Popular for its down-to-earth, almost campy approach to Egypt's past--the plastic Moses doll floating amid bulrushes is a guaranteed crowd pleaser--the Pharaonic Village has focused like most Egyptian tourist spots on the pyramids and temples, mummies and pharaohs that Western visitors are predisposed to see.
It was only in recent months that anything mentioning Egypt's millennium of Muslim history was woven into the displays. But Abdelsalam Ragab, whose family owns the village, says a new Islamic Museum on the site is a chief part of his mission--putting the religion and its history in a tourist-friendly context.
In response to news reports about violence in Chechnya, where Islamic militants have been fighting Russian troops for independence, or the threats of a militant minority in Egypt, Ragab said he felt it important to counterpose Islam's acceptance of Christian and Jewish prophets and its advances in music, calligraphy, textile arts and architecture. And while Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were making progress in medicine, astronomy, mathematics and other sciences, he said.
"Islam is something nobody [in the West] quite understood. . . . It was always seen as a rival to Christianity," said Ragab, a pediatrician who worked for several years in the United States before returning to Egypt. He now travels between Cairo and Atlanta, where he maintains an office, intent on improving the West's understanding of Islam.
"There is so much misunderstood," Ragab said. "It is not out of prejudice. It is out of ignorance."
Misgivings between Islam and the West have loomed large in the history of the Middle East, from the enmity of the Crusades--an effort by Rome from the 11th through the 13th centuries to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control--to the 1948 creation of Israel. There also is a strong belief among Arabs that U.S. policy is tilted unforgivingly in favor of the Jewish state.
Admired for its economic, technical and cultural progress, the West, and the United States in particular, is nevertheless viewed by many Arab Muslims, leaders and lay folk alike, as responsible for the region's troubles.
In Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops are seen by some as heathens polluting the soil of a country that contains Islam's holiest sites; in even more Western-oriented countries like Egypt, newspapers frequently revel in alleged U.S. plots--to infect Egyptian women with AIDS, for example.
In the West, images of Islam and Arab culture can be equally harsh, associated as they are with the violent anti-U.S. rhetoric of suspected terrorist and expatriate Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden or the fiery speeches of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.
In recent years, however, a different dynamic has developed among some Arab and Muslim activists, one that has tried to use the media and more effective marketing to promote Arab interests and a more balanced image of Islam.
It can be seen in a number of large and small triumphs, perhaps most notably in the arrival last December of President Clinton at a newly opened airport in Palestinian-controlled Gaza. Though ostensibly made possible when the Palestinian ruling council agreed to rescind in Clinton's presence a section of the PLO charter challenging Israel's right to exist, the visit also reflected the increasing effectiveness of Arab and Palestinian lobby groups in urging more balance in U.S. policy.
On a smaller scale, Arab activists over the summer persuaded Burger King to withdraw the license for an Israeli-owned franchise opened in part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a campaign that used a very Western model of public education, a threatened boycott and media attention.
Similar efforts did not dissuade Walt Disney last month from opening an Israeli pavilion at its Epcot Center in Orlando, despite charges from Arabs and Arab Americans that the exhibit promotes Jerusalem as Israel's capital. But concerns raised over the exhibit highlighted Arab and Muslim claims, forcing Disney to make adjustments prior to its opening. The criticism also led to plans for a display focusing on the Palestinian cause.
When a winemaker used a picture of the Dome of the Rock mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, on a new "Jerusalem 2000" brand, Arabs noted the religious sensitivity of using the mosque's image on an alcoholic beverage, and the label was canceled. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol.
Whether it's a presentation of Islamic history at a tourist site or a more pointedly religious discussion held in a mosque, Muslims and Arabs are trying to do a better job of explaining their culture, faith and concerns to the West, making it seem at once less exotic and more compatible with modern times, said Muhamad Salim, who helps run the Islam Presentation Committee in Kuwait.
The committee runs a mosque along Kuwait City's busy seaside corniche and advertises Friday sermons in English--unusual both because of its implicit invitation to tourists and because Muslim purists consider Arabic the only acceptable language for preaching the Koran.
At the very least, Salim said, he hopes the committee's mosque helps show non-Muslims that Islam's places of worship are not off-limits. Some countries and communities are indeed strict about the issue: Nonbelievers are not allowed in the city of Mecca, home of the religion's most important mosque, which is built around the black stone believed to be the remnant of a temple erected by Abraham, the founding patriarch shared by Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
But many mosques in the Middle East are open to non-Muslims, and one of the committee's aims is to show that they can be welcoming places. He said Westerners have often come to him convinced that they would be in physical danger if they even walked too close to one.
"We are trying our best to break the ice," Salim said. "People have a lot of bad ideas . . . that you can't go to a mosque, that you can't talk to a Muslim . . . that it is okay [for Muslims] to kill non-Muslims."
In terms of U.S. policy, Israel has long known how to play the game American-style--maintaining an active role in national politics through lobbying groups and political action committees, and building support through other means as well, such as organizing trips to the country for state and local officials, and briefings by Israeli leaders.
Arab interest groups, lobbying organizations and think tanks now offer a counterweight and signal that the appreciation of good public relations is growing.
At a U.S. Army desert post outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a tent has been set up, staffed regularly by a Saudi official who serves tea to servicemen and explains Saudi and Muslim customs--a way not only to make them more comfortable for their few weeks at the post but also to teach lessons they will carry back to the United States.
In Dubai, tourists and visiting business representatives can share a meal with the head of a new center for cultural understanding, then visit a mosque to have Muslim prayer rituals and worship explained.
"It's our mistake if foreigners are ignorant about our culture and religion," Abdullah Serkal, director of the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, told the Associated Press. "It's up to us to reach out and teach them."