It is well known to most that reel to reel reality is…unrealistic. As much as minorities rightfully complain about Hollywood depictions, or non-depictions, of them and their culture, mainstream cultures are often not much better served. Most of our lives, personalities, and cultures would require a great deal of creative script writing to make it as a Hollywood film.
However, some may have noticed that the villains of choice these days seem to be Arabs and Muslims, who are often conflated with each other. This is not just post-9/11, but rather is post-Cold War. Where once the USSR was a source of contemporary plots and evil doings--Mexicans and Amerindians are the villains of choice in historic films--Glasnost, Perestroika, and the break up of the Soviet Union created a void, one that Arabs and Muslims were needed to fill. Thus was born, among others, the 1998 film with Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening, and Tony Shaloub that postulated a radical Arab Muslim terrorist siege of New York, appropriately entitled The Siege--or as I remember it unfondly “Crazy Arabs and the Crazy Women Who Love Them” (the latter would be me).
Although it died a quick death at the box office, 9/11 served to resuscitate it briefly, before it once again entered into a deep coma.
This would be of interest only to contemporary cinema students except for the fact that cinema helps determine unconscious and conscious beliefs about a people and a culture. This is particularly so when films are major sources of knowledge gathering, either in place of, or along with, the mass media, and in a setting of relative ignorance of, and paucity of contact with, “the other”. We have already seen how preconceptions about Saudis played into difficulties in the personal stories of Abdullah/NidalM, here and here, Abu Abdullah and Umm Abdullah, and Diana.
Other commentators here have remarked on discrimination against them when travelling, both as Saudis going through borders, and living abroad. Some Arabs I know have been harassed when being mistaken for African Americans (in Texas where the N* word was used a lot), or Hispanics (Puerto Ricans in NYC). The famous Indian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry was harassed at every airport as he travelled on a book tour through the US post-9/11. Although he is from Mumbai, India and is Parsi Zoroastrian, he is “brown”, and sports a thin mustache and goatee, as well as his non-Anglo name which seem to have overridden his Canadian passport and contractual obligation to an American publisher to do a book tour. Instead he was labeled a Muslim and suspected a terrorist in February of 2002.
In summary, cinematic representations of Saudis/ Arabs/ Muslims are a major part of why some families are less than thrilled about the prospect of their family member’s marriage with a Saudi/Arab/Muslim.
Orientalism –as defined by Edward Said–is the political construction by the West of the Eastern “other/Other” through political, historical, and literary discourses. Said quotes Victor Hugo’s “Lui” [in translation] on Napoleon, as an exemplar: “Sublime, he appeared to the dazzled tribes. / Like a Mahomet of the Occident.”
Occidental/ Hollywood stereotyping is also part of this construction. Most Americans realize that Valentino’s The Sheik is as unrealistic as the Crosby and Hope “Road Movies”, yet repeating stereotypes have a cumulative effect, especially on the tabla rasa that most have in terms of real life experience with the Middle East.
The Road to Morocco
So who are these cinematographic Arabs and Saudis?
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People by Dr Jack Shaheen--Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University and a leading scholar of the representation of Arabs in US popular culture--has been a landmark study of the representation of Arabs in Hollywood’s “reality”. After studying 900 appearances of Arab characters in Hollywood films (from 1896-2004) he discovered only a dozen positive portrayals, and only 50 that were balanced ones. Otherwise, he found that American cinema systematically degrades and dehumanizes Arabs in an all pervasive manner. As seen through the eyes of Hollywood, Arabs are different, “Other”, and threatening.
His list of the worst cinematographic offenders inspired a 9-minute short film that was an Official Selection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and is a trailer-style compilation of clips: Planet of the Arabs:
Planet of the Arabs Full Short Film
The following year a video called Reel Bad Arabs directed by Sut Jhally featured Dr Sheehan, his book, and its central thesis. “This groundbreaking documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged form the earliest days of silent film to today's biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Featuring acclaimed author Dr. Jack Shaheen, the film explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs--from Bedouin bandits and submissive maidens to sinister sheikhs and gun-wielding "terrorists"--along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in US history, and why they matter so much today. Shaheen shows how the persistence of these images over time has served to naturalize prejudicial attitudes toward Arabs and Arab culture, in the process reinforcing a narrow view of individual Arabs and the effects of specific US domestic and internationl policies on their lives. By inspiring critical thinking about the social, political, and basic human consequences of leaving these Hollywood caricatures unexamined, the film challenges viewers to recognize the urgent need for counter-narratives that do justice to the diversity and humanity of Arab people and the reality and richness of Arab history and culture.”
