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Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The bottom line, up front: Jack Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs is a necessary resource for anyone seriously interested in the subject of negative stereotyping of Arabs in American cinema. The best supplement to this book, by the way, besides its recently released DVD companion piece, is the same author's The TV Arab. That work provides a sustained analysis and background regarding Arab stereotyping on the small screen. On the downside, however, both are a bit dated (I am using the original 2001 edition of Reel Bad Arabs) and perhaps dangerously so at times. More about that in a bit.

Reel Bad Arabs provides in-depth reports of the very frequent outrageous portrayals of Arabs in various films, going back to the first appearance of celluloid. Far more often than not, Shaheen, an Arab-American of Lebanese heritage and a former Professor of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University nails his points well in a film-by-film catalogue of historic caricatures. (He does include some positive films as well.) To his TV book's alliterative Arab stereotype categories of bombers, billionaires, and bellydancers, Reel Bad Arabs adds "Palestinians" and "Egyptians" as specific areas of distinct typology. (The Egyptian one is somewhat problematic, as will be discussed in a few moments.) Shaheen neatly and expertly also catches and explains the parallels of the bomber, billionaire, and bellydancer themes to the classic images of anti-Semitism: the subversive, the plutocrat, and the siren seductress.*

There are a few questionable assumptions and analyses in the book, however, as well as some just plain oddities. One relates to the discussion of Ed Zwick's movie The Siege, which I discuss in detail below. Another, of less importance is the odd choice of including negative images of ancient Egyptians from pre-Arab days like Cleopatra, as part of the category of anti-Egyptian imagery as a subcategory of anti-Arab imagery. I expect the sensitivity over the range of anti-ancient Egyptian representations is somehow related to the broader war against Orientalism. That is a somewhat worthy war, but increasingly subject to PC-ized examination. (Orientalism refers to Western bias against an exoticized East amd it is seen as the culprit for anti-Arab prejudice, and anti-Semitism as well for that matter.) To include such movies as Cleopatra in the book's annotated list is misleading and counterproductive. And especially so in a work that takes great pains to fix far more basic popular misimpressions, like the enduring conflation of Arabs, an ethnic group, with Muslims, a religious group. It is far more confusing to include an ancient Greek queen of pagan Coptic Egypt as a reel bad Arab.

On the positive educational side, the fact that Reel Bad Arabs was originally published in 2001 prior to the September 11 attacks helps provide a stark and revealing picture of just how prevalently there already existed a bigoted set of popularly disseminated assumptions about Arabs, ready-made to foster the worst interpretations and response to those events. Additionally it is important, if troublesome to international and intercommunal harmony, to realize that a lot of the nastier anti-Arab cinema in recent years has emerged from Israeli producers like Yoram Globus and Menachem Golan. (Shaheen makes an occasional significant error of fact in the Arab-Israeli area himself, though. In his profile of Cast a Giant Shadow, he incorrectly states that the Palestine partition plan of 1947 alloted part of Palestine to Jordan.)

The book's appearance prior to 9/11 also allows one to explore a chief fault of the book, and thereby become educated about the more PC side to the Arab victimization narrative. That is because the book exhibits a set of 1990s politically correct (PC) assumptions regarding Arabs, terrorism, and bigotry that would be found alarmingly naive by more than a raving sicko anti-Arab/anti-Muslim Little Green Footballs-blog commenter.The extended entry for The Siege is a perfect and central example. The review can make one cringe, sneer, or cry at the PC-victimization tone and substance of the review.

I dwell on this also because your humble reviewer actually engaged briefly in a very small part of the movie-protest drama, in which Shaheen was a key player.

The Siege, made in 1998, was a somewhat flawed but otherwise well-intentioned and dramatically successful warning about the possibility of overreaction in America to savage urban terrorist acts by Muslim Arabs. The film did contain unfortunate stereotyping here and there, and did reinforce some prejudicial and ignorant images. But -- spoiler alert -- it ends in triumph as Denzel Washington arrests the members of an out of control military for repressive measures, including torture and massive roundups of Arabs and Arab-Americans. Zwick's good intentions are obvious, and Zwick's petulant non-apology he later offered for making the film was justified. So prescient was the film in fact that the climactic shots of the attempted torture iconically presage the real world Abu Ghraib scandal photos.

Yet led by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and to a lesser extend author Shaheen, an unjustified level of protest was raised back then. At the core of it was simply a knee-jerk reaction against any portrayal of Arabs or Muslims as terrorists planning to kill Americans, as if that were a slur in itself. (The film even attempts a somewhat humanizing view of a Palestinian suicide bomber at one point, and the terrorists are also seen as a group having a legitimate complaint, betrayed in the past by American operatives.)

The discussion in the 2001 edition of the book on the movie is, sadly, embarrassing:

[The Siege] certainly did not accurately reflect the world's 1.1 billion Muslims and Arabs.

