bush White House today, understood it was on a mission to bring enlightenment to a barbaric world. Napoleon, like the State Department, hired a group of Arabs and Arabists who would translate a series of pronouncements designed to quiet the natives through public relations. What Napoleon’s printers hadn’t appreciated was the extent to which Arabic literary style rested on the study of correct grammar and the appropriateness of discourse to the audience addressed. In the end, few if any Egyptians were convinced of the chief French proclamation which announced, in infelicitous Arabic style, that they had come to liberate them by the sword.

Al-Jabarti’s critique showed that Napoleon’s proclamation was not just filled with lies, but was in the end incomprehensible as a gesture of cultural communication. Certainly, there are important differences between Napoleon’s proclamations and the unctuous Hi echoing from Foggy Bottom. Yet both expose, for Arabic reading publics, a spirit of arrogance and disingenuousness that is remarkably similar. If al-Jabarti were here today to read Hi, he might say that the evangelical bloody-mindedness of imperial power has changed little in 200 years.

Endnote

[1] Contacted for comment, Hi staff said they had run a translated “excerpt” from the poem without contacting Suheir Hammad or her agent on the grounds that the English poem is “in the public domain” on the Internet and that “fair use” policies allow them to quote the poem because “it is part of a longer presentation.” In the printed magazine, the Arabic version is not identified as an excerpt, but as the “poem of the month” (qasidat al-shahr). Hammad is accurately identified underneath the translation as “a political and social activist focused on issues of discrimination, domestic violence and women’s rights.”

Filed under: