DATE April 16, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Fareed Zakaria discusses the difficulties of creating
democracies in developing countries and his new book, "The Future
of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The United States is working with Iraqi exiles, tribal sheiks, Kurds and
Shiite clerics to organize a new democratic government. My guest, Fareed
Zakaria, has written a new book that explains why creating a democracy is much
more difficult than just organizing elections. Democracy, he says, has its
dark side. Elections can give legitimacy to dictators. Elections can give
the majority ethnic group the power to tyrannize the minority.
Zakaria's new book is called "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at
Home and Abroad." Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and is a
columnist for the domestic edition of Newsweek. He's also a panelist on the
ABC Sunday morning program "This Week."
In "The Future of Freedom," Zakaria says that democracy isn't synonymous with
liberty. I asked him to elaborate on that.
Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA (Editor, Newsweek International): Well, if you think
about what we mean by democracy in America, sure, we mean the elections, but
in some ways, the heart of American democracy is things like the Bill of
Rights, which if one thinks about it is a limitation on the powers of
democratically elected majorities. What the Bill of Rights is saying is no
matter what the majority wants, these rights cannot be abridged. The Supreme
Court, nine unelected men and women, are really the most powerful force within
the American government.
So what I point out in the book is that the development of what I call
constitutional liberalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the
creation of property rights and such, all these bundle of things, has really
gone on historically well before elections. And we shouldn't forget that you
can very easily find in a place like Iraq that you've gotten elections but you
haven't gotten all these other things that really are the inner stuffing of
GROSS: And that's part of what you mean when you use the word `illiberal
democracy.' Describe a little bit more what you mean by that term.
Mr. ZAKARIA: Well, I was looking around the world in the 1990s and seeing
all these elections taking place in far-flung places like Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan, and 42 or 48 African countries held elections in the 1990s. And I
noticed we weren't getting what we thought we would get, and so I realized
that what we in the West call democracy is really liberal democracy, democracy
plus all these rights and rules of law. If you just have elections without
that background, what you get is not liberal democracy but illiberal
democracy, a democracy where the elected dictator, majority party,
systematically abuses human rights, systematically oppresses minorities. And
this pattern is dismayingly common. You see it in many, many parts of the
Third World where quick transitions to democracy have gone very badly awry.
GROSS: And do you think that's partially because the elections are rigged,
that there's--especially a one-party system or a one-candidate system, or
people suspect they'll be punished if they don't vote for the right person?
Or do you think that people willingly say, `This is the guy we want. He's
going to be a dictator. That's what we want'?
Mr. ZAKARIA: It's a very good question. Some aspect of it is certainly
elections that aren't completely free and fair, where parties maneuver to gain
advantages. But a lot of it is the fact that in immature political
systems--and I mean immature not in a derogatory sense, just young political
systems--without a background in multiethnic groups and civic associations,
when people vote, they vote on the basis of the most raw characteristics:
race or ethnicity or some other kind of group, or they vote for a strong man.
So you see that in Latin America. You see that in Russia where, you know,
Putin has been very popular, even while he has prosecuted a bloody war in
Chechnya, intimidated the free media into almost total silence, persecuted his
political opponents, fired most of the regional governors he didn't like. And
he's one of the success stories, I mean, compared with some of the African and
Central Asian cases where the elections really just led to pure dictatorships.
GROSS: Well, let's get to Iraq. When the Bush administration says, `We're
going to create a democracy in Iraq,' what model do you think they're
Mr. ZAKARIA: Well, they keep saying that they have no model and that it's up
to the Iraqis to decide, which is, I think, the right thing. My guess is,
looking at Iraq, what they need more than anything else is a federal
decentralized model, a model that really involves a lot of power sharing,
because Iraq is riven with ethnic and religious differences. You know, we
often talk about the German and Japanese transitions to democracy as great
successes, and Germany and Japan had many characteristics that made them, in
retrospect, quite favorably biased towards the industrializing countries:
background of liberty, background of capitalism. But they were also
ethnically homogeneous, which makes a big difference because what happens when
you don't have that kind of homogeneity is--look at the former Yugoslavia.