{It didn't purport to.}

We cited a 1995 Los Angeles Times report [to Zwick's team], which stated that of 171 people indicted in the United States for 'terrorism and related activities...6 percent were connected to Arab groups.' The greatest threat to our country, we told the producers, comes not from outside forces, rather from domestic terrorism.

That last sentence just about physically hurts on the other side of 9/11.

Another discussion for another time perhaps, but it may help to remember that the 1990s was the era of ostriches and wolf-cryers on the issue of terrorism from Muslim Arabs. Daniel Pipes and his ilk represented the latter set, and CAIR and many Arab-American activists represented the former.

I bring this up because the author of this review of Shaheen's book corresponded with CAIR aggressively at the time (with serious real-time responses) when the movie was released and they were protesting. I recall pleading with them to tone down the criticism. I remember stating that it is reasonably possible that some Muslim Arab terrorists would commit some huge outrage in an urban U.S. area like New York (remember the first WTC bombing), and this movie was a welcome vaccine against bigoted reprisal. But the 2001 Reel Bad Arabs, like CAIR, seemed to think the multiple killings by bombs of 700 people in New York City was an inherent outlandish slur. In fact, if the movie had happened, rather than 9/11, the casualties and damage would have been less than what actually occured.

The Siege , in other words, was not True Lies, Rules of Engagement, Exodus, or The Delta Force, or even remotely like those awful anti-Arab pieces. CAIR and Jack Shaheen owe Ed Zwick an engraved apology.

Some additional areas of oddness appear here and there. A perfectly silly adventure in Lebanon filmed there in 1966 called Twenty-Four Hours To Kill, about a passenger airplane crew having to land in Beirut and stay a day in response to a mechanical emergency, is treated as if it were some little bigoted shop of horrors. Actually, despite the contrived crime drama-action, it is a pleasant adventure and refreshing break from stereotypes. Walter Slezak plays an anachronistically be-fezzed gold smuggler who finds that one of the American crew (Mickey Rooney) is a former partner-in-crime who cheated him, and he intends to get revenge. Yes, it's a somewhat violent chase film set in a semi-developed country, but it is mostly an excuse to put the romantic leads at Lebanon's tourist sites. The Lebanese people are actually benign and humanly ordinary, except for the crooks.

An odd comment in the book on that film is that Walter Slezak's character is said to be a connoisseur of beauty, pointing out that has blonde and redheaded gals in his retinue, but "he never makes a move on his beauties -- not once." What is the significance of that observation? I can't tell. That Arab villains are also suggested to be gay? That producers feared portraying sexual contact between Euros and Arabs. More likely though, it was the simple fact that few viewers want to watch Walter Slezak hit on any woman, and the film has better things to show, like a plot. The book's additional flaw is alot of stray pointless observations like that.

A final annoyance in the book is the ALL CAPS categories/commentary for the movies (e.g. PALESTINIAN, or RECOMMENDED) appearing next to their titles, as if someone had left in raw edits in Microsoft Word before Find & Replace could be used. Certainly the information could have been visually presented better.

Having sermonized on a bunch of more negative issues, I still must return to the great positive. Shaheen has successfully completed an heroic effort of finding and reporting on, with depth and generally good commentary, the entire film history of the disturbing portrayal of an entire ethnic group. He scoured the archives and the obscure corners of filmdom, as well as exhausted the mainstream canon, to document a cultural trend that is pervasive and damaging on a grand scale.

The scale of the book is proportionate to the dangers it warns of. Despite some significant nuisances and important missed nuances, Reel Bad Arabs remains a must for the public-spirited citizen and film connoisseur.


* On that level elsewhere, I hope someone to point out how, in public culture, women like Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Ershad Manji, assume the archetypical role of Portia from Shakespeare's anti-Semitic play Merchant of Venice, playing damsels in distress who give beautiful well-argued dressing-down speeches (as in "the quality of mercy is not strained") that are, in full context, actually simply smug self-righteous rants serving as a rationalization to bigots for violence and persecution of the rapacious bearded Oriental swine to whom it is delivered.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at September 30, 2007 12:47 AM
Filed Under: Film , Islam , Levant , MENA History , Society & Culture

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Re stereotypes being ready-made, I recall looking through early 1900s yearbooks from my highschool and seeing cartoons/jokes with negative stereotypes of Arabs and Jews. Very similar in style.

I do, however, agree that the argument in this book can be easily undermined by being scattered and slightly hysterical about certain things.

I wonder if it was published before The Mummy came out...

Posted by: eerie at October 1, 2007 01:32 PM

Not in front of me but he does quite a bit on the Mummy. Also on the video.

(And it came out before the long-awaited Aqoul review of Infidel too.)

