Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reel Arabs and Saudis: How Real Are They? Part I—Western Cinema

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.

The Siege

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.

Rohinton Mistry

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 Sheik

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]
Exodus, Trailer

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.

Further Reading:
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.

Further Viewing:
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


Anonymous said...

It's not just Hollywood - news networks are exactly the same - giving a one-dimensional view of the Arab world. It's like portraying EVERY American as fat, lazy and ignorant about everything other than the US or EVERY European as cowardly, snobbish and having a penchant for rioting.

The British history syllabus does have a topic on Islamic/Arab History in the first year of high school, but it's usually skipped because of the lack of time (aiming to study 1000 years of your country's history including two world wars, plus bits of the history of other nations, all in three years, was always overly optimistic).

My religious education went completely the other way, with Arabs being almost idolised for their part in the origin of Islam. In the end, my views of Arabs were shaped by actually meeting them and talking to them. I found out that they're just like the rest of us. :)

P.S. Check out my recent post about the (possible) breaking of Muslim stereotypes in Britain. It's a follow-up post from the egg-splattering one.

Chiara said...

Shafiq--thank you for your comprehensive and insightful comment. I agree that one society produces a rather coherent discourse across all media, mass, artistic and social. Hence the same stereotypes are repeatedly reinforce, and in the news for example have a certain gravity and veritas. What is considered "high art" or "arthouse cinema" often contradicts the accepted discourse more, and thus must be subjected to ridicule by the mainstream. It is highly selective about what it chooses to portray and can lead even bright people astry. A friend once asked me about the war chant that Muslims always do in the background of a news clip. I asked her if she meant the call to prayer and suggested she watch less CNN. She is an extremely bright subspecialist surgeon with an MSc. At least she is bright enough and confident enough to ask. She also stopped watching CNN which made her much less anxious about the state of world.

Interesting about the British history syllabus, and what is actually taught. Syllabi always represent political as well as pedagogical considerations. The Canadian one is changing to highlight to us our role in world combat zones, as opposed to the peace keeping role we have had. This is an initiative of the Harper (anything you say GWHB) government.

It has been a recent revelation to me that so many Muslims were indoctrinated with Arabic superiority which I did know sat poorly with some pundits eg Tarek Fatak a Pakistani Canadian.

I have seen your excellent follow-up article and will comment as soon as I have a better read, and formulation of my own thoughts. You blog does an excellent job of raising British Muslim issues, among other things. Feel free to provide the links here on anything you feel is relevant to a post or which you would like us to comment on in particular.

I assume the post you and I are both referring to is this one:

I hope others will also read and comment.

Thanks again for your comment here.

BTW George Galloway seems worth a post chez vous! LOL :)

ellen557 said...

Loved the post! I remember seeing the Reel Bad Arabs doco on TV one night... it's just amazing how obvious it's done and yet no one does anything. But since then I've also noticed that many of the "baddies" also have Russian/Eastern European accents, Australians always say "crikey!" and have horribly exaggerated parts to make them seem like idiots and France is made to be a country of snobs. I could go on lol. It's sad really :(

Chiara said...

Ellen--glad you loved it! I really like the Planet of the Arabs one. It highlights the stereotyping very well; and, it reminds me of the scene in Cinema Paradiso where the now adult director views the film his projectionist mentor had put together for him of the taboo sex scenes edited out by the priest. The film of this "taboo" is a beautiful tribute to romance and on screen kisses through the history of cinema. In a way Planet of the Arabs is a beautiful compilation of negative stereotypes that ultimately points out how ludicrous they are, just as editing out the beautiful scenes of romance was a ludicrous repression.

True, before the end of the Cold War the Soviets/Russians were the villains of choice; earlier immigrants have had their turn as gangsters (Italians), vicious rebels (Mexicans, when they weren't asleep),etc.

The problem is when these historic archetypes meet the current international political scene, which just reinforces the negative.

Unfortunately this permeates the psyche of those with little contact with real Arabs.

NidalM said...

Loved the post! Pretty much nails down the history of Arab (and muslim) portrayal in western media.

Moving beyond just the characters, it's also sad how any imagery of an Arab country involves mud-colored houses, and people laboring in the hot sun. Apart from Dubai of course, which is seen as sheikhs living to excesses.

Media deals with extremes, but the problem is that the human mind is very susceptible to the dicto simpliciter logical fallacy. We think extremes are the norm.

On another note. I was reasonably pleased by the portrayal of Saladin in "The Kingdom of Heaven". :D

Anthrogeek10 said...


Thank you for posting such an important topic. I too have seen Reel Bad Arabs about a year ago in it's entirety. I had it sent to me when I ordered a film about the Israeli occupation in Palestine. They included the Reel Bad Arab documentary. I lent it to my Islamic History Prof last Spring. Apparently he found it useful in his course because I never saw it again. :) When I saw the film, I was not shocked at the negative representations of the Arab culture and it's people. However, the amount of negative representations was in some ways shocking.