Communism crumbles in Yugoslavia, and what comes to the fore are all these
ethnic differences, and the elections fuel them because Serbian politicians
decide to whip up Serbian nationalism. Croatian politicians decided to whip
up Croatian nationalism. And what you end up with is an even more polarized
In Iraq, the great danger, if you held elections tomorrow, is that Shia
politicians would aggressively court the Shia vote, saying, `We've been
persecuted for so many years.' Sunni politicians would aggressively court the
Sunni vote, saying, `Look, you need somebody to protect you; otherwise these
guys are going to get us.' The Kurds would obviously do the same. And you
would end up separating and segregating these communities further, building up
group resentments and group grievances.
So what you really need is a model that is federal in structure, has power
sharing, so that nobody feels excluded. You know, my motto would be, for
Iraq, to the loser go the spoils. In other words, don't create a system where
if you win 49 percent of the vote, you know, but just miss the majority, you
get zero power. You know, there are various models, proportional
representation, things like that, where you can give people a stake in the
system, even if they're a minority.
GROSS: Well, if we really believe in democracy, then we should establish a
system in which people elect their leaders, and we would have to live with the
fact that those leaders might not like the United States, and the United
States might not look kindly on those leaders. I mean, do you think that
that's possible, that even if we postpone elections and kind of create a
system in which democracy can really take root and then hold elections, you
know, that the outcome still might not be something that would be favorable
for the American government?
Mr. ZAKARIA: I'm entirely comfortable with the idea that democracies will be
anti-American. Look, most of Europe is, at this point, anti-American, and
they're all democracies, and we live with it and there's nothing we can do
about it. There's nothing we should do about it. The point I'm making is
more for the people of Iraq. If you create a democracy that is merely the
shell of elections and that has nothing else in there, you're going to create
something that looks more like Venezuela or Iran, a place that systematically
abuses human rights, allows all kinds of minority rights to be trampled, does
not uphold the rule of law.
I don't think it would be a particularly good outcome for the Iraqis. But
you're absolutely right. If 10 years from now you've had a well-phased
transition to a kind of mature liberal democracy, and anti-American
politicians are elected, the United States should absolutely be comfortable
with it, should understand it. That's what happened in Turkey. We wanted the
use of Turkish bases, and the reason we were unable to get them was Turkish
democracy. The government was in favor, but the parliament, looking at
opinion polls, voted against it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Fareed Zakaria. He's the
editor of Newsweek International and the author of the book "The Future of
Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad." He's also a panelist on
the ABC Sunday morning program "This Week."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and a
political analyst for ABC TV. His new book is called "The Future of Freedom:
Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad."
Now that the Saddam Hussein regime has been overthrown, the Bush
administration has called Syria a rogue state, accused it of having chemical
weapons and of harboring people from the Saddam Hussein regime. The Bush
administration says, `Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of its
actions.' I asked Zakaria what he makes of this warning.
Mr. ZAKARIA: I think this administration believes very strongly in the idea
that when you have power you should use it; when you have political capital
you should expend it. And I think they see themselves in a position of
victory in the war, and therefore being able to cow a country like Syria and
have taken up all these issues with it. I have no doubt that it's essentially
true that the Syrians have done some of this, and I think what the
administration is doing is trying to, you know, force Syria, using all the
power they have in the wake of the war, to stop doing it.
The danger here, of course, is we are not going to invade Syria. The United
States, whatever people may think, is not, you know, a bandit regime. We have
no legal basis for war in Syria. Whatever one may think about the wisdom of
having gone to war with Saddam Hussein, the point of fact is that he had been
violating UN resolutions, was in breach of the cease-fire of the Gulf War. I
think it was a 12-year process of trying to get him to agree to inspections.
None of this is true with Syria, so there's virtually no circumstance I can
imagine in which we were to invade Syria.
So I would be a little careful with the kinds of threats one makes because,
you know, there's a wonderful line out of an international politics book by
Thomas Schilling where he says, `In international politics two things are very
expensive: threats when they fail and promises when they succeed.' So if you
threaten somebody, just be careful because they might call your bluff, and I'm
not sure what we would do to Syria if they called our bluff. We could
sanction them, but this is not a country particularly plugged into the world
economy that that's going to matter.
