“Is that Arabic? What does that say? Osama Bin Laden? Steal my bag and I’ll cut your hand off? Is there a bomb in that bag?
These were just some of the responses from the Australian public when exposed to TOW’s ‘BLEND’ bags. Adorned with hand-stitched Arabic text, they innocently depict traditional Lebanese nursery rhymes and children’s songs.
Although this reaction is often exclaimed in jest, it reveals an inner fear or uneasiness with Arabic, fuelled by media representations of conflict in the Arab world and homegrown terrorism. Not being familiar with the language, their interpretations express many cultural assumptions and prejudices.
“Is that Arabic? Cool!!”
Whilst this second response indicates a perception that Arabic is somehow inherently subversive, anti-authoritarian and rebellious.
Add to this a third form – an underlying fear, an unspoken apprehension, or even a quiet consideration that maybe wearing something featuring Arabic text may arouse unwanted or unpredictable public interpretations, particularly in such places as airports and on public transport. This anxiety even spread to those involved in the production of the bags, some of which expressed grave concern about being the target of Australian security investigations given ‘the look’ of the bags.
The bags were in fact created by Christine Eid, TOW, as part of the BLEND exhibition held in Melbourne, Australia in May 2003. The intention of the works was to visually interpret the assimilation and cultural preservation of the second wave of Lebanese in Australia.
From their previous state as an art installation suspended from a gallery ceiling, the bags were taken to the streets, worn predominantly by Australians of non-Arabic speaking backgrounds. The wearers of the bags, some never having experienced discrimination, were soon exposed to these diverse responses. One woman entered a bottle shop and the man behind the counter enquired about her bag as he was sure the Arabic was a reference to terrorism. When she explained that it was a children’s song about a grandfather and his donkey, he insisted she was having a laugh at his expense and felt more comfortable with his own assumption. It was through these public responses that the BLEND bags evolved into an unintended social gauge of Australian attitudes towards Arabic and Arabic speaking communities.
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