Arabs in America:
The Crisis and the Challenge
Philip A. Salem, M.D.

Arabs in America face a crisis of identity, unity, and vision. As they are physically distant from their homeland, which they consider their past, they are also culturally distant from the new land which they consider their future. Between a past they are hesitant to revisit, and a future they are hesitant to embrace, Arabs in America are confused, frustrated and bewildered. They come from the East; they live in the West, but they do not belong to either. It is a crisis of great complexity. The challenge is to deal with it and address the issues involved with courage, intelligence and honesty. To do so is only part of our commitment to ourselves, our children, our people, and our homeland. More importantly, to do so is a commitment to our future, and to Arab generations to come.


I.  Losing Identity

Short of loss of life, I do not know of any loss which is as important as loss of identity. Losing identity is losing part of yourself. Identity is that hard core of character which is a must for integrity, and integrity is a must for mental, psychological, and emotional health. Those who lack identity and sever themselves from their roots and their past, live in a state of permanent psychological distortion. Those who forget who they are, and where they came from, have a vision which is permanently out of focus, and a life which is permanently marginal. Identity does not only give you character, but it also gives you meaning to your life and your existence. Without it, you also lose direction.
    To achieve identity and maintain it, you must preserve heritage. This is the challenge. Unfortunately, many Arabs in America believe that their heritage is worthless and shameful and are very anxious to dismantle it and try what is "American." Ladies and gentlemen! Our heritage is a treasure for us and for America. We are the descendants of a culture 6000 years old. Our ancestors made the alphabet, introduced algebra, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine to the world. Avicenna's book of "AlQanoun" remained the major textbook for medicine in European universities until the 14th Century. Arabs were in their splendor when Europe was in the dark ages and America did not even exist. America recognizes that it is only 200 years old and is anxious to learn from ancient cultures. That's why America does not only provide you with the freedom to preserve heritage, but it also begs you to do so. America is rightly convinced that the diversified heritage of its people is a major source of richness, beauty, and power. The American experiment is only in its adolescence and has a lot to learn from older human experiments and cultures. In fact, we owe it to America to infuse it with our heritage.
    One of the fatal mistakes that historians make when they deal with heritage is considering it sacred. I do not believe that there is anything sacred about heritage, and unless it is carefully studied and dissected, it could become an opium. And indeed, in our homeland, heritage works as an opium and thus, it is a major obstacle to progress. The challenge is to study heritage and sort out the good from the bad; the viable from the non-viable. It is wrong to believe that everything you brought with you from the East is good, and it is equally wrong to believe that everything you brought is bad. Arab Americans should consider themselves fortunate that they live in a land that provides them with freedom. The freedom of choice and the freedom of sorting out their heritage and their past. This freedom to choose from heritage what is good, and shed what is bad, is essential for progress. In our homeland, this option is non-existent and heritage as a whole, has been iconized. Thus, heritage has frozen progress. Since we have the freedom, let us now ask, what is it in our heritage that we can keep to ourselves, and offer to the West?

1. Spiritual and human values. If America needs anything today, it needs to infuse its people with spiritual and human values. Should America fail to do so, it will soon face a major crisis that will shake its very existence. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, were all born and raised in our land. Religion has been central to the life of the Arab. It has shaped, to a great extent, his relationship to man, God and the world. Irrespective of truth and historical authenticity, religion has provided an enormous climate of spirituality in the East. God is central to man's life. Man assesses continuously his relationship with God. Irrespective of whether you believe in God or not, and what kind of God you believe in, that kind of relationship between you and divinity is important for moral and human growth. To believe or not to believe in God is a personal option. However, to believe that man and universe were born by accident, that man has no mission, that human existence has no meaning, that life is purposeless, and that all we see is a mixture of biology and matter, is a disaster and will eventually lead to human despair and destruction.

