x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An Arab voice on America's airwaves

Originally from Syria, Laila Alhusinni, aims to overcome prejudice in the US through lively radio current affairs show.

Laila Alhusinni, originally from Damascus, hosts a regular radio show in the US state of Michian. It goes out to the large local Arab American community which makes up as much as 40 per cent of the population.
Laila Alhusinni, originally from Damascus, hosts a regular radio show in the US state of Michian. It goes out to the large local Arab American community which makes up as much as 40 per cent of the population.

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN // Headphones clamped over her ears, Laila Alhusinni turns to the microphone, a picture of concentration. Her voice, normally urgent and insistent, suddenly turns to honey.

"Good morning, Michigan … Sabah el khair, Michigan."

Thus begin weekday mornings on Detroit's WNZK radio station - motto: 'The Station of the Nations', where the five-year old current affairs talk show is an institution, attracting a large Arabic-speaking community.

It has earned its host, the 41-year-old Syrian, local recognition both within Michigan's Arab community and outside. In 2011, the Wayne County chapter of the Young Women's Christian Association, the YWCA, recognised her as one of eight local "Women of Achievement".

"It's not bad," she said, for a Muslim woman dressed in a headscarf who arrived in the US just a decade earlier.

"I think a lot of people are puzzled by me because I don't fit with their idea of how Muslim women are."

Ms Alhusinni has a restless energy, grabbing bites of food between conversation and the phone calls that never stop. She's had to work hard. Divorced shortly after coming to America in 2001, she raised two children. Both Areej, 22, and Majed, 19, are now attending university.

And her talk show is just the beginning.

On Fridays she co-costs a show called Radio Baladi with Ray Hanania, a Chicago-based journalist, in both English and Arabic. She has also opened the Michigan chapter of the National American Arab Journalist Association (NAAJA), which promotes and supports Arab Americans in the US media.

Greater participation of Arabs in the US media is a subject dear to her heart.

"Arabs and Muslims have been in America for almost two centuries. Yet we are still far behind in establishing a strong presence in the news media," Ms Alhusinni said in an interview during lunch and between phone calls in a downtown Dearborn eatery last week.

"Until Arabs and Muslims engage in the media as a profession, we cannot expect that our voices will be heard, even with the advent of the internet; what many in the Middle East and Islamic world refer to as the great communications equaliser."

Yet it is an uphill struggle, not only to penetrate the mainstream US media, but also to convince the Arab community here of the importance of doing so, she said.

It speaks to a wider problem of community involvement, said Imad Hamad, director of the Michigan branch of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The local Arab community responded after September 11, when Arab American institutions came into their own, he said. But political mobilisation, even in a town such as Dearborn, home the global headquarters of Ford, where 40 per cent of the town's 100,000 residents is of Arab origin, proves difficult."

"We should have a real role in the [Dearborn] municipality. But we don't. The make-up of the municipality does not reflect the proportion of Arabs in the community. We don't see 40 per cent. We don't even see 10."

He describes it as the Dearborn Syndrome: "When it rains in the Middle East, people in Dearborn open their umbrellas". The community in Dearborn is divided into national and religious groups: Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqi, as well as Muslim - and more recently, Sunni and Shiite - and Christian, preventing a cogent identity from forming.

For example, said Ms Alhusinni, there were protests in support of the uprisings against North African leaders Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi last year. But the mainly Levantine community has been far less vociferous over the crisis in Syria. In some quarters of the city, the Syrian regime is perceived as the only pro-Palestinian one in the Middle Eastern region. In other quarters, there are fears over the consequences for minorities and Lebanon under the alternatives to Syria's ruler Bashar Al Assad.

Ms Alhusinni is reluctant to say much about Syria where she still has family. The daughter of a former Syrian Supreme Court judge and from a Sunni Muslim background, she will only say that she fears for her country and that she hopes the fighting will soon stop.

The heavy interest in regional news is reflected in her show, however, where it struggles for prominence with her desire to orient listeners more to local affairs.

The news last Wednesday was dominated by Syria and Lebanon, but moved on to a discussion with a Washington DC-based journalist on the US presidential elections and the role of Arab Americans. It was rounded out by health care advice from a local dietician, and a discussion with a personal injury lawyer about new federal health care reforms.

Ms Alhusinni gave the last 10 minutes of the show over to a phone-in competition. The response caused the two phone lines of a studio outfitted with 1970s-era equipment to ring off the hook.

The question: Which dictator burnt his own city? Almost every caller knew the answer, the Roman emperor Nero, but few could resist a side comment.

"Was it Saddam Hussein?," quipped one. "Qaddafi?", suggested another.

okarmi@thenational.ae