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Layalina: Changing Perceptions About America in the Arab World

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For a nation that claims as its own "Hollywood" and "Madison Avenue" we certainly have taken a beating in the battle of ideas throughout the turbulent Middle East. Understandably, most of our travails throughout the Arab world can be traced right to the Oval Office, whose occupant and his hapless band of neo-warriors have single-handedly played into the hands of America's adversaries throughout the region. Need I go through the litany: The Iraq occupation indelibly defining America's Middle East democratic agenda; failure to support local democrats and human rights; the consequential rise of Shiite Iran, the proliferation of regional terrorism, the growth of Hezbollah and Hamas, abandonment of peacemaking between Israel and Palestine, etc., etc.

It has been virtually impossible to retrench and regain our balance in the hearts and minds of Arabs as debacle after debacle has steadily chipped away at our standing. Poll after poll confirms that from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, America's reputation has fallen through the basement floor. Of course, these failures will have to be reversed before anything in the way of success can be measured.

Why is it important to change adversarial Arab attitudes toward us, you ask? Well, for starters, it would facilitate an expedited withdrawal from Iraq, help incubate a new peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, arrest perhaps the growing strength of Hamas and Hezbollah, and enable the region to better acclimate to the need to develop and reform...and this is just the top of the list.

One of the real challenges we face in reversing these adverse perceptions of America is to open up lines of communication and assure Arabs that help is on the way.

One way to begin the repair job is to reintroduce America, not necessarily Washington policies, to the Arab world through the medium of television. That is why, I along with a bipartisan group of American diplomats, businessmen and media experts formed Layalina Productions ("Layalina" means "Our Evenings" in Arabic).

Layalina has been developing American-style commercial programming for licensing to Arab satellite stations throughout the Middle East to replace the cultural retread reruns that Arab media outlets have been buying from American television studios that have sullied our reputation as well in the region, including reruns of syndicated shows, such as the Jerry Springer Show, Dallas, Baywatch and ancient game shows that collectively provide Arab viewers not the most favorable image of Americans and their national values and aspirations. Yeah, I know, we like watching this stuff, but must this trove of television shows define us at a time of such turbulence?

Layalina Productions is the first, not-for-profit American producer of commercial television programming addressing U.S. image challenges in the Middle East. Layalina Productions has achieved many breakthroughs since its inception (visit its website at www.layalina.tv).

The latest achievement is its partnership with Sundance Channel, which will begin airing in the U.S. Layalina's landmark reality series "On the Road in America" which has already been aired twice to wide acclaim throughout the Arab World on the region's largest media network -- MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center), which is based in Dubai. "On the Road in America" became the second highest rated series in Arab media market prime time.

Sundance Channel will air the first of 12 episodes on Wednesday, June 4 at 9:00PM.

Join four young people of Arab heritage as they take an unconventional road trip across America. Originally created to expose Middle Eastern audiences to the diverse culture of the United States, this 12-part documentary series follows Ali, Sanad, Mohamad and Lara as they explore differences and similarities between their worlds and the people and places they visit, from the Hamptons to downtown Los Angeles. The series is intentionally provocative and pulls no punches in addressing the gulf between Americans and Arabs.

In the opening episode, the quartet meets in Washington while war rages between Israel and Hezbollah. Jerome Gary (award winning producer from Hollywood) directs.

Layalina is currently producing four other television series in addition to its existing productions:

1. A second year of On the Road in America
2. A reverse reality series American Caravan that will bring U.S. young adults to the Middle East
3. A comedy series entitled How's Your Arabic?
4. A newsmagazine show entitled Al Saat (The Hour)

Layalina is totally privately funded, and its productions are jointly produced by a team of American and Arab producers, directors and writers.

I hope you will either watch and/or TIVO On the Road in America when it airs on Wednesday at 9PM.

Clearly, changing Arab attitudes toward the United States will take more than a bunch of quality television shows. It will take a new president with an open mind to intelligently engage our adversaries, provide inspiration to potential regional allies, and a policy that regains the trust and confidence of the vast swath of Arabs who once upon a time valued America's greatness. But until then, Layalina, along with other like-minded private sector ventures engaged in "private" public diplomacy, are part of the new "soft power" that will be needed to help a new president win the battle of hearts and minds in the Middle East.

On behalf of Laylina Productions, I hope you enjoy viewing On the Road in America.