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Between disparate worlds

A Cal State professor is the wit behind the bite in the Angry Arab News Service blog.

June 07, 2005|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It's not exactly true that As'ad AbuKhalil skipped into the meeting room at the World Affairs Council here recently. But there was a definite lilt in his step and a boyish enthusiasm about him that was, it must be said, unexpected.

After all, this jolly moon-faced man with long corkscrew curls is the deeply sarcastic, piquant wit behind the Angry Arab News Service, a popular blog that provides links and edgy leftist commentary about the war in Iraq, Lebanese politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yes, even Saddam in his skivvies. ("This man deserves all the humiliation that he gets," wrote AbuKhalil.)

But as AbuKhalil happily explained over tea at the corner Starbucks after his lunchtime talk, "I am not an angry Arab. I'm an angry human being!"

Well sure.

Given the state of the world, what anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian Middle East expert who is also an atheist, anarchist and twice-divorced feminist wouldn't be angry? Yet here, AbuKhalil, who grew up in Beirut and speaks so fast that a court stenographer recently asked him to slow down, makes a distinction: "I am politically angry, but in my personal life, I am a happy guy. I can't stand these leftists who have to ... mope? Is that the word? When I came to America, I have seen so many elite Arab intellectuals who are alcoholics, miserable, unhappy and obsessed with the Israeli lobby. And I remember early on, I was like, I am not going to live that life!"

And yet, with every reason to mope, AbuKhalil does not. This is part of the allure of his blog, which, as more than one reader has pointed out, stands out for its sense of humor in the dour left-wing landscape.

The Angry Arab News Service, which launched in September 2003, receives between 30,000 and 35,000 hits per month, according to AbuKhalil's tracking. Half of its readers are in the U.S, but fans (and detractors) all over the world read it, including many in Arab countries.

The blog is full of links to news sources often overlooked in the mainstream U.S. media and is known for its sarcastic but knowledgeable commentary. One recurrent feature is "Culprit of the Week" in which AbuKhalil pokes fun at the U.S. government's evolving list of those responsible for the Iraqi insurgency.

There is room for beauty too. Each day at the top of the blog, AbuKhalil reproduces a 20th century painting, just for art's sake. (A disclaimer at the bottom of the blog states that it is an "educational web site and may include copyrighted material in accordance with ... US Copyright Law.") He has a couple of irreverent running features too, for example one urging readers' help in getting Mother Teresa beatified ("Help speed her canonization! Make miracles up!").

He devotes about 2 1/2 hours a day to his blog, reading three Arabic-language newspapers, plus the New York Times, and headlines from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Sitting on his bed with his computer on a special stand, he monitors the information delivered to his Sony Location Free TV via two satellite dishes that bring the world to his Modesto home. (Which, despite his socialist beliefs, he owns. His house is messy because he thinks it would be exploitative to hire a maid, although he does have a gardener.)

From ABC to Al Jazeera

At 45, AbuKhalil is a tenured professor in the politics department of Cal State Stanislaus, located in the decidedly uncosmopolitan town of Turlock in the San Joaquin Valley. He is also sometimes hired as an expert in civil proceedings involving Middle East issues, such as asylum cases.

Starting when he was a doctoral student at Georgetown University, many producers turned to him for what one dubbed the "angry Arab" perspective on events in the Middle East, which is how his blog got its name. He has appeared on PBS' NewsHour and CNN, and for a time was a Middle East consultant for NBC and ABC. (That experience, he wrote on his blog, served only to increase his disdain for the mainstream American media.) These days, he is a frequent guest on the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, which has made him something of a star at home.

"He and I have walked down the streets in Beirut.... People come up to him and recognize him and shake his hand," said Joseph Massad, an assistant professor at Columbia University who is one of AbuKhalil's best friends. "He is well received across the Arab world," said Massad, who noted that Abu Khalil's readership cuts across political lines, from leaders of Hezbollah to the far Christian right.

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