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Since Sept. 11, Americans have been flooded with varied images of the Middle East. In the wake of the attacks, some have turned to Melani McAlister, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, for an analysis on how the media have been reporting current events.

In response to the inquiries, McAlister, who has spent the past nine years researching and writing her recently published first book, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000, wrote an essay based on her research for the book that aimed to provide more historical and cultural context for the attacks than people were absorbing from the media and speeches by the president. McAlister distributed the piece via e-mail to about 25 people on Sept. 14. In the subsequent weeks, she says, she has gotten more than 100 responses from around the world.

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Perhaps most memorable for McAlister was the correspondence she received from a man who was in one of the World Trade Center towers at the time of the attack. “He basically told me, ‘For three or four days, all I could do was hate Arabs,’” McAlister says. “‘I want to thank you for reminding me of who I was before Sept. 11.’”

In Epic Encounters, McAlister, 39, examines the myriad representations of the Middle East that have vied for Americans’ attention since the end of World War II. Her methodology—examining the region through the lens of popular culture—arose from her belief that most Americans have become passionately interested in the region without ever having traveled there or ever having met Middle Easterners face to face. Instead, McAlister argues, Americans have formed their opinions through “cultural encounters” in books, movies, museum exhibits, and television.

McAlister’s research serves as a reminder that acts of terrorism, and the subsequent media blitzes they touch off, stretch further back into American history than Sept. 11. McAlister’s chapter on the Iran hostage crisis analyzes not only the media’s obsessive coverage of the event but also how the “hostage rescue quickly became a staple of American action movies.”

McAlister posits that movies such as Iron Eagle (1986), in which an American teenager rescues his dad from “Khomeini-like Middle Eastern despots,” helped define a uniquely American perception about the region: specifically, that the Islamic Middle East serves as the training ground for terrorist activity that threatens to jeopardize the liberties of the average American citizen. This narrative, McAlister argues, has since been used by politicians (particularly during the Gulf War) to help define Americans’ national interest in maintaining the stability of Middle Eastern states.

McAlister is no conspiracy theorist, and she is quick to point out that, at any given time in American history, there have been multiple, and often contradictory, depictions of the Middle East circulating within our culture. She believes that it is important for Americans to acknowledge where those representations come from. “I wanted to remind us that we encounter a sense of who people are and what’s the story about them, well before—or without ever—meeting them,” she says. “And when we meet them, we do so with these stories in mind. The whole history of what people think about Islamic fundamentalism necessarily comes into play when we try and make sense of Osama bin Laden. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But we have to seriously think about what has formed our stories.” —Felix Gillette