The Top 10 Most Uncomfortable Depictions of Arabs in Film
Zero Dark Thirty has re-ignited the public terrorised/ terrorist debate in a fresh non-Claire-Danes-cryface way, and while Jessica Chastain delivers an extraordinary performance in the film, it seems a more opportune time to consider 10 of Hollywood's best worst depictions of Arabs, instead of the unstuck CIA babes that hunt them. In fact, while we’re here, let’s look at film’s wider depiction of anyone with a beard or who eats with their hands, shall we?
Muslims, Arabs and more generally People of Middle Eastern Appearance (POMEA) have been called a lot of unsavoury things. From 'sand n**gers' to 'towelheads' or 'ragheads', mostly, they don’t get a great rap. Apparently the Arab American community call it the 'three B syndrome': bombers, belly dancers, or billionaires. Personally I've always considered it more like the three Cs: cab drivers, convenience-store owners or crackpots. All stereotypes have become equally valid.
In the interest of full disclosure, the below list is based on popular films, meaning they’re more influential than something like Syriana, which only attracted people with hipster glasses and/or George Clooney fans. It's not necessarily the definitive representation of the pulp Hollywood delivers, because there is just too much idiocy out there, but consider this your “beware” sign at the gate of stupidity.
10. Back to the Future
I feel like a traitor including this because I love this movie. I mean it's Marty McFly, who is so innocuous and sweet there should be a lolly named after him. And I'm loyal to the franchise - I even watched BTTF III; I went on the BTTF ride at Universal Studios; and the only reason I know the words to Earth Angel is because of the Enchantment Under the Sea prom scene.
But like a mother to a child, you don't always have to like what you love. In this case, BTTF gets a mention because of the whole plutonium plotline, with the insanely stupid Libyan terrorists who got duped by the Doc then proceed to massacre him in a JC Penney parking lot.
That scared the living daylights out of me as a kid and thus loses a star for fearmongering.
9. The Mummy (the cool Brendan Fraser version)
OK, you guys. I’m a closet Brendan Fraser fan. This means I once found myself standing at the red carpet for a premiere of a film I can't remember the name of, but which involved him. I thrust out my notebook, had a few seconds of heart-stopping eye contact, and am convinced he felt a connection too as he scribbled down his autograph for me.
I love him, and I think he's a great actor, even when he's playing opposite jungle animals and basically grunts his way through a movie. So it pains me to think that he did a movie that appears so innocuously fun (cos it kind of does), but which makes Egyptians all seem sneaky, criminal and unclean.
And you can pretty much throw in just about other movie with the word 'mummy' in the title, because they all drink from the same screwy Hollywood kool-aid that eroticises Arabs while simultaneously smudging them with the evil stick.
(I still love you though, Brendan.)
8. Harum Scarum
This is your garden variety, primer, paint-by-number good vs evil in Arab land epic. Elvis dips into the exotic, admiring while simultaneously reviling some fictional Middle Eastern kingdom. He sings his way through the smelly, dirty Arabs who are corrupt and Bad, to save a hot princess who's "observing the fast of Ramadan", in a bellydancing outfit (as you do).
OK, yes, it's Elvis, so the standards aren't exactly high, but this so perfectly embodies Hollywood's barely shifting narrative when it comes to the Middle East (this was made in 1965, during a time when the US government still talked about "goodwill tours" and friendship between nations, etc). It depicts The Exotic Other that we're not meant to be entirely comfortable with. Sure, they're not *all* bad, but we're still so much better and more awesome than they are, and we can make fun of them cos they’re stoopid and have weird sounding names.
Sinan: I am Sinan, Mr. Tyronne, Lord of the Assassins.
Johnny Tyronne: Well, I'm the Sheik of Araby. Whatta ya want with me anyway?
File under: So Bad it's Good.
7. Jewel of the Nile
There was so much to like about Romancing the Stone. And in hindsight, no, the South Americans don't come out looking sparkly clean, but neither do Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. It's a clever, funny romantic comedy. Which is why it's so bewildering that they felt the need to demolish all their hard work with this horrible sequel. It's bad, and not even in a good way.
In it, you have your standard American saving the world (or maybe just himself) from evil Arabs, religious fanatics and [insert every other POMEA stereotype]. You get your usual dose of bellydancers and mysticism. You really don't get much more than that, unless you include a sour taste in your mouth and a desire to never ever visit the Middle East, ever.
They also make fun of bedouin practices with a ridiculous night dance scene, and you get lines like this:
Ralph: Come on, Colton! Where's the jewel?
Jewel: Ralph, I am the Jewel. The Jewel of the Nile.
Ralph: Yeah, and I'm a kumquat from Queens! Pipe down, towel-head!
The Arabs are coming! Lock up your wimmen, and business assets!
