America in an Arab Mirror Images of America in Arabic Travel Literature- An Anthology, 1895-1995 by Kamal Abdel-Malek (editor), New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 152 pp.

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Juliane Hammer



How do Arab travelers view the US? Much has been written about how western
travelers and scholars have seen and described the Orient, thereby not only
creating an image but also transforming the reality of it. Looking at this anthology
one is reminded of Said's book Orienta/ism and inspired to ask whether a
similar process takes place in reverse. Not in terms of change but certainly in
creating an image of the unfamiliar as the other simultaneously admired and
Kamal Abdel-Malek has collected and edited texts of twenty-seven Arab visitors
to the United States. Some came as students, others as accomplished scholars or
curious visitors. Each text is an excerpt of a longer text, usually a book, and all
books were originally published in Arabic and have not been translated into
English before. Also, as Abdel-Malek points out in his preface, the collection
represents most of the travel literature he was able to locate in Arabic and is
completed by a list of all Arabic sources. Thus, this collection allows the reader
access to a genre of Arabic literature otherwise not available.
The travel accounts are organized in five sections and chronologically by year of
publication within each section.
The ftrst section is titled America in the Eyes of a Nineteenth-Century Amb and
contains one account of an Arab traveler to the US published in I 895. The author
presents the reader with a comparison of what Arabs and Americans find
important and how these preferences are diametrically opposed in most cases.
In the second section Abdel-Malek has gathered a variety of accounts under the
title The Making of an Image: America as the Unchanged Other, Ame1ica as the
Seductive Female. The most interesting piece of this section is probably that of
Sayyid Qutb, who studied in the US between 1948 and 1950 and published his
account under the title The America I have seen. Much of what he noted about the
US ln the first half of the 20th century, in my opinion, still holds true today. Qutb
concludes: "All that requires mind power and muscle are where American genius
shines, and all that requires spirit and emotion are where American naivete and
primitiveness become apparent .... All this does not mean that Americans are a
nation devoid of virtue, or else, what would have enabled them to live? Rather, it
means that America's virtues are the virtues of production and organization, and
not those of human and social morals." (p. 26f.) ...

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