2. Family values. We are solid believers in the family and the eternal bond between parents and children. Our parents had an enormous love for us that penetrated every corner of our lives. We too have an enormous love for them and we try to maintain this love forever. What binds parents and children, and children to each other, is not biology and economics, but love. The nucleus family in the West has partially disintegrated for many reasons, and one of them was the separation of the nucleus family from the extended family. Now and after a long experimentation with the nucleus family, America is coming to realize how important the extended family is. Nobody more than us knows how important is the love of an uncle, an aunt, a grandfather, and a grandmother. This is another issue that relates again to roots. People are like flowers; they need to have roots to grow higher and higher. That love from the extended family is essential for the healthy growth of children. Part of the emptiness of America is the deletion of the extended family. It is unhealthy for a child not to know his uncle, aunt or grandfather. The extended family is a major source of love which is essential for the healthy growth of character and for the enrichment of the child's life. The nucleus family in America is the product of the philosophy that believes in "making it on your own," but there is a major difference between "making it on your own" and being with those who love you.

3. In America, friends come and go. They are transient. In our heritage, friends are for life. Friendship is a life commitment. To America, friendship is a luxury item, to us a necessity. Somehow in America, friendship is conceived as an additional social burden. To us, it is a social necessity that enriches our lives and deepens their meaning. Partly because of the lack of real friendships and partly because of the lack of the extended family, the American is by far, a more lonely person that the Arab.

4. Generosity of heart. Arabs in general are extremely generous at heart. Ready to give from themselves and their money. The are compassionate, loving and innocent people.

5. Life somehow has a deeper meaning for us. It has a certain myth. We love to live it; we love to enjoy it. Life to us is not only a question of survival, but a question of beauty, meaning and joy. To us, life is a charm that we cannot explain in words and quantitate in numbers.

One of the most important tools to preserve heritage is to preserve language. The Arab language is a rich and a great language. Arabs should be proud of their language and should teach it to their children. Without preserving language, it is almost impossible to preserve heritage. To teach our children Arabic, we must establish schools for that purpose. I am proud to say that I am one of the founders of the Lebanese Club in Houston, which has founded the first Arabic school in the city. Teaching our children Arabic is the best guarantee that they remain ours. If our children do not speak our language, they become more foreign to us and the cultural gap between them and us will widen. Some people immigrate twice; first, when they physically immigrate and second, when their children culturally immigrate away from them. The latter is even more painful than the former.

II. Learning from America

With the same force that I say to you "sort out your heritage and take only the best," I say to you, "sort out your present and accept only the very best." As it is wrong to believe that everything you brought with you from the homeland is bad, it is also wrong to assume that everything you see in America is good. We do not only have the option of sorting out what America officers, but we also have the option of synthesis -- to combine what is best in the East with what is best in the West. What can we learn from America?

1. Respect for science. The reality of science and its power to serve man and his needs have not been adequately appreciated by our people. Science has been and will forever remain a driving source for culture and civilization. Unfortunately, science remains peripheral to Arab life and culture.

2. Commitment to hard work and discipline. Hard work is religion in America and one of the reasons this country has made so much progress in such a short time.

3. Commitment to promises. Americans take to heart what they say. They usually try to deliver what they promise. We, on the other hand, use words with much less commitment. Arabs do not yet understand that you cannot build a nation by speeches and promises. Deeds, not words, are the indices for achievement.

4. The art of listening and tolerance to opposing views. Arabs are not famous for their art of listening nor for their tolerance to opposing views. This has been a major problem in communicating with each other and with the rest of the world. This was one of the reasons why we have failed to formulate a unified vision and a unified strategy in our struggle for political and social progress.

5. Teamwork. We have yet to realize that without teamwork, our progress will remain very slow. When Americans put a man on the moon, this was not a triumph for science as much as it was a triumph for teamwork. It was a triumph for the ability of thousands of scientists and technicians to work cohesively, harmoniously, and together for a specific purpose. Such teamwork approach remains marginal to Arab life.

6. Objectivity. It is important that we learn a sense of objectivity from Americans. This objective attitude to life is not only essential for making progress in science, but also making progress in every avenue of life.

