By Naif Al-Mutawa
creator of THE 99
When I was 20 years old I boarded a train for Auschwitz.
The year was 1992. Courtesy of 10 years at a predominantly Jewish summer camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I was probably the only Arab child that ever grew up fearing the Holocaust. I took the initiative of seeing with my own eyes a place whose existence is held to be an absolute truth by some, so much so that its denial is punishable by law in some countries. Nonbelievers have told me that it didn’t exist. Typically this debate is about heaven. What I saw was hell.
It was a dreary winter day. Having arrived in Berlin, I connected to Krakow where I took a cab to the camp. Walking around, I absorbed the unfathomable. That same winter I also visited Terezin in Czechoslovakia and Dachau in Germany trying to wrap my mind around what I had seen. I remember wishing I could go back to the days when the only Jewish camp I had ever set foot in was in New England.
Thirty years ago, I boarded a plane to Camp Robin Hood.
My parents wanted me to concentrate on strengthening my English. America was the future. I made friends at camp and I read and I wrote and I imagined. I became enamored with fiction and the endless possibilities on the pages of books. I learned about the duplicitous nature of stories. I learned that some of what I had been raised with as true was false. And I returned the favor. The most salient lesson I learned was the importance of perception in shaping how I am seen and how I see others. I would later solidify that knowledge in my education and training as a psychologist.
In 1996 I met my Manhattan optometrist, Dr. Koty, for the first time. He asked me where I was from. And when I told him I was from Kuwait, he asked if I knew what Koty was short for, replying rhetorically that Koty is short for Kuwaiti. My doctor, it seems, is a fourth generation Kuwaiti Jew born in New York. Small world. He could have been, he should have been, my optometrist in Kuwait.
It is easy to forget that for over 1000 years that only place to be Jewish and safe was among Arabs. The terrible massacre wrought on the Jews in Europe shamed the world and with that shame came support for a Jewish homeland. But one people’s gain would soon become another’s loss. There is no escaping the fact that the creation of a homeland for the survivors of one of history’s most terrible tragedies was in itself a tragedy for the existing inhabitants of that homeland, any more than we can escape the horrible reality of those who were gassed in concentration camps. These are mutual truths. One cannot accept one without accepting the other. To do so would be morally and intellectually dishonest. And frankly, would be the worst kind of fiction.
My children now attend Camp Robin Hood. I hope they grow up fearing the Holocaust as I did. And I hope their Jewish counterparts at camp grow up fearing the idea of waking up one day only to find that a group that had survived a terrible massacre was now being allowed to take over their home using a holy book as their deed. It is through this type of social interaction that real change can happen. Perhaps the fifth generation of Kotys will move back to Kuwait to open up their businesses. I will certainly raise my children to welcome such possibilities.
But it will take more than individual efforts based on idiosyncratic experiences to make a significant difference. It will require concentrated efforts from the educational as well as the entertainment industries in entities where prejudice has been institutionalized and fiction is routinely peddled as fact, and fact as fiction. Just as it took several positive portrayals of African-American presidents in NBC TV’s “24” to pave the way for President Obama and his message of hope, so it will take a concentrated effort of established entertainment properties that represent various cultures to interact in a meaningful and exploratory way to pave the way for cross cultural communication through mass media.
When I created THE 99, I made sure that the heroes were from 99 countries to facilitate such interaction. I thought I would have to work alone. I was wrong.
THE 99 and DC’s Justice League of America have joined forces. By working with their American counterparts such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, THE 99 will work hard to implement President Obama’s recent message of cultural tolerance. THE 99 and the The Justice League heroes are never identified by religious orientation but it is clear what archetypes they are based on. Together, they will likely explore issues of trust, multiculturalism, and how people, real and super, perceive one another. Imagine the good that can come from a frank conversation between THE 99’s burqa clad hero, Batina the Hidden, and JLA’s Wonder Woman the, well, the not so hidden. If we can show how perceptions are unfairly formed, we can take great leaps in a single bound towards transforming them. And what better characters to explore such issues than Superman and Batman who were created by Jewish young men from New York and Cleveland at the height of anti-Semitism and THE 99 who were created by a Muslim during the height of Islamophobia (and who went to camp with a bunch of Jews from Cleveland and New York!).
When I was an undergraduate in the United States, the Middle East Club was celebrating the Independence Day of one of its countries. We took shifts at a table to distribute falafel with a big red sign behind us that read FREE FALAFEL in bold letters. Students wandered over, mingled, learned a little history and ate some falafel. The event ran smoothly until a woman left a meeting being hosted by Amnesty International, hurried toward us, dropped her bag on the floor, pointed up to the sign with both hands and exclaimed “Whose Falafel?!” We were confused until we realized that she actually wanted to free Mr. Falafel.
Sounds like a job for Superman (and THE 99!)
Dr. Naif Abdulrahman Al-Mutawa is creator of THE 99, a group of superheroes based on Islamic archetypes. He is a 2009 recipient of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the World Economic Forum. Read why he created THE 99.