See For Yourself—You've seen this picture: An angry Arab youth with a rifle, or dust from an explosion rising from bombed-out buildings while people run scared through the streets. Violence, anger and war riddle the images we see coming from the Gaza Strip and Iraq.
Lonnie Anderson's seen that picture, too, and felt his perception altered by it. When he got to the desert, he found himself staring at another landscape altogether.
Fear is the message of the day coming through American media. Our vision of the area has narrowed and focused on war-torn pockets, regions in strife. That image, repeated in one setting or another on television and in newspapers for years, has become the United State's concept of many nations, which broadly fall under the heading "Middle East" or "Arab."
Anderson wanted to see for himself. He saw the towers fall from his apartment just 13 blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Since then, the idea to go on a trip to the Middle East's been brewing—and not just as a tourist. He wanted to speak with young people living in the political system, to learn from them the same way he does from his students in Albuquerque's South Valley with whom he does mural work.
Anderson, who's worked on ads for Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Spike Lee, is the creative director for Vaughn Wedeen, a consultant agency in town that deals in advertising. Though in his beanie, thick retro-frame glasses and T-shirt, you would hardly guess it.
Anderson was surprised when he arrived in Bahrain in mid-May. He stayed there until the end of the month to speak with students at the New York Institute of Technology about media, creativity and advertising. Aside from the pockets of violence we see highlighted on the news, he found the other cities to be, well, boring. "It's flat. You see camels and goat herders or a guy selling carrots," says Anderson. Even in Jordan, just 45 minutes from the Gaza Strip, life was quiet.
Whether it's Native and Chicano kids in the Valley or college students attending the New York Institute of Technology in Bahrain, Jordan and Abu Dhabi, their initial outlook on media is bleak, Anderson says. They feel overwhelmed. "They say, 'We don't feel like we can do anything. How do we get involved in the media? How do we get into a position where we can make these changes?'"
Changes like repopulating billboards and ads with Arab people.
"Most of the advertising done in the Middle East is done by British and American companies. I have friends that are Palestinian and friends that are Jordanian. They live there. They are Arab people. They have dark skin and dark eyes. They're being represented by these blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans."
Colonization marches on. Scantily clad American models with bare heads pose on billboards, despite the cultural norms of the area that require women to cover themselves. Marketing and media is a new thing in these regions, says Anderson. He saw billboards being erected during his trip and found himself in awe of days spent without being immersed in advertising the way he is at home. "It's refreshing," he says. "It reminded me of the ’50s."
American companies are hardly so innocent when plotting their invasion. Even Disney is looking to build a theme park in Dubai City. "I told the kids, 'Unless you guys want to be portrayed as people who go around on flying carpets with monkeys on your shoulders, you need to get out there and start doing the portraying.'"
Every lecture Anderson gave was filled beyond capacity, students and business people crowding in to hear the American speak. Clearly fascinated by Americans, Anderson says most students expressed aspirations to travel to New York, to visit a country they, too, considered dangerous. Consider their sources: American cinema. "The first question I was ever asked when I was there was, 'Do you hate us?' They're like, 'All we know is Americans hate Arab people.'"
Quickly, though, in each setting, their questions turned to media. How does a culture fight against stereotypes? "We turn on the news and we see students throwing bombs and people being shot and people our age throwing bombs with rifles in their hands," Anderson recalls the students saying.
Because the market is so young, there is still a chance for media and advertising to veer in a positive direction instead of becoming the unstoppable culture creator it is in America. If, that is, the young people Anderson spoke to are able to stall the dictation of ideals coming from American ad firms.
"These kids, there aren't any boundaries for them right now, because there aren't a ton of rules," Anderson says, referencing the burgeoning media industry. "They could really put themselves in a position where advertising doesn't do what it does here—objectifies women, glamorizes stupid shit—all the stuff we don't regulate. They could do advertising in an amazing way so the world would sit up and listen."