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How to Write about the Middle East

March 1, 2010

Based on the brilliant article ‘How to Write about Africa‘.

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Some tips: sheikhs and suicide bombings are good.

Always use the word ‘Sand’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Whispers’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Islam’, ‘Jihad’, ‘Desert’, ‘Dawn’, ‘Struggle’, ‘Oil’, ‘Orient’, ‘Arabia’, ‘Calling’, ‘Veil’, ‘Allah’ or ‘Anger’. Also useful are words such as ‘Terrorists’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that you must always refer to Arab people as the “Arab Street”.

If you must include an Arab, make sure you get one in a veil or burning an American or Israeli flag. Under no circumstances should you have a picture of a well-adjusted Arab on the cover of your book, or in it; sometimes you may make mention of certain well-rounded Arabs, but only to highlight their differences with the West. Suicide belts, an AK 47, a mosque, the desert: use these.

In your text, treat the Middle East as if it were one country, and constantly refer to it as ‘Arabia’ or ‘The Muslim World’. It is hot and dusty with rolling sand dunes and huge herds of camels, because they are the only animals that are strong enough to live in such a harsh climate. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. The Middle East is big: twenty-two countries and 300 million people who are too busy fighting and dying and warring and bombing themselves to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, forests, highlands and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions mysterious and exotic and unparticular. Also, make sure that you mention that Turkey, Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan are not Arab countries, but then continue to refer to them as if they were. Because, although you are worldly and realize the differences, they all sort of look the same so it doesn’t matter.

Make sure you show how Arabs are completely different from the West, and do things no other humans do. Do not mention music, television or bars; the mosque is an Arab’s entertainment of choice, along with jihad, war, tribal meetings, issuing fatwas, gutting sheep, cutting off limbs, and having arguments about the inferiority of women. Make sure you show that you are able to partake in such acts without flinching, and describe how you learn to understand this perspective—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Arabs (unless honor killing is involved), references to Arabs having fun, references to Arabs not hating the West, mention of school-going children who have no intention of blowing themselves up. Make no mention of Christian Arabs, Jewish Arabs, black Arabs, or blonde Arabs. All Arabs are Muslim, and all Arabs are dark (but not too dark).

You may show Arabs partaking in everyday life, but always sound slightly astonished at how they can cook, clean, and sometimes (but rarely) laugh, given their strict Islamic tradition. Make sure to mention that despite partaking in everyday actions, they do so under “the watchful eyes of the oppressive regime/father/mullah”. Also, any mention of school should also be accompanied with the topic of “madressas”. This is when you show the clip of faceless young Arab boys banging their head on the ground and chanting.

https://i0.wp.com/atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/images/fashion_burka_islam.jpgThroughout the book, you may adopt a bad Arabic accent, in conspiracy with the reader, or an angry, helpless tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you understand why all Arabs hate the West, how you sympathize with the repressed “Arab street”, despite their backwards nature. If you are a man, take it upon yourself to save the beautiful veiled woman from her oppressive society. If you are a woman, treat Arabia as a man who is oppressive, traditional, and yet strangely kind and caring. ‘Arabia’ is to be pitied, feared or liberated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, the “Arab Street” is doomed.

Your Arab characters may include young fundamentalist men, highly sexualized yet oppressed females, and devout Muslims. Or corrupt leaders, poor Bedouins, rich sheikhs, and harem prostitutes you have slept with. The devout Muslim’s goal must always be to reclaim Islam from the Fundamentalists, and makes constant references to the fact that ‘radical Islam is the exception not the rule’, so that your readers are clear that, like them, you are not anti-Islam. The Modern Arab is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about ‘Arabia’. He is an enemy of change, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Women Shelters. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing Islamist in an Armani suit. He is a cannibal who likes non-alcoholic Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich and veiled woman who runs a harem.

Among your characters you must always include The Hysterical Mother, who can’t speak any English and wanders the refugee camp slapping herself and screaming and cursing at the West. Her children are young fundamentalists, and she is shown weeping for fear that her sons will turn out to be suicide bombers. She must look utterly helpless, and snot must run down her nose. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and beautiful veiled woman who has a shy laugh and who is concerned for her country. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him or her look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he or she carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who has converted to Islam (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include the Bush administration, Western expats who molest women, employees of the World Bank, Tony Blair. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the US and the word “imperialism” repeatedly. Blame the West for Arabia’s situation. But please, do not be too specific.