Reel Bad Arabs Full Film
Dr Sheehan includes in his “Best” list those Hollywood films that give a balanced or heroic portrayal of Arab characters. A much smaller list, it includes The 13th Warrior (1999—for the brave Arab courtier character, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991—for the Moorish character Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman), Three Kings (1999—satirical war film about a GHWB-inspired uprising against Saddam Hussein), and Kingdom of Heaven (2004—historical film about Salah Al-Din and the Crusades of the 12th century).
Dr Lawrence Michalak, a cultural anthropologist with a great deal of experience living and researching in MENA, has written a highly readable and equally devastating short article on the “The Arab in American cinema: From bad to worse, or getting better?”. Writing in 2002, Michalak cites Shaheen’s earlier work, and draws very explicit parallels to the contemporary political situation. If anything he is harder hitting than Shaheen, covering similar territory, yet breaking down the who, what, when, where, why and how, along with a view to the future in a very frank and memorable style. From the Introduction:
There is a proverb that says "truth is stranger than fiction." However, at least in the case of the Arab world, it's not really so. The real Arab world makes sense; it is the fictional Arab world-the world of novels, cinema, television, and other media--that is strange. It includes the desert sheik abducting white women, the sorcerer on the flying carpet, the Arab oil tycoon, the tyrannical potentate, the sensuous belly dancer, the fanatical Islamic terrorist, and more. These disturbingly negative images are deeply ingrained in American popular culture. We learn from such images that the Arab is fundamentally different from "us," and this has important consequences.
This short article will examine the stereotyping of Arabs in just one popular medium, albeit an important one-that of cinema. We will analyze the image of the Arab in the movies, and how it has changed in recent years, offering some thoughts about the causes of these negative images, what (if anything) can be done about it, and what might happen in the future.
It might at first seem strange to be concerned with such images. However, images are a powerful force in shaping our national world view. Most Americans have never met an Arab--except through movies-and younger people in their impressionable years are the biggest movie fans. In 2001 there were 1.5 billion movie admissions in the U.S.-up 5% from the previous year. Movies on video are watched even more. By the mid-1990s, Americans were making 4 billion video rentals per year, bringing in roughly $8 billion to $9 billion. Old movies never die; they just go from the movie theater to the video store, prime time television, and then late night television.
Beau Geste Part 1
Michalak then goes on to trace the history of the representation of the Arab in Western cinema and define the genres, or stereotypes of that representation from the earliest films (Thomas Edison's) to the time of the article (2002). There are 8: The Sheik, The Foreign Legion, Fantasy and Magic, The Mummy, An Exotic Setting, Buffoons and Tycoons, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Terrorist. While each may predominate in a certain decade or era, they all permeate the history of popular Western cinema. After 2 positive films about Arabs in 1999, The Thirteenth Warrior and Three Kings, negative stereotyping resumed with a vengeance in 2000 with Rules of Engagement, the screenplay which now Senator James Webb helped to write, and for which the US State Department provided free assistance.
In analyzing the reason for the unrelenting, systemic negative stereotyping of Arabs, Michalak first points out that this extends to other Muslims and Middle Easterners: Turks in Midnight Express (1978), Iranians in Not Without My Daughter (1991), and the Chechens in Air Force One (1997). He also acknowledges that there is the occasional Good Arab in a film full of Bad Arabs, a noble savage type, or a flawed character who can be rehabilitated. Disney's Aladdin (1992) is a film of "Not So Bad Arabs", although it seems to have confused Arabia and South Asia. Generally however, he would classify the portrayal of Arabs in Western feature films as "bad, worse, and worst".
Aladdin, "A whole new world"
As an anthropologist, Michalak is most concerned with the real world impacts of these reel Arabs. Why do these stereotypes exist and what is their impact? Regarding the why he offers the following common explanations and his rebuttals of them:
One possible response is, "Isn't it true?" Aren't there nomads in the Arab World? Yes-but fewer than 1% of the population. Aren't there kings and sultans? Yes, but most of the 22 Arab countries are republics.