If you are a non-Arab or non-Saudi, what sources informed your first impression of Arabs, Muslims, and their cultures?

Well, Not Without my Daughter was the first impression I had of Muslim men and my mom said, when she took me to see the film, "Never marry a Muslim". I did the opposite. I married a Pakistani. :) I still hear that silly movie referred to from Americans when they hear I was married to a Muslim. Sad stuff. Other than that, I never had much knowledge of Arabs or Muslims. My Father never openly vilified any race or nationality and discouraged it with us. Remember--it was my mom who took me to see this film. My Mom has more of a colored view/intolerance regarding the "other" as you put it in your post. I told my Dad about Reel Bad Arabs and he did not want me to send him the film because he claims to be "more than aware of Hollywood's manipulation of the public". My parents are divorced.

What are your favourite and least favourite Muslim/Arab/Middle Eastern themed films?

Least fav? Not Without my Daughter. I do not have a favorite really.
I want to mention that I rented a film (cannot remember it now) that depicted an American and Nigerian marriage and the Nigerian mom comes to visit in her "national dress". It was pretty sad. I do not know alot about Nigerian customs or culture but I know that Nigerians do not walk around in everyday life in clothing fit for royalty!! The mother was depicted as one who will not accept her DIL without have been given birth to a son. WTH?? She hated her DIL for a variety of reasons including the fact that the American DIL was slender! I could not finish the film. I was disappointed in it.

How closely tied are cinematographic representations, journalistic media, stereotypes, and politicized messages?

Dare we ask? Very closely tied. Historical events shape film themes as your post shows.

Thanks Chiara!

Susanne said...

I don't watch a lot of movies or TV shows so I'm trying to remember how I formed my impressions of Arabs and Muslims prior to 9/11....hmmmm.

I do know it was different from what it is now that I've met Arab Muslims. I think I was just mostly ignorant of them. The impression I did have was they were loud, emotional, passionate, angry, crying. Maybe I saw news that portrayed them like this. Yes, likely news rather than film.

I had to grin when I read what your friend said about that "war chant" that they had. Good advice you gave her on that. :)

Chiara said...

NidalM--glad you loved the post too! It is very insightful of you to move beyond the characters only--you must be a photographer, and excellent at composing shots. :)

I have been struck in my Google Images travels both by how much of Arab culture involves seafaring and coast line, and how even knowing that previously (by study and experience) the images most stuck in my mind are also of desert sands and rock formations with the occasional oasis with a few palms and maybe a cactus flower here and there. Hostile terrains, climates, flora and fauna (LIZARDS!) are often used as rhetorical devices to heighten the portrayal of the character, friend or foe, hero or villain, adjuvant or nemesis.

True about the extremes being taken as the norm. A statistics professor wrote a book for lay people showing that the things they and the media worry about happening are extremely rare, but they distract them from the realistic fears, eg. your child is more likely to suffer serious injury in your home than to be abducted by a stranger (or even by the more common abduction by a parent). Similarly most Arabs are not all in with bin Laden but then they don't make the news much. Struck by Lightning by Jeffrey S Rosenthal deals with probabilities of everyday and international events, and "explains the mechanics of randomness and teaches us how to develop an informed perspective on probability." Hmmm should be required reading for the pundits, and more importantly the Presidential administration, especially in light of the new screening procedures/14 countries.

Beware, the link at the bottom of that site leads to "ex-ex".

Ah, those are better.

I must see Kingdom of Heaven!

Thanks for your great comment!

Chiara said...

Anthrogeek--Thank YOU! Great comprehensive answers. Good move on lending the documentary film Reel Bad Arabs to your prof, and choosing to gift it now!

The lack of knowledge about and exposure to Arabs/Muslims of most Americans and many others around the world,is the tabla rasa that allows these cinematic and media stereotypes to flourish. Yet short of living in a multicultural setting, seeking out Arab/Muslim students or travel most have little or no exposure to Arabs/Muslims but a lot of "information".

I guess your mother has the positive of being clear in her views, and communicated them clearly. "Not without my Daughter" remains a touchstone and a lightening rod. I once made what I thought was a joke about moving overseas "Not without my books", not uh received well. Even worse than my "Now that's what I call Arab terrorism" joke when the hub opened the freezer to get something for breakfast and there was an explosion. Once we realized that no one was injured and the shards of glass in the kitchen and dining room with the bits of brownish substance stuck to them were part of a beer he had put in to chill and forgotten, I thought that was a hilarious joke. He, uh, didn't. Maybe he was still in shock over the explosion in his face. Maybe I'll use it again... no best to file that one under "g". LOL :)

Agreed about the very close ties between governments, media, history and some art.

Anyone know the film described?

Chiara said...

Susanne--Absolutely the news, and the long features on them would give you that impression of Arabs.