III.  Working Together

Probably the most important and the most acutely needed challenge now is to realize that we won't be able to achieve anything if we do not learn to work together as a team and as a cohesive force. One of the reasons we have not been able to make a strong presence in America is the fact that we are severely fragmented. Also, we have no unified vision to work for. While American Jews have unity, clear vision, and a strategy to achieve that vision, Arab Americans have none; they remain divided along religious, geographical, ideological and political lines. In my opinion, we cannot achieve anything in America if we don't recognize the following:

1. A clear vision of what we need to achieve.

2. A strategy to achieve it.

3. An ability to work together as a cohesive force.

I am very much aware of the forces that divide us, but at the same time, I am also aware of the issues that should bring us together and demand a unified response from us. Some of these issues are:

1. Anti-discrimination. Arabs are depicted in America as uncivilized and backward people. This image of the Arab has been painted by a political minority in America to discredit the struggle of Arabs in the Middle East. Arab Americans have not risen to the challenge so far, but the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) is trying to do an excellent job. This is why, in my opinion, ADC is a must and is a platform that all Arabs should support. Unfortunately, however, I must say with honesty and courage, that discrimination against Arabs in the United States is not confined to Americans, but it also includes Arabs themselves.

2. There is a serious attempt in America now to link Arabs to terrorism. This is an attempt to discredit them and to damage their image further in America and in the whole world. Our response to this challenge has been very weak. It must be emphasized that when people discriminate against Arabs and also link them to terrorism, they do not distinguish one Arab from another. They do not distinguish a Lebanese from an Iraqi, from a Jordanian, from a Palestinian, from an Egyptian, or from a Saudi Arabian. Arabs to Americans are Arabs, irrespective of their countries of origin.

3. The need to portray the real image of the Arabs. We have done a very poor job in portraying this image. Arabs in reality are generous, warm, hospitable, and good-natured people. They adhere to moral and ethical values that the West badly needs.

4. The need to promote each other rather than destroy each other. This is a need which is acutely needed, so we can do something great together. We are fiercely individualistic people who have not realized yet that for one of us to reach somewhere, he needs the support of his fellow people and his community. The Jews have learned this lesson very well and it is time for us to learn it from them.

Therefore, it is true that we do not have a unified political vision, but we have very distinctive objectives that we need to design strategies to achieve. This work should bring us together and demand a teamwork effort.

IV.  Contributing to America

We are here, not only to take, but also to give. Contributing to America is the only way we can gain respectability and credibility in this country. We contribute to America when we do whatever we do with love and excellence. When we give from ourselves, not only from our time; and when we enjoy doing something great and beautiful, and not only when we make money out of it. The greatness of a job done, does not lie in what kind of a job it was, but how well it was done and how much love and excellence were invested into it. It is immaterial whether you are a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a mechanic, a technician, or an owner of a grocery store; what matters is how much you put of yourself into your work and how well you do it. Ultimately, it is how proud you are of your work. In the past, we had given a lot to America, but this was only the beginning. This was only a small fraction of an enormous potential for more giving in the future. Gibran Khalil Gibran, Michael DeBakey, and Elias Khoury are people from our land. There is hardly a university in American without a distinguished member of its faculty from Arab decent.
    It is needless to say that we owe it to America to contribute to its science and technology. But America needs us desperately, to salvage it from its own self-destruction. And therefore, we are here today to build with America a new future, a new vision. America is going in the wrong direction. It is drifting away from its moral, human and spiritual foundations and is being gradually lost to materialism. Should America continue in this direction, it will eventually destroy itself and it may also destroy the totality of human civilization. Acquisition of material wealth is human, but acquisition of nothing else but that kind of wealth is inhuman. Man is not only the physical, the corporate, the visible. It is also the non-physical, the non-corporate, and the non-visible. The major problem with America today is its inability to understand what is not measurable and what is not quantitable in man. America does not understand that the greatness of man lies in that non-quantitable, non-visible, non-measurable component of man. The indices of success in America are morbid; they are confined to money, fame and power. Since America is only an experiment in human experience and human achievement, it is time to recognize that this direction has failed because of the quality of man it produced. It is because of this poor quality manifested by lack of spiritual richness, deletion of moral fabric, and erosion of humanness, we witness the symptoms of serious diseases like drug abuse, crime, violence, despair, and the breakdown of the family. America now is at a crossroads; it will either continue in the same direction and it will certainly destroy itself, or we can change its direction and make it live and live abundantly. America cannot lead the world by pure scientific and technological superiority because the real enemy of America is from within not from without. The real challenge for us is to change the vision and direction of America. We can do so by infusing it with the spiritual wealth we brought with us from the East. America unfortunately, does not realize how much it needs us. But it is our responsibility to make her recognize this need. For its salvation, America does not need now more science, but more humanness. It needs the spirit which will give it the light; without this light, it will remain dark in spite of all the advances in science and technology.

