Between disparate worlds
It’s not exactly true that As’ad AbuKhalil skipped into the meeting room at the World Affairs Council here recently. But there was a definite lilt in his step and a boyish enthusiasm about him that was, it must be said, unexpected.
After all, this jolly moon-faced man with long corkscrew curls is the deeply sarcastic, piquant wit behind the Angry Arab News Service, a popular blog that provides links and edgy leftist commentary about the war in Iraq, Lebanese politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yes, even Saddam in his skivvies. (“This man deserves all the humiliation that he gets,” wrote AbuKhalil.)
But as AbuKhalil happily explained over tea at the corner Starbucks after his lunchtime talk, “I am not an angry Arab. I’m an angry human being!”
Given the state of the world, what anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian Middle East expert who is also an atheist, anarchist and twice-divorced feminist wouldn’t be angry? Yet here, AbuKhalil, who grew up in Beirut and speaks so fast that a court stenographer recently asked him to slow down, makes a distinction: “I am politically angry, but in my personal life, I am a happy guy. I can’t stand these leftists who have to ... mope? Is that the word? When I came to America, I have seen so many elite Arab intellectuals who are alcoholics, miserable, unhappy and obsessed with the Israeli lobby. And I remember early on, I was like, I am not going to live that life!”
And yet, with every reason to mope, AbuKhalil does not. This is part of the allure of his blog, which, as more than one reader has pointed out, stands out for its sense of humor in the dour left-wing landscape.
The Angry Arab News Service, which launched in September 2003, receives between 30,000 and 35,000 hits per month, according to AbuKhalil’s tracking. Half of its readers are in the U.S, but fans (and detractors) all over the world read it, including many in Arab countries.
The blog is full of links to news sources often overlooked in the mainstream U.S. media and is known for its sarcastic but knowledgeable commentary. One recurrent feature is “Culprit of the Week” in which AbuKhalil pokes fun at the U.S. government’s evolving list of those responsible for the Iraqi insurgency.
There is room for beauty too. Each day at the top of the blog, AbuKhalil reproduces a 20th century painting, just for art’s sake. (A disclaimer at the bottom of the blog states that it is an “educational web site and may include copyrighted material in accordance with ... US Copyright Law.”) He has a couple of irreverent running features too, for example one urging readers’ help in getting Mother Teresa beatified (“Help speed her canonization! Make miracles up!”).
He devotes about 2 1/2 hours a day to his blog, reading three Arabic-language newspapers, plus the New York Times, and headlines from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Sitting on his bed with his computer on a special stand, he monitors the information delivered to his Sony Location Free TV via two satellite dishes that bring the world to his Modesto home. (Which, despite his socialist beliefs, he owns. His house is messy because he thinks it would be exploitative to hire a maid, although he does have a gardener.)
From ABC to Al Jazeera
At 45, AbuKhalil is a tenured professor in the politics department of Cal State Stanislaus, located in the decidedly uncosmopolitan town of Turlock in the San Joaquin Valley. He is also sometimes hired as an expert in civil proceedings involving Middle East issues, such as asylum cases.
Starting when he was a doctoral student at Georgetown University, many producers turned to him for what one dubbed the “angry Arab” perspective on events in the Middle East, which is how his blog got its name. He has appeared on PBS’ NewsHour and CNN, and for a time was a Middle East consultant for NBC and ABC. (That experience, he wrote on his blog, served only to increase his disdain for the mainstream American media.) These days, he is a frequent guest on the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, which has made him something of a star at home.
“He and I have walked down the streets in Beirut.... People come up to him and recognize him and shake his hand,” said Joseph Massad, an assistant professor at Columbia University who is one of AbuKhalil’s best friends. “He is well received across the Arab world,” said Massad, who noted that Abu Khalil’s readership cuts across political lines, from leaders of Hezbollah to the far Christian right.
AbuKhalil said he is careful to keep his politics out of his classroom, although it’s no secret to his blog-savvy students where he stands. He has not had to deal with the kind of controversy that befell his friend this year when one of Massad’s Jewish students accused him of threatening to eject her during a heated discussion of Israel and the Palestinians. A report issued by a university committee found that although the student’s complaint was credible, the incident could not be proved because of conflicting accounts. Massad, who is Palestinian, was exonerated of any serious breach, but the issue remains a volatile one at Columbia.
Even people who loathe most of AbuKhalil’s positions find his blog useful. Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and research associate at the Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University, who is well known for his pro-Israeli views, trawls the Angry Arab News Service for links to news sources.