GROSS: So you feel confident that what we did in Iraq isn't going to become a
model about what the United States will do next in Iran or Syria or North
Mr. ZAKARIA: Oh, yes. I can't imagine that there is anybody seriously in the
administration thinking that. I think there are many people who think they
can use this success as a way of kind of bullying and cajoling and cowing some
of these regimes into submission, but I don't think that it could be used as a
model because in each of those cases the circumstances are just very
different. In North Korea we really do not have a military option because of
the nature of North Korean forces. They could destroy so many South Koreans
so quickly. In Iran and Syria, as I say, we just have no legal basis. I
mean, we're not going to just invade a country because we don't happen to like
GROSS: You have supported the war in Iraq. I'd like you to compare what you
thought of the war before it started with what you think of it now.
Mr. ZAKARIA: Broadly speaking, there was little about the war that surprised
me in the sense that I thought it would be relatively easy to do militarily,
and I did think that once the war was over it would look better in retrospect
because the regime would be shown to have been very evil. And I think in both
those things I've been vindicated.
I was stunned by the speed of the collapse and, indeed, the total ineptness by
which Saddam defended his country. I mean, when I went to graduate school we
would have learned that elementary military strategy would have told you that
what Saddam should have done is concentrated his forces close to Kuwait.
After all, we were bringing in American troops through a keyhole. If he had
concentrated his forces and bled us there it would have been very difficult.
He could have then gone on a backward retreat, blowing up the port of Umm
Qasr, blowing up the bridges on the Euphrates and Tigris. And he didn't do
any of that, which leads me to think that perhaps we did either kill him or
incapacitate him very early because if not this will go down in the history
books as one of the most spectacularly inept defenses of a homeland ever seen.
GROSS: So what are your concerns about things that can go wrong as the United
States tries to help create a democracy in Iraq?
Mr. ZAKARIA: The first thing that can go wrong is the way the United States
engages and helps Iraq. I think it is very important that we be there, we
stay there. Somebody has to govern the country in the short term. That will
be us. And yet this is going to be called colonialism. It's going to be
called imperialism. And for that reason I've always been a very strong
advocate of involving the international community for our own sake because it
will give us a cover, it will internationalize this process so that we are not
out there picking which Shia leader is going to rule Nasiriyah and which
Kurdish leader is going to rule in the north, that it is done more as a kind
of collaborative venture. So that's the first part.
The second thing that can go wrong is, as I say, group politics can get out of
control. And the third and most difficult is going to be Iraq's oil. This is
generally considered a great blessing because it means that Iraq will be able
to pay for its own reconstruction and it will have monies to spend. Vice
President Cheney often says, `This is the great advantage in their building
democracy.' Well, I don't think so. I think if you look around the world,
oil has been a curse, not a blessing. There is, with the exception of Norway,
not a single functioning democracy among the oil-rich states of the world.
GROSS: Well, is that a function of the oil, or is that a function of
Mr. ZAKARIA: It's essentially a function of the oil. When a country has
treasures in its soil, when it has natural resource endowments--oil, natural
gas, things like that--it means the country doesn't have to go through the
hard work of creating a system of laws and policies that generate economic
wealth. All you do is you drill into the ground. And so you bypass the whole
process of modernization. You know, I call them in the book `trust fund
states' because they're very similar in the sense that they have access to
unearned income, large amounts of unearned income, so they don't have to go
through the, you know, more difficult and painful job of producing wealth.
If you look at East Asia and the countries that have grown fastest in the last
35 years--and Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong--what
is striking about these countries is that they have virtually no natural
resources of any kind. So if those countries needed to get rich, they had to
create real industries and they had to produce products that had a real
demand, and they had to educate their work force. You know, there was this
whole process of modernization that took place for economic reasons but that
had political benefits.