The rest of the phone conversation with that friend was: "My FIL did the call to prayer to pay his way through school. He has a loud voice and didn't need to be miked in the village mosque." "He's a Muslim? Your hub [whom she had known for years] is a Muslim? How did you get married?" "Muslim men have the right to marry Daughters of the Book, ie Jews and Christians, of good character." "Oh, I didn't know that [despite visiting her sister and BIL in multiple oil-rich Muslim countries]". Months later I asked her if she were still anxious, and she said "No, I stopped watching CNN".

My nephew is currently studying Egypt in Grade 5 but they seem stuck on Ancient Egypt, so he knows a lot about mummification, and is doing a project on Cleopatra. He asked me her skin colour, and I said, well there are different opinions on that, but we can find pictures. So we did, and I tried to explain the difference between Elizabeth Taylor's skin colour and the more likely colouring of Cleopatra, but he just held up a tan pencil crayon and said "Like this?" I said "Yes, or maybe a little lighter". He ran off saying "This is the lightest I have"--needless to say his opus was due the next morning. LOL :)

Thanks for your great comment and sharing your own ignorance, then stereotypic impression, and then getting to know Arabs personally. That is probably the most common scenario of all, except for the ones who have never met any, and so are comfortable with the stereotypes!

Anthrogeek10 said...

Chiara--funny about the exploding bottle. :P Been there--done that.

I will try and find out the movie name ok?


Anonymous said...

Chiara - I think my last post got chewed up or something but yes, that is the post I was referring to.

I just came across this article in the Daily Mail about the portrayal of white people in the movie Avatar and in other similar movies - it's towards the bottom (the first bit is about how the movie is making some people suicidal)

Chiara said...

Anthrogeek--yes after assessing that there was no damage to person or home I found the incident hilarious--but not worth repeating!
It would be interesting to know the name of the film!

Shafiq--thanks for confirming, and I will make a comment on that post.

Thanks as well for the link about Avatar. My sister and nephew saw it, but I am happier reading the cinema critiques of it. It seems as if it has quite the impact either beyond or because of the special effects, including turning patriots against the US. The wiki article on the film has some good references to other critiques of it. My sister said that it was clearly anti-American more than anti-white.
Hmmm must wonder about a group who would become suicidally depressed after the film. That usually only happens to the particularly vulnerable, just as some become obsessed with possession after seeing films like the Exorcist. There are psychiatry studies on the latter phenomenon.

RCHOUDH said...


Excellent writeup! I'll be sure to pass this along to any friends of mine interested in learning about the history of Reel Arabs in Hollywood. May I ask why you included the Godfather and Moonstruck? I'm aware of the Godfather having Italian stereotypes in it (don't know about Moonstruck).

I also like what you said about Arab stereotypes predating the creation of Israel. Before WW2, Arabs and Mid Eastern culture was depicted more cartoonishly based on those old famous stories Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. There were alot of films like Thief of Baghdad for example. Arab women were almost always depicted as sensuous bellydancers (unlike today where you see them depicted as faceless burkas). The negative stereotyping of Arabs based on politics didn't start until the 1970's oil crisis, when terrorists and burkas became more in vogue. Israeli depictions of Arabs also started around that time based on politics.
Hollywood is obviously continuing the terrorist stereotype because of the stupid War on Terror. I find it interesting though that for awhile Hollywood did try to show movies critical of that war (think of all those Iraq war dramas prior to Hurt Locker). Even though unfortunately most of those films were told from the white (as opposed to Arab/Muslim) perspective, they all died in the box office, which goes to show that mainstream audiences feel more comfortable viewing negative stereotypes of Arabs/Muslims than of their humanity. That and I believe war fatigue has led to movies critical of the war to die.
Oh yeah and seeing the video of Aladdin makes me want to share an article I wrote recently about that very film:
Feel free to comment upon it!

Chiara said...

RCHOUDH--Welcome to my blog, and thank you for your kind words and excellent comment. I do hope you will pass on the link to this and to the other cinema posts to all those who may be interested, and that you will read and comment on anything else on the blog that interests you.

I included the Godfather and Moonstruck as both are representations of Italian Americans, and I am a Canadian of Italian origin. As I mentioned most of our lives are not screen worthy without a lot of creative writing, and just as most Saudis aren't terrorists, nor do they have one in the family, neither I nor my family members are mafiosi, and I have never had the love life/ marital life of the moonstruck Loretta.

I really appreciate your adding to the analysis of the evolution of the portrayal of Arabs, both men and women, in Western cinema, based on the events of the 70's: the oil crisis, and I would add the developments in Iran. Indeed women have gone from belly dancing to burkas while the men have gone from lovers to fighters.

You have analyzed very well the fate of anti-war films. It is most common for anti-war films to flourish and gain mainstream appeal at a certain remove from the events, partly due to government restrictions, active propaganda efforts, and to audience sensitivity to the need to "support the troops". There were films like M*A*S*H during the Vietnam war, which was only allowed to be produced and distributed if it deliberately made the war look like the Korean War. The director's choice was to make the timing nebulous, making it an anti-war film for all wars.

I am looking forward to reading your article and to commenting on it there.

Thanks again, and I hope I will see you commenting here often.


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