Global Americana Institute
"My response has been to found, with some colleagues, the Global Americana Institute, which aims, initially, at getting central works of American thought and history into Arabic. I think we also have to try to endow a chair at an Arabic-speaking university, but more on that later. It has taken a long time to get all the state and Federal permissions, but we are finally done. The Global Americana Institute is a fully recognized 501(c)3 charity, and donations are tax deductible. I am coming to the public with a plea to support us. We will, of course, also be approaching foundations and other funders, but I am hoping that this project is something that can garner grassroots support.
"Frankly, we have been failed by our government and foundations in getting the message of what America really is out to the rest of the world. We have no ministry of culture, unlike France, and no British Council or Goethe Institute. The United States Information Agency was gutted in the mid-1990s, virtually defunded, and folded into the State Department as a poor sister. Its libraries, with American books, in Amman, Istanbul, and elswhere, were shut down and the books remaindered. The AMPART program to bring American lecturers to the Middle East has been slashed to the bone, and politicized (when USIA went into State, it gave the ambassadors more say over who gets invited, and many ambassadors are political appointees). Our major foundations avoid the Middle East as a program priority for the most part. There are dedicated people in the US government who try to make a difference, of course, and there are small publishing programs in Cairo and Amman, though they don't seem to me to get good distribution. Folks, we mostly are going to have to do this ourselves...
"In contrast, there is, as far as I can tell, not a single Arabic-speaking university that teaches about the United States in Arabic. There is a bit of American studies in Arab universities, but it is almost always conducted in English, and it is usually sited in English departments. American literature is virtually the only area of American studies taught in the region, and then rarely and often fitfully. And since the universities and normal schools don't teach it, it is also usually not taught in high school social studies classes. There is a two-tier system in the Arab world. The elite knows English or French, whereas the majority of the population functions almost entirely in Arabic. Most American outreach to the Arab world focuses on the English-speakers, the ones who least need it!
"What is not available in Arabic is startling. American political thought is almost completely absent. You cannot go into a bookstore and get Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, W. E. B. Dubois, or Martin Luther King. I was told the story of how a Lebanese professor went looking for the Arabic text of the US constitution and could not find it. Of course, it exists. I complained to a State Department official about this sort of thing, and he replied that he used to give out pocket copies of the constitution in Arabic to visitors to the US embassies in the Middle East all the time. He didn't seem to grasp that the text is not in the bookstores or in the libraries, and so is essentially inaccessible."
I admit to wondering if some of what he describes is due to market forces: Since translations used to be available of some of these works, wouldn't they simply be republished if there was real demand? The state of publishing in the Arab world is sad in any language, especially on topics other than religion. However, this is a worthy project and one I hope succeeds.