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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Arab Image in Fact and Fiction

January 08, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

One day there will be an American TV drama viewing Arabs through the eyes of Arabs. One day in the very distant future, probably--for Hollywood is a stubborn child clutching a Linus blanket when it comes to relinquishing such ragged stereotypes as the Arab who is bloodthirsty.

Most Arabs don't carry weapons or support murder. After watching TV over an extended period, it just seems that they do.

In a way, that's a separate issue from "Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami," Sunday's charged and bristlingly good CBS movie concerning legal and moral issues that surface in the case of a captured Palestinian terrorist who is defended in court by a Jewish attorney.

It's unfair to blame executive producer George Englund and writers William Link and the late Richard Levinson for the sins of an industry just because one Arab's violence is the catalyst for their story.

The fictional Salim Ajami is merely a prominent plot device. In a broad sense, "Terrorist on Trial" (8 p.m., Channels 2 and 8) is far less about him and about politics than about the U.S. legal system's obligation to honor the rights of even a heinous international criminal.

"The difference between him and us is that he gets his day in court," Azami's attorney Sy Resnik notes, "which is more than I can say for the people he killed."

On a different level, though, Ajami surely is another of TV's relentlessly fanatical Arabs, negative images that are unbalanced by positive images and thus collectively feed suspicion and ignorance.

Not surprisingly, some of America's Arab community are bitter and suspicious themselves--evidenced by "Terrorist on Trial" being attacked by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as being "fundamentally biased."

In one of those ironic twists, the twice-rescheduled movie arrives just as Israel--ever the victim of real-life Salim Ajamis--is itself being accused of excessive cruelty to homeless Palestinians in trying to cap widespread unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

More about "Terrorist on Trial" shortly.

On TV's documentary front, a different Arab perspective prevails.

Arabs themselves, many of them academicians, define the Middle East in "The Arabs: A Living History," a valuable British-made series premiering at 9 p.m. Saturday on KCET Channel 28.

Although produced in 1983, the series is still relevant. The seven episodes being offered by Channel 28 are rich and vibrant as they chart the cultural and historical diversity of a people frequently seen by most Americans as a single, faceless mass.

In the opener, Basim Mussalam, who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, returns to his South Lebanon birthplace and other Middle East locations to explore "the meaning of Arabness and the deep sources that sustain it."

Meanwhile, the rise of the terrorist Hizbollah and Jihad sects is traced in another documentary titled "Sword of Islam," a bold piece of reporting from Britain's Granada Television, airing at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 28

This extraordinary 90-minute program meticulously probes the roots of two of the most feared Islamic extremist groups--the Jihad having orchestrated the murder of Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and the Hizbollah having executed the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1985 TWA hijacking and numerous hostage incidents.

The fanatic's mind-set, born out of desperation, begins very early. Tuesday's documentary shows a 14-year-old boy living alone in Beirut, rising each day not to attend school but to take his gun, go out and "kill in the name of Islam."

The rabid, end-justifies-the-violence worlds of the factual "Sword of Islam" and the fictional Salim Ajami merge in your mind as one nightmarish arena of bloody extremism.

In "Terrorist on Trial" many of his fellow Jews are bitterly opposed when the brilliant law professor and famed civil libertarian Sy Resnik (Ron Leibman) reluctantly takes the case of Ajami (Robert Davi), leader of a PLO splinter group that slaughtered five American tourists in Barcelona, including a child, to bully the United States into supporting a Palestinian homeland.

"He's scum," Resnik agrees about Ajami, who has been kidnaped by the American military in West Beirut and flown to the United States, where the White House is determined to make his murder conspiracy trial a showcase for democracy. Ajami is just as determined to be seen as a soldier for a cause instead of a terrorist and to make his trial an act of war against the United States.

"Soldier in a war of liberation-- crap ," snaps prosecutor James Delmore (Sam Waterston). "He's a hired gun!"

In what would be the finale of their lengthy, luminous collaboration as writers, Levinson and Link delivered a prophetic, sometimes-brilliant script that preceded the actual case of accused Lebanese terrorist Fawaz Younis, who was captured at sea by the FBI last September and flown to the United States to stand trial.

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