V.  Contributing to our Homeland

The biggest mistake you may make is to forget, willingly or unwillingly, where you came from, and the people who loved you and who took care of you when you were unable to take care of yourself. Those are the people who made you what you are now. Irrespective of what differences in ideology, vision, and philosophy you may have with them, they are your people. They gave you love; the greatest gift in the world, do not reciprocate with disloyalty. While contributing to America gives you credibility and respect in America; contributing to your people gives you respect and credibility to yourself. People may be forgiven for many things, but they should never be forgiven for being disloyal to their parents, their families, their homelands. The umbilical cord that connects us with our land should remain sacred and eternal. Our people may not have the privileges that we enjoy and therefore, we owe them help. For this, again, we need to delineate specific objectives and design specific strategies to achieve them. Some of these objectives are:

1. Health care. The most basic human right is the right to health. Health care in the Arab world remains poorly developed and we can help a great deal along this line. This is why the Arab American Medical Association has designated a special committee to explore the ways and means to help our countries develop their medical and health care facilities.

2. Education. There is an acute need in the Arab world for the establishment of first class universities. Universities as they exist now lack two major features of a viable university; academic freedom and research. Without proper education and in the absence of good universities, there is little hope for progress in the Arab world.

3. Social and political struggle. I shall not delve into the complexities of politics in the Middle East, but I want to emphasize the fact that unless a change is brought to our political systems, there will be little room for progress. Also, it should be clear that without freedom, progress is not possible and people can never achieve their potential. Freedom is not only essential for political maturation, but also for developing the right educational system. Without freedom, there is no way for our people to march into the 21st Century.

VI.  Losing Yourself

Every one of us is here to prove himself or herself and to climb a certain imaginary ladder to the top. I have an advice to give you and a secret to tell you. My advice is, while you are climbing this ladder, do not sell everything including yourself. My secret is, this ladder exists only in your mind. The greatest wealth you have is not your money, your house, your cars, your image; it is yourself. If you lose it, you lose everything. The ladder is imaginary, and only the people who have reached the top realize that. At the end, you need to be at peace with yourself; proud of the person you see in the mirror. Many of us try hard and unfortunately many become victims of their ambitions. They become ready to sell anything and everything, including the most sacred that they have. Eventually, they realize that, by the time they reach where they wanted to reach, they have sold everything and nothing is left to enjoy; nothing is left for self-respect. I have seen enough rich and powerful people in health and in disease, to learn that material wealth is not the road to happiness and to self-respect. To be strong, you have to be yourself. You have to be at peace with yourself. You have to be respectful of yourself. If you own the whole world and you do not have this internal harmony, peace and strength, you own nothing. When I say so, I mean what I say because I am not a romanticist. I am not an abstractionist. I am a physician who has seen enough of disease and death to learn this lesson.
    Not to lose yourself, you need to know who you are, where you came from. You should adhere to the highest moral and ethical principles. In your struggle to achieve, do not crush others and don't compromise on your integrity. Do no seek approval; seek respectability. Do not only ask "what is in it for me?", but also "what is it that I can do for others?" And when you think of others, do not give them only of your money, but give them of yourself. In weakness and in strength, be appreciative of what you have been given and pray in the depths of your heart.
    May heaven and earth be proud of you.
Dr. Salem is the Director of the Cancer Research Program at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas.

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