It was 1989. I was a 10-year-old Arab who had fled the Lebanese civil war with my family and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Not only was my name unfamiliar and virtually unpronounceable (Hala pronounced Ay-la in the south) by almost every American I interacted with, but I was the only Arab in my class, possibly even in my school. Students stared and pointed, and the brave sometimes ventured over to quench their curiosity with numerous questions about the far away land of Arabia. Do you ride on camels? What about magic carpets? What is the desert like? Have you ever seen rain, winter, snow? Do you own guns? Shoot people? Are you like a billionaire? I was shocked; not only had I never seen a camel in my life, I had just come from a country on the Mediterranean Sea with no sand or desert whatsoever! What were all these kids talking about?
Arab stereotypes have tainted American popular culture for more than a century. According to Dr. Jack Chahin, “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They are portrayed basically as sub-humans.” In his book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Dr. Chahin goes on to explain that after looking at more than 1000 films with Arabs in them he could draw a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes that have been so normalized that most people don’t even notice them or see them anymore. He goes on to emphasize that a few images have been repeated over again and again, those of the Arab villain.
Where did this constructed Arab image come from? Europeans passed it on to Americans centuries ago – British and French travel writers and artists who traveled to the Orient and came back with an exotic notion of a mystical pace. Edward Said introduced this concept in his book Orientalism. He goes on to explain further that all information about the Orient was based on the idea of the superior, natural, rational Western Self versus the inferior, deviant, irrational Eastern Other, thus opening room for the justification of the exercise of political power from the self over the other as a matter of principles and duty.
In films, historically and until present day, Arabs have been portrayed as these Others in Hollywood. The Arab world has been consistently shown as inferior to the West with Arabs being hostile and a hazard to Western values.
In Hollywood, Arab world was introduced in old black and white films and always represented with some recurrent basic elements – menacing tunes, intimidating desert, harem women dancing for a sultan, long swords, flying carpets, snake charmers to name a few – a classic Ali Baba kit.
The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) seemed to color the path for the examination and harmful depiction of Arabs in Hollywood films. Both these films characterized Arabs as barbaric thieves, charlatans, murderers – simply pure monsters. Other old movies of the 1920s all share a common theme of tyrannical, vile Arabs eventually vanquished by Westerners.
100 Years of Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim stereotyping by Mazin B. Qumsiyeh specifies what is known as the 3-B syndrome: “Arabs in TV and movies are portrayed as either bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires.” The trend has shifted over the years starting with a lot of exotic, skimpily clad dancers in the early days and then the billionaires’ stereotype prevailed in the 70s fueled especially with the oil crises. This craze has shifted again and reached more of a mono-track where today, and over the past 30-40 years, most Arabs as portrayed as bombers or, dare I say, terrorists.
A film that has successfully recycled the older Arab stereotypes and pushed them strong was Disney’s Aladdin (1992). The film starts off with the song Arabian Nights -
Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home
Millions of children have seen this film. In the summer of 1993, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) protested to the Walt Disney Company, asking to have the lines removed from the song. Disney then replaced only the third and fourth lines with
Where it’s flat and immense
And the heat is intense
The absurdity in the film does not stop there – the evil characters including the Sultan’s grand vizier, Jafar, and a bandit thief, Kazim, have beards and a thick accent. Palace guards kill, chop off hands for stealing and have no problem wielding their scimitar swords over a bread thief! There is even a scene in which an Arab wearing a clothespin on his nose is shoveling droppings into a cart that has the sign Crazy Hakim’s Discount Fertilizer on its side. Of course Disney did not give any Middle Eastern features to any of its three key main characters – Aladdin, Princess Jasmine and her father the Sultan all look of Western descent. Aladdin’s face is even said to have been modeled after Tom Cruise! Of course the temperament and actions of the three heroes were the complete opposite of their violent Arab counterparts, creating once again a rift between the Self and the Others -
The Sultan is nothing more than a kind loving jolly old man, perhaps even a tad naïve, who unsuspectingly is taken advantage of by the evil Jafar. Aladdin is a misinterpreted street beggar who is just trying to survive; yet he still has a golden kind heart and a sense of charity, often helping children – in a very Robin Hood-ish way. Princess Jasmine is portrayed as a charming woman whose only dream is independence and life experience outside the palace walls. Even the clothes reflected all of this with Jafar in dark brooding colors and the three heroes in light, white peaceful garbs.