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 1, 2007 02:05 PM

I had the occasion to host Jack Shaheen on a visit to Saudi Arabia, back in the early 80s. His topic then was the same.

He--as CAIR--undermine their own efforts by raging against the inconsequential and the accidental, treating each unpleasant instant as though it was the smoking gun behind some global plot to discredit Arabs or Muslims.

To stick with the Shakespearean trope: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Posted by: John Burgess at October 3, 2007 11:43 AM

More on The Arabist.

Posted by: alle at October 4, 2007 08:41 AM

And this from Sunday's Washington Post magazine:

"Body of Lies" seemed a great title for the movie being shot here [in DC]. This wasn't really Amsterdam, it wasn't really winter, and the short, bearded, rodent-like actor playing the Arab terrorist was, as it happens, an Israeli Jew from New York. Ran Nikfan told me he learned he had the nonspeaking part only two days earlier, . . . this, he said, had been the pinnacle of his acting career.

It's official, a half-decade's worth of ironies have been expended.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 4, 2007 07:02 PM

I've arrived to this thread very late, but my two cents on "The Siege":

"The film even attempts a somewhat humanizing view of a Palestinian suicide bomber at one point"

Certainly the film was nowhere near as bad as True Lies or Rules of Engagement, and it's even possible that it was made with 'the best of intentions'. However, regarding the 'humanised" Palestinian terrorist, one obvious point is, why have a Palestinian (as opposed to a generic Arab) in this role? Palestinian militants have rarely if ever attacked the US, certainly not on US soil. Doesn't having a Palestinian in this role confirm the Israeli agitprop that 'our enemies are your enemies too"?

Granted, the young man at least got to - VERY vaguely - express his motivations (though I'm not sure that the words "Israel" or "occupation" were ever mentioned?) but he is also very 'Orientalised". It struck me that on at least one occasion he is naked, while his on-screen lover (Annette Bening) remains decently covered. This is the exact opposite of the normal Hollywood conventions, where women are far more likely to be unclothed than men. Of course, part of this may be due to the fact that Benning is a big star, and big stars rarely strip off, but still, the role reversal is striking. Indeed, the mere fact of the "Palestinian terrorist" being the lover of an older, more powerful woman is itself significant, and further underlines the idea that the Arab, his 'terrorism' aside, is NOT at all a part of 'regular' American society.

Posted by: sideshowmurph at November 9, 2007 08:07 AM

One thing I didn't like about the Siege was its superfluous anti-Palestinian flavorings, despite the brief attempt (note: attempt) at token humanization. I actually discussed that with someone from CAIR at the time and he said "we didn't want to get in to all that", apparently thinking, I gathered, that that was an ethnic-political issue as opposed to a religious one.

The movie still proved prescient and sent out an early pre-emptive inoculation on something that needed it, and didn't deserve the vitriol.

The more subtle themes, on the nudity and relationship, may have something, although the character in question wasn't an Arab-American if I recall?

Posted by: matthew hogan at November 10, 2007 08:44 AM

Also, the attempt at humanization refers to my recollection of a character of the character's brother(?) who had done a suicide bombing after despair over living a normal life, implicitly or explicitly due to Israeli occupation and he is described as "normal", a movie-lover. It was not a *powerful* attempt at humanization and avoided direct going into the whole thing deeply, but it was momentarily there.

Posted by: matthew hogan at November 10, 2007 08:47 AM

"the character in question wasn't an Arab-American if I recall?"

I saw the film a while ago and half-slept through most of it, but as I recall, Benning's frequently naked young lover was the main "Palestinian terrorist". He wasn't an Arab-American, just plain unadulterated Aye-rab.

"implicitly or explicitly due to Israeli occupation and he is described as "normal", a movie-lover."

Just like the character in the "Kingdom" reveals his "normal, regular guy" status by telling us that he likes "The Hulk"?

But I do think that any reference to Israeli occupation in the "Siege" is VEERY implicit indeed. I don't recall that the words "Israel" or "occupation" were ever mentioned. That seems a tad unfair: If one is going to refer specifically to Palestinian terrorism, the least one should do is refer to Israeli occupation by name. But of course, none of this surprises me. We're talking Hollywood after all: Even the oh-so-left-wing and 'controversial' "Syriana" never once mentions Israel.

Posted by: SideshowMurph at November 11, 2007 03:37 AM

Saudi Arabia and Libya were the source of about 60 percent of the foreign fighters
who came to Iraq in the past year to facilitate attacks.

Posted by: fritsissuewow at November 23, 2007 06:17 AM

fritsissuewow: Correct as far as the information goes. But it doesn't go far enough.

US authorities claim they have over 25,000 militants in custody. Of those, some 300 are Saudis. Saudis and Libyans together represent less than 1% of the total number of militants.

Posted by: John Burgess at November 26, 2007 04:12 PM

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