Don't Arabs have oil wealth? A small minority of them do, but most Arabs have to import oil just like the rest of the Third World.
Aren't Arabs undemocratic? Some are relatively undemocratic, but democracy everywhere in the world is a question of degree. For example, the Palestinian Authority has a president who took office with a majority vote in an election with high voter turnout-which is more than can currently be said for the United States.
Aren't Arabs bad? There are about 250 million Arabs in the world, and they are like anyone else. It should be obvious that negative generalizations about millions of people-any people-are nothing more than racism. Arabs are like any odier group of people-no better and no worse.
Didn't Arabs commit a terrorist act against New York on September 11th? Yes, but can we generalize about all Arabs from the actions of a handful of people? Are there not also terrorist groups among Americans, Europeans and others? We should remember that Arab terrorism against America was invented by Hollywood in the 1970s, long before it existed in reality. From 1977 to 1993, the only Arab terrorism in America was on movie screens and in novels. The relentless stereotyping of Arabs as terrorists resulted in a situation in which any terrorist act was automatically attributed to Arabs. Thus the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 was almost universally attributed to Arab terrorists-although the terrorist turned out to be an American. Similarly, when a TWA plane exploded near New York in July 1996 it was again attributed to Arab terrorists--although it later turned out that the culprit was faulty wiring in the fuel system Following each of these tragedies, there were outbreaks of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence. [Michalak, emphasis mine]
While debunking the myth that defamation of Arabs is a Jewish Hollywood plot, Michalak acknowledges that: "Exodus was made by a pro-- Israeli director and was based on a book commissioned by a public relations firm to promote a positive image of Israel. Several egregiously anti-Arab movies--Sahara (1983), Bolero (1984), and The Delta Force (1986)--were made by Cannon (Golan-Globus films), a company created by an Israeli, Menahem Golan, who received assistance from the Israeli government in making his films." Still Michalak sees the negative Arab stereotyping as pre-dating the existence of Israel, and too prevalent in a variety of cultural media, including music and art, to be fully explained by this hypothesis.
He similarly dismisses the argument that Americans are so stupid or so inherently racist that these negative stereotypes prevail: "Americans are fundamentally no less intelligent and compassionate than anyone else."
In tackling the real reasons, as he sees them, Michalak argues that the US inherited anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-Middle Eastern stereotypes from Europe's wars with this enemy at home and on foreign soil. Other factors are American ignorance of the Middle East, Arabs, and Muslims; the universality of stereotyping; the simplistic plot lines, characterizations, and morality of most mainstream American feature films, with good guys winning over bad guys; and, the pervasiveness within American popular cinema of American foreign policy:
The media, including cinema, tend to take their cues from our political leaders, viewing the world in part through the filter of American foreign policy. Thus, in World War II we had movies that demonized Germans and Japanese. During the cold war we demonized Russians. Unfortunately, the nemesis of American policy more recently has been Arabs and other Muslims. Muammar Qadhdafy, Saddam Hussein and Yassir Arafat have all been cast in a negative light. Thus Iron Eagle (1986), and GI Jane (1997) have villains from Libya. Iron Eagle II (1988) offers a prescient post-Cold War scenario in which America and Russia unite to fight against Iraq, in a kind of comic book pre-figuration of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." There is an important political context for the choice of ethnic villains in cinema.
The Message Full length film.
Michalak does recognize that there are 2 genuinely good films about Arabs, using Arab actors, and crew before noting their non-American provenance: "The closest thing to Arab liberation through selfexpression in American cinema is two films by Syrian-American filmmaker Moustafa Akkad. The Message (1977) dramatizes the beginnings of Islam and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and Lion of the Desert (1981) is about the Libyan resistance against the Italians. The latter film is especially sophisticated, in that Akkad resists the urge to demonize the Italian Fascists--much as Spike Lee resists stereotyping the white proprietor of the pizza parlor that is trashed in Do the Right Thing (1989). But neither of Akkad's films was made with American funding and neither was a mainstream American movie."
