Sag Harbor resident Ken Dorph in Tunisia in 1976.
By Tessa Raebeck
Ken Dorph has lived with a polygamous family in Morocco, was kidnapped in Mexico City and picked olives with Palestinians next to an Israeli settlement. In his career in international banking, Mr. Dorph, a longtime Sag Harbor resident, has traveled the world, meeting people and learning about their respective cultures, histories and prejudices. In all his travels over a 40-year career, Mr. Dorph says he has never encountered a people so misunderstood by Americans as Arabs.
On Thursday evening, Mr. Dorph talked about the history, misconceptions and politics of the Arab world. The talk was the first of a new series, “With My Own Eyes,” sponsored by Bay Street Theatre and the John Jermain Memorial Library. with the intent of bringing local residents together to learn from the experts in their midst.
“We really can bridge our differences with enough information,” said Catherine Creedon, the library’s executive director, who on Friday called Mr. Dorph’s talk “the realization of a longtime dream for me.”
“History is never fully objective,” Mr. Dorph began, citing both his own subjectivity and the manner in which schoolchildren are taught. “History is always told from the perspective of which facts are chosen, how you speak it.”
The presentation was dedicated to two of his friends, Rob Deraney, who died in the World Trade Center’s north tower on September 11, 2001, and Tracy Hushin, who was killed by a car bomb in Amman, Jordan, in 2005.
“September 11 profoundly affected me,” Mr. Dorph said, “Not just the loss of a friend, but this sense of misunderstanding between the Arabs and the Americans. I decided I wanted to come back to the Arab world; I had to be an ambassador. I had to show the Americans that not all Arabs are evil and I had to show the Arabs that not all Americans hate them.”
Mr. Dorph emphasized that, contrary to its representation in popular culture, the Muslim world is not monolithic. From democratic, secular Turkey to the fundamentalist absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world is spread across a myriad of dialects, nationalities and continents. Some 90 percent of Arabs are Muslims, but only about 20 percent of Muslims are Arabs. Of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority live in Asia—India has more Muslims than the entire Arab world.
The center of civilization for centuries, the Arab world once boasted most of the world’s largest cities and flourished with art, architecture, music, philosophy and all forms of culture.
“Before the discovery of America, Middle Eastern dominance seemed inevitable,” Mr. Dorph said. “Most of the great urban centers of the world until the 20th century were in the Middle East, Europe was a backwater…. this whole idea of Europe ruling the world is a relatively new concept.”
In addition to the misguided view of the region as uncultured, primitive. and monolithic, Mr. Dorph said there is grave misunderstanding of women’s position in Islam.
“For its time,” he said, “Islam was a feminist religion, remarkably feminist.”
The first wife of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was a businesswoman who didn’t wear a veil. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, banned female infanticide, gave women inheritance rights and right of witness and limited polygamy, divorce and dowries, all radical policies for the 7th century.
“Throughout the Arab world, women are as literate—in some cases more literate—than Arab men, actually in many cases now,” he said.
“I have worked all over the world and I have found that in Egypt, Turkey, in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Morocco, there are more women in authority—in banks at least—than there are in the United States—and way more than on Wall Street. I worked on Wall Street and Wall Street was like Saudi Arabia…[that] may have changed now, but [was] certainly true in the ’80s—worse than Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Mr. Dorph said in Korea and Japan, the opportunities for women are “way worse than in the Arab world,” yet people rarely comment on the treatment of women when discussing those countries.
When thinking of Muslim women, many Westerners conjure up images of women in burqas, with nothing but their eyes showing through black cloaks. In reality, most Muslim women who wear veils choose to don a hijab, or simple headscarf.
In an informal survey of some 50 Muslim women, Mr. Dorph asked why they choose to wear the hijab. He received an “amazing series of responses,” he said, “but almost all of them have to, number one, deal with identity. The Muslim world knows that America is on their case.”
In response to prejudice against their religion because of the perception that it oppresses women, many Muslim women have decided to wear the veil in a proud statement of their Islamic identity.
Mr. Dorph recalled a Syrian woman who said to him, “The Lebanese girls with their makeup, with their hair, nobody takes them seriously. But when I wear my hijab with no makeup, people take me seriously.”
Mr. Dorph also spoke in-depth of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, noting, “Israel’s creation was devastating to the Arab world in many ways.”
When the newly formed United Nations partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1948, the Arab world was essentially divided in half. The centuries-old trade route from the cultural center of Cairo to the intellectual capital of the Arab world, Damascus, was eradicated.
“All these trade routes that had existed for thousands of years were gone because you had this hostile area in between,” Mr. Dorph said.
“I think it’s part of our culture that we see the world through the Israeli lens,” he said, adding that a third of American foreign aid goes to Israel and the United States is the only country in which over half the population views Israel favorably.
“Life in the occupied West Bank is a series of obstacles,” he said. There are areas Palestinians are allowed to build, areas they can go with permission, areas where they are not allowed and “checkpoints everywhere.”
“It’s a disturbing place,” said Mr. Dorph, adding that the West Bank is a “different place” than the rest of Israel, which is considerably more progressive and secular.
When he first saw the wall in the West Bank, Mr. Dorph thought it was a prison. When his cab driver told him otherwise, “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I cried. I just thought this is wrong, this is not the way to build a future.”
“The extremists are killing us, they’re the ones. It’s not the Israelis, it’s not the Egyptians, it’s the nutcases that are the problem,” he said.
A film of Mr. Dorph’s presentation can be found at the library’s temporary space at 34 West Water Street in Sag Harbor.