When we decided to include in our 10th Anniversary Issue a list of things we regretted printing, two candidates were put forth immediately by the oh-so-enthusiastic snipes who didn't write them. One, Nick Schou's piece that killed off a police officer who wasn't quite—even close to—dead; the other—mentioned with a kind of choral glee—was “Arab down the street!” “Arab down the street!” “Arab . . .”
First, the piece was not called “Arab Down the Street.” It was “The Arab Who Lives Down the Street,” but “Arab down the street” has become a sort of office shorthand for the piece—as well as a glib caution to anyone considering flying close to that heavenly blaze called satire.
Though barely 200 words, “Arab” churned up more angry responses than anything else we've ever run—even more than the time Theo Douglas called Mother Teresa's wardrobe “uninspired.” “Arab” generated angry phone calls and e-mails in the hundreds, thousands, we stopped counting, and made necessary the unprecedented and yet-to-be-repeated steps of (1) the writer penning an explanation that ran in the following week's paper, (2) the editor penning an explanation automatically e-mailed to anyone calling up the story electronically, (3) the Weekly removing “The Arab Who Lives Down the Street” from its website.
That is the legacy of “The Arab Who Lives Down the Street.”
And I wrote it.
It was meant as a quick pass at satire for inclusion in our annual “Scariest Issue,” which runs the week of Halloween. This was for the 2001 edition—I'll give you a second to do the math . . . Yes, it was just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, and “Arab” was intended to chide those who'd targeted Arab-Americans for verbal and physical abuse.
Written in a few minutes, the piece was the result of a quick brainstorming between me, editor Will Swaim and colleague Anthony Pignataro, who subsequently fled the continent (Aloha, Anthony!). Written from the point of view of a bigot who uses 9/11 as a rationale for his hatred of Arabs—confessing later he can't stand Jews and Catholics either—it was a cartoonish depiction; at one point, the idiot says, “I heard all that bowing was some kinda Morse code that only other Gee-hide-y types understand.”
No one at the Weekly who read “Arab” before it was published voiced any concern, not only because it was so far over the top—it contained the word “Gee-hide-y”—but also because, since 9/11, we had consistently reported on the plight of local Arab-Americans. Then there was the fact that in the 2001 “Scary Issue” itself, we slammed Christian talk-radio host Rich Agozino for calling Islam evil, featured a piece about the dangers “national security” posed to civil liberties—especially those of Arab-Americans—and ran a glowing profile of Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Fountain Valley-based Council on Islamic Education.
* * *
When the first few angry e-mails and letters trickled in, we brushed them off; there's always someone who doesn't get the joke. (When we published a piece critical of rampant development sarcastically begging developers to just get it over with and knock everything down, including the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, we got a letter saying our suggestion was “unconscionable.”) But the trickle soon became a downpour, the downpour a torrent and the torrent whatever comes after a torrent.
The writers always seemed to mention they were “outraged” and accused us of being “hatemongers.” We found it hard to believe that anyone familiar with the Weekly would have taken the piece seriously and found it suspicious that the writers tended to lump us in with the mainstays of conservative Orange County, including former Congressman Robert K. Dornan, especially since, within the county, we have been accused—particularly by Dornan—of being just to the left of the Weather Underground.
We'd get 100 letters in a day, and I'd think, okay, that's as bad as it's going to get, until the next day, when we'd get 150 more. Most of the writers had received the story in a mass e-mailing by the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA). In its dead-serious introduction, the WRMEA said the Weekly had libeled Arabs—and then set about proving it with a few choice selections. For example: “OC Weekly described Muslim religious prayer as 'Morse code' for insidious scheming.” And so on.
WRMEA's e-mail went on to say that many members of the large Arab community in Orange County—”the most populous county in Southern California”—had been assaulted and harassed by people “incensed by hateful speech like the one [sic] in the article.” It also pointed out that an American of Egyptian descent who lived in Arcadia—”which is very close to Orange County”—had been killed by “hatemongers, like the editors at OC Weekly.” Then, without informing recipients, it presented an edited form of my piece with the last two lines removed—the lines in which the satirical redneck author makes it clear he also hates Catholics and Jews.
Then the angry e-mails began arriving, many with the WRMEA article attached. They blasted us for our hateful stereotyping based on ignorance. None of the people had bothered to investigate WRMEA's claims or actually seek out the unexpurgated article. It was clear that few of them had ever been to Orange County, since they didn't seem bothered by the statement that Arcadia was “very close” to OC (just a hop down the 405 to the 55 to the 5 to the 605 to the 210), or that the American of Egyptian descent was killed a month before the piece appeared, or by the claim that Orange County is the largest in Southern California (it trails San Diego by a razor-thin 59,896 and Los Angeles by a mere 6,569,041. Note to WRMEA fact checkers: LA is the largest county in the United States). None of that seemed to send up any red flags.
It was also clear, however, that many of the e-mailers had heard of Orange County. They generously peppered their statements with mentions of Republicans, SUVs, all-white enclaves and Bob Dornan, and they assumed our paper was part of all that.
When informed about the nature of the piece and our paper, most e-mailers were generous and civil in their responses, though many of them still believed the piece to be ill-timed and poorly done. To them—and indeed to everyone—we apologized, noting that we had apparently broken that rule of humor that says comedy is tragedy plus time.
“I don't generally read the OC Weekly,” read a typical response from one, who presumably doesn't “generally read” the Weekly because he lives in Boston. “I received the excerpt from a listserv. I appreciate your explanation. Read in isolation, the article is frightening and infuriating. But, unfortunately, it's not very surprising in the present climate. I apologize for my lack of investigation. However, I still believe the notion that casual readers will understand the article to be satire is questionable.”
We took some solace in the fact that local Arab leaders defended us—okay, they questioned our sense of comic timing, but they volunteered to handle some of the angry callers. The Anaheim-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was especially helpful in vouching for us.
It got strange around the office. Swaim and I had, at first, been rather giddy that something we wrote had struck a nerve nationally, but soon we became uneasy at the apparent pain and fear we'd visited upon the very people we'd meant to defend. Was it possible the piece didn't make it clear it was satire? No, we both agreed—Gee-hide-y.
Was it possible that people could see what they wanted when something had been written so close to a tragedy? Swaim thought yes; me, not so much. But, being good friends as well as Catholics, we ended up arguing the other's point—Swaim emphasizing that he stood behind me and the piece, me allowing that in a conceit to cleverness, I hadn't considered the timing of the thing.
In the end, we agreed that I would write something not apologizing but explaining what had happened. I allowed that the piece may have been badly timed but took to task “casual readers” who hadn't paid attention to what they were reading.
“In these times,” I ended the piece, French horns swelling at my back, “we can't afford casual readers.”
Reading it now, it rings a little hollow, like a comedian blaming his audience for not laughing. The letters receded over the next few weeks, back to a trickle and then nothing. These days, I'm much more likely to get taunting e-mails about another vintage piece—my prediction that the Lakers would never win a championship with Shaquille O'Neal.
Still, the “Arab” lives. It's not unusual for my colleagues to invoke it whenever we're considering another satirical piece; the mere mention of “Arab” reminds us to consider all factors: timing, climate and if we'll be able to make our point clearly. Basically, “Arab” is an invitation/admonition to think about what we're doing. I know this may be hard to believe for a publication that, just two weeks ago, dressed a guy in a fat suit, forced him to waddle about Disneyland and then wrote about it, but there you are.