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Hook noses and harems

Middle East

Sarah John

I CAN tell immediately. If an Arab appears in an action movie then you can be almost certain that he will be a terrorist. If the movie is set in the Middle East, then the local people must be backward – and unattractive. Without fail. I automatically switch the channel. Now, more than ever, Arabs are being portrayed as ignorant and brutal.

As for Beirut, according to Hollywood, it is a bullet-ridden city where militants run around freely and where Hizbullah fighters roam the streets threatening citizens. Never mind that the civil war ended 13 years ago and the city has been rebuilt.

Even in cartoons, Arabs are the ‘bad’ guys who kidnap the heroines. Remember Disney’s Aladdin? The opening song depicted the Arab world as ‘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.’ It took a lot of work from American-Arab anti-discrimination activists in the US to change some of the lyrics for the video version.

And of course such stereotypes inform real life, too. I remember when, fl eeing from the Lebanese civil war, we went to the US in the late 1980s and I enrolled in the local high school just outside Washington DC. On a tour of the school, my student guide planted me in front of a television set and said rather loudly: ‘This is a TELEVISION, we watch moving pictures on it.’

A few days later, curious students asked me how my father managed his camels and oil wells and did I know what a church was. I think if I were to meet them now, they would ask me where my father’s terrorist cells are.

Of course, if you see nothing different in popular movies, then it’s hard to shake off such ignorance. Physically, Arab men are portrayed with unshaven beards, long noses, head kaffiyas and dirty clothes. Women are seen draped in black clothes with tight headscarves and submissive to men. Unless, of course, they’re living in a harem.

At one point during my university years in the US, posters were hung up advertising a deodorant. It depicted a man with a long nose and dirty head garment. ‘Don’t smell like an Arab,’ it said. ‘Use a deodorant.’

Friends have reported similar stories. During her stay at a Western university, Rania – who has blond hair and blue eyes – was told by administrators that she blended in well in the campus as she didn’t ‘look like an Arab’.

Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, has sat through more than enough films with such offensive stereotypes. In an interview with Beirut’s Daily Star, he said that he could count over 900 films which project Arabs as villains. Among the terms used to refer to them are ‘rag-heads’, ‘towel-heads’, ‘sons-ofshe- camels’, ‘son-of-an-unnamed-goat’ and ‘camel-dicks’.

Arabs trying to rape or abduct Western heroines appear in more than 20 films. Arabs enslaving Africans feature in about 10 and at least 11 Israeli-made films portray Americans and/or Israelis killing ‘evil Arabs’.

Anti-Christian Arabs feature in more than 20 films. As for Christian Arabs, they seem to be non-existent. For Hollywood, Arabs are automatically Muslim.

Of the 43 fiction films examined by Shaheen that involved Palestinian characters, more than half were filmed in Israel between 1983 and 1998, including the blockbusters True Lies, The Siege, and Delta Force – all of which pitted Palestinian terrorists against American heroes.

Unfortunately, such movies only fuel Arab anger and deepen the Israeli-Arab divide.

But as Shaheen says: ‘The Arab stereotype is easy. It makes money. Filmmakers grow up with the stereotypes and so revert to them easily.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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