FOR ARAB-AMERICANS, listening to the national conversation about the Dubai ports deal was a painful experience — in large part because we were mostly excluded from the conversation. When Dubai Ports World unilaterally decided to end everyone’s misery by transferring operations to a “U.S. entity,” a great relief set in, with Arab-Americans pausing to reflect on this depressing chapter and what it meant for our already-dwindling chances of assimilation into American society.
It was time to reassess a failed policy of trying to curry favor with America through imitation. As’ad Abukhalil, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia and a political-science professor at Cal State Stanislaus, said: “Look at the Middle Eastern governments — no matter how subservient and submissive they are, Congress will still humiliate them.” He blamed the blackout of Arab-American voices partly on a lack of initiative by “Arab-American organizations” that “are not representative of Arab opinion” and are “at the service of Gulf regimes.”
Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee), charged ahead with an awareness campaign to shed light on racist rhetoric in media and government, fueled by an infamous comment from Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. (“I said I won’t do business with the devil and I won’t do business with Dubai.”) The organization received an onslaught of xenophobic hate mail in the days after the port story broke. She wishes the missing American voices of Navy officers and Homeland Security officials who had positive interactions with the Emirates could have been heard.
Given that Dubai represents a beacon of progress for the Arab world (some call it the “Monaco of the Middle East”), Arab-Americans were demoralized when their best candidate for American acceptance was rejected. “If the UAE can’t do it, what Arab country will be able to?” asked an Arab-American grad student studying Gulf relations at Georgetown. “If the role model of the region is not even given a fair chance, it’s a deterrent for other Middle Eastern countries.” He regretted the callous superficiality of the whole debate: “It became frustrating when you’re watching the news and facts about the UAE are jumbled,” he said. “Some parts of the U.S. still can’t differentiate between the UAE and Taliban-era Afghanistan.”
Other Arab-Americans found themselves in a familiar post-9/11 bewilderment, alienated by both wings of American politics. Will Youmans, a Palestinian-American hip-hop artist who also goes by the name Iron Sheikh, used a metaphor to describe just how low politicians could go, and the banal stakes involved in ganging up on a defenseless “enemy”: “It shows to me the truly sorry state of American politics: On the level of ideas, the contest is superficial. It is more like two cousins trying to get appointed head manager of the Wal-Mart. To get the position, they only need to win over the right people, but not present an intelligent program for making anything better.” In light of events, Iron Sheikh vows to “vote Green Party, always.”
Some Arab-American writers, like Newsweek’s Lorraine Ali, did once have faith in the Democratic Party: “I’m used to that kind of racism coming from right-wing conservative groups, but for Democrats to do that?” Her comment reminded me of a recent commute home one day after work, when I listened to all sides of KCRW’s Left, Right & Center align for seemingly the first time in condemning the deal. (Et tu, Arianna?) Lorraine tried to put a humorous spin on things: “We’re talked about like we’re not even in the room, and all of a sudden two people in the back of the party are saying ‘hey!’?”
She’ll remember the Dubai debacle as a “horrible chapter in Arab-American history,” a “turning point.” Why fear a deal with the most progressive country in the Arab world? “I’m sure we’d have a really nice, clean, modern, psychologically advanced port! I hear Dubai is safer and cleaner than many neighborhoods in America.” She starts talking about some of the more outlandish developments under construction, like artificial land masses: “We could have ports that look like lovely palm fronds,” she exclaims, in reference to The Palm, an artificial archipelago in the shape of a tree. “What’s wrong with this country?!” At the end of the day, Lorraine can only throw up her hands. “The whole thing makes me so pissed off I wanna move to Dubai. I know there’s no logic in that; it’s like a 14-year-old girl,” she says, before definitively making up her mind. “Fuck you! I’m going to Dubai!”