Arab Image in Fact and Fiction

One day there will be an American TV drama viewing Arabs through the eyes of Arabs. One day in the very distant future, probably--for Hollywood is a stubborn child clutching a Linus blanket when it comes to relinquishing such ragged stereotypes as the Arab who is bloodthirsty.

Most Arabs don't carry weapons or support murder. After watching TV over an extended period, it just seems that they do.

In a way, that's a separate issue from "Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami," Sunday's charged and bristlingly good CBS movie concerning legal and moral issues that surface in the case of a captured Palestinian terrorist who is defended in court by a Jewish attorney.

It's unfair to blame executive producer George Englund and writers William Link and the late Richard Levinson for the sins of an industry just because one Arab's violence is the catalyst for their story.

The fictional Salim Ajami is merely a prominent plot device. In a broad sense, "Terrorist on Trial" (8 p.m., Channels 2 and 8) is far less about him and about politics than about the U.S. legal system's obligation to honor the rights of even a heinous international criminal.

"The difference between him and us is that he gets his day in court," Azami's attorney Sy Resnik notes, "which is more than I can say for the people he killed."

On a different level, though, Ajami surely is another of TV's relentlessly fanatical Arabs, negative images that are unbalanced by positive images and thus collectively feed suspicion and ignorance.

Not surprisingly, some of America's Arab community are bitter and suspicious themselves--evidenced by "Terrorist on Trial" being attacked by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as being "fundamentally biased."

In one of those ironic twists, the twice-rescheduled movie arrives just as Israel--ever the victim of real-life Salim Ajamis--is itself being accused of excessive cruelty to homeless Palestinians in trying to cap widespread unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More about "Terrorist on Trial" shortly.

On TV's documentary front, a different Arab perspective prevails.

Arabs themselves, many of them academicians, define the Middle East in "The Arabs: A Living History," a valuable British-made series premiering at 9 p.m. Saturday on KCET Channel 28.

Although produced in 1983, the series is still relevant. The seven episodes being offered by Channel 28 are rich and vibrant as they chart the cultural and historical diversity of a people frequently seen by most Americans as a single, faceless mass.

In the opener, Basim Mussalam, who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, returns to his South Lebanon birthplace and other Middle East locations to explore "the meaning of Arabness and the deep sources that sustain it."

Meanwhile, the rise of the terrorist Hizbollah and Jihad sects is traced in another documentary titled "Sword of Islam," a bold piece of reporting from Britain's Granada Television, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 28

This extraordinary 90-minute program meticulously probes the roots of two of the most feared Islamic extremist groups--the Jihad having orchestrated the murder of Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and the Hizbollah having executed the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1985 TWA hijacking and numerous hostage incidents.

The fanatic's mind-set, born out of desperation, begins very early. Tuesday's documentary shows a 14-year-old boy living alone in Beirut, rising each day not to attend school but to take his gun, go out and "kill in the name of Islam."

The rabid, end-justifies-the-violence worlds of the factual "Sword of Islam" and the fictional Salim Ajami merge in your mind as one nightmarish arena of bloody extremism.

In "Terrorist on Trial" many of his fellow Jews are bitterly opposed when the brilliant law professor and famed civil libertarian Sy Resnik (Ron Leibman) reluctantly takes the case of Ajami (Robert Davi), leader of a PLO splinter group that slaughtered five American tourists in Barcelona, including a child, to bully the United States into supporting a Palestinian homeland.

"He's scum," Resnik agrees about Ajami, who has been kidnaped by the American military in West Beirut and flown to the United States, where the White House is determined to make his murder conspiracy trial a showcase for democracy. Ajami is just as determined to be seen as a soldier for a cause instead of a terrorist and to make his trial an act of war against the United States.

"Soldier in a war of liberation-- crap ," snaps prosecutor James Delmore (Sam Waterston). "He's a hired gun!"

In what would be the finale of their lengthy, luminous collaboration as writers, Levinson and Link delivered a prophetic, sometimes-brilliant script that preceded the actual case of accused Lebanese terrorist Fawaz Younis, who was captured at sea by the FBI last September and flown to the United States to stand trial.

Alan Dershowitz, a highly visible Harvard law professor not unlike Resnik, was an adviser on the CBS program.

More than half of "Terrorist on Trial" is simply spellbinding, a scarring, troubling, bracing journey across bumpy legal turf, snappily directed by Jeff Bleckner and beautifully performed by Leibman, Waterston and the hard-gazing, utterly convincing Davi.

Rarely is trial preparation shown so intricately and fascinatingly, or moral and ethical dilemmas in law articulated so eloquently and compellingly, or the separate pressures on a judge and opposing lawyers explored so completely and effectively.

So . . . what a disappointment when Ajami's trial--the expected deafening clash of cymbals at the end of this building drum roll--is an artificial, unsatisfying pop, as if the director and writers shot everything just getting there.

There's dissatisfaction in other quarters as well.

To his credit, Englund initiated a meeting with Faris Bouhafa, public relations director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, prior to production. But Bouhafa, in a phone interview from his Washington office, said that while some of his suggestions were incorporated into the program, he wasn't satisfied.

"The absence of any major Arab character in the film who is positive or moderate tends to reinforce a negative stereotype of Arabs," Bouhafa said. "And the absence of any other Palestinian point of view (besides Ajami's) would suggest that he is representative of the Palestinian nationalist movement."

Speaking from New York, Englund called Bouhafa's charge of stereotyping "raging nonsense" and insisted Bouhafa was the one thinking in stereotypes.

"We didn't intend to write a perfect calculus about the Middle East. But that's his (Bouhafa's) blindness. What he doesn't see is that for the first time an architect of terrorism has a forum to say something about the origins of this most heinous function."

The story does give the extremist ideologue Ajami an unrealistic stage to "urge restoration of our homeland and our rights of self-determination," but his rage is almost entirely against the United States, not Israel.

"If a real-life Palestinian was going to express his anger at the United States, I guarantee most of the monologue would be about Israeli policies against Palestinians," Bouhafa said. "Yet in this movie that is virtually ignored."

It isn't ignored elsewhere. But you have to wait until February to hear it.

In a vastly different venue, the fifth episode of "The Arabs" on KCET condemns Israel along with the West for creating "an Arab ghetto at the heart of a Jewish state" and making Palestinians "strangers in their own land."

All of the episodes are largely the personal statements of individuals, this one by Columbia University Prof. Edward Said, a Palestinian.

He charges that the purpose of negative Arab stereotypes in the West is to "justify the use of Western power to seek control over the East and possess its riches." And he believes that "to some extent, the state of Israel itself has been created and sustained by those fantasies, dreams and ambitions."

Even with its abundance of interviews and historical footage, this episode, titled "The Shadow of the West," lacks context and balance. Although hardly vitriolic, Said is selective in what he discusses and whom he interviews, clearly stacking the deck against Israel and the West.

His point of view deserves exposure, however. That's what TV needs more of: Arabs with ideas, not guns.

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