Dare to Ask: A Middle Easterner is not always an Arab
By Phillip J. Milano
Do Middle Easterners find it offensive to be called Arabs or A-rabs?
Karen, white, Staten, N.C.
A-rab is considered offensive because it is mispronounced. And remember, not
all people in the Middle East are Arab. There are Persians (mainly in Iran),
Palestinians, Kurd ... it goes on and on. Calling someone from Iran A-rab would
really p*** them off. Especially because A-rab is how some people in America
pronounce it in a derogatory way.
Melanie, 28, white, Chicago
Do not call someone an Arab if he is not an Arab! The best way is to find out
what the person calls himself, or find out his country of origin.
Teresa, 21, white, Illinois
Is it Apple or A-pple? Is it I-talian or Italian? The “a” is short in
“apple.” Pretty simple.
Frank, 38, Hispanic, Los Angeles
If you’re an Alabamian from Arab, Ala., it’s pronounced with a long A.
Danny, 45, white, South Korea
Call the ones from Saudi Arabia “Saudis.” The ones from Iran “Iranians.” The
ones from Jordan “Jordanians.” Get it?
Ann, 38, white, Missouri
Yes, Arab is pronounced “Ay-rab” when it comes to the town of about 8,000 in
Alabama. Outside there, though, that pronunciation distorts how the word is
pronounced in Arabic (“Ah-rab”), said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for
Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and author of “Islam,
Secularism, and Liberal Democracy” (Oxford University Press).
“If you’re being generous, you could forgive it and write it off as someone’s
accent,” he said. “But you also see ‘Ay-rab’ used by others and in Hollywood
films that promote a prejudicial and racial narrative of Muslims. The term
becomes associated with a particular offensive representation of Arabs.”
Use Middle Easterner as an inclusive catch-all that doesn’t invoke religion
when describing people from that region, he said. Don’t default to “Muslim” (or
worse yet, “Moslem”), either, because Jews, Christians and others make their
home in the Mideast, too.
Call someone from Iran an “Arab” and there’s a good chance they’ll be miffed,
as most are not Arab, Hashemi said.
“Not only that, but there are ethnic tensions between Iranians and Arabs that
go back thousands of years and are now exploited to perpetuate political
Messy stuff, politics.
“Overall, some people are trying to be offensive when they mispronounce, or
are showing intellectual laziness from something fossilized in their mind,”
Hashemi said. “The goal in a changing world should be to find the pronunciation
people prefer … to rise to the occasion. When you get it correct phonetically,
it can create a very positive impression that you’ve gone the extra step.”
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Phillip Milano, author of "I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee)," moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Keep the cross-cultural dialogue going at his
Jacksonville.com blog or at www.yforum.com. Send general
column comments to yforum (at) yforum.com. You can also hear his