'On the Road in America," a 12-part series about four young Arabs visiting America, makes its premiere tomorrow night at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel. The creation of Jerome Gary, a producer of the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron," it has already been shown on the Saudi-owned television channel MBC, drawing millions of viewers in the Middle East.
At the start of the program, one of the hundreds of young Arabs considered for the show states his belief that "There no longer is a country that people can look up to as an idealistic country, or as an icon. I think the States used to be the icon, and it isn't anymore."
The speaker is a young Arab male. But when, given the monolithically hostile Arab view of Arab-American international relations, would he ever have considered America the epitome of idealism? During World War II, when the Arabs fought on the Axis side? During the Six-Day War of 1967? During the hostage crisis of 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini dubbed us the "Great Satan"? During the Gulf War of 1991? During the sanctions against Iraq? When Saudi terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center? It's a bit of a head-scratcher. Could the speaker possibly be untrustworthy? No matter: The next shot is of a graffito of a burning American flag with a Star of David in the top left-hand corner. That settles it, then.
The four Arabs chosen to participate in the series are Lara Abou Saifan, a young married Palestinian woman who lives in Beirut, openly states her hatred of Israelis, and is officially a producer on the show; Mohamed Abou-Ghazal, a handsome 27-year-old Lebanese graduate in medicine from the American University in Beirut who has trouble getting up early, leading to problems with the production staff; Sanad Al Kubaissi, a 20-year-old Saudi who studies advertising at the American University of Dubai, and Ali Amr, a 22-year-old Egyptian who studies accounting at the American University in Cairo and wants to "change the idea that ... American people have that all Arab people are terrorists."
Credit Mr. Gary for giving Mr. Amr a bit of a comeuppance. When the youngster asks, "Is it okay to discuss the political problems in my country?" Mr. Gary replies, "Sure, man, it's up to you. You're the one who has to go back there." So far, Mr. Amr appears to be staying mum.
The most telling scene in the three episodes distributed by Sundance is when Messrs. Ghazal and Kubaissi are driven toward ground zero. Offscreen, a woman in the car explains that the massive crater coming into view is the place that "used to be the Twin Towers, that's now called ground zero." "Okay," Mr. Ghazal says, trying hard to look like someone who has never heard about this Twin Towers business. "It's where 9/11 happened," the woman adds helpfully. "Okay," Mr. Ghazal repeats, still looking flummoxed. Mr. Kubaissi, the Saudi, stares vacantly ahead, with an expression suggestive of a deaf-mute who has just picked someone's pocket.
Apparently, news of the attacks of September 11, 2001, has yet to reach the kingdom from which Mr. Kubaissi hails, despite its contribution to the occasion. (Ms. Saifan and Mr. Amr are absent: Did they refuse to go?) Never mind, the group isn't being asked to visit ground zero. They're being introduced to the world of high finance by Justin Palmer, a casual-dress bond trader who used to work at the Trade Center but now takes a ferry to New Jersey to earn his living. No hard feelings, though. "Crazy day" is how, with exquisite sensitivity, he describes to the visitors in the car the morning downtown Manhattan exploded. Later, he divulges that his reaction to it all was to adopt a Muslim boy from Senegal. Keep Kleenex handy.
Not all the Americans are so supine. In Washington, D.C., a radio talk-show host angrily points out the various times Americans have come to the aid of Muslims, from Afghanistan in the 1970s to Kosovo in the 1990s, and his reward is a series of disbelieving grins. The foursome is also treated to a meeting with senators Boxer and Durbin, and Rep. Sam Farr. Ms. Boxer wants to give them all a big hug; she feels like their mother, apparently. Mr. Farr, having probably talked to them for about two minutes, waxes philosophical. "Once you get to know people, everything — religion, politics, warfare — just disappears," he exclaims, as if world history were a wisp of smoke he could wave away with his finger. He's clearly unaware of how quickly these four have mastered the idioms of American life — wearing baseball caps backward, using expressions like "chill out," referring to women as "guys," and riding through Times Square in a stretch limo while whooping and hollering through the sunroof.
The strongest evidence for Mr. Farr's thesis is the friendship that develops between Ms. Saifan, the Israeli-hating Palestinian, and the series' Israeli director of photography, Guy Livneh, who transparently does not hate anyone. Ms. Saifan, initially the most outspoken of the group, particularly since the documentary was filmed during the Israeli bombing campaign of Lebanon in 2006, may in fact be its best hope. By Episode 6, she is dismissing a group member's indignation about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad on the grounds that Americans and Europeans habitually make fun of all religious figures.
However, even this apparent nod to truth-telling is a falsehood since Westerners of a satirical persuasion have learned the hard way that making fun of Muhammad is likely to result in a severe rise in blood pressure if not an actual death sentence. As a woman who habitually wears tank tops, Ms. Saifan may also not be terribly representative of the female sex in the Arab world.
Like Sundance's not very iconoclastic "Iconoclasts" series, "On the Road in America" is a putatively courageous show which is essentially timid.