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Volume 43, Number 6November/December 1992

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Arab-Americans on the Air

Written and photographed by Brian Clark

At four in the afternoon, every Saturday, at the Said Al-Asha home in suburban Los Angeles, everything stops. That's when the Arab-American Television program airs on Channel 18.

Family members cluster around the set and soak up local and international news, a feature on an Algerian musician and a short segment on a Saudi-born student who has won a prestigious Southern California design honor.

"My family waits for it," says Al-Asha, a Lebanese businessman who has lived in Los Angeles for 21 years. "We plan our lives around it. I would go so far as to say that we would be lost without this program. It really is super."

The Al-Asha family isn't alone in its attraction to what is known locally as AATV. The program started 10 years ago, the brainchild of Wahid Boctor, a former Egyptian architecture student and documentary-film maker; today, in addition to the Saturday show, Boctor also produces a daily cable program that airs in more than 300 localities around the United States on the International Channel.

Around the country, many other Arabic-language and Arab-American radio and television programs are equally popular -especially with more recent immigrants, says Faris Bouhafa, public affairs director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, D.C. In Detroit, promoters say "TV Orient" is watched by tens of thousands of Arab-Americans. Though different programs entirely, Chicago and Boston both have shows called "TV. Arabic Hour." And - in what is probably the most extensive Arabic-language programming in the United States - the Time-Warner Cable Network in the New York boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn broadcasts Arabic-language news, features and soap operas at least 10 hours a day on Channel 62. A number of smaller American cities with Arab-American populations also have their own local cable programming.

Bouhafa calls these programs "an important link for many people to their former homelands. Format and quality vary," he says, "but these shows satisfy an urgent need. The Arabic radio station here in Washington carries the BBC's Arabic-language news broadcasts, very extensive and in-depth. For immigrants here who are interested in politics, it is a must."

Norman Kiminaia, who founded Detroit's "TV Orient" five years ago, says he started the program "in response to a desperate need. We did a survey that showed that the Arab community needed a program that would cover everyone."

Kiminaia, who likes to interview local politicians, has a programming mix of news, features, educational offerings - and even some Egyptian soap operas - in a format that is 60 percent in Arabic and 40 percent in English, and that reaches out to a Detroit-area Arab-American population that he estimates at more than 250,000.

"Our philosophy is simple: We want to have good ethnic programming and keep our community informed. We have ties with some 20 Arab-American groups, from the Lebanese to the Yemenis to the Iraqi Chaldeans," explains Kiminaia, whose program is supported by memberships and advertising.

"We have viewers who are recent immigrants and people whose families have been in the US for generations. We appeal to all, and I think a majority of the Arab-American households in the Detroit area watch us," he says.

Though Kiminaia says "TV Orient" has the most air time in greater Detroit, that region, with its large Arab-American population, also has several other Arab-American television programs.

In Chicago, the program for Americans of Arab descent is the "TV Arabic Hour" on UHF Channel 13. According to Mufid Halawa, the program's Palestinian-born executive producer, the current program was started about six years ago after a previous effort failed.

"I was president of the Council of Arab Americans of Chicago at the time and we felt the loss," he says. "It seemed all the other ethnic groups had their programs, but we didn't."

Backed by advertising and shares sold to members of the local Arab community, the program was launched using a broad format of cultural, social, and political and entertainment news - and with an all-volunteer staff, says Palestinian-born Halawa, who earns his living as an importer.

Today, the program airs from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays in Chicago, but it is also broadcast in the same time slot by Channel 69 in South Bend, Indiana, Milwaukee's Channel 65, and Channel 33 in Rockford, Illinois. The cities form a triangle more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) on a side.

"In our four-state area, we figure there are 200,000 Arab-Americans, with some 120,000 of them in Chicago," Halawa says. "So our news focus is regional. We also want to appeal to the whole family, so we have 30 percent of the program in English, for the younger people who might not speak Arabic.

"We are proud of our program. We have segments from lawyers and doctors from our community who give their time. We try to make it as interesting and useful as we can for our people," Halawa says.

In the Boston area, people with an interest in the Arab world tune in to Channel 27on Sundays from 9:30 to 10:00 a.m. to watch "TV Arabic Hour." It is run almost entirely by volunteers and has been on the air for more than a decade.

Rather than being directed exclusively at Boston's Arab-American community, this program is aimed at the general public too, says Evelyn Menconi, who does educational and cultural interviews.

"We have news from the Middle East, the Arab-American communities in our region and things that might affect people's lives - like immigration controversies. We try to give a balanced and fair picture. But we also have fun, and we entertain, with celebrity interviews, for example, and segments on Arab cooking," says Menconi, a Lebanese-American.

