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Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image

by Scott J. Simon
Northeastern University

The Hollywood film industry has been responsible for giving many millions of Americans (as well as hundreds of millions more around the world) a wide variety of new impressions of various places in the world over the past century Hollywood motion pictures have exposed people to sights and sounds that they otherwise would not have been able to experience. Movies have taken their audiences to both real and imaginary outerspace, the depths of the earth, and to everywhere in between.

Unfortunately, though, these views have been flawed. Hollywood films often produce erroneous images of the world and its inhabitants. Throughout the history of the feature film industry, negative stereotypes and mistaken representations of almost every minority group in the world have been portrayed in the movies-including blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and Arabs. While all of these groups have been treated poorly throughout the history of Hollywood films, in this article it is argued that the Arab culture has been the most misunderstood and supplied with the worst stereotypes.

The characterization of the Middle East and the Arab culture began during the silent movie era of the 19205. Rudolph Valentino's roles in The Sheik (1921) and Son of the Sheik (1926) set the stage for the exploration and negative portrayal of Arabs in Hollywood films. Both The Sheik and Son of the Sheik represented Arab characters as thieves, charlatans, murderers, and brutes (Michalak 29). Numerous other films that graced the silver screen during the twenties seemed to hold the same low standard of Arabs. The Song of Love (1923) tells the story of a power-hungry Algerian chief who schemes to overthrow French colonial rule and make himself the king of all of North Africa; A Cafe in Cairo (1924) is about an Arab desert bandit who kills a British man and his wife but saves their daughter so that they may be wed; and The Desert Bride (1928) portrays an Arab named Kassim Ben Ali as the leader of a group of "Arab nationalists" who capture and torture a French officer and his lover. All of these movies portray the Arab as the villain and are sure to conclude with the victory of the good Western symbol: the Algerian chief in The Song of Love is killed by French troops; the girl who is to marry the desert bandit in A Cafe in Cairo is rescued by an Englishman, and The Desert Bride concludes with the escape of Ben All's two captives and the death of Ben Ali.

Another movie from the silent picture era that takes a slightly independent approach, is A Son of the Sahara (1924). It centers on boy named Raoul who is brought up by an Arabian desert tribe. He falls in love with an officer's daughter, Barbara, who rejects his love because he is an Arab. However, when it is revealed in the film that Raoul is not actually an Arab, Barbara is overwhelmed with love for Raoul. This story seems to be the strongest subconscious attack on the Arab culture of all the Arab movies of the 1920s. Because the European woman rejects Raoul because she thinks he is Arab but then accepts him upon learning that he is actually a fellow European, there is a racist theme that portrays the Arabs as being untouchable and not to be compared to modern Western culture.

Throughout the 20th century, little has changed regarding the stereotypes of Arabs in Hollywood. In recent years Arabs were still being characterized as villainous, deranged, and murderous. Furthermore, these more recent Elms, despite the greater public awareness of the Arab culture, were just as erroneous as the first portrayals of the 1920s. Movies advertised as historically accurate were anything but that, and the Arabs in these movies usually were played by anyone but the Arabs. The Wind and the Lion (1975), set in 1904, starred Sean Connery as an Arab who kidnaps an American woman in Morocco and demands a large ransom from President Theodore Roosevelt. A film critic said of Connery's role in The Wind and the Lion, that he was "a 1904 forerunner of today's terrorists..." (Michalak 25). The makers of the film claimed that it was based on an historical account of an actual kidnapping case. However, the real 1904 kidnapping victim was a man, not a woman. Hollywood's alteration not only provided the intended effect of added excitement, but it also put an unwarranted label on the Arab community as being a group of terrorists fearful of confronting anyone more powerful than a woman. Further, while the negative theme of the Arab actions in the film did little to promote acceptance of Arabs in the world community, the casting of Sean Connery as the Arab terrorist further alienated the Arab community by implying that Arabs are not even worthy of portraying themselves in cinema.

Other films of the seventies and eighties in which Hollywood relegated the Arab world to a place of secondary standing cover a broad range of plots and stories. Black Sunday (1977) is the story of an Arab terrorist plot to detonate a bomb during the Super Bowl which would destroy the stadium and all its occupants, including the President of the United States; The Black Stallion (1979) opens with scenes of Arabs mistreating a horse aboard a ship and when the ship sinks, using a knife to attack a boy and steal his life jacket (the children's novel by James Parley which was used to create the movie did not contain such a character); and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first film in the Indiana Jones trilogy, is set primarily in the Middle East and features "a scimitar-wielding Arab who is in league with the Nazis" (Michalak 26). In regards to the images and themes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ella Shohat and Robert Stain write, "By liberating the ancient Hebrew ark from illegal Egyptian possession, the American hero rescues it from Nazi sequestration, allegorically reinforcing American and Jewish solidarity against Nazis and their Arab collaborators" (Shohat and Stain 222).

With the end of the eighties came an age of politically correctness, when more accurate depictions of Arabs might be expected. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. For example, two recent Hollywood movies, True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Walt Disney's animated feature, Aladdin, have extended the misrepresentation of the Arab culture into the 1990s.