If you look at Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich states of the
world, you see none of that happening. Illiteracy rates in a country like
Saudi Arabia are still astonishingly high, 50 percent by some counts, in a
country that is, you know, one of the richest countries in the world. So you
have the wealth, but it ends up being globbed onto an unmodernized or almost
feudal social system, and that, I think, is at the heart of the problem.
GROSS: So in the countries you're talking about, the oil industry is owned by
the people at the very top, the people who rule the country. They can choose
to share some of that wealth with the people of the country, but that's, you
know, at their discretion. They could modernize the country with the wealth
from the oil, but it's at their discretion. And it may or may not involve
anybody else in the country.
Mr. ZAKARIA: Precisely. There's enormous incentive to corruption. And if
it's not the state that owns it, it's a few oil barons who own it. You know,
if you look at what happened in Russia, they, quote, unquote, "privatized" it,
but it really meant that they privatized it in the sense that Boris Yeltsin's
five best friends got very large state assets at fire sale prices. Natural
resources like oil have a distorting effect in almost all cases. It really
takes very hard work to make sure they don't. Of course, it can be done. You
know, even some trust fund kids turn out all right.
GROSS: In your book, you say that, you know, Woodrow Wilson said we had to
make the world safe for democracy, and now what we have to do is make
democracy safe for the world. What do you mean by that?
Mr. ZAKARIA: I'm a great fan of democracy, and I think it is the best form of
government. I think it has produced wonderful, miraculous changes around the
world, but I do think it has certain downsides. It has certain tendencies
that you have to worry about. And if we don't worry about them, my real fear
is that what will happen is that democracy will get discredited, that
democracy will become a means for ethnic groups to oppress other ethnic
groups, become a means for dictators to get elected and then ratify their
elections. It will become a means for other kinds of dysfunctions. So what I
want to do is to save democracy from its downsides, to repair and restore that
older conception of democracy in which we worried as much about the
constitutional aspects of it, the institutions of democracy, as about just the
You know, there's this wonderful line that graduates of the Harvard Law School
are told. I think it's on their diplomas when they're a graduate, and it
says, `Please remember that law is the wise restraints that make men free.'
And I think that's the part I want to recover, the sense that there have to be
some restraints and guides within democracy. Otherwise, you create a system
that is going to get very dysfunctional. And my real fear, when you have
periods of crisis, is that people will start blaming democracy for the
problems. My hope is to really save democracy from itself.
GROSS: Fareed Zakaria is the author of "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal
Democracy at Home and Abroad." He's also the editor of Newsweek
International. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, growing up in post-colonial India. We continue our
conversation with journalist Fareed Zakaria. And Diana Abu-Jaber talks about
her new novel, "Crescent." It's about a cook in a Lebanese restaurant that's
a gathering place for Arab-American students.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Fareed
Zakaria. He's a columnist for Newsweek, the editor of Newsweek International
and a panelist on the ABC Sunday morning program "This Week." Zakaria's new
book is called "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and
Abroad." It's about the dark side of democracy, how elections can put a
dictator in power or give the majority group the power to tyrannize the
Fareed Zakaria, you grew up in India, which had been a British colony. Now by
the time you were born, it was no longer a British colony. What were some of
the good and bad leftover effects from the British era?
Mr. ZAKARIA: Well, the bad effects are easy to catalog because they were ones
that were played up in nationalist literature quite a lot. But by and large,
you had a lot of racism. You had institutionalized abuse of power. You had
segregation. You had whites-only clubs. There used to be clubs in Bombay
where it would say `Indians and dogs cannot enter,' that kind of thing. And
so in many ways it was a very demeaning kind of legacy for Indians, and that's
why there's so much nationalism, so many parts of the Third World, you know,
that were once colonies.
But I think one has to look back in retrospect and also notice something. A
professor of political science in 1983 pointed out that every functioning
democracy in the Third World at that time was a former British colony. Now
it's changed a little since then, but still the overwhelming number of
developing-world democracies are former British colonies. I think the reason
for that is, as I describe in my book, that the British also left a legacy of
institutions. They didn't give India any democracy, but they did give it the
rule of law, they did give it private property, they did give it a court
system, a commercial system and things like that. And it turned out that when
India went democratic, this was a very useful edifice and foundation to build
on. So in that sense, British rule in India has been a mixed blessing.
