24 February 2005
When I lived in Iraq, my housemates and I purchased from a vendor in Baghdad a satellite dish to use with the television set left behind by the previous occupant. (Apparently the Republican Guard officer who lived there before us was in too much of a hurry to load up his boob tube into his Mercedes. He left behind his crystal chandeliers, $30,000 Persian rugs, and, thankfully, his remote control as well.) After figuring out just where to position the dish on our rooftop, we were all excited to get reconnected to the outside world. Unfortunately for us we had purchased the wrong microchip for the system, so our selection of programming was somewhat limited. We got BBC World News, which was great, but that was the only English programming we could find across 300-plus channels.
What we got instead was a kaleidoscopic look into the bizarre Global Village. Among the most notable stops on the dial were an Iranian headline news channel (of surprisingly high production quality) and a Polish hip-hop music channel, whose every video seemed to feature the same black man as a back-up gangsta singer—a nod to the idea of “street cred” but an acknowledgement of a shortage of Polish-speaking black guys. I remember there was a channel that showed nothing but Libyan soap operas, a channel devoted to Hindu mysticism, and a channel from an unidentified European country that played, overtop of a still image of sun breaking over a modern cityscape, a 15-second snippet of the Cranberries song “Linger” on a 24-hour-per-day infinite loop. That made no sense at all. We got Al-Jazeera, a Baltic porn channel (which was off-limits due to the fact we had women living in our house), a sweaty Sicilian cooking channel, and a Kurdish channel that showed concerts of little school children singing folk songs and dancing little joyful jigs with not-very-joyful somber little faces. Consequently, I didn’t watch much TV, and so was able to read more books than I ever had in my life. Whenever I did channel surf, it made me think that the whole world was scary and weird…except when I hit the BBC and felt the comforting, familiar sounds of English resonating in my cochleae (also cochleas).
I still get BBC World in Amman. But I also now get CNN International and a whole host of other English-speaking programming like Turner Classic Movies, ESPN, and the History Channel. Of special interest to me are Orbit News and America Plus. Orbit News plays selected broadcasts throughout the day from NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox News. This allows me to keep up with important things like the Michael Jackson trial. America Plus plays a selection of revered American dramatic and comedic programming like Sally Jesse and Saved By the Bell.
Though I am far away, thanks to the power of television, I feel like I never left home. Over the past year, I have seen news of the Scott Peterson trial and sentencing. I saw the state of Massachusetts and the city of San Francisco sanction same-sex marriages. I witnessed the governor of New Jersey publicly proclaim his disappointment at not being the Governor of Massachusetts or the Mayor of San Francisco. I learned about a woman in Missouri who had the living fetus cut out of her womb by a woman desperately wanting to be a mother. I observed another pregnant woman, this one an unmarried specialist in the Army, get famous for photos depicting her holding a leash attached to a dog collar attached to a naked and prostrated Iraqi prisoner in her charge. I tuned in to see professional basketball players jumping into the stands and beating up spectators. I listened as other grown, heroic men in tight uniforms talked openly about injecting each other in the buttocks with human growth hormones. I’ve seen weekly previews for a show about serially unfaithful wives and I even got to peek at Janet Jackson’s booby during the Super Bowl.
We get American commercials on these channels, too. There are loads of ads for companies offering debt consolidation help. I see announcements for laxatives that provide gentle, overnight relief. I see Levitra ads with its warning that “If you get an erection that lasts more than 4 hours, get medical help right away.” There are no such adverts here in the Middle East. There are ads for things like milk and candy bars and laundry detergent, often presented by conservative (yet smiling) women wearing hijabs. Compare that to the ‘Are you broke, constipated, and unable to get a boner?’ commercials and you can see a bit of the difference between our two cultures. (It’s not that the Arabs don’t have money problems, periodic intestinal discomfort, and occasional technical difficulties in the reproductive organs… they just don’t talk about them so publicly.)
It always makes me wonder what some Bedouin guy in a tent somewhere in the Jordanian desert thinks of all this. For he, too, thanks to the reach of technology, is watching Britney Spears shake her tush, rappers like Baby Bash asking ‘Suga how’d ya get so fly?’ and desperate housewives spiking their husbands’ Coors Lights with pills to cure erectile dysfunction. As his camel snores and his generator purrs outside, is his mind whirring with the question, “What planet do these people come from?” As his quiet, cloaked wife cooks the evening meal by the blue light of the satellite-enabled television, does he ask himself, “Did they just say ‘same-sex marriage’?” or “What does ‘fly’ mean, exactly?”
Viewed from the outside, and through the narrow lens of select television programming, America looks a lot stranger than Polish hip-hop. I knew before going abroad that America was a country that made high art out of airing dirty laundry. I just never realized the whole world was watching us do it. To know America only through satellite television—as most people over here do—is to behold a country of guns and G-strings, morons and miscreants.
I know there is another America, as do my countrymen reading this column. There is a smart, sophisticated, compassionate America that knows not the difference between red states and blue. It is an America built on fair play and self-improvement. It is an America we are all proud of and thankful for. Unfortunately, folks over here seldom (if ever) get to see that America. It works the other way, too. The images we see on TV of violent, seemingly crazed Muslim Arabs completely distorts the truth about the state of affairs in most homes and communities in the region.
That I can check my email in an Internet café along the Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem or tune into American television from my hotel room in Dubai is a great thing. The connectivity is there. But the content is sorely lacking. As long as Americans view every Arab as a terrorist and as long as Arabs view every American as a hedonist, we will continue to have problems between these two branches of our Family. The medium is not the message. The message is the message, and, like a game of telephone, what we’re currently receiving on both ends is all screwed up.