Avoid having the Arab characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America. Arab characters should be mysterious, exotic, and traditional—but all must hate the West. It is the good Arabs that do not act on these feelings. Don’t try too hard to explain to your audience why they hate the West, because doing so would be racist towards their “Islamic civilization”. Accept the fact that you will be hated, and try and work through these feelings—but only with the good Arabs. A soundtrack of quick Arabic gibberish, and the call to prayer sound accompany the bad Arabs while they speak.

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Make sure to impress upon your readers how Arabia was nothing before oil, and will be nothing again when oil runs out. Don’t mention education or technology (mobiles will destroy the sense of endless rolling desert). These things are not relevant when discussing the Land of Arabia, only oil is. Every Arab must be described in national dress, with the phrase: “flowing white robes” or “immaculate white robes”. Don’t forget to impress upon your reader how immaculate and how dazzling white those robes are. Muse repeatedly on the amazing ability of the peoples of Arabia to keep their flowing white robes so dazzlingly white. The women of Arabia must always be described as “black veiled women” and always in the plural. Never “wife”; always “wives”. Every airport must have a scene where an Arabian man in flowing white robes is accompanied by several black-veiled wives.

Describe, in detail, the call to prayer (athan, loud, haunting, conservative, bombed) or smelly, dirty markets. Also, sex is very important, so go into detail about the differences in the ways Arabs have and think about sex. And naked bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially blown up naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable and angry will be referred to as the ‘real Arabia’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them be understood by the West. Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. This should be easy, as camels are the only animals that exist in the Middle East, other than scarabs and cockroaches.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the markets in Arabia. They are always loud and dirty. There is always someone who is spitting phlegm. Small, winding alleys and bazaars are critical—Arabia is the Land of Mystery and Exoticisim. Talk about the beauty of the rolling sand dunes and the geographical landscape, which continues to be beautiful despite the type of people that inhabit it. When your main character is in a desert living with indigenous peoples (anybody short and/or dirty) it is okay to mention that Arabia has been severely depopulated by War and Jihad (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Arabs, prostitutes, guerrillas and US military hang out.

Always end your book or movie with the athan resonating through an abandoned market place during sunset, calling everyone to prayer. Seriously, don’t forget the haunting wail of the azzan. Repeatedly. Because you care.

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50 Comments leave one →
  1. IKR! permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:31 am

    “Among your characters you must always include The Hysterical Mother, who can’t speak any English and wanders the refugee camp slapping herself and screaming and cursing at the West. Her children are young fundamentalists, and she is shown weeping for fear that her sons will turn out to be suicide bombers.” Brilliant!

  2. elmaryachi permalink
    March 1, 2010 1:06 pm

    “Make sure you show that you are able to partake in such acts without flinching, and describe how you learn to understand this perspective—because you care”.

    Brilliant!!

    As an Arab living in the west, I get to answer questions like “So your mother is not veiled?” and I’m supposed to take it as a compliment when I’m told that I don’t come across as Arab.

    What is more disturbing are Arab writers and “artists” and political analysts who subscribe to these very assumptions and build careers out of confirming western misconceptions about “Arabia”. All one has to do to be a a successful Arab artist in the west is to be of a perceived oppressed minority and speak of the atrocities he/she had to endure back home. This, somehow, automatically qualifies as great art.

    • Omar permalink
      December 29, 2011 6:34 pm

      Brilliant point about Artists

  3. Ma3n permalink
    March 1, 2010 1:14 pm

    I’m forwarding this to all the people at the office. Maybe they’ll stop asking me if my mom wears a veil, or if I’d be stoned to death upon going back home, because I had bacon for lunch.

    • Salahuddin permalink
      January 8, 2012 3:50 pm

      ahahaahahh im thinking of doing the same. always asking me dumb questions ( please excuse my graphic descriptions) as to whether women wear their veils while they have sex ( i dont really know how someone could think such a thing) or if the woman behind the veil is a faceless, and oppressed woman yearning to be freed.

  4. petitenemesis permalink*
    March 1, 2010 2:37 pm

    brilliantly written!

  5. Walid permalink
    March 3, 2010 3:06 pm

    Brilliant!

    But you neglected the arabs who’ve studied abroad, and the ones who are of mixed heritage.

