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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2006, pages 57-59

Arab-American Activism

Friday Banquet: Reel Arabs, Real Advances

Filmmaker Moustapha Akkad’s son, Malek, carries on his father’s legacy (Staff Photo D. Hanley).

A STAR-STUDDED CAST of characters made the Friday night banquet, emceed by Dr. Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, truly memorable. Aya Batrawy accepted one of six Jack Shaheen Mass Communication Scholarships awarded this year to Arab-American college students. “This award is not just about the money,” shesaid, glowing with pride. “It’s wonderful to know the whole Arab-American community is behind us.”

Syrian-born filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who was killed along with his daughter in the terrorist attack at a wedding in Amman on Nov. 11, 2005, was honored for his enormously successful career. His epic films “The Message” and “Lion of the Desert” (both available from the AET Book Club) helped his fellow Americans understand the rich history of the Middle East, while his “Halloween” horror films series garnered box office success. In the past, said his son, Malek Akkad, also a successful film director, Europeans have been telling the Arabs’ stories, and it shouldn’t be that way. “We should continue to tell our stories as only we can tell them,” he emphasized.

The ADC Lifetime Excellence in Journalism Award was presented to CBS “60 Minutes” senior correspondent Mike Wallace. In his 38 years at “60 Minutes,” Wallace has interviewed U.S. presidents and international leaders, including Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat, King Hussein, Hafez Assad, Muammer Qaddafi, the shah of Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini. Wallace was the only reporter to accompany U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Iraq in 1998 on his mission to prevent a war after U.N. weapons inspectors left.

ADC president Mary Rose Oakar and CBS “60 Minutes” senior correspondent Mike Wallace (Staff Photo M. Horton).

Wallace, who said he is Jewish and was brought up in a Zionist home, admitted that earlier in the day he “got himself in trouble for asking provocative questions.” After attending this convention, he said, for the first time he has “fully understood” ADC. Referring to the fears and anti-Arab feelings that can be found across the country, Wallace said, “When you get into a cab and look at the driver’s ID and it says Muhammed....You understand what I’m saying? If I’m wrong let me know....When Timothy McVeigh blew up the World Trade Center, we expected to hear an Arab’s name.”

The Arab-American community is “insufficiently understood” by other Americans, Wallace declared, adding, “I think it’s probably your fault...Why doesn’t this wealthy, educated community do something to change the attitude of [other] Americans toward you? You people aren’t doing enough. You owe it to your kids,” Wallace said. “Arabs need to do more if they want to name their children ”˜Muhammed’—which is a beautiful, historic name—without worrying about it.”

Next Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, a bilingual weekly newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan, was presented with the Arab-American Press award. “If you’re worried about the name Muhammed,” he joked, “how about being named Osama?” Sen. James Abourezk inspired us all when he founded ADC, Siblani went on to say, and “the Arab-American community is OK because of organizations like this.”

Helen Thomas, dean of the White House Press Corps (Staff Photo M. Horton).

Helen Thomas, dean of the White House Press Corps, whose latest book, Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public, was given to everyone at the banquet, was described as a trailblazer for women and a national legend in her own time. Thomas told the audience that there was much to do to make this world a better place. “The entire Middle East is under siege,” she warned. She described the invasion of Iraq as “immoral” and “illegal” and said Iraqis think of Americans as invaders, not liberators. She called the unresolved Palestinian issue the “core problem” in the Middle East.

The Voices of Peace Award went to Hany Abu-Assad, a Palestinian filmmaker whose provocative “Paradise Now” won the 2006 Golden Globe Award for best foreign film. Available from the AET Book Club, “Paradise Now” is the first Arabic-language film to be picked up for national distribution in the United States. Abu-Assad also won an award at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival for the short documentary feature “Curfew.” His highly acclaimed films “Rana’s Wedding” and “Ford Transit” are seen around the world.

Telling his audience that he makes films in order to survive his pain and anger, Abu-Assad explained that he creates beauty from ugliness as a form of resistance. “We as artists have no choice but to use our creativity to advance our cause,” he said. “When one Palestinian is in pain we all need to shout...[Israelis] oppress us to make us forget our right to the land.” Abu-Assad warned his oppressors that despite using every weapon in the science of oppression—inequality, economics, politics, military might—when the oppression is defeated and the fighter planes have turned to dust, Palestinians’ good books, paintings and art will remain.

Actor Omar Sharif accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award as ADC board members and lawyers Ashley Mammo and Daoud Khairallah applaud behind him (Staff Photo D. Hanley).

The Distinguished Cultural Contribution Award was conferred in absentia on Ghassan Massoud, a Syrian actor and filmmaker, who played Saladin in the 2005 film “Kingdom of Heaven” and the sheikh in the Turkish film “Valley of Wolves: Iraq.”

ADC’s Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who, after starting out as an Egyptian matinee idol, went on to star in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl.”

Sharif delighted the audience with humorous anecdotes from his childhood in Egypt, recalling that his father insisted no son of his would shame him by becoming an actor. After completing his education in England, Sharif was forced to work six months as a salesman in his father’s timber business in Syria. After Sharif failed miserably, selling timber at a loss, his father relented and let him go off to become an actor. Sharif joked about his life as a Hollywood actor, living next door to Elvis Presley.

He then told an amazing tale about getting a phone call from Anwar Sadat asking Sharif to find out if the Egyptian president would be welcome to visit Israel. Sharif went to the Israeli Embassy in Paris and asked the ambassador to put a call through to Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin. “You don’t know me,” Sharif said to Begin. “Ah, but I do. You were in ”˜Funny Girl,’” the prime minister replied, and then agreed to host Sadat. His diplomatic mission complete, Sharif realized he had no idea how to call Sadat back—but the Israeli ambassador knew, and they called Sadat from his office. This is a new twist to Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Jerusalem.

Sharif, who now lives in France, still making movies and playing bridge, said an ADC is needed in that country to protect the civil rights of its millions of North African and Arab immigrants. “I love ADC,” he concluded. “I want to come back every day, and every year.” And he did—the very next night.

Delinda C. Hanley