No question one is better off without being ruled by an imperial power. But
if you had to be ruled out by somebody, it turns out the British were a whole
lot better than some of the others.
GROSS: What were some of the attitudes you grew up with about the British and
about the West in general?
Mr. ZAKARIA: Oh, there was a real love-hate in India because, by and large,
the Indian elite--and I mean by that English-speaking, urban, you know, middle
class--were in many ways westernized and anglicized in the sense that they
learned a lot about the world through their contact with these institutions
that England had built. But on the other hand, they had often felt humiliated
by the British, and they had felt that they were second-class citizens.
So, you know, it's best seen in a man like Nehru, the first prime minister of
India, who was a British-trained barrister, went to Harrow and Cambridge and,
you know, could quote Shakespeare and Keats with the best of them, but was, in
many ways, a very fierce Indian nationalist and was quite anti-British in his
foreign policy. And that's something you see often in the Third World, where
a modernizer at home, a Westernizer at home might end up having an
anti-Western foreign policy.
It's true of Turkey as well, by the way. The Kemal Ataturk, who everyone
looks at as the great modernizer of the Islamic world, you know, the guy who
created an Islamic modern state, Turkey, was simultaneously fighting the
Western powers. He fought wars against the West while he westernized at home.
GROSS: Religion was such a divisive issue in India that, after India got its
independence, India was partitioned into primarily Muslim Pakistan and
primarily Hindu India. Did you grow up with a sense that religion is a very
divisive part of identity?
Mr. ZAKARIA: I grew up with a feeling that religion was something that had to
be handled very carefully because it could tear the country apart. My father
was a politician who had made the decision not to go to Pakistan when India
was partitioned because he wanted to be part of an experiment in secular
democracy, not an experiment in religious nationalism. And he's very, very
pro-Indian, pro-secular in that sense, and so I grew up with that world view.
And it's been very sad to watch India over the last 25 years become much less
secular than it was, become much less tolerant--not just toward Muslims. The
rise of Hindu nationalism has mostly been directed at Muslims, but it's also
been directed at Christians. In the last four years there have been more
Christians killed in religious violence in India than in the previous 40
years, and this is because when you have raw contests for power, politicians
will often appeal to the worst angels in human beings. And what Hindu
fundamentalists have been doing is appealing to the most base instincts of
hard-core Hindu voters, which are anti-Muslim, anti-Christian.
And it's been very, very sad to watch this fragile experiment with secular
democracy get corroded. I mean, India's still a wonderful country, but in my
mind at least, it has certainly tarnished its reputation with all this
GROSS: Since religion was such a divisive and remains such a divisive issue
in India, and since your father was dedicated to having a secular government
that bridged different religions, what was it like for you coming to the
United States and seeing fundamentalist Christianity play a significant part
in the American political scene?
Mr. ZAKARIA: Well, when I came to America, I was struck by how differently
diversity was handled in America than in India. In India, you couldn't really
have assimilation because these communities, Hindus and Muslims, but even
other ethnic and tribal communities, were just different and didn't want to
assimilate. In India, what one was trying to do was to create tolerance. In
America, the attempt is more at assimilation, and a very successful attempt by
and large, I think.
The Christian right, of course, bothers me particularly now that it has gone
on this sort of anti-Muslim tirade. But what I've been struck by is the
degree to which they have really not been able to have an effect on the
mainstream culture of the United States, which is still very tolerant and very
open. What they have had an effect on is the political process, because they
are well-organized, fanatical. And it's one of the things I talk about in the
book when I turn to American democracy, is that the way in which America has
democratized its system has left itself prey to the small fanatical interest
groups. And so I worry about them more politically than in a kind of broader
social and cultural sense.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ZAKARIA: My pleasure.
GROSS: Fareed Zakaria is the author of the new book "The Future of Freedom:
Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad." He's the editor of Newsweek
International and a panelist on the ABC Sunday Morning program "This Week."