Arabs are always too rich and stupid to know the value of money, especially with the introduction of the Sheikhs in thobs. Never satisfied with the countless females in their harems, they are oversexed, lewd, and uncontrollably obsessed with the Western blond woman. This is another apparent pattern in movies. In the Bond film Never Say Never, Again (1983) Kim Basinger is molested by the most sordid looking Arabs possible. She’s tied to a pole, stripped to her underwear and auctioned off to primitive looking Bedouins. And in Sahara (1983), Brooke Shields is also kidnapped and presented to the lecherous Arab sheik for his own perverted pleasure. In Jewel of the Nile (1985), Omar Sherif tricks Kathleen Turner into going with him to Arabia and then imprisons her. The same theme recurs is Protocol (1984) where an Emir is infatuated with the fair, blue-eyed Goldie Hawn.
Although Arab men are much more frequently used in films than Arab women, there is a certain female type projected over the years as well. Stereotypes of highly sensual belly dancers wearing see-though chiffon and harem pants, baring their belly and showing off- cleavage were the earlier images. Heavy jewelry decorated their arms, necks and heavy makeup heir faces. This was inspired by early images of the orient, as the place of exoticism, fascination and passion. Yet, although very sexy, these women never seemed to be able to hold down their men who always preferred their American counterpart. But in recent years this image has dramatically changed and the more modern depictions show Arab women in one of two categories – terrorist or bomber de-feminizing her or a black veiled covered backdrop in the background of scenes, in the shadows.
With the end of the eighties came an age of political correctness, when more accurate or at least toned down portrayals of Arabs might have been expected. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In a movie like True Lies (1994) they are not even worthy opponents – too stupid to be successful villains even. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays Harry Tasker, who works for the top secret Omega Sector to protect US national security. Tasker is of course the all-rounded super federal agent - remarkable bodily skills, absolute aptitude, and the capability to confront armies of the enemy single-handedly. On the other hand, his main foe is Selim Abu-Aziz, head of an Arab terrorist group who is not only dangerous, but also highly incompetent. The stereotyping in this film was insulting, emphasizing the terrorist Arab even more.
New York columnist Russell Baker stated, “Arabs are the last people except Episcopalians whom Hollywood feels free to offend en masse.” Why is this so? Nothing really runs skin deep. There is a whole political agenda behind all of this. Dr. Chahin affirms: “Politics and Hollywood are linked, they reinforce one another. Policy enforces mythical images, mythical images help enforce policy.” WWII was a turning point, and certain events tainted Arab image and propaganda. First and foremost the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which the US has undeniably supported Israel through and through. Second was the American oil embargo in the 70s, which angered a lot of people, especially, that gas prices shot up exponentially. Third the Iranian revolution when Iranian students took American diplomats hostage for more than a year, which increased Arab-American tensions. It’s worthy to note that Iranians are not even Arab. Lastly, the events of 9/11 moved Arab terrorism to the primary evil and foremost fear in the States.
The outdated, limited and judgmental idea of the Arab created clear links with their dress. Hollywood has placed so much emphasis on the two elements of traditional Arab male costume as the identifying symbol of Arabs – the thob and the kaffiyeh. We have reached a point in association where anyone wearing these elements, regardless of features, skin color or language is identified as Arab. The process to reducing Arabs to mere attire – produced the disguising of westerners as Arabs. But they always stand out in remarkable ways because they are constructed to be naturally superior to Arabs – intrinsically become the super Arabs that actual Arabs can never be.
Arabs don’t even deserve a face or a shred of humanity. This is further explored in the film Rules of Engagement (2000) where viewers are not allowed to keep any sympathy for Arab men, women and children and made to feel justified to kill them all. But are they really real people with lives, families and feeling? Or are they just bodies hiding behind fabric?
The kaffiyeh is the face of every Arab terrorist and villain in Hollywood and has been so for decades and yet it has still managed to infiltrate high street fashion. Kaffiyehs or their derivative can be found on every street corner in NYC and are spotted on a wide array of movie stars. I guess the feelings of danger have resonated from on-screen to off. I now understand my schoolmates when I was a child, they knew no better. But there is no excuse for the adults today in America wearing kaffiyehs to their Sunday brunches and still stereotyping and dehumanizing the people.