A road trip across the US of A, Hollywood tells us, entails a lot of junk food, small-town motels, and one or two one-night stands – except when it entails confronting questions like “Does Israel have the right to exist?
“On the Road in America brings together four Arabs of differing backgrounds in an RV touring 24 states over two months and 10 episodes. Originally aired in Arabic on MBC1, Layalina Productions brought two episodes in English to the American University in Cairo this week, with Layalina’s vice president and one of the show’s stars in attendance.
Shooting was set to begin the day the war in Lebanon erupted. Two of the show’s stars, Lara and Mohamed, had family in Lebanon, creating a dramatic backdrop upon which the rest of the show is produced. It also inspired a lot of questions regarding policy and fault for both the cast and those they encountered.
Egypt’s Ali Amr told Daily News Egypt that his most difficult encounter was in Los Angeles, where the group met with a judge who felt justice was being served in Lebanon, with Arabs getting what they deserved.
In the premiere episode in Washington DC, the group goes live on a radio show where one host complained he was “sick and tired of Arabs blaming the US for their problems, adding that Americans had to “confront the enemies of civilization, all, of course, stemming from the Arab world.
After tensions flare, the four enjoy an active day around town and meet with senators and congressmen.
At a particularly poignant point in the series, we see Amr discussing his loneliness on the verge of tears with a producer: “Everything here is better . but home is home, yeah?
Despite some negative incidents, Amr says the trip completely changed his view of the US, which he used to hate, and forced him to confront questions he was never forced to confront in his homeland.
One question in particular resonated with him: If Israel had somehow disappeared, would the Arabs’ problems disappear along with it?
The greatest lessons he says he’s taken from the experience are first, not to believe media or judge without knowing, and second, that travel is infinitely more educational than books. Learning to separate government from citizenry, whom he generally found pleasant, Amr says he left with more hope than he had ever had regarding Arab-American relations. He is also beginning to agree that Arabs must solve their own problems rather than relying on the US to do so.
The Saudi student, after some time experiencing Midwest life, also has a revelation. While he admits he has been pursuing the Hollywood life in terms of glamour and consumerism, he says the country folk they met who knew nothing of that life are “happier than anyone I know. Though we will never know how long the sentiment lasted, Sanad decides that happiness is more important.
While the show attempts to bridge the divide between Arabs and Americans, one wonders about the divide between Arabs themselves. The all-Muslim cast of Arabs came from complicated backgrounds: one Egyptian, one Palestinian living in Lebanon, one Saudi Arabian of Syrian origin studying in Dubai, and one Lebanese of mixed parentage.
Amr admits that the four mostly did not get along well, tensions lingering over religious, political, and even linguistic differences. Layalina VP and Executive Producer Leon Shahabian reminds me that it’s still television: “A show without conflict is not as much fun to watch. Other reminders include the 18 to 35-year-old cast members’ good looks.
“Arabs are a mosaic, he says, borrowing the quote, “they are not a monolith.
Lebanese-Armenian Shahabian says he started the television company after Sept. 11 to attempt to bring cross-cultural dialogue to cultures he felt had more in common than they realized. After living in the US for 10 years, Shahabian now considers himself more American than anything after being respected and welcomed there.
While the company’s website reveals a list of predominantly non-Arab council members, and a goal to “address the negative stereotypes about the United States, Shahabian insists that all projects seek to dispel stereotypes on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the final two episodes bring some of the Americans they met to the homes of the four stars of the show.
Still, one wonders how much impact the brief encounters can really have towards dispelling stereotypes or prejudice. Airing of the show in the US and watching the diverse cast will likely, hopefully, prompt greater understanding than the actual meetings. In any case, perhaps a more educational show would not have enjoyed the same MTV-styled glossy feel-good ‘fun-to-watch’ factor.
Layalina is also hoping to produce a follow-up series of the same sort, as well as a reverse scenario with Americans touring the Middle East. Shahabian will have to raise $1.5 million first though, as the company is a nonprofit organization.
With the show ranking second in its slot, and soon to air in the US, the money should rake in more smoothly this time around.
One can only hope that the next time the Arab cast thinks as positively of each other as they do of their new American friends.
For more information, visit www.layalina.tv.