Coming up, Diana Abu-Jaber talks about her new novel "Crescent," about a cook
in an Arab-American restaurant. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Diana Abu-Jaber discusses her upbringing and her new
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Diana Abu-Jaber, is the author of the new novel "Crescent." It's
about a 39-year-old woman named Sirine who works as a cook in a Lebanese cafe
in Los Angeles, which is a gathering place for Arab-American students. The
cafe is inspired by a restaurant Abu-Jaber used to frequent when she taught at
UCLA. Diana Abu-Jaber is also the author of the novel "Arabian Jazz." Her
father is a Jordanian immigrant; her mother is an American of Irish descent.
When Diana was a child, her family moved to Amman, Jordan, for two years, then
returned to the US. She now lives in Portland, where she teaches at Portland
Let's start with a reading from her novel "Crescent."
Ms. DIANA ABU-JABER (Portland State University; Author): `Nadia's Cafe is
like other places, crowded at meals and quiet in between, but somehow there is
also usually a lingering conversation, currents of Arabic that ebb around
Sirine, filling her head with mellifluous voices. Always there are the same
groups of students from the big university up the street, always so lonely,
the sadness like blue hollows in their throat, blue motes for their wives and
children back home or for the American women they haven't met.
`The Arab families usually keep their daughters safe at home. The few women
who do manage to come to America are good students. They study at the
university and cook for themselves, and only the men spend their time arguing
and being lonely, drinking tea and trying to talk to Um-Nadia, Mari(ph) and
Sirine, especially Sirine. They love her food, the flavors that remind them
of their home, but they also love to watch Sirine, with her skin so pale it
has the bluish cast of skim milk, her wild blond head of hair and her
sea-green eyes. She has the worst kind of hair for a chef, curly and viny and
falling all over her shoulders, resisting ponytails and scarves and braids.
She is so kind and gentle-voiced and her food is so good that the students
cannot help themselves. They sit at the tables leaning toward her.'
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Diana Abu-Jaber from her new novel
What do you think is the importance of a good Arab restaurant for Arab
students in the United States?
Ms. ABU-JABER: It's uncanny. It has this ability to draw people together in
a way that I think may duplicate some of the rhythms and some of the nuances
of home. I think maybe it's the smell, that people walk into a good Middle
Eastern restaurant and it immediately smells like home. And there's something
that really gets to that nervous center inside the body, I think, where our
memories and our deepest sense of childhood resides. So it draws people
together, and then there you get your community. You get your family of a
sort reassembled and everyone's together again. So it's communal.
GROSS: In your novel, the restaurant was previously owned by an Egyptian cook
and his wife, but after the Gulf War, men in business suits start hanging out
at the hotel, taking notes, and the rumor goes around that these guys are with
the CIA. And once people start to believe that these guys are with the CIA,
the clientele no longer shows up, customers don't come. Was that a problem at
the restaurant that you were talking about? Were there rumors of CIA there?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, there are always rumors. I find that that comes up very
frequently at Middle Eastern restaurants, especially in the current climate
where there's a lot of scrutiny of the Arab-American community and people are
nervous. You know, and I think that there are legitimate reasons for that,
too, a lot of looking over the shoulders.
The restaurant that I had in mind actually was a little place in Eugene,
Oregon, where, in fact, there were two agents of some sort who showed up and
would sit at the cafe counter every day and take notes on little pads. And
the cook complained to me about it and said, `I don't know what to do about
these guys. They've just moved in, and they're scaring all the customers
away'--not only the Middle Eastern customers, the American and non-Middle
Eastern as well. So I know that that was something that did happen in certain
GROSS: Let me ask you about the two main characters in your book. Let's
start with Sirine. Why don't you describe her.
