Thursday, April 19, 2012

Interview with longtime journalist and former Editor Mohamed Ozeir

On ethnic media, the Arab American Journal and the future of Arab Americans

Mr. Mohamed Ozeir is one of the well-known former residents of Dearborn. He was an editor at our sister publication the Arab American News and started his own newspaper, the Arab American Journal, that was published from 1997 until it stopped publishing in 2002. Mr. Ozeir wrote a regular column that was widely read for its insights on Dearborn Arab politics and Lebanese and Arab politics. The Forum and Link approached him for an interview with the hope of documenting an important part of the Arab American history and experience. The following are excerpts from the interview:
*Tell me a little bit about yourself? I am a graduate of the Lebanese university where I studied political science. I have an MA from San Francisco State University and I am working on a PhD at Wayne State University. I had to interrupt my PhD studies for family reasons. I am a journalist by profession. I worked at the Lebanese daily As-Safir from 1980 to 1986. Then I immigrated to the U.S. I came to Dearborn. I worked at the Arab American News/Sada Al Watan as an editor. Then in 1997 Nuhad al Haj and I started an Arab American newspaper, the Arab American Journal/Al Arabi al Amreeki. The paper is in hiatus since 2002.
I am happily married with five children. I live in Sacramento.
*How was it to work as a journalist in Lebanon? It is a tough experience. Lebanon was chaotic at the time. I learned a lot from working at as-Safir the largest Lebanese newspaper by circulation. The publisher Talal Salman understood journalism- he rose through the ranks. Mr. Salman and I are both from Baalbeck.
*How do you see the media market in Lebanon today? The satellites have had a profound effect on the media market. As to newspapers I see that the market is crowded but it is not more diverse compared to the 1980s.
*How would you describe your experience with Sada al Watan? The Sada al Watan experience is a successful attempt to create a market and a profession in our community. All those that followed were influenced by Sada Al Watan- one way or another. When I worked at Sada al Watan we did not think of ourselves as journalists only- we thought of ourselves as writing the history of the community. There was a lot of financial struggle at the time. The paper has survived thanks to the tremendous energy and drive of its publisher Osama Siblani. One criticism though that it faces is whether it's an institution or too much the handiwork of its publisher. Is it an institution? Only time will tell.
*What was the policy of the paper when you worked at it? An Arab American newspaper. Pan Arab in orientation. Those who read the paper today have to remember the paper's history. I will give you an example. In the 1980s was the War of the Camps between Amal and the Palestinians. We were very much against that war and wrote against it. As you know Dearborn is home to an important Shia Lebanese community many of whom supported Amal. We were strongly criticized, we were so strongly hated and accused of working for the late Palestinian leader Arafat. We received threats. But that policy was consistent with what we believed in.
*How has the community changed since the 1980s? Many things changed. The Arab world changed. The Cold War ended. The community grew and changed. Many Palestinians left Dearborn for Westland, Arizona and California. The Iraqis moved in. The Yemenis became more active in part as a result of the unification of Yemen. The community, overall, is bigger and stronger. It is thriving. It is a success story.
*Tell me about the Arab American Journal, al Arabi al Amreeki, experience, how it started and why it stopped publishing? Nuhad is a friend and he was very active in educational issues in the community. I wanted an Arab community paper that reaches to other areas of the country. The paper we started together- myself as the editor and Nuhad as the publisher was started in 1997 and stopped publishing in 2002. The post 9/11 environment, the decline in ad revenue, and other factors, pushed the paper into a long hiatus. Overall, I look back at that experience with pride.
*How do you see the market for Arab community media, is it viable? It definitely is. The information revolution, the satellites and the internet have made a huge impact on accessibility of old country news. In the 1980s, for example, As-Safir, used to reach us three days old and we used to republish from it some material because our readers were eager to learn about the politics of the Arab world. Now anyone with an internet connection and cable or dish has access to news from all over the world. That means that our readers need us more for local news, for writing our Arab American history, and less for learning about what is going on in the Arab world. The ethnic media is still needed to write and tell our story. It is still possible to have an economically viable newspaper. It would not make its owner a millionaire but would provide a decent income. If run right. It's about how you market yourself. We are still needed to deliver the advertisers' message to our community- a growing, thriving community with strong buying power.
*How do you assess the growth of the community. What is limiting its potential? Religious institutions. Across the board. They are all living and surviving on a primitive way of doing business. Not helping the community at all. But their way of doing business appeals to the masses. Unfortunately.
*Many were very pessimistic in the aftermath of 9/11. How do you see the future of Arab Americans? Do Arab Americans "have a future" in this country? Definitely. I am very optimistic. Look I came to the U.S. during the TWA hijacking crisis. It was tough. Granted 9/11 was like TWA multiplied by a thousand. But we weathered the storm. Why? Not only because of our inner strength and resilience but because of what this country is about. We have the Constitution, the laws, the police, all these factors ensured that we are protected. In other countries if an event like 9/11 happened the backlash would have been way uglier. Look at what is happening in the world. How many people died in Rwanda and Burundi. This country is different. This is important. I really believe that before 9/11 we were a community on the way to more importance and influence. When Bush W. ran for president he came to Dearborn. We are on an upward trajectory that exceeds are numbers. I do believe that as to community empowerment and strength years from now 9/11 is going to be another hiccup on the road to more influence. I see the evidence in our children. The native born who are fully Arab, fully American and very involved. I have a 21 year old daughter in Boston who is heavily involved as an activist in pro- Palestine causes in a leadership position. This is the future.
*How can we make a difference? We all can make a difference in big and small ways. I remember asking then senator Spencer Abraham how one can make a difference. He said if one wakes up every morning and goes to work. That person is making a difference.

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