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Erica Jong's "Arabs and Other Animals"

Fear of Flailing

by BETTY SHAMIEH

During the Democratic Presidential nomination process, it was clear that the majority of black feminists aligned themselves with Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton.  Is this partly because of a perceived or real persistence of racism within the mainstream American feminist movement?

When I graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 2000, a good friend gave me a copy of “Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong, which was written before either of us was born.  It wasn’t shocking to me that a book with a chapter entitled “Arabs and Other Animals” had been published almost three decades before September 11, or even that it had become an American bestseller.  It was shocking that a sensitive and dear friend who loved the book and loved me, an Arab-American, would not even remember to warn me about the flagrant-to-the-point-of-comedic racism of that chapter title. 

The experiences and modes of oppression are distinct for every marginalized ethnic group and therefore usually difficult to compare, so I can’t say whether a similar book with a chapter called  “Africans and Other Animals” would have achieved the same popular success in 1973 or have had a Columbia University conference dedicated to celebrating it as a “feminist classic” in 2008.  But, I know the reaction to that chapter title would be a major aspect of its critical reception.  It would haunt the book, especially in this supposedly political correct era, in a way that  “Arabs and Other Animals” simply does not. 

Though “Fear of Flying” is dated, it cannot be denied that Jong was able to write a book that struck a deep chord in the American psyche.  The books that we herald, that thrill and scandalize us, are a reflection of our collective fantasies about ourselves and our nightmares about others.  The people who write those works have a special sensitivity to the society in which they live.

Jong’s published reaction to being publicly confronted and castigated at the recent Columbia conference for her “ugly prejudice” by her sister, who incidentally had married an “animal” and had half-Arab children, also seemed indicative of the ways in which antipathy towards Arabs has and has not evolved in the past three decades.  Though Jong ceded that she wouldn’t use “Arabs and Other Animals” as a chapter title today, she told The New Yorker that, “When Moqtada al-Sadr comes to power, and I am facing the firing squad, it will be for that.” 

Although it is egregious that she somehow casts herself as a heroine and victim after she is called out for being a bigot, it is even more significant that her words reinforce again the idea that all Arabs are dangerous and out to get Americans for our freedoms to write racy books rather than our policies in the Middle East.  Where is al-Sadr likely to come to power?  In war-torn Iraq, which has become so sectarian it seems unlikely that any one group can stabilize its leadership?  No, it seems to be America itself where al-Sadr is going to be rolling in, taking charge and assembling his firing squad reserved for novelists. 

Why does this distortion of Arab power, or rather lack thereof, matter?  Because the tendency for too many Americans to grossly and irrationally overestimate the threat of these “animals” – also known as men and women living in Third World countries that realistically have little chance of countering the First World’s economic and military might – helped to fuel the second Bush administration’s success in quickly getting the authorization necessary to launch the second Gulf war, and the first Bush administration’s ability to wage the first one.

Meanwhile, as the debate over whether it is harder to be a black man or a white woman running for president continues to be a divisive one, we in America seem to be acting and voting in rather sectarian ways ourselves.  We are all the sum of many parts: race, class, gender, education level, and family stability.  The feminist movement has not been able to capture the imagination of many young women activists today partly because we aren’t willing to fight, sweat, and focus solely on the struggle to secure equal rights for women without diligently ensuring that those rights aren’t used to denigrate other marginalized groups.  In short, we’re both feminists and “humanists” who crave a movement that has no tolerance for intolerance towards people who are a different race, religion, sexual preference, class, or nationality.

BETTY SHAMIEH’s plays “Roar” and “The Black Eyed” premiered off-Broadway.  A graduate of Harvard University and the Yale School of Drama, Shamieh was a 2005-2006 Playwriting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies and recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently working on her first novel.