Expanding Arab Voice Rings Out By SUZANNE TRAVERS
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PATERSON - After 12 years of slow expansion, The Arab Voice newspaper has plans to double its circulation in the next few weeks to 40,000, upping the number of states where the paper is distributed from 12 to 32.
A free weekly supported by advertising, The Arab Voice combines local coverage on issues concerning the Arab community in America with news from the Middle East. Walid Rabah, who founded the paper in Paterson in 1992, said he hopes to reach smaller communities of Arabic readers that exist all over the United States, not just in the urban centers of New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California where Middle Eastern immigrants have tended to congregate. Rabah has been touring the country for months, relying on friends to point out pockets of Arabs in Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee.
"Where we found Arabs, we're sending the newspaper there," said Rabah. Besides offering an Arab-American perspective on the news, he sees value in printing the paper in Arabic. "Most of the Arabs here ... want to keep their Arabic language. We need the newspaper to keep the language for the younger generation," he said.
Circulation will jump immediately when the paper opens an office in Dearborn, Mich. Rabah said he is a week or two from closing a deal on an office, which will be run by one additional staffer. The paper, which now runs about 35 pages an issue, will also be expanded to include some 15 additional pages focused on news from Chicago, Dearborn and Southern and Western states.
" The perspective The Arab Voice offers on such issues is also important, said Dania Rajendra, editor of Voices That Must Be Heard, a project of the nonprofit Independent Press Association of New York that publishes articles translated from immigrant and ethnic newspapers in a weekly digest. She said The Arab Voice has published articles on the lack of democracy in the Arab world and questions of responsibility surrounding that issue, and has done in-depth coverage of community news like the detention of immigrants. Some have been included in Voices That Must Be Heard. Ω
"Immigrants rarely see themselves in the mainstream media, let alone see issues and concerns reflected from their point of view," Rajendra said. Papers like Rabah's help immigrants in "building community life and political power, (in) debating the issues of the day, as well as unifying people who may be spread far over a geographic area."
Amatalkar Mohammed, a Yemeni woman who came to the United States 11 years ago when her husband came to study at the University of Tennessee, is one of about 13,000 people of Arab ancestry living in Tennessee, according to the 2000 census. From Knoxville, she said she was eager to see The Arab Voice in print form. Though she reads Yemeni papers and The New York Times online, she said, she misses an Arab perspective on issues that impact her in America.
Arab-Americans in the tri-state area can turn to other Arabic weeklies such as Aramaic, in Brooklyn, and Almanassah, in Hillside, said Rajendra, but a number of similar publications have shut down because of the advertising drought brought on by a weakened economy.
Rabah said his paper's advertising revenues have remained strong and that he expects to add more ads from Arab-American businesses located in the expanded coverage area. Ad rates will not change. The paper also reaches about 1,500 Web readers through its site at www.arabvoice.com, but runs no ads there.
In addition to articles from correspondents in the Middle East and syndicated columns by such writers as American Arab Institute president James Zogby, the paper runs book and movie reviews, as well as occasional articles translated from English publications. At times, it even runs Arabic grammar exercises, Rabah said.
But the paper has not been immune from controversy. Last November it was widely criticized for printing "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a forged document that purports to have been written by Jews plotting to achieve world domination. The work was used as anti-Semitic propaganda against Jews in czarist Russia and Nazi Germany.
At the time, Rabah said he printed the Protocols with a disclaimer stating that the paper didn't believe they were true, and that he believed printing them would be educational.
Later, he apologized for publishing the tract in a letter to columnist Zogby.
Irfan Khawaja, an adjunct professor at The College of New Jersey, was one of those who criticized The Arab Voice for printing the Protocols.
"Regardless of whatever else it may do well, the Arab Voice has forfeited any claim to being a legitimate newspaper as a result of the Protocols episode," Khawaja said last Thursday.
A genteel man with a thin, pale face, and white hair, Rabah began distributing the paper in Paterson, Clifton, North Bergen and Jersey City about 10 years ago, later expanding up and down the East Coast. Now 60, he has been a writer and journalist for more than 30 years, and has authored 15 books in Arabic, including four for children. He works with an adult son, and leaves the office early on weekdays to pick up his 3- and 7-year-old from school.
A Palestinian, who covered the Middle East for years, he left "because there is no freedom there. When you write they will put you in the prison." He said he was jailed for periods of a week to two months in Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, for articles he wrote criticizing those countries' governments.
Now in the United States, he said, "I write whatever I want. Nobody ever says anything. We write against the war, the U.S. government, the American media, but nobody ever asks us (about it.) That's why I'm a very good American citizen," he said.