Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood & Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation
By Waleed F. Mahdi
Syracuse University Press, 2020
“Is it possible to re-narrate the Arab American story beyond the imperatives of suspicion and patriotism?” University of Oklahoma assistant professor and cultural critic Waleed F. Mahdi responds, when asked (during a September 2020 interview with the Arab Studies Institute’s journal Jadaliyya) to define central questions addressed in his critical study “Arab Americans in Film.” “What does it mean to develop a complex sense of Arab American identity in film?” he continues.
These are hopeful questions, posed at a time that although only a few years in the past, seems in some ways distant. This reviewer wonders whether Arab American filmmakers — or any filmmakers — can “decenter nationalism and render it less important,” a goal that Mahdi expresses in this interview, when it seems that nationalism is assuming — across the globe — the grim faces of totalitarianism and fascism, and that the superhero films that have come to dominate international entertainment mirror contemporary/dystopian conditions and attitudes as much as they challenge them.
“Arab Americans in Film” is divided into an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. Mahdi points out that Orientalist attitudes toward Arabs — Arab as exotic, evil, heathen Other — ran deep in U.S. society long before Rudolph Valentino played “The Sheik” (who, at the end, turns out to be a European nobleman; for decades, Hollywood films censored interracial romances). Mahdi’s introduction references, among other sources, Royall Tyler’s popular 1792 novel “The Algerine Captive,” whose plot deals in part with the enslavement of a noble white Boston physician by Algerian Muslims.
In Chapter 1, “Hollywood’s Portrayal of Arab Americans,” Mahdi traces, with attention to historical and cultural events as well as to the workings of the mainstream film industry, the dismal history of Hollywood’s portrayals of Arabs and its long erasure of Arab Americans, whose immigration to the U.S. had been severely limited by law in the mid-1920s. (One notable exception to this rule is “Anna Ascends,” a 1922 Victor Fleming adaptation of a New York play with music by the Syrian American composer Alexander Maloof. But in the film, Anna Ayyob’s ascension centers on assimilation and upward mobility — played by white actress Alice Brady, Anna escapes working in a restaurant in Little Syria, changes her last name to Adams, and becomes the secretary and girlfriend of a successful white businessman.)
Hundreds of films produced in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s, however, were “dominated by…‘Arabia’ as a setting for heroic adventurers to save white heroines from the captivity of evil Arabs…[e]ven Mickey Mouse dared to rescue Minnie Mouse from her desert-dwelling kidnappers in “Mickey in Arabia” (1932).” This ingrained trope of the white male gaze — which never has disappeared, even as it has been subsumed into other tropes — continued into the 1950s and 1960s, as Mahdi notes, with literally as well as figuratively colorful “adventure” spectaculars such as “Valley of the Kings” (1954) and “Cleopatra” (1963), although white actors in brownface makeup still played the majority of Arab characters.
In the 1970s, as Mahdi and scholars such as Pamela Pennock and Salim Yaqub assert, the filmic trope of Arab as a terrorist and/or sinister oil baron or tyrant emerged — ironically, providing some roles, however limited and distorted, to Arab American actors. “There was a spatial transition in the cinematic engagement with Arabness from a symbol of the distant Orient into a signifier of domestic anxiety — anxiety that would frame representations of Arabs and Muslims in the United States for decades to come,” as Mahdi says — an anxiety that has been exacerbated after 9/11 to the present day.
Historical events, scholars claim, again spurred changes in Hollywood — not only the establishment of Israel as a U.S. client state and major ally, the wars in which Israel seized more Arab territory, the development of organized Palestinian resistance, the assassination of Robert Kennedy by the traumatized Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan, and the rise of the oil-rich Gulf states, but also by another wave of immigration to the U.S. from Arab and Muslim countries and the emergence of Arab American political organizations. A new generation of Arab American academics, intellectuals, and activists, both immigrant and native-born, made common cause with other U.S. minorities, as well as advocated for freedom for Arabs in their countries of origin.
The dozens of Hollywood movies that resulted from Arabs and Muslims being recast from otherworldly fantasy villains to agents of clear and present danger run the gamut from action-adventure (“Black Sunday” 1977), to political satire (“Network” 1976), to time-traveling comedy (“Back to the Future” 1985), to dystopian drama (“The Siege” 1999), in which Arab Americans are imprisoned in guarded camps for reasons of national security, to the dismay of a good-guy Arab American police detective portrayed by Arab American actor Tony Shalhoub — who himself gained fame by playing characters identified either as Italian or of no specified ethnicity. (Good-guy Arabs and Arab Americans — those who demonstrate their loyalty to the U.S. in an atmosphere of terrorism and suspicion — were to become a staple of such Hollywood films made after 9/11.) At the same time, the Orientalist film trope persisted, although a few films feature Arab characters who are portrayed sympathetically (“The Wind and the Lion” 1975; “Aladdin” 1992; “The Thirteenth Warrior” 1999). The renewal of this form also allowed Arab American producer and director Moustafa Akkad to make the historical anti-colonialist epics “The Message” (1976) and “Lion of the Desert” (1980).
Mahdi digresses from Hollywood in Chapter 2 (and Chapter 4) to explore images of Arab Americans in the long tradition of Egyptian cinema, and how these images serve Egyptian nationalism and pride in heritage, despite inherent tensions and misinterpretations. Among the films Mahdi discusses in depth is Youssef Chahine’s 2004 “Iskindiriyya…New York” (Alexandria…New York), a sequel to 1979’s “Iskindiriyya…Lib?” (Alexandria…Why?), which features an image of the Statue of Liberty as a coarse, leering woman with missing teeth. In the 2004 film, the once-aspiring film director Yehya returns to America after a long absence, having achieved international success. When he reunites with his old American love, she tells him that he is the father of her son, a famous ballet dancer. But the son rejects the father and his Egyptian blood, instead parroting bigoted beliefs about U.S. superiority and Arab backwardness.
In the concluding chapter and epilogue of “Arab Americans in Film,” Mahdi decries contemporary American mainstream film and the limitations it continues to place on Arab American directors, script writers, and actors (who to succeed, despite “cosmetic” improvements in portrayals of Arab American characters, must show villains, victims, or — as in Sam Kadi’s 2012 film “The Citizen” — avatars of the American Dream). At the same time, Mahdi lauds the emergence of independent Arab American filmmakers.
It is noteworthy that three of the independent films that Mahdi praises as offering nuanced portrayals of Arab American life are directed by women: Roula Nashef’s romantic comedy “Detroit Unleaded” (2013) and Cherien Dabis’s dramas “Amreeka” (2009) and “May in Summer” (2013). These films manage to weave romance with complex family relationships, as well as to illuminate individual women’s struggles to achieve agency and independence in their lives — which in turn liberates their family and friends, including sons and lovers. The more diverse the filmic viewpoints, it seems, the more possibilities for the tired tropes of nationalism to be overcome.
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