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, Sirine is someone who I think of as struggling to
discover her cultural identity. She's someone who was raised by an Iraqi
uncle, an immigrant, and yet, very much a mainstream American woman. She was
born and raised in Los Angeles. And I think she's tormented in a sense by not
completely understanding what her connection to her cultural legacy is. She
doesn't look traditionally Arab. She has this white-blond hair. She's very
pale. People on the street would not recognize her as being of Middle Eastern
descent. And I wanted to draw on that kind of internal conflict: What part
of me is Iraqi? What part of me is American? Is it something that I've
inherited? Is it in the blood? Or it is what people tell me I am? And I
think that her condition mirrors that of a lot of young Americans in that they
feel a connection or a longing for a place that they may or may not have been
born into and they want to reclaim it, if they can, but it's not always
Han, her love interest, is an immigrant. He is an exile from Iraq. I was
very interested in trying to conjure up and create this sense of longing and
the painful experience of exile. Iraq was, in some ways, a logical choice for
me because I wanted to look at what it meant to have a homeland. You knew it
was there, but you just couldn't quite get back to it. And Han is expressive
of the experience of a number of Iraqis that I know who've had to leave their
homeland, come to America, but never completely leave their homeland behind,
GROSS: Now let's start with Sirine again. Let's get back to Sirine. You
describe her as somebody who doesn't look Arab. She's very pale. She has
blond hair. Kind of describes you, pale--not blond hair, but you have, like,
reddish-brown hair and, you know, I think you're part Irish? And you look
part Irish probably more than the Jordanian part.
Ms. ABU-JABER: Yeah, it's true.
GROSS: So what issues has that created for you in terms of personal identity?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, it's interesting because my father, being an immigrant,
actually Jordanian, he really felt very strongly connected to the home
country and he wanted his daughters--still wants his daughters to be Jordanian
women. When we were growing up, he used to tell us that over and over and
over again, `You are good Arab girls.' And we had that sense that America was
all sort of a big, crazy, wacky mistake that he'd made and someday we were
going to go back to Jordan and have our true lives. So we always had that in
front of us. We ate Middle Eastern food, and we listened to Middle Eastern
stories and Middle Eastern music, and yet, we were living in America.
I was the only one in the family who looked not traditionally Arab, and my
aunties used to make a big deal out of it and they would say, `Oh, isn't it
lovely you have this one pale one,' you know. And it was like this special
thing that, of course, made me completely crazy when I grew up because it
meant that I didn't know exactly where I fit into the scheme of things.
So I knew that I wanted to explore that question about how the way we look
affects so much the way people react to us and tell us who we are.
GROSS: Well, when your father said he wanted you to grow up like good
Jordanian girls, what did he have in mind?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, I can tell you exactly what he had in mind, that we
would remain vestal virgins until the moment of his choosing, in which he
would present us with the Jordanian man of his choosing, who would be a
prince, by the way, a Jordanian prince--I don't know where he was going to get
this Jordanian prince--and then we would be married to the Jordanian prince,
we would move back into the house with Mom and Dad and have our children at
home, and they would dance around his knees. He always added that part in,
that the grandkids would dance around his knees.
So, yeah, he had things pretty well mapped out for us. You know, we didn't go
out to dances. We didn't go to sleepover parties. We didn't date. It was a
very circumscribed, kind of codified upbringing and very traditional.
GROSS: Why did your father move to the United States? What first brought him
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, the official reason is that he was searching for his
fortune and to make good in the world. But apparently the unofficial reason
is that he had fallen in love with one of his cousins and had gone to court
her in Jordan before he had left. And after courting her for three days, she
looked him over and decided that she wasn't interested after all. And he
decided that if he went to America and became rich and fabulous that it would
make her so regretful and so unhappy that she would change her mind.
So he came to America. He had brothers here also, and he came and stayed with
them, and immediately met my mother and fell in love with her. And the rest
is history. So so much for the cousin.
GROSS: Did he ever go back and meet the cousin?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, I have heard from my uncles about this cousin that she
has gotten very fat and unhappy and, you know, she is regularly eating out her
heart. But I don't know how true this is, so...
GROSS: My guest is Diana Abu-Jaber. Her new novel is called "Crescent."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, and
her new novel is called "Crescent."
There's a short passage from your novel, "Crescent," I want you to read.
