Semitic noses & sanctioned stereotypes

by Emily Dische-Becker

A few years ago, a Norwegian couple – academics, if I recall – attended a dinner party in Beirut. They, eager supporters of the Palestinian cause, were discussing the work of archaeologists in the West Bank, whose excavations aim to uncover evidence of ancient Jewish settlements and hence, justify Israeli seizures of Palestinian lands. Haig*, an Armenian-Lebanese who was seated next to the couple, inquired how these archaeologists could know whether skeletal remains were Jewish or not. The Norwegian woman quipped: because the skulls have big noses!

Lana*, who was present at the dinner, later relayed the story to me. “It was meant to be funny. But it was like: Hey, let me try to bond with the Arabs by making slightly racist jokes,” she said. “Yeah, and saying that to Haig of all people who has a massive schnozz,” I replied. “I guess they don’t realize that that’s a European stereotype about Jews that doesn’t really exist in the Arab world.”

Lana concurred: “Exactly! And at the end, she said: so the solution is to kill all the Israeli archeologists! and laughed. My blood curdled. I resent that she feels she can say this stuff to us.”


A recent feature in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) about the plight of two fixers in Lebanon describes one of the two protagonists – Mohammed Ali Nayel – as having a “markiert grosse Nase” (a markedly large nose.) Nayel, a well-respected journalist in Beirut, substitutes his income as a fixer enabling foreign correspondents, most of whom don’t speak the language and often know very little about the country, to report from Lebanon.

The entire description of Nayel as an adrenalin-chasing, fidgety drifter seemed off, as if the reporter had a fixed narrative in mind and desperately wanted the two characters to fit a single mold. Nayel in fact wrote to the reporter and complained that he was grossly misrepresented in the story (he will publish his own response to her, which I will update and link to).

I myself am quite partial to large noses, but Nayel’s is – I’m sorry to say – quite unremarkable in size. Even if it were true, why is a “markedly large nose” considered a distinguishing feature among Semites to write home about? Do reporters parachute into parts of Africa and describe the “markedly dark skin” of the natives they encounter?

Stock image of an Arab.

Stock image of an Arab.

I left the following comment under the article on the NZZ’s website (the original is in German below), stating that I found:

…the descriptive choice of “markedly large nose” not only inaccurate but also of questionable taste (and I am pretty sure that the editors of the NZZ would rightfully consider such a description exceedingly dubious if it were included in a reportage about Israel.)

The comment was published by the NZZ, albeit without the sentence where I suggested that the editors would flag such an observation were it written from Israel i.e. about Jews.

The incident, I believe, highlights a number of issues:

Foreign correspondents can pretty much write whatever they want about the inhabitants of countries where they don’t risk libel or any repercussions to their reputation or career (which is also clear from Nayel’s correspondence with the reporter after her piece was published, which he shared with me). This is neither ethical, nor does it make for very good or rigorous journalism.
The preoccupation with Semitic features hasn’t entirely been quashed, but perhaps rather transferred to a population outside of our sanctioned sensibilities. Indeed, the German-language press appears to have far fewer qualms about using language (fifth-columning, othering, construing as threatening to European values, etc.) that is generally considered anachronistic, as long as it describes swarthy types that weren’t the primary victims of Nazi racial theories.

(You can read Moe Ali Nayel’s blog here and google an image of his nose.)


Comment I submitted to the NZZ website, part of which was omitted:

Ich kenne Herrn Nayel persönlich und erkenne ihn hier leider überhaupt nicht wieder. Zappeliger, kettenrauchender Adrenalin-Junkie der unbedingt nach Amerika auswandern will? Nayel ist ein ausgeglichener Mensch und respektierter Journalist, der seit Monaten versucht seiner Ehefrau nach London nachzuziehen. Seine erste Reise nach Syrien Mitte-2011, über die er ausführlich schrieb, war kein Rausch-jagendes Abenteuer, sondern ein Versuch auszuspüren wie sich die Proteste in Homs, wo es ein Media-Blackout gab, enfalteten.

Ausserdem finde ich die Auswahl der Beschreibung “markant grosse Nase” nicht nur unzutreffend sondern fraglich geschmacklos (ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, daß die NZZ-Redaktion mit Recht solch eine Beschreibung bei einer Israel-Reportage als äusserst bedenklich erachten würde.)

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