An open letter to the Arab street

My name is Dave Francis, and I am a free-lance journalist living in Russia. I am an American, from St. Louis Missouri, and more recently from Houston Texas.

I write for several small, community style newspapers in the USA, and I want to present an informed view of your part of the world to the real America. These are newspapers read by average Americans. The people in Missouri, Iowa, Georgia, and other places in America that don’t make the news as often as New York or Los Angeles. It is the area we call the heartland of America. It is where the true spirit of my country resides. It is where the farmer’s farm, the factory workers work, and the families worry about their children’s futures. These small newspapers serve the small towns and cities in these communities. I am not talking about the New York Times here.

Like most Americans, I know almost nothing of the Arab world in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Besides that, I would guess that what I think I know is mainly wrong. The purpose of this letter is to open a dialogue.

When the average American thinks of the Arab world, before September 11th, we think of incredibly wealthy sheiks, living in an exotic wonderland. An odd mixture of Bedouins and Kings, Lear jets and camels trains. It seems a land of contrasts more vivid than anything we have ever experienced. Adding to our misunderstanding is that we don’t understand the demographics. To Americans, the huge masses of people living in the Middle East are Arabs. Be they Saudi’s, Egyptians, Lebanese, or Iranians, we think of them as one people. Now, I know that isn’t the case, but it is the perception that is widespread in America, and I am explaining that to you, so you can get a grasp of the lack of understanding that exists.

The hostility that America faced in Iran when the Shah was deposed was a shock to the average American. Most of us had no idea of the area, the players, or the problems, and we were shocked to find ourselves as players in the drama. We did then, and still do now, consider ourselves as innocents in that event, and to us it marked a turning point in American attitudes to the area. Our former feelings of benign curiosity quickly became a feeling of hostility. By our standards, the faces we saw on the news were hostile, irrational, and maniacal. We felt as though we were attacked for no reason, and the majority of the US was angry with the Iranians, and suspicious of anyone from the area. (Remember, most Americans thought of the Iranians as Arabs.)

In the last 20 years, the Arab world has been losing the public relations war with America. Today, when we think of Arabs, we think of mobs burning American flags, chanting ‘Death to America’ in the streets, and plotting to kill innocent civilians. The only news we see from the area is news about terrorism, and the people who are well known are people who have had conflicts with America. Khomeini, Khadaffi, Hussein, these are the leaders that Americans think of. The moderate Arab voice is not heard, the Arab voice friendly to America is silent, shouted down by the medias portrayal of crowds screaming for America’s destruction.

The truth of the matter is, many Americans don’t think bin Ladin is an anomaly. We believe that he is a hero to a large majority in the Arab world. We think his persona as the mass murderer of Americans is the secret ambition of millions of Arabs, and we don’t understand why. We certainly don’t imagine that we have done anything to warrant your hatred.

If this is the true face of the Arab world, the message is getting out loud and clear. If it isn’t an accurate portrayal, and I don’t think it is, a better understanding between my side of the world and yours would serve both sides well.

Please write to me. Tell me what you think of America, of Americans, and what you think can be done on both sides of the globe to ease the very dangerous tensions that exist.

Dave Francis is a 41 year old American journalist based in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he lives with his wife Lena and two of his four children.. He has written for journals in Russia, the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, The Canary Islands, and South Africa among others. He was a correspondent for La Opinion in Central America during some of the civil wars in the region. He currently writes primarily for InterVisa and Novosty Petersbourg, (St. Petersburg News), both in Russia. His column also appears in several journals in the USA, including Lincoln Daily News, Macon Area Online, along with many others.