    Hmmm I guse maladjusted sells and well-adjusted doesn’t… Now we know!
    Well done! 😀

  6. Munir permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:57 pm

    Pure and utter comic brilliance! Spot on!

  7. Rashid permalink
    March 9, 2010 7:36 am

    Very impressive…. Well written…..

  8. highly misinformed permalink
    March 17, 2010 1:57 pm

    just what is a “harem prostitute”? are you under the impression that “harems” exist somewhere? and i think you mean that the modern Muslim is the one who wants to reclaim Islam from the fundies, as the word devout is often used to connote fundamentalism as well. also, who is this fat visa office man? i have yet to hear of such a stereotype. (or a cannibal one) don’t just copy everything entirely from the Africa one!
    and how can the robes always be immaculate yet the people depicted filthily? where has been depopulated?
    a little more work on your satire.

    • sysh permalink*
      March 19, 2010 2:54 pm

      This isn’t meant to be a standalone piece. It’s as much an homage to the original article as it is a critique of contemporary representations of the Middle East. Thanks for reading though 🙂

      sysh x

  9. the show permalink
    March 18, 2010 11:27 pm

    This needed to have been written, but I wish you hadn’t used the exact same form as Wainaina.

    • sysh permalink*
      March 19, 2010 2:51 pm

      I think you’re right. I wrote this years ago actually. I just remember reading the initial piece and felt it incapsulated the frustrations I felt as an Arab when reading material on the Middle East written by the West. And I loved the style. So me and a bunch of friends decided to copy the style but Middle East specific stuff to it. I think it probably could be better done if it was a stand alone piece, but I see this piece as much an homage to Wainaina as a critique of contemporary representations of the Middle East. Thanks for reading though 🙂

      sysh x

  10. March 25, 2010 3:39 am

    I liked this very much 🙂

  11. SOULCHIIIILD permalink
    March 25, 2010 4:37 pm

    Iam speechless. this is brilliant. Will they make a movie of this book.

  12. boobeez permalink
    March 28, 2010 5:27 am

    brilliant.

  13. October 28, 2010 7:11 pm

    government jobs are still the best when it comes to job security *-;

  14. mikayel permalink
    December 15, 2010 2:13 pm

    SUCH ABITCH! arabs are not like that and you must be a big bitch to actually talk about them this way and encourge people to write about them this way!, I didn’t finish the article and not intending to but all I can say is shame on you and on all of the arabs who liked this article!. I’m an arab living in an arab country and BELIEVE ME we’re more open minded and civilized than your countries and if you hate us this much why keep on talking about us?!, plus, stop attacking religion cuz God won’t leave you alone and you will pay for this soon!, constipated BITCH go get laid!

    • sysh permalink*
      December 15, 2010 4:44 pm

      Dear Mikayel,

      Are you familiar with sarcasm? Or more precisely, are you familiar with irony? I’ve attached the definition below, perhaps you should read through the entire article before going responding. Thanks for reading.

      sysh.

      i·ro·ny (r-n, r-)
      n. pl. i·ro·nies
      1.
      a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
      b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
      c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect. See Synonyms at wit1.
      2.
      a. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs: “Hyde noted the irony of Ireland’s copying the nation she most hated” (Richard Kain).
      b. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity. See Usage Note at ironic.
      3. Dramatic irony.
      4. Socratic irony.

    • January 6, 2012 8:46 am

      Calm your tits please, I myself ‘am an Arab’ as well, not that it matters, you don’t need to be to find this hilarious. Please don’t jump to conclusions and at least have the decency to confirm something before insulting and defending something you needn’t defend in the first place.

    • agava permalink
      January 10, 2012 8:56 pm

      Mikayel, lack of a sense of humor will kill you one day…

    • Mia Amélie permalink
      February 6, 2012 3:25 pm

      She was mocking the people who actually believe in these stereotypes. The author actually agrees with you! She was imitating bigoted beliefs about “Arabia” to express a frustration with these ignorant generalizations. Give the article another try. It’s satire!