"Our show is almost entirely in English, since we think most Arab immigrants do speak English well enough to understand. And they love it, especially the music. But we want the broader public to be able to watch and learn from this program, too," she says.

John Zogby, president of a New York research group and an expert on Arab-American demographics, says Arab-American television programs "are most often an effort by members of the immigrant group to stay in contact with their original culture."

Zogby, who helped AATV's Boctor syndicate his program on cable television on the east coast, says most of the programming has a similar format of news, entertainment, and interviews with Arab figures of interest in the United States.

"The programming tends to be pan-Arab in its outlook. One day there could be an interview with a Maronite Christian leader from Lebanon, the next day with a director of the Palestine Liberation Organization," he says.

"These programs are a living link with Arab culture. And the most successful ones are those that are pan-Arab," he says. "I've found that even recent immigrants are willing to listen to most sides of an issue. And programs that represent the whole Arab community do the best business-wise, too," he says.

Zogby finds the pan-Arab approach encouraging. "Because the programs tend to open their doors to everyone, it makes it possible for diverse sides to be heard. So, besides being an excellent bridge for people in a new land, this acceptance of different ideas could give a little hope for Arab unity," he says.

Though there are many small newspapers around the country that are aimed at Arab-Americans, Zogby says that television is often the most direct connection to immigrants.

"This is partly because television is quite developed in the Arab world, and they are familiar with it. Also, you tend to find that the people running these programs in the US are often from those Arab countries where television is most developed. The video techniques and the production values are quite sophisticated. It can be impressive," he says.

For Al-Asha in Los Angeles, it is the news that he waits for. "I like to know what is going on in Southern California and the Arab world. This station gives me news that I want and that 1 don't think I could get anywhere else," he says.

"For my mom and my sisters, I think it is the music and the entertainers they like the best. I like the interviews with Arab officials, but the program has different things that appeal to all of us. For my mother, who doesn't speak English too well, AATV is her life-line to the outside world," says Al-Asha.

Though Al-Asha generally gives AATV high marks - especially for its coverage during the Gulf War - and calls its programming fair and impartial, he says that he sometimes thinks it is "too fair."

"During the war in Kuwait, AATV got news directly from Arab nations that wasn't broadcast anywhere else in the US. That coverage was fantastic and I think it earned the program a lot of respect. But sometimes I don't agree with the people on the programs."

For AATV founder Boctor, stirring up a little controversy now and then is part of his duty as a television producer and journalist. "I am independent and obliged to no one but the people who watch my program. I don't do propaganda. I want to give them news and features and advertising they can't get anywhere else," he says.

"Some people, especially the newer immigrants, are surprised that we can be so open and cover both sides of an issue. Sometimes they are shocked by the questions we ask. But that's okay," he says.

On a typical program, Boctor might have interviews with Saudi government officials visiting California, a film clip of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addressing his country's People's Assembly, or news about a famous Lebanese singer who is to perform soon in Los Angeles. Many of the segments are filmed on location in that city or at the station's modest five-room studio in Hollywood.

When Boctor arrived in Los Angeles 15 years ago, he had no television plans. Rather, he was headed for the University of Southern California to get a doctorate in architecture. Soon, however, he grew bored and switched to Loyola Marymount University, where he eventually earned his master's degree in film and television.

"Don't you agree that film and television are more exciting than architecture? You can do so much more, no?" asks Boctor witha twinkle in his eye.

After receiving his degree, Boctor worked on the highly acclaimed film Being There, starring Peter Sellers. He also made several documentaries, including one on the Southern California way of life called California Dream III.

Around 1980, he got the bug to produce his own television program aimed at Arab-Americans, of whom he estimates there are more than 300,000 in Southern California alone. Nationally, according to the Arab American Institute, there are between 2.5 million and 3 million citizens who consider themselves to be Arab-Americans (See Aramco World, September-October 1986) - a figure that includes both the most recent immigrants and those whose families have been in the United States for generations.

"I wasn't always happy with what I saw on domestic television. In fact, I was frequently disappointed with the portrayal of Arabs," says Boctor. "Unfortunately, the American media still tend to stereotype Arabs as either rich shaykhs or terrorists. As an Egyptian, I knew that it wasn't true. I also saw that there were so many Arabs here in Southern California who were my potential market.

