Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts is an attempt by Samar Dahmash-Jarrah to create a bridge of communication between the Arab world and the Western world. It consists of a series of different Arabs answering in their own little chapter/interview, questions posed by Americans which concern religion, politics, society and common misconceptions.
It is a fascinating array of Arabs who range from a business executive in Cairo to a hair stylist in Amman, a student, an engineer, a preacher, professor, and an attorney. While it is a mix of Christians and Muslims answering different questions posed to them, all in a casual narrative form so you never actually read the question posed, the views are quite different. Most of these differences revolve around Islam and religion in general. Some see it as a social entity, others see it as an individual belief or practice. Some of those interviewed are practicing Muslims, others are not. So it does take a bite out of the current situation in the Arab world.
Another fascinating thing about the interviews is that no matter who is being interviewed, what their education or background is or where they come from, they all agree on the most essential things when it comes to the Middle East and events that have thrown the region in to a deadly spiral since 9/11. For example, everyone agrees that Osama Bin Laden does not represent Islam, and some go as far as to call him a myth designed by the U.S. Another example is that of Palestine. Everyone in the book agrees that Palestine is occupied, Palestinians have the right to defend themselves and America’s bias towards Israel is the key source of anger amongst Arabs when it comes to America.
On another note, everyone agrees it is the American foreign policy and/or government which they hate and not it’s people, which was probably in answer to a common American question in the post 9/11 era of “why do they hate us?”.
While the book is essential for Americans and non-Arabs to read (and even memorize by heart if possible) I found it just as essential to read as an Arab and a Muslim. It reveals the variety of the Arab worldview and while you may find yourself in disagreement with many of those interviewed you are bound to find one or two whom you feel you relate to the most. You will also find that no one Arab, or indeed human being, can ever be completely agreeable in all matters, hence while I disagreed with many of the subjects in the book I did agree with one or two things that they said and more importantly, how they said it.
The book is a great insight into how Arabs think, what is important to them and how they see the world, especially post 9/11 when western-eastern dialogue has been shattered and Arabs and Muslims feel increasingly threatened.
I was personally proud of two specific subjects in the book. One was Ola, a 44 year old attorney in Amman who is a practicing and veiled Muslim but spends much of her time representing clients in Christian courts in Amman. What was most interesting about her was what she represented: the contradiction to all American views on the Arab world. That a woman who is religious and veiled is therefore without education and oppressed, whereas Ola represents success as a woman, a mother a wife and a moderate and tolerant Muslim. She also describes the system of law in Jordan and from this discussion an image of tolerance and co-existence between Christians and Muslims in Jordan is drawn. Three other Jordanians are also featured in the book.
The second subject would have to be 43 year old Khaled from Cairo who is a Muslim Preacher. His voice and lifestyle represents the most moderate version of Islam which I admired immensely just from the description of his life and how he lives it. He approaches subjects with wisdom and common sense throwing away all the rigid interpretations that allows no room for logic. Khaled’s knowledge of Islam is truly something to admire, especially the way he applies it to modern day life; as a Muslim I was overcome with the feeling of ‘this is what Islam is and how people should teach it and others should see it’, rather than (as Khaled points out) being bombarded on TV with images of Osama Bin Laden.
While the book was only recently released it is interesting to note that many things in it appear outdated and not by any fault of the author but rather the unpredictability of events in the Middle East. For example, there is talk about Jordan being very secure (which technically it still is despite the bombings last month) and the lack of political freedom for Kuwaiti women, who just last May were granted the right to vote.
“Arab Voices Speak”, can appeal to anyone and everyone interested in the Middle East despite one’s personal politics or religious beliefs. It is for once a voice that comes from the other side and a voice which is not that of politicians or ignorant clerics but rather an assortment of normal everyday Arabs. It does however stick to only Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait which may restrict the image that it represents the greater Arab society, especially since these countries tend to have more moderate voices compared to others in the region.
The underlying theme of the book, or rather the voice which resonates the loudest, is that of condemning terrorism. All those interviewed came out against terrorism and I suppose one of the central objectives of this book is to show the world that many Arabs, if not most, do condemn terrorism but are never given the chance to speak up because the media is uninterested in a point of view which is not extremist; which does not spur controversy.
You can read more about this theme in an article by the author published recently in the Middle East Times, entitled: Many Muslims ‘do’ condemn terrorism
Samar is also now a blogger, so you can check that out over here at arabvoicesspeak