Sunday, June 29, 2008

Obama's Young Supporters are Better than Him!

As the presidential election nears, Obama is going through the usual gyrations, twists and turns necessary to please as many voters as possible. In other words, with every passing day, he looks more and more like the off-the-shelf slimy politician that he claimed he is not. So, the candidate who claims to prefer diplomacy over conflict is suddenly ready to go "Nukular" against Iran on Israel's behest. More disturbing, is his response to Muslim-by-association campaign mounted by xenophobic, fear-mongering right wing opponents. Instead of facing the prejudice head on, he is in fact succumbing to it. To those who raise the question of his faith ad nauseaum, he could choose to tell them that the question is irrelevant. Instead, he dutifully repeats, that he is a church going Christian. Moreover, in our instant YouTube world, his campaign obsessively blocks any image or word that "taints" him with anything Muslim. To this end, they removed from camera range, two veiled supporters who were invited to his rally in Detroit and disinvited a Muslim congressman from attending another. And somehow, whereas right wing televisions commentators never forget to mention Obama's middle name, usually pronounced slowly and deliberately for emphasis, you will not see the name Hussein mentioned anywhere on Obama's own website.

It is refreshing then to see young Obama supports, not tied down by the older generation's built-in biases, informally adopting Hussein as their middle name as way of making an important point. It may seem gimmicky, but given the negative gut reaction the name engenders in a -not insignificant- portion of the American electorate, it is a bold and important point to make, one that should have been made by the candidate himself.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Syrian Hakeem in America

In 1986, life had become intolerable in Beirut. The Lebanese civil war, in one of its innumerable permutations had made life miserable. The future looked bleak and I had reached a crossroads in my professional life. I was a young physician who had long aspired to become a neurologist, the brain and its complexity having captured my imagination early in my university years. But there was no neurology training programs in Lebanon. Besides, even though I had spent years in Lebanon, as a Syrian, I would not be allowed to practice in Lebanon when my training was complete. It did not matter that I had lived longer in Lebanon than in Syria and that I cared for the place despite the fact that I would always be the -Syrian-neighbor that everyone loved to hate. I had little choice but to leave and jumped at the first chance I got for an internship in the United States.

America was a familiar place to me having spent my college years here several years before. Yet despite that, the transition was not easy. The calm, order and predictability of my new life in the U.S. was jarring after living seven years of chaos and civil war. There was a sense of guilt at having "abandoned", in a time of turmoil, a place I cared for. The professional transition was easier. My AUB training prepared me well for the way medicine is practiced in the United States. It also helped that most of the resident trainees at the community hospital I initially worked at were also AUB graduates and that we often, to the dismay of the medical director, conducted patient rounds in Arabic!

There were, needless to say, other challenges along the way that necessitated perseverance and a thick skin. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that of overcoming the label of being a foreign medical graduate. It is like a Scarlet letter sewn to your back that marks you as suspect as far as the quality of your training and your competence and you always have to work twice as hard to prove your worthiness. Over time, as you finish your training and prove your competence, the scarlet letter fades and you are finally accepted as an equal among your peers. Nevertheless, it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. Even now, long after my being a foreign medical graduate has ceased to matter, I bristle in anger at derogatory comments about foreign doctors. More than once, I heard the director of our training program, in my presence, grumbling that he might have to "settle" for a foreign medical graduate if he unable recruit an American graduate. Program directors would rather settle for a less competent American graduate than have the reputation of their training program sullied by the presence of a foreign medical graduate.

Another challenge for a foreign doctor is anticipating how your patients will respond to you. You are, after all, the doctor who looks different and has a funny name. In fact this turns out not to be much of a challenge. Most ordinary Americans could care less where you came from as long as they thought you competent and you treated them with respect. In many ways they were less biased than professional colleagues. Most of those who are curious enough to ask where I am from, look blankly when I tell them I was Syrian. You get responses like "I remember reading something about Damascus in the Bible" or from a patient who learned from the morning headline of trouble "over there" and kindly inquires "how is your family doing in Palestine?" despite my having told him that I was Syrian on several occasions. Few are not geographically challenged and handful are surprisingly well informed. One elderly man in his nineties would ask me at each visit about Assad the eye doctor. He thought that Bashar was a handsome man (?!!). Overtly hostile patients were few and far between. One such patient who was referred to me, launched into a tirade of insults on hearing my name when he called for an appointment. It took the secretary several calls before she convinced him that I am the right person to see. He looked at me suspiciously on his first visit, but I disarmed him by pretending not to know what transpired prior to the visit and treated him like any other patient.

America prides itself for being a land that rewards competence and hard work. I dare say that for me, and I suspect for most foreign born and trained doctors, this is largely true. Americans in positions of power are, by and large, capable of dissociating their personal biases and preferences from their professional lives. The chair of my department is a born again Christian with a very close-minded view of anyone not like him. Yet, I never felt that this fact ever figured in his assessment of the quality of my work or his willingness to promote me.