The 1994 Twentieth Century Fox True Lies was intended as the ultimate in American hero movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays Harry Tasker, who works for the top secret Omega Sector, America's "Last Line of Defense." Tasker is a superior federal agent with amazing physical skills, supreme intelligence, and the ability to take on armies of enemies by himself (of course, his handgun is also abnormal, firing off more than twenty rounds without the need to reload). Tasker's mission is to protect the national security of the United States. His primary enemy in this film is Salim abu-Aziz, the commander of an Arab terrorist group called the "Crimson Jihad" which the Omega Sector believes is responsible for smuggling four Soviet nuclear warheads out of the Republic of Kazakhstan. While the plot of True Lies seems to be no different than any other action movie involving spies and smugglers, the characterization of the Arab group as the enemy promulgates an extremely negative stereotype.

In an early chase scene with abu-Aziz, Tasker is polite to the bystanders whom he disturbs during the chase, apologizing to everyone as he passes by them, but abu-Aziz is shown to be totally devoid of manners, violently knocking people out of his way in order to get away from his pursuers. Further, during headquarters briefings headquarters, the chief of the Omega Sector (Charleton Heston) concludes, "Perhaps you better get some [solid evidence] before somebody parks an automobile in front of the White House with a nuclear weapon in the trunk." The film was made before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the premature release by news agencies of speculation that the bombers were "Middle Eastern-looking" males. In the aftermath of Oklahoma City, nevertheless, such a comment is very derogatory toward Arabs in general-regardless of the fact that during the Gulf War the United States made common cause with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, even while demonizing Iraq (and a decade and a half earlier, Iran).

The Arab characters within Crimson Jihad themselves also had negative images. The use of the name "Crimson Jihad" for the terrorist group itself is a misrepresentation of Arab and Muslim cultures. The term "jihad" does not necessarily mean "holy war" - it may also mean a sense of group solidarity among the followers of Allah (Enayat 2). One member of the terrorist group, named Samir, was portrayed as a torture specialist. The character's lines and actions were strikingly similar to the characters of Nazi scientists portrayed in World War II movies-one-dimensional evil. Samir had a sizable cache of "tools that he presumably used to pry information out of his captives." (However, in True Lies Samir was never able to display his "talents.") Additionally, the character of abu-Aziz assumed a deranged persona as the movie progressed. The term "raving psychotic" was used a number of times to describe him when in his most triumphant hour.

Abu-Aziz seemed to feel no remorse for his past history of car bombings, a cafe explosion in Rome, and the bombing of a 727 flying out of Lisbon (all of these acts were revealed to the audience during one of the Omega Sector briefings).

While there were a number of instances within True Lies which contributed to the already low image and stereotypes of Arabs in the movies, True Lies can take credit for breaking a couple of traditions. Probably the most important of these was is the use of Arabs and Middle Easterners to play a large number of the Arab roles. In many previous films, the roles of Arabs were played by a variety of actors and actresses, including Rudolph Valentino (The Sheik and Son of the Sheik), Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Baghdad), Sean Connery (The Wind and the Lion), and Richard Gere (Sahara). Additionally, within True Lies, the scenes in which Arabic supposedly is spoken actually use Arabic for the spoken lines. However, while this is a change from the past, in which the Arabic language was incomprehensible babble, the use of Arabic in True Lies is still far from perfect. In many cases where Arabic is spoken it is relegated to the background; no translations, either verbal or in the form of subtitles, are given. And in instances when the use of Arabic is essential to the plot, which happens surprisingly seldom, the subtitled translations (and occasional verbal translations, as when Tasker tells his wife of abu-Aziz's plan to destroy the United States in "a pillar of holy fire") give an English statement that is much harsher than the original Arabic quotation. A final improvement of True Lies is the use of a realistic goal for the Arab terrorist group-to effect the removal of the United States military form the Persian Gulf. While the film portrays the Crimson Jihad as being a bunch of "raving psychotics", it does ameliorate this characterization by relating them, although very loosely, to the many Arab factions that exist today. Every opposition group in the Middle East is fighting for a cause that is has taken to be a major priority. By giving a logical cause to Crimson Jihad, True Lies, in a small way, has given a slight sense of realism to the terrorists' motives.

As True Lies has shown, Hollywood is far from changing its traditional outlook on the Arab world in its violent action films. At a fund-raiser, Republican Party presidential candidate Senator Robert Dole placed True Lies on his list of movies that are "friendly to families" (Weinraub 1). Bob Dole attacked such movies as Natural Born Killers and True Romance for their use of unnecessary violence to sell tickets, yet regarded True Lies as a film which promoted patriotism and family values. While this classification may seem absurd, it might be explained by the fact that Senator Dole has never seen the film, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie's star, is a staunch Republican who supports Dole's candidacy.

Might another Hollywood genre show Arabs and the Middle East in a truer light? One such possibility would be the animated feature film. In 1992, the Walt Disney Company released Aladdin, a feature length animated picture that was based on the tales of the Arabian legends of "Aladdin" and "Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves." However, this film, intended for both children and adults, continued the long tradition of misrepresenting Arabs and their culture in both images and words.