Ms. ABU-JABER: `But a few Arabs have a long, long memory and like to believe
that someday the world and everything in it will be returned to them. Most
other Arabs would settle for a little bit of peace--less fighting in the back
yard, getting to keep the back yard, etc. And then there are the Arabs who
feel that no matter what it is they want, the world or a little peace and
quiet, America seems to be dedicated to keeping it from them.'
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about that last line, about how whatever it
is they want, America seems to be dedicated to keeping it from them?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Oh, you found that sentence in there. Well, I think there is
a sense that America has too much, that it has so much power and wealth and
education and strength and that they are able to change the fortunes of the
world. And I feel that a number of Arabs look at America and feel that
because of the negative portrayal of Arabs in this country and because of sort
of a lack of support that I think that a lot of Arabs feel that America will
never try and make the kinds of connections that many Middle Eastern people I
do think hope for.
They see, you know, for example, that Israel is able to be strengthened and
beautified and empowered by its connection with America, and I think a lot of
Middle Eastern people in Arab countries would like to have that same sort of
empowerment and that same sort of connection. And I know that that's a sense
of real sadness and frustration for a lot of Arabs in this country as well,
you know, the Hollywood representations that are just so negative and so
damning and sort of relentless, you know. So there's a real wish for some
kind of rehabilitation, if you will.
GROSS: Since September 11th, have you had a lot of, you know, friends or
students who have had trouble staying in the United States because of
post-September 11th immigration issues?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. On campus, you know, you used to see
the student union would be filled with many Middle Eastern students who would
all congregate, talking and laughing and smoking, and that's all gone. You
know, it's gotten completely quiet. It's really cleared out. I mean, to me
it's a striking absence.
GROSS: Why is that absent now?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Well, I think a number of them were called home, their parents
brought them home. I think that there is a lot of fear in terms of
immigration. Also, I think that there is a lot of fear in terms of a kind of
anti-Arab backlash because, you know, in my area, where I live now, there has
been certain kinds of angry, I would say, backlash experiences coming up. I
was on campus one day and a man come up to me and he handed me a flier that
said that it was calling for the rounding up and boycotting of all Arabs and
Arab-American businesses. Things like that have been happening. And I think
that in the Arab community there's been a lot of fearfulness about that.
I have a friend who owns a Middle Eastern restaurant in Portland who said that
she was afraid to take her children out to the shopping mall because they had
been out in public and someone had said something to her about having these
dark children and asking her in an unfriendly way, `Where are you from? You
don't belong here,' making comments like that.
So there has been a very chilling atmosphere, I think, and I know that a
number of my relatives have been concerned about what their status is in terms
of their citizenship and their passports. And it's a concern, definitely.
GROSS: Since your family looks more Arab than you do, and since you're very
fair-skinned and red-haired and so on, have there been times when they've been
treated differently than you have?
Ms. ABU-JABER: Mm. Well, I know that my father has definitely encountered
various forms of subtle and often no-so-subtle racism. I know that when he
was working in a hospital in New York state that he would encounter certain
ethnic slurs. People would bring up certain kinds of--you know, all the old
phrases that get kicked around there, and it hurt him terribly. And even now
he has certain acquaintances who he's known his whole life who, when the
trouble with Iraq started, started looking at him a little bit out of the
corner of their eye and saying, `Well, Gus(ph), you know, you're not a
full-blooded American, are you? You're kind of on their side, aren't you?'
So that has always, I would say, dogged him.
GROSS: Do you agree about the war in Iraq?
Ms. ABU-JABER: I think we do. My father has been watching the war and, I
think, feeling very torn because he considers himself completely American, a
very all-American citizen, but he also feels a lot of pain and a lot of
sadness about what's been happening in Iraq. And there's also been a kind of
chill, I think, in the environment in which a number of people feel that you
cannot be both patriotic and yet critique cultural--or a foreign policy in
this country at this moment, that if you are patriotic you will fall in step
with the program. And so my dad has really been struggling with that. And a
number of his friends have urged him to not be critical of foreign policy and
that he needs to be a patriotic American. So I see the tension that's really
come up for him.
GROSS: Well, Diana Abu-Jaber, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. ABU-JABER: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the new novel "Crescent." She
teaches at Portland State University.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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