  15. January 24, 2011 5:53 pm

    ,;` I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information -*~

  16. July 4, 2011 10:46 am

    kim kardashian mtv,

  17. August 12, 2011 3:05 am

    good information, I’ll read though it again

  18. RAMI permalink
    December 6, 2011 12:34 pm

    a poor article from one side , a lot of conflict and for sure he got to write a very typical image , which it doenst have a realy refliction for the realistic situation , so i can say it is not realy usefull 🙂 🙂 ,,,

    • January 8, 2012 7:47 pm

      Umm, I think you didn’t get it. See the definition of irony a few comments up…

  19. chris permalink
    December 7, 2011 4:28 pm

    loved this blog! I have lived in the middle east so very long, and try to explain .. you did it with irony and style! thank you.

  20. Forbetterinformationflow permalink
    December 8, 2011 2:45 pm

    Haha so true, It’s exactly that…. Either Arabs are portrayed as the helpless victims, which leave in the Middle Ages but must be saved, or evil terrorists… Quite exhausting to make people understand, that no your family is not religious, no you are not oppressed as a woman by your family, etc…

  21. December 14, 2011 8:08 pm

    This is so horribly true it made me laugh and want to cry at the same time. Well done!

  22. December 14, 2011 9:22 pm

    Awesome! As a White Christian American, I’m so used to the horrible stereotypes. I appreciate any stereotype popping, especially if it’s done so wryly.

  23. Binyavanga Wainaina permalink
    December 25, 2011 4:36 am

    i wish you would have had the courtesy to credit my original work which u have copied here.

    http://www.granta.com/Magazine/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1

    Binyavanga Wainaina

    • the sish permalink*
      December 25, 2011 8:24 am

      Erm, we did. Right at the very top of the article, just under the title.

  24. December 26, 2011 2:59 pm

    Brilliant piece! Do you mind if I translate it for my blog? I would link to the source 🙂

  25. safiyah permalink
    December 27, 2011 8:39 pm

    I don’t quite understand, are Arabs all NOT religious? Is it such an offence to say that an Arab may be religious? I know many religious Arabs, they wear a weil like many Malay, Turkish, Pakistanis, I know Mexican, Italian, Sweidish Muslims who were veils and I don’t quite understand why is it taken as such a bad stereotype. According to me, but this is just my very modest opinion, you fall in the trap of the Western mentality to consider everything about religion bad, even if you are an Arab Christian or Jew. Nothing wrong with people religious and this is the type of propaganda that wants everyone to dislike religion and its regulations. If someone wants to eat kosher or halal meat and doesn’t want to eat bacon and is an Arab, then that’s not a stereotype cos there’s millions of people like this and if you don’t follow into that category cos u don’t want to follow any particular religion then don’t call others who do as stereotypical, making satirical fun out of people who may come from a simila region as your. I understand that it can be frustrating to see others writing about “Arabs” making generalisations that do not represent you, but making fun out of religious people which are generelly a reality in the Middle East is like denying that Italians eat a lot of pasta and pizza. May be a stereotype, may annoy you if you were italian to be asked so “do u eat pizza all the time” but at the end of the day you personally may not eat pasta and pizza so often but the realities is that lots of Italians (majority Maybe) do. Hope not to have offended. Take care now

    • December 27, 2011 8:56 pm

      Hello Safiyah, precisely this article is about portraying muslims as they really are: people like you and me who live their lives and religion normally, not the empty stereotypes of backwards West-hating suicide terrorists depicted by many journalists.

  26. yeah, we know permalink
    December 31, 2011 11:54 pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism

  27. January 6, 2012 9:14 am

    Yes, these stereotypes do exist, hence giving them the basis of being stereotypes however- that is not what the point of the article is. It isn’t diminutizing women wearing veils, etc. It is simply pointing out that not every woman in the Middle East wears a veil, and that she needn’t necessarily be Muslim to do it. Same concept goes for all these stereotypes ‘All Arabs are hot-headed Muslim kill-joys that lack a sense of humor and tend to take everything in life too seriously, that the Middle East in its entirety is just this mass of desert terrain filled with uneducated, uncivilized, ill-willed, substandard ‘humans’ if they can even be called that. I need not go on, I think the article has made its point in quite a hilarious way.

  28. Jonathan permalink
    January 10, 2012 11:34 pm

    I think someone is wearing their feelings on their sleeve….

  29. Mia Amélie permalink
    February 6, 2012 3:29 pm

    This was brilliant. I may not be able to empathize with this on the same level as those subjected to this level of ignorant generalizations as an anglo-franco Canadian-American, but I certainly appreciate the satire and outrage of this piece. Beautifully executed!

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