Aladdin is riddled with various Arab men and women who fit the traditional stereotypical image of a poor Arab "street rat." The first characterizations come in the opening scenes, in which a scheming street merchant tries to sell the viewer a number of pieces of junk as if the viewer were a tourist. The vendor then introduces the story of Aladdin and the audience is introduced to the Sultan's grand vizier, Jafar, and a bandit thief named Kazim who he is using to obtain the magic lamp. The bandit has an unshaven and scruffy beard, tattered clothes, and a thick Middle Eastern accent (although it is obvious that the accent is forced and fake). Jafar, too, has many of the same characteristics, including the sinister beard and accent. Later in the film, the audience witnesses a number of street scenes which play host to scimitar- wielding palace guards who are bent on capturing and killing a single street thief. Also in the streets are a hot coal walker, a knife swallower, and a great number of street vendors selling a variety of goods. There is even a scene in which an Arab wearing a clothes pin on his nose is shoveling manure into a pull cart with the sign "Crazy Hakim's Discount Fertilizer" draped on the side.

While many of the Arab characters portrayed in Aladdin have strikingly stereotypical Middle Eastern features, it is astonishing that Disney did not give these same characteristics to the three main characters in the film-Aladdin, Princess Jasmine, and the Sultan. Each of these three characters has more of the appearance of European descent than they do of Arab descent, In fact, the facial characteristics of Aladdin were based on the American actor Tom Cruise (Watson A15). Additionally, the statements and actions of these three characters are far from being violent as those of the other characters in the film, such as Jafar, the palace guards, or the street merchants. The Sultan is portrayed as being little more than a jolly old man who unknowingly is abused by Jafar. Aladdin is a misunderstood street beggar who is only doing the things he needs to do to survive, yet he still has a heart and a sense of charity-he is shown in an early scene giving two children a loaf of bread whose theft was the reason he spent the previous scene running away from the palace guards. Princess Jasmine is portrayed as a sweet woman whose only desire is to experience life for herself, outside of the palace walls. Compared to the violence and crime that is shown to exist in the streets and among the other characters, these three characters cast a stark contrast to most of what Disney portrays as Arabia.

Although Aladdin was released with the intention of being a children's movie (however, this can be argued due to the various "faces" of the genie, including Ed Sullivan and Rodney Dangerfield), there are scenes in which Arabs in the film are shown committing acts of violence. For instance, during the scene in which Princess Jasmine has wandered into the streets, she is caught stealing an apple from the vendor's cart. The vendor immediately tries to punish her by placing her arm on a table and chopping it off. Jasmine's dismemberment is prevented only by the scheming interruption of Aladdin. Similarly, after Aladdin, in the guise of Prince Ali, embarrasses Jafar and reveals to the Sultan that Jafar has been manipulating him by sorcery, Jafar has the palace guards capture Aladdin and throw him into the sea to drown. Aladdin is saved only by the lucky coincidence that the genie's lamp is brushed against and the genie answers.

The dialogue of Aladdin has fewer derogatory slurs of the Arab culture than in films such as True Lies yet, when they do occur, they are just as harmful. In the original version of the movie there were lines in the opening song, "Arabian Nights," that spoke of mutilation as a custom. The original lines were: Oh, I come from a land/Prom a faraway place/ Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your earl If they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but hey it's home. These lines were extremely offensive to many members of the Arab community. 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 consulted with the estate of Howard Ashman, the deceased lyricist, about the possibility of changing the lyrics of "Arabian Nights." After much deliberation, the fourth and fifth lines of the verse were eliminated and were replaced by, "Where it's flat and immense/and the heat is intense." The remainder of the song remained the same, including the references to Arabia being " barbaric."

Even in this age of "political correctness," Hollywood has been either unable or unwilling to change its representation of Arabs and the Middle East. Arabs today-as they were more than 70 years ago-are portrayed as being bandits, terrorists, thieves, and beggars. While Hollywood has taken some ameliorating, the casting of Arabs themselves to play demeaning roles is not enough. The work of groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has created a new awareness that there are problems that need to be addressed. Perhaps, if Hollywood takes this advice, then film audiences may begin to know the true lifestyle and culture of the modern Arab.

WORKS CITED

Enayat, Hamid. Modern Islamic Political Thought. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1982.

Michalak, Laurence. "Cruel and Unusual: Negative Images of Arabs in Popular Culture." Washington, DC: ADC Research Institute,
1988. ERIC ED 363 532.

Shohat, Ella and Robert Stain. Unthinking Eurocentrism. London: Routledge, 1994.

Truxal, Marilyn R. "Increasing Teacher/Parent Awareness of Developmentally Appropriate Movies for 3-6 Year Olds Through
Use of a Rating Scale." Unpublished dissertation, Nova Southeastern University, 1994. ERIC ED 371 873.

Watson, Peter. "Aladdin is not an Actor." The New York Times February 1993, A15.

Weinraub, Bernard. "Films and Recordings Threaten Nation's Character, Dole Says." The New York Times I June 1995, AI.