The Impresarios Talk Back: Ahmad Berry and Nabeel Hamoud Explain What They Do
The trends I discuss above are recognized and widely criticized by the viewers of Ethnic Access, by CVI officials, and (oddly enough) by Arab media impresarios themselves. There is general agreement, for instance, that the shows on Ethnic Access are imitative, poorly made, cut to pieces by advertising, and insufficiently attuned to community life in America. “Everybody watches it,” a Palestinian friend responded when I asked him about Ethnic Access TV, “but nobody likes it. The Lebanese and Chaldeans feed us garbage. We eat it. There is nothing else.”
Such remarks are colored, quite obviously, by nationalist prejudice. Yet even among Lebanese immigrants, there is a strong tendency to describe the impresarios as sham operators (ghishshasheen); certainly the impresarios describe each other this way, and the accusations sting. In the second issue of Panorama, Berry responded by claiming the high ground for himself, loudly criticizing the “deceit and scamming” (al-kidhab wa-al-shatara) that infect the business community he serves. “The word of honor,” he complained in his editorial, is “a thing of the past” (Berry 1995b, 4).
In Arab Detroit media talk is morally charged. During my interviews with Berry and his principal rival, Nabeel Hamoud, producer of Sada al-‘Arab TV, I was struck by the idealistic, often judgmental language they used to describe their careers, their audience, and the constraints their audience imposes on their work. It was a surprisingly uniform idiom. When I asked Hamoud and Berry how they got into the TV business, for instance, neither said anything about learning to use a camera. They were eager, instead, to explain that they were litterateurs by nature and training. Nabeel Hamoud writes poetry, song lyrics, essays, and plays; Ahmad Berry does likewise. Both men called my attention to their college degrees, which were not in communications.
The point was clear: it is membership in the intellectual elite—not experience on the set or in the studio—that qualifies these men to “transmit” Arab culture, even if their efforts are focused on the somewhat plebeian medium of television. Both men present themselves as teachers who must educate an immigrant community that, in their eyes, is unsophisticated and ill prepared to compete in the “contest among nationalisms” (al-sira‘ bayn al-qawmiyyat) that defines identity in the modern age. Television is simply the most effective pedagogical tool available to them in Detroit. According to Hamoud,
The community, as Hamoud imagines it, is Arabic speaking. Its unity and strength are part of the unity and strength of the Arab people. The reality that is gradually taking shape before Hamoud’s eyes—that of an English-speaking Arab community that flourishes beyond and (in many ways) apart from the Arab world—is hard to confront. The TV impresarios, in their role as “educators,” are understandably averse to this Americanizing trend. When I asked Berry and Hamoud why they did not provide more English programming, they found the question unsettling. Did I really expect them to compete with American TV, with its superior variety, quality, and advertising revenues?
We [Lebanese in Dearborn] are from a rural background. Most of us do not like to read. The old people are illiterate. People from Bint Ijbayl or Tibnayn [villages in South Lebanon] don’t buy newspapers and books. They like images and sounds and music and singing. Television is the way to influence these people. That is why I created Sada al-‘Arab. It is the best way for me to serve my community. My message has been the same since I began in 1984: to make our Arab community always united and stronger. Media is like education. It never ends. As long as I’m capable, I will do this work. My responsibility is to the community and my own work and to provide better Arabic media for this community. Whoever has a talent, I would expect the same of him.
“If you want English programs, you can watch them anywhere,” Berry told me. “If you want Arabic shows, you watch the programs we produce. Arabic is what I offer my viewers. We have tried English programming in the past,…but in our experience, no one wants to watch English programs on Arabic Time TV. We are 95 percent Arabic, and I think it should stay that way.”
I suggested that Arabic is not the only link to the audience. Shared experiences in Detroit might also provide a basis on which to build a viewership, and much of that shared experience, especially among the young, the second- and third-generation immigrants, the U.S. educated, is conveyed in the English language. The English-speaking market is growing, I argued, and Arabic TV could benefit greatly by tapping into it. Nabeel Hamoud agreed that the dominance of English (and the ongoing loss of Arabic speakers) is a fact of life in Detroit, but he did not think it was right to exploit this trend, thereby speeding it along.
The Arab family in Dearborn stands as a metaphor for the Arab community in America; it can be held together by its commitment to a shared, ancestral language. The official ideology of the Arab media impresarios invariably upholds this nationalistic fusion of culture and language. For Berry and Hamoud, the loss of the Arabic-speaking market means, quite simply, the end of what they do.
The people in charge determine something like this. Sada al-‘Arab TV specifically is playing a great role in making the younger generation attracted to Arabic television. We have special shows for kids: cartoons, kiddie shows, educational shows. We concentrate on upbeat music from the Arab world, directed at teenagers. We also give the older generation some oldies from Egypt, like Umm Kulthum and ‘Abd al-Wahhab. So all members of the family have something in Arabic that is appropriate for their age.