"I thought to myself, 'I can make a program for these people and represent them as they are - proud to be Algerian, Saudi, Lebanese or whatever' I figured that if I could represent all these different communities fairly, it would work," he says. "And I still have that same philosophy. If my program helps people to be proud of being Arab-Americans and proud of their heritage, than I am happy. I don't emphasize Palestinian or Jordanian or Moroccan. Though it is sometimes splintered by nationalities and religions, we are part of one large community." Boctor estimates that he reaches at least 200,000 of the Arab-Americans dispersed throughout Southern California.

"Through AATV, we bring Arab-Americans together. We don't try to change people - that would be expecting too much. But we can help newcomers adapt to what seems to many to be a strange land."

Boctor started his efforts in his own apartment with the help of a few volunteers. He had almost no overhead.

"We had to prove ourselves. We had to earn the respect of the community. We nearly closed down three or four times, for financial reasons, but we earned that all-important respect. Because of that, things have clicked," he says.

Eight years ago, a key donation helped keep the program afloat and made an expansion to a one-hour format possible. "For that help we are still extremely grateful," Boctor says.

One of the early AATV volunteers was Mona Ibrahim, another Egyptian emigre who saw one of the first programs when she was channel-cruising around the television dial.

"I heard Arabic and saw that this was a local program," says Ibrahim. "I called the station and told them I would do anything to help. I sold ads. At times, it was just stubbornness that kept us going."

Ibrahim, who is now an associate producer and program host, is one of a staff of 15, nearly half of whom are volunteers. All are Arab-Americans, and their homelands cover most of the map of the Arab world.

"Gaining the trust of the community took four years. People also came to see that the program increased business activity," says Ibrahim, who handles the station's finances. "The advertising gained credibility because it worked."

Support for community concerns was also important in establishing AATV's credibility, and it continues. Last month, for example, the program ran a four-hour telethon to raise funds for victims of Egypt's October earthquake. Film and television stars from Egypt took part, as did the country's Los Angeles consul-general.

Roughly 80 percent of AATV's program is produced in Arabic, with the remaining 20 percent in English. That language split causes some problems between the generations of Arab-Americans, Boctor says. "Those who have been here for several generations, and can't speak Arabic well, wish we had more English. And those who are new immigrants, well, they wish it were all in Arabic."

The program tried subtitles for the programming, but found they were too expensive, Boctor explains. Much of the advertising, especially commercials for restaurants and doctors, is in English.

Boctor, who says his job description is "making sure things get done right," also hosts political interviews on the program, usually with Arab diplomats and officials who come through the region. Some of them seek out the station beforehand, because they value the access it gives them to the Arab-American community.

The Gulf War was a particular test for AATV. Boctor worked hard to maintain the program's impartiality - harder, he feels, than mainstream television. "I think much of the US media's coverage was superficial and even inhumane toward Arabs. We were one of the few programs that gave Iraqi casualty figures, and showed the carnage of the war," he says.

"For our coverage, we interviewed the Kuwaiti ambassador and the Consul-General of Saudi Arabia. But we also talked to the Iraqi ambassador, and we interviewed people on the street about their feelings."

Says Ibrahim, "We go into the community to talk to people about their conflicts and problems. We sponsored conferences during the war about people's concerns, and we were one of the first stations to report harassment of Arab-Americans by the FBI, something which was later denounced by President Bush."

Certainly not all of the programming is hard news, however. The station also brings in entertainers from the Middle East for performances; the national days of 22 Arab lands are celebrated on the program; and during Ramadan, special music is played.

"Once a woman called me up and cried over the phone," says Boctor. "She said, 'You make me feel like I am back in the country of my birth - and I miss it so.'"

Amer Assoum, a Los Angeles waiter and business-administration student born in Lebanon, doesn't get emotional when he tells why he likes AATV.

"I just enjoy being able to watch an Arabic channel. I couldn't get this kind of information anywhere else. Not the news, not the ads and not the entertainment," says Assoum.

For Dikran Khanjian, a Los Angeles jeweler who was born in Syria and lived in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia before coming to the United States, one of the best things about AATV is "that it doesn't take sides.

"That neutrality is important. The program covers many aspects of life from the arts to politics to news from the Arab world. It is a tough job for [Boctor] and his crew, but I think what they produce is encouraging," says Khanjian.

Maha Akeel, a Saudi Arabian, says she enjoys the music and community services as much as the news. Her praise could apply in equal measure to Arab-American programming all over the United States.

"Not only does it keep us in touch with what is happening in the Arab world," she says, "but it also lets us know what is going on in our own community. That's quite an accomplishment."

Brian Clark, a frequent contributor toAramco World, free-lances from his base in Washington state.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the November/December 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1992 images.