It's no secret that many Arabs are ostentatiously well-off, and like buying property and investing in businesses beyond the sandy desert of the homeland. But it's a puzzle how Saudi Arabians came to be the evil acquirers of a US TV network in Network.
It's been touted as a satire, and didn't seem to create too much controversy, just lots of kudos and awards. Yet it's a fairly unforgiving portrayal of Arabs as ruthless, money-hungry villains who will take away jobs (and obviously freedom through business jihad or something).
As Jack G Shaheen points out in his tome, Reel Bad Arabs, at the time the film was made (mid-70s), 90 per cent of direct foreign investment in the US was derived from Europe, the UK, Japan and Canada. Nary an oil sheikh to be seen, which didn't stop the US 60 Minutes program compiling a segment warning of the Arab invasion in England.
We're pretty far from Kansas now, Toto.
5. The Siege
In some ways I'm conflicted about including this and it's primarily because, I totally don't think the intention was to diss Arabs/Muslims. In fact, it really has a greater currency to it in that it slams gung-ho justice-at-any-cost morons (like the kind played so well by Bruce Willis), who don't treat terrorists merely as criminals, but as exemplary of an entire community of people. So when they lock up all the POMEA, you're supposed to realise how screwed up people can get when they feel threatened.
BUT, and this is where I'm swayed, they spend so much time hating on the Bad Guys, you end up kind of disliking them too, and anyone who looks like them.
End result is that a lot of simpletons will walk out and distrust POMEA because they blow stuff up in movies and don't get cute parts in HBO comedies to balance it all out.
4. Body of Lies
This one deserves mention if only to highlight the excruciating scenes in which Leonard DiCaprio attempts to speak Arabic and appear convincing as a native... a native with some weird ass dialect at that. The usual US-triumphs-over-evil ingredients are present: CIA agent - check; terrorist heartland (in this case Jordan) - check; majority bad guy Arabs with one redeeming character - check.
See, this movie is a little more thoughtful than a lot of the crap that's out there, but the essential issue here is that Arabs are presented as The Other - frightening, unique to humanity, lesser, somehow not as advanced other. Not even a sweet love story between Leo and a Muslim chick with a US-hating sister can deter from the eerie, unnerving vibe you get about the Middle East.
Russell Crowe plays an asshole too, and sums it up nicely with this gripping line: "Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like."
3. The Kingdom
The poster alone portends that here be a tale that shows the US guys to be bad ass, and the Arabs (all of whom are men because women are evil) 2D villains. This is where the three B deal comes in, because the Arabs in the film are primarily rich, nasty and scary as hell.
Jason Bateman also plays a dick, which is frustrating to someone who not only loved Arrested Development to a less-than-healthy extent, but can also claim to have watched him in that 80s hallmark, Valerie. (I am NOT ashamed.)
When Jennifer Garner is excluded from the roundtable of evil, she gets huffy as does her team, because you know, Americans never mistreat or disrespect women, only Evil Arabs with beards do.
And if that's not enough, it's just so goddamn trite and smug - the good old US coming in to educate the stupid rich Arabs, who hate women and just want to kill everyone. Oh, and the dialogue sucks.
Ronald Fleury: Which side do you think Allah's on?
Colonel Faris Al Ghazi: We are about to find out!
2. True Lies
Where to begin with travesty of a cartoon violence pic? We know it caused riots in the cinema because they made Arabs look like morons, and, of course, they were terrorists. We also know that they failed to actually recruit Arabs to play said moronic terrorists, which only pissed people off more in some strange twist of irony or something. But FYI producers - Indian is not the same as Arab. Making someone speak like he's tripping over the English language doesn’t really do the job.
We can also talk about the "acting", but really all that anyone will remember is that Jamie Lee Curtis did a strip tease and pole dance for Arnie, who is so un-friggin-believable as a man leading a double life, I'm surprised there weren't any riots based on this alone.
So, yeah. Don't watch this if you don't want (a) your intelligence insulted, and (b) to lose 90 minutes of your life on really bad acting, racism and all-round douchebaggery.
1. Lawrence of Arabia
This film is notable because it’s consistently ranked as one of the top five or 10 or 100 films of all time. That means people will watch it and put it on a cinematic pedestal even though it takes history, and throws it in the washing machine, with the wrong colours, causing everything to come out distinctly different-looking.
It’s a historical epic focused on the achievements of a British dude who did stuff for the Arabs in the desert, which is fine, except Arabs are portrayed as weak, stupid and in need of foreign guidance because, you know, it’s not like they know how to do anything on their own.
Throw in some amazing cinematography, a token Arab actor (Omar Sharif) and a hot lead (a very dashing Peter O’Toole), and it becomes credible.
It’s really not. It may well be a masterpiece, but it needs to lose the “based on a true story” tag and three stars. Do not pass 'go', do not collect $200.
Lead image via Shutterstock, other images credit to their respective movies.