28 October 2012 § 1 Comment
Joseph Massad has written an op-ed for Al Jazeera, critiquing the popular Showtime program “Homeland.” The show has to do with the Middle East, Islam, and terrorism, so needless to say, Massad is no fan. I’ve never seen an episode so I can’t comment on whether his critique is accurate or not, but his larger point that representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media (and Western media, generally) reflect and enforce racist attitudes is undoubtedly true. Dr. Jack Shaheen documented these portrayals in cinema in his work Reel Bad Arabs, which was turned into a documentary that can be viewed here. For a shorter version, there’s also “Planet of the Arabs” by Jackie Salloum:
The usual counterargument to this view is that the situation isn’t so bad and that it’s changing for the better, that there are and have been positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. Proponents will point to such examples as Sayid Jarrah from Los or Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven or Prince Nasir from Syriana. All of these characters are “good,” who the audience can sympathize and identify with. But as far as I’m concerned the counterargument and each of these examples meant to prove it are damning.
Sayid Jarrah is a former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard who worked as a torturer in his dungeons. He is captured by the Americans during the Gulf War and then collaborates with them by infiltrating a terrorist cell in Sydney, Australia — because of course, what else is a reformed Arab good for. Throughout the show, he struggles with his dark past and his tendency to use violence and torture to get what he wants. Yes, he is one of the protagonists and yes, he is humanized, but the audience can’t ignore that violence is in his nature. Indeed all of the Middle Eastern characters, with the exception of his Iraqi love interest, are violent, either fellow torturers in the Iraqi army or terrorists.
Saladin is portrayed as a noble man of principle, but the film is nevertheless deeply problematic. There is a scene in the movie where Templar Knights attack a caravan in the desert. Throughout the slaughter the camera remains focused on the knights’ faces, the deaths of the Arabs occurring either off-screen or with their backs turned towards the audience. They aren’t important and their deaths are a part of the story at all because they establish the wickedness of the white characters who kill them. Indeed, this movie has several white European protagonists and antagonists, but the only Muslim character with any sort of agency, i.e. Saladin himself, is rather one-dimensional, a sort of Mary Sue, never facing real moral dilemmas or experiencing any sort of growth or change during the plot. All other non-white characters are pretty much faceless or in the middle of a mob.
Prince Nasir is the son of an oil sheikh in a fictional country in the Persian Gulf. He is a minister in what is clearly a corrupt and brutal system of government but also happens to be interested in reforming his country. He takes on American energy analyst Bryan Woodman as an advisor, who at one point becomes exasperated with the government’s policies and delivers a rant to Nasir about what is wrong and what needs to be done. It’s very difficult to ignore the dynamics of the scene. Although Nasir is not portrayed as a stupid man, it is Woodman, the knowledgeable Westerner, who is tasked with laying out the facts and the solutions. Eventually because Nasir’s plans for reforms conflict with US oil interests, he is assassinated by drone. Woodman barely survives and is seen walking away from the wreckage and back to his family, essentially washing his hands of the nonsense of Middle Eastern politics.
Much of what we see in art is subjective. I am more than ready to acknowledge that not everyone will see what I see in these movies, that sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar.” So let us for the sake of argument assume that I’m off-base with some or most of my understanding of these films and shows. Even if that’s the case, there is a problematic trend that runs through most depictions of Arabs and Muslims in the media. Because even when Arab and Muslim characters are protagonists, the good guys, the heroes, their story lines still revolve around war and extremism, violence and hatred. It’s almost as if Hollywood can’t conceive of the inhabitants of the Middle East and other locales of the Global South except through the prism of America’s political-military dalliances there. So when I see a show about a terrorist cell or a movie about some political crisis in the Middle East being praised for “nuance,” my first reaction is to roll my eyes. At some point, this narrowness stops being nuanced and instead becomes a gross stereotype.
I do want to highlight one example, however, of a character done right, and that’s Abed Nadir from Community. Abed is a half-Palestinian, half-Polish film geek. Amazingly enough, his story line has absolutely nothing to do with war, terrorism, or violence of any kind. He’s just another weirdo on a show full of weirdos. For that reason alone, he is far more accurate a representation of Arab/Muslim America than any of the so-called nuanced shows that critics rave about.
Pop culture has the ability to change people’s notions and preconceptions, and if filmmakers want to change how people view Arabs and Muslims in general, we don’t need another flowery diatribe delivered by a brown person in defense of Islam or Arab or Persian or Pakistani or whatever culture. Just show characters living their lives. People can connect the dots on their own.