Friday, June 22, 2012

Amin El Gamal breaking glass ceiling in TV media

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I interviewed Amin El Gamal this morning. What a breath of fresh air in a media world of darkness in this country. He's an actor, of Egyptian American heritage and he is starring in episode 5 of Aaron Sorkin's new HBO TV series The Newsroom which features actor Jeff Daniels.

Gamal is a role model for other American Arabs, breaking through the extremely thick glass ceiling that pushes American Arabs down when it comes to media, journalism, entertainment. From the standpoint of being American Arab, the term "Media" is a broad category that includes journalism, Hollywood movies, TV, broadcast and print news, and entertainment including stand up comedy. It defines how mainstream Americans view and understand, or not understand, Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East. It's not just how we are portrayed in the news media. It also includes how we are portrayed on television, in movies and in entertainment including stand up comedy. It even includes other aspects of expression that define us and mold our stereotype as Arabs.

I interviewed Gamal on my two radio shows, Radio Chicagoland last Sunday June 17 and this morning on Radio Baladi, Friday June 22.

I think Arabs have gone through two stages in media relations over the years and are now in a third stage. We started as outsiders. Our parents never encouraged us to become journalists or entertainers. It was considered disrespectful. Not honorable professions. They pushed us to be doctors and engineers, mainly, and even grocery store owners and business people. Journalism? Stand up comedy? TV and Hollywood film acting. As much as there was a lot of hoopla about Omar Sharif, when I was growing up, as one of the only Arabs to make it into mainstream Hollywood film, the fact was we didn't really like him. He wasn't a role model. And when he smooched with Barbara Streisand and kissed her, that was it. The community here and back home, where American Arabs are attached by an umbilical cord, we dropped him like a lead balloon.

The second stage was to recognize in the 1970s that the media, mainly the news media, influenced our lives so much as Arabs in American and in the Middle East. The way they misreported on us, libeled us, exaggerated our most negative traits and acts while ignoring all of the more important and more powerful contributions that Arab culture has and continues to make in this world, created an environment where were were oppressed. It contributed to the radicalization of our community -- only the extremists who didn't care how we were portrayed, would stand up and fight. The rest of the community acted like sheep. We complained about it but did nothing about it.

That's why I got into journalism in 1976, refusing to accept the system. Getting into the media in 1976 was not easy because I was viewed with disdain, like I was a traitor working in a journalism media industry and at a newspaper that libeled Arabs and Muslims almost on a daily basis. It was much like the first Arabs who tried to break into Hollywood film and acting. Almost everyone of them began by portraying a "terrorist" in movies that libeled the reality of Arab society and culture. It was difficult because many people would criticize me, the way they criticized Arabs actors who played terrorists in movies, saying that we were contributing to the continued demonization of Arabs.

But the truth is that those who refrained from entering the hated fields of journalism, movies, acting, were the real contributors to our demonization. Not participating was a major cause of the media's distortion and lies about Arabs. What we did was to get inside the belly of the media beast, be it in journalism as it was in my case working for an anti-Arab newspaper like the Southtown or later the Chicago Sun-Times, or other Arabs who entered the acting profession playing terrorists in the many movies. By becoming a part of the monster, we are now in positions to begin the process of changing the beats. We can change from inside, not from outside. We can become a part of that which we do not like or that which demonizes us and change things. Make it different. We can do from inside what we could never do from outside or on the sidelines where we became enemies, combatants and foes.

Amin El Gamal is working from the inside to change things and so are all of the Arabs and Muslims who have entered media professions that traditionally have been the source of the distortion and lies and negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the United States or in Hollywood.

Click here to listen to the Radio Chicagoland podcast of the interview with Amin El Gamal.

Click here to listen to the Radio Baladi podcast of the interview with Amin El Gamal.

-- Ray Hanania

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