Yet beneath the urgent appeals to cultural preservation, there are more practical reasons for the absence of English-language programming. First of all, the impresarios would have to produce this programming themselves, and (as we have already seen) they are slow to produce original programming of any kind.
“The TV networks in the Arab world,” Berry told me, “are supported by the government and advertising money from very big companies. Private ones. National ones. They can afford to produce serials and movies and news shows. I do not have this kind of support. I am one man.”
The financial argument seems compelling at first glance, but Hamoud attributed the dearth of locally produced programming to other causes. When I asked him if anyone had ever tried to put together a Lebanese-American soap opera based on daily life in Dearborn, he took a document out of his bottom desk drawer. It was a tattered copy of a script called “Jaliyatna al-‘aziza” (Our Dear Community). Hamoud wrote it several years ago, and he has not yet succeeded in producing it for television. The reasons for his failure are not financial; they are rooted, he explained, in the very nature of the diaspora community his play was designed to represent.
The moral universe Hamoud describes has been laid out for me countless times by Arab Detroiters, most of whom come from peasant backgrounds. It turns on a commonly felt sense of deficiency, a belief that Detroit’s Arab community is only a fragment of the Arab nation in its proper fullness. The best in Arab culture, says the common wisdom, is always found elsewhere. It flourishes under the patronage of the Arab states, which give their prestige and financial backing to a popular (yet properly sophisticated) culture that transcends the limits of peasant sensibilities.
I am reluctant to say this, but I must tell the truth. The Lebanese here are villagers. They are very conservative and religious. The sophisticated people do not come to Detroit, just the peasant people. And this means our community does not have enough talent to produce artistic programming. We lack writers and actors. I have seen this myself. I tried to produce “Our Dear Community,” but no one would come to rehearsals on time, and they all kept fighting for more money. This is the peasant way. I gave up. I could not tell the truth in my play because our people cannot hear criticism. Do you want to discuss the problem of drugs, or sex, or not respecting parents? The community will forbid you; they will say, “Why are you making us look bad? People in Lebanon will see this. The Americans will see this and say we are criminals.” And for us, acting is dirty work anyway. It is shameful. No family wants their sons or daughters to be actors. In Dearborn, everyone knows everyone. Everyone talks. So it is difficult to put real life on television.
This, in a nutshell, is Gellner’s model of nationalism, with its necessary relationship between nation making and the emergence of popular culture. Yet in Metro Detroit the Arabic-speaking mainstream is not held together and standardized by centralized agencies of the state. It exists between states and (to a surprising degree) beyond legal systems. In the absence of direct government control and investment, Detroit’s Arab media impresarios can finance their nationalizing projects through advertising alone, and this requires a symbiotic relationship with local businesses built on a parasitic relationship with the media products of Arab states.
There is something vaguely unsatisfying about this transnational relationship, for viewers, impresarios, and CVI officials alike. Each party suspects the others of impropriety or low standards. Yet all are willing to defend the status quo, since the Ethnic Access channel effectively turns a community into a market. It does so by appealing to the immigrant’s sense of distance from an original place. When the impresarios claim to be fostering “our language, our heritage, and our civilization” in Detroit, few accept the rhetoric at face value. Like the videocopies that show up on their TV programs, the Arab culture the impresarios advocate is a second- or third-order reproduction, a display of something that by all accounts lives “authentically” (and better) elsewhere. Popular culture in Detroit’s Arabic-speaking mainstream is marked, at every turn, by its vexed relationship with place: do we belong “here” or “there”? Hamid Naficy, reflecting on the exilic condition of the Iranian community in Los Angeles, suggests that questions like these are not easily answered:
All cultures are located in place and time. Exile culture is located at the intersection and in the interstices of other cultures. Exile discourse must therefore not only deal with the problem of location but also the continuing problematic of multiple locations.…Exilism is doomed to failure unless it is also rooted in some form of specificity and locality, even essentialism of some strategic sort. This distinguishes exile from other cultural expressions that are based on difference. Without such rootedness, exile discourse, like all other oppositional or alternative discourses, will be co-opted and commodified through defusion and diffusion. In the cultural domain, as in literature and film, specificity, locality, and detail are all. (1993, 2–3)
The Arabic-speaking mainstream in Detroit confronts the problem of location by imagining itself as a jaliya, a word that (in Detroit) is always incorrectly translated as “community.” It actually signifies something akin to “colony” or “ clave,” and it serves to position Arab Detroit between a larger society to which it naturally belongs (the Arab world) and a surrounding society to which it is external and alien (America). This model of the Arab community, which is dominant among newly arrived immigrants, sustains the twenty-two Arabic-language programs on Ethnic Access. It cannot sustain the identities of Arab Detroiters who no longer feel alien or external to American society, who express their alienation and externality in characteristically American terms, or who feel especially strange only in the company of newly arrived Arab immigrants. These individuals belong, by and large, to Arab Detroit’s English-speaking mainstream, and the popular culture they create is radically at odds with the goals of the Arab media impresarios.