In the end, my experience as a hakeem in America had less to with my being Syrian and everything to do with my being a physician. As much as the patients I cared for over the years have provided me the experience that solidifies my medical competence, they have also provided me with even richer life experience. Illness is the great equalizer, it strips you of all that defines you as a healthy, functioning individual. It is in this naked and vulnerable state that a person comes to you for help and few human relationships are as intimate or as intense.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Genuflect and Kiss the Ring

Obama as with Clinton and McCain had to make the obligatory pilgrimmage to the annual AIPAC meeting if they want to have a chance at the presidency. The pandering is enough to make one nauseous. This satirical video from Jon Stewart's show says it all.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Rachel Ray is a television celebrity chef with an irritatingly spunky manner and an annoying voice. Today though, I just feel sorry for her. After she appeared in this Dunkin Donuts commercial wearing what seems to be -Gasp!!!- a kaffiyeh, all hell broke loose and Dunkin Donuts was forced to hastily retract the advertisement.

Why? Because various right-wing commentators accused the hapless Rachel of: wearing Jihadi chic, of promoting hate, of promoting Muslim extremism and terrorism of being insensitive to Israelis...Intifada...Palestinian terrorism... and on and on and on... All because of a scarf? and if you look closely, it is not even a Kaffiyeh.

Arabs and Muslims living in the United States for the past seven years have had to develop a thick skin. We are constantly bombarded with this type of ignorant garbage and it seems to be unrelenting as the years go by. Xenophobic hysteria was to be expected in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but not a single American has been killed on American soil since then because of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. In contrast, tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died since in retribution in ill-conceived and unnecessary wars. And yet, seven years on, the constant barrage of fear-mongering drivel continues.

As an Arab and a Muslim it hits you in the face everywhere you turn from newspapers, to the web, the radio and TV. Bookstore tables seem to always feature one or two new alarmist books about terrorism or Islamic extremism by self-proclaimed experts. Authors who cannot read a word of Arabic will expound confidently about fatwas, hadiths or the meaning of Koranic verses. And at
a time when the reverend Wright is excoriated about his politically incorrect speech about white people and the reverend Hagee is criticised about his anti-Jewish speech, no one blinks at the overtly xenophobic anti-Arab and anti-Muslim opinions that permeate all forms of media.

Sometimes I feel like I need to create a MEMRI in reverse. Let's call it AMRI (American Media Research Institute). MEMRI's purpose is to translate selections from the Arabic media to "expose" to the West its intolerant, hate-filled and anti-Western content. I propose doing the same by translating into Arabic the hate-filled, ignorant and Islamophobic content of American media. The difference is, whereas MEMRI has to dig deep into more obscure sources to get their juicy content, all AMRI has to do is turn on the TV, grab the closest newspaper or walk into a bookstore to find the incendiary material that it needs.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Off with his Headshots

I don't know much about Michel Suleiman except that he looks like a bland bureaucrat. Not that it is a bad thing, Lebanon could use some blandness right about now. However, with this story, I am seeing him in a whole new light. Imagine that, an Middle Eastern leader who is actually asking that pictures and posters of him be taken down!!! This is truly revolutionary. I hope our regions other kings, presidents for life, emirs and other self-annointed leaders take note; it is no about you but about the people you are supposed to serve.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Visitor: A Glimpse of Post 9/11 America

The Visitor is ostensibly a movie about the transformative power of a chance meeting between two very different individuals. Yet within this universal tale, the director, Tom McCarthy, also exposes the corrosive effects of the post 9/11 paranoia on certain aspects of American society. In this land of immigrants, empathy and fairness towards (most) immigrants has been replaced by cold antipathy and a place where fear, no matter how illogical, trumps human and civil rights as well as common decency. This hardening of attitudes is most palpably felt by those of the "wrong" faith or ethnicity.

Walter is an Anglo-Saxon, middle-aged college professor of global economics. He is the prototype of an American with a privileged existence. He is also a widower who is bored with the monotony of his life and work. On a trip to New York City for work, he finds Tarek, a young Syrian musician and Zeinab, his Senegalese girlfriend living in his apartment, rented to them illegally by a swindler. They apologize and get set to leave when Walter offers to let them stay until they can find a place of their own. During that time Walter befriends Tarek who teaches him to play the African drum. A failed piano player, Walter is taken by the joyful rhythm of the African drum.

When Tarek is arrested by overzealous transit cops and disappears into the bowels of the Kafkaesque post 9/11 privately run security detention facilities, Walter is introduced to a world from which he, as a privileged white native-born American, he was completely unaware of. Walter hires a lawyer to help Tarek. Within days, Tarek's mother, unable to reach him by phone, arrives at the door of Walter's apartment from Michigan. As they both seek Tarek's release, a romantic bond develops between the two. You will have to see the movie for the rest of the story.

This is a gem of a movie. There is nothing Hollywood about it. It is a human story, beautifully told in a slow, deliberate and realistic way. Closeup shots of the actors reveal every wrinkle on their faces making them all the more expressive. Best of all, the movie is, thankfully, free of Arab Hollywood stereotypes.

The acting is exceptional especially by the beautiful Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas (The Syrian Bride) who played Tarek's mother and Richard Jenkins who played Walter.