Sag Harbor’s Ken Dorph will discuss his experiences in the Arab world as both a business consultant and interested observer at the Bay Street Theatre’s inaugural “With My Eyes” series, sponsored with the John Jermain Memorial Library, on Thursday, April 10, at 7 p.m.
By Stephen J. Kotz
You will be speaking at the Bay Street Theatre tonight on your experiences in the Arab world. Can you give us an overview about what your talk will cover?
The title of my talk is “An Evening with my Friends, the Arabs,” and that sort of sums it up, with a heavy emphasis on friends. I have spent a good chunk of my life in the Arab world, and I have a passion for it. I think the Arab world is the most misunderstood part of the world on the part of Americans and I feel it is my responsibility to do something about it.
We know you have a background in banking and are now a consultant. Can you tell us a bit about your career and how it led to your work in the Middle East?
I was actually pre-med and I switched to anthropology—a real useful major—and I went on a junior year abroad to Morocco and later was in the Peace Corps in Tunisia. I went to graduate school at Ann Arbor, which is a great place for Arabic, and went on a Fulbright to Damascus while at Michigan…. I decided that I did not want to work for the U.S. government. I started to look around to see who was doing interesting stuff and it was business. I worked for Citibank, Smith Barney and the World Bank and then became a consultant.
I happened to be in China on September 11. I was planning on coming home on September 12…. I was so hoping somehow by some miracle the Americans would respond intelligently, so, of course, we invaded Iraq. I just decided as I was sitting in China, I wanted to come back to the Arab world.
What kind of work have you been doing lately?
I have been working with the World Bank to help the Tunisian government restructure their banks after the revolution. I’ve been working with USA ID [The United States Agency for International Development] helping the Libyans extend political power and services to local governments, and that has been extremely interesting because you have to go out in the countryside. I’ve also been working in Morocco with the World Bank to encourage investment, Saudi Arabia to get small business financing, and to set up a [agricultural] bank in Egypt.
You obviously don’t think Americans have good reason to be suspicious of the Arab world. Why is that?
I don’t see things the way I see things portrayed by the American media. It’s not my experience. I’m on their side. I work with them, I’m trying to help I’m not the enemy.
Fundamentalism is a problem, but that’s everywhere—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian. There is nothing inherent about Muslims that is any worse than Christians. I’m none of the above, I was raised a Universalist. I don’t have a dog in the fight, but I do think there is a lot of unfairness.
Yet, there does seem to be plenty of Arab animosity directed at the west. Is that a misconception?
The Muslim world has grown more Muslim because of what the rest of the world has done to it. In the 1960s, most of the Arab leaders were secular…. Do you know who Mossaddegh was? He was the democratically elected president of Iran who was overthrown because he wanted to nationalize the oil fields. The shah was put in power and he was extremely ruthless. The Iranian revolution took on a fundamentalist flavor. Then Saudi Arabia had to crack down and become more fundamentalist. People are not any more crazy in Yemen than they are in California.
What I see in the Arab world are normal people trying to live normal lives and do their best, loving their children and going to work. I think it is important to try to have a bigger heart. I tend to be an optimist. It is my nature to believe that humans are rationale. I think it is in our interest to work together.