“AbuKhalil speaks for a certain brand of revolutionary, utopian secular Arabism that lost most of its following in the Middle East 20 years ago,” wrote Kramer, also a blogger, in an e-mail. “He is against the Arab regimes, against Israel, against U.S. policy, against the Islamists, against the liberals, against the reformists.... He’s the perfect example of the supremely principled and supremely irresponsible Arab intellectual. And so he’s a luxury only America can afford.”
An American citizen
On the relatively conservative Stanislaus campus of 8,000, AbuKhalil is well regarded by his students, said his department chairman, Steve Hughes.
“He has a following,” Hughes said. “He is a character, and a lot of students like that. I think the real measure of his impact is that routinely we will have one or two students a year who go off to do graduate work in Middle Eastern studies, and that never happened before his arrival.”
AbuKhalil loves Cal State Stanislaus and its students and would not consider trading it -- even for the more highly regarded UC Berkeley, where he is a visiting professor each spring.
“You know how shallow some Lebanese are about designer names, designer shoes, designer human beings, designer universities, excessive elegance?” he asked. “When I first came to Stanislaus, my mother was like, ‘When are you going to leave? When are you going to leave?’ She is a very well-educated person, very Francophile and very status obsessed. I had to tell her, ‘You know, if you really want my happiness, you have to end this conversation. You have to accept that your son is happy at a non-prestigious university.’ ”
AbuKhalil grew up a son of privilege. His father was secretary general of the Lebanese parliament, and the family enjoyed many perks as a result. “In Lebanon, I went to university with all the spoiled, rich brats, the privileged people. I belonged to the lower echelon of the spoiled brats.
“I never took Lebanon as a homeland seriously. I think Lebanon has proven that people don’t want to coexist peacefully,” said AbuKhalil, who became a U.S. citizen in 1989, mainly because traveling in the ‘80s with a Lebanese passport was “such a misadventure.”
“At the time, I looked like this,” he said, showing an ID card with a photograph of himself with short dark hair and a thick moustache -- your basic terrorist look from Central Casting, Racial Stereotype Division. “Even as a political activist when I was in my teens, it was never about Lebanon for me, it was always about Palestine.”
He does not emphasize his American citizenship. “If, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘For the purposes of anti-Semites, I am a Jew,’ that’s how I feel in America. I have to be an Arab. For all those weak, timid Arabs I’ve seen after Sept. 11, I never say I am an American citizen.... I used to hate when someone I admired and knew like [the late pro-Palestinian intellectual] Edward Said would say, “As an American ... ' I don’t want to defuse it. I want to speak to you as the other. I am the other amongst you. If it bothers you, that’s your problem, not mine.”
His family, though Muslim, was split along sectarian lines; his father’s family was Shiite, his mother’s Sunni. “I was a very religious dude when I was 8,” AbuKhalil said. “I used to say I would never shake hands with women. I was really fanatic.” He abandoned religion after he was stung by one of his grandmothers, who criticized the position of his arms as he prayed. “My Sunni family of my mother taught me how to pray. So I went to show my Shiite grandmother how I pray, and she was like, ‘This is not Islam!’ I was insulted. I felt bad.... And then I discovered Marxism and leftism by the time I was 13, 14, so ever since I have stayed like that.”
After finishing his studies at the American University of Beirut, he left Lebanon for the States in 1983 and received his doctorate in comparative government from Georgetown University.
Before landing in the San Joaquin Valley, he taught at a number of universities and colleges, including Tufts, Georgetown and George Washington, and was a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
He had already been married and divorced (to an American Jewish woman) by the time he arrived in Turlock in 1993 for a two-year visiting appointment. Though he was offered a post at Georgetown at the end of that time, he decided to stay in Turlock because he’d fallen in love with the woman who would become his second ex-wife, and also because Stanislaus changed his appointment to a tenure track job.
As happens with many bloggers who develop loyal followings, he is worried that the Angry Arab News Service is taking over his life, and in a not-entirely healthy way.
When (former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik) Hariri was assassinated, the blog was down for six or seven days, due to technical problems with his server. “You have no idea how obnoxious it was! I was suffocating! And many of my friends were calling, saying, ‘As’ad you have to blog or the people who come there will leave!’ I was like, ‘What can I do?’ So then I came back and I blogged on Hariri and it got good circulation in Lebanon. Now I feel morally obligated. There are people who come every day, and I have to feed the beast.”