Lion of the Desert, Omar Al-Mukhtar Part 1 of full film
However, Michalak is more concerned with the impact of this non-stop bombardment of negatively stereotyped reel Arabs. He suggests that reel Arabs can be rehabilitated in the same way as previously negatively stereotyped groups, who have followed a pattern of vilification and rehabilitation that can serve as a positive model: all bad; good guys and bad guys; all good (some false positives within that); minority self-representation, ie, real Arabs need to step up.
No post on reel Arabs would be complete without invoking David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. This landmark film has gaping historical and biographical inaccuracies, while simultaneously being a brilliant, cinematographic epic depiction of historical fiction.
Who could forget the match scene, one of cinema’s most famous edits, which has Lawrence blow out a match in Cairo, which becomes an orange fireball of a rising sun in Arabia:
the death of Daoud in quick sand:
or the (in)famous flogging/rape scene:
Yet, there has been much controversy about its historical inaccuracies, particularly the role of TE Lawrence and the taking of Aqaba, and of the depiction of Arabs as uncivilized and brutal, and incapable without British help.
Lawrence of Arabia, with all of its artistic merit and license, has informed the basic impression of Saudi Arabia and Arabs for generations. I saw it as an 8-year old in a Grade 3 Social Studies class on Saudi Arabia, and I am not alone in that. Not only do old films never die, they also appear on curricula from primary school (more commonly Aladdin) to university syllabi for Cinema Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Islamic Studies.
As Michalak wrote, no cinematic ethnic group or its real life corollary is rehabilitated until it has defenders, and ripostes to the attacks. Among the defenders of reel and real Arabs are those he lists--The National Association of Arab-Americans, the American-Arab University Graduates, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Arab Institute, and individual Arab-Americans who protest defamatory films and consult on others to improve their quality. Also, for years, Queen Noor of Jordan, the former Lisa Halaby, has spoken out to Hollywood, including recently here and here.
Academics--the ones who write the papers, teach the cinema studies courses, give the lectures, appear on PBS and NPR--have their place in this defense too. After all, they inform the students who go on to teach others, and teach the public at large, about the types of patterns over long periods of time that others might not have noticed; and, share their insights into the causes and implications.
Arab-American actors, cinéastes, video makers, entertainers, dramatists, and writers, all have a role in changing the representation of Arabs in American cinema—which is highly influential in the US, as Michalak shows, but also throughout the world, where current Hollywood films expect to make their greatest receipts. To that end, even more films focus on action, adventure, violence and visuals for mass audiences. In that sense, all, not just Arab-Americans, have a stake in rehabilitating the negatively stereotyped. Furthermore, as Michalak also signals, both world events and American foreign policy, and activities on American soil will impact the portrayal of Arabs in American cinema. I would add that how the media interpret and transmit these events is a major determining factor.
Kingdom of Heaven (Salah Deen) Extended Trailer
Meanwhile, let us all pray that Mel Gibson doesn’t decide to do for Arabs/Muslims what he has already done for the Jerusalemites in The Passion of the Christ, or the Mayans in Apocalypto. Somehow no matter what culture he depicts it becomes over-sexed and hyper-violent—just such a culture as every family dreams of for their loved ones, Saudi or non-Saudi, Arab or non-Arab, Muslim or non-Muslim.
On reel Arabs, Reel Bad Arabs:
"Arabs suffer in the hands of Hollywood", John Levesque, Seattle Post Intelligencer.
On The Siege and the impact of film stereotypes : "Civil society under siege — terrorism and government response to terrorism" in The Siege by Helena Vanhala
On Lawrence of Arabia, its historicity, and the conflicting visions of its creators:
"Lawrence of Arabia or Smith in the Desert? David Lean's film viewed as history A review discussion" by [historian] Jeremy Wilson, TE Lawrence Studies.
Lawrence of Arabia--full movie on Youtube, Part 1 of 26.
If you are a non-Arab or non-Saudi, what sources informed your first impression of Arabs, Muslims, and their cultures?
If you are Saudi, how has cinema impacted how others perceived you before they got to know you better?
How has it coloured your view of the West?
If you are in a bi-cultural Saudi/non-Saudi relationship, how has cinema impacted your own preconceptions, and those of friends and family?
What are your favourite and least favourite Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern themed films?
How closely tied are cinematographic representations, journalistic media, stereotypes, and politicized messages?
Which has impacted you more? How and Why?
Any other thoughts, comments, or experiences?
Coming next…Part II Arab Cinema