The absent Arab

The absent Arab
7 min read
19 Sep, 2018
Comment: On screen, Arabs have either been absent or portrayed as villains, suggesting we are either terrible people, or we just don't exist, writes Ruby Hamad.
Adam Jacobs, who played Aladdin in the Broadway production of the musical [WireImage]

Recently, my sister sent an irate text to our family group chat with a link to a popular Australian health and lifestyle guru and a simple message, "She's ripped off labneh and called it cream cheese!"

My own irritation soon followed at the gushing ode to the traditional Lebanese method of muslin-strained yoghurt, complete with illustrations and adulations, but with no mention of where this recipe came from.  

I know what you are thinking. Really, Ruby? It's just labneh and you don't even eat dairy, what's the big deal? Okay, sure it shouldn't be a big deal. But - and you know there is a but -  nothing in this world occurs in a vacuum; there is always context and the context here is the dual hyper-visible and yet strangely absent role that Arab people and culture occupy in the western public sphere.  

In the news as well as entertainment media, Arabs tend to exist only when playing the role of the terrorist, religious fanatic, or the incompetent buffoon. As objects of fear or derision, the concept of Arabs as regular people living regular lives - just doesn't seem to exist.

What certainly doesn't exist are depictions of Arabs that are in any way aspirational. The Broadway production of Aladdin the musical, for instance, does not feature any performers from an Arab or other Middle Eastern background.

Sure, it boasts a suitably diverse cast as you'd expect for a story set in the Middle East but an inspection of the 
full list of featured performers reveals that it's 1001 Arabian Nights minus the Arabians.

Aladdin is not alone; Arabs are conspicuously absent from even the most notably inclusive programmes and films of recent times.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Good Place - two clever and genuinely hilarious sitcoms that I adore - both feature an effortlessly diverse cast, where black, white, Jewish, South Asian, South-East Asian, and Latinx characters all mingle as they do in real life. No Arabs though.  

Arabs tend to exist only when playing the role of the terrorist, religious fanatic, or the incompetent buffoon

This might be easier to accept if not for the fact casting directors clearly have no trouble locating Arab talent when the script calls for, oh say, a suicide bomber.

This week, the US-based MENA Advocacy Arts Coalition released the findings of its latest study into 
Arab representation on the small screen and found that out of 2,052 series regulars only 1 percent were from a MENA background. 92 percent of shows have no MENA regulars, and for those that do, 78 percent are terrorists, tyrants, or soldiers.

This onscreen marginalisation of Arabs is nothing new. The late Lebanese-American academic Jack Shaheen documented the uniquely and persistently villainous place occupied by the Arab in his comprehensive study Reel Bad Arabs close to two decades ago (later adapted into a documentary film).

Analysing more than 1,000 depictions of Arab fictional screen characters, Shaheen discovered the results were so overwhelmingly negative - only 12 out of 1,000 characters portrayed Arabs in a positive light - that he subtitled his book, 'How Hollywood Vilifies a People'.

Arabs, he concluded, were routinely portrayed as "heartless, brutal, uncivilized, religious fanatics through common depictions of Arabs kidnapping or raping a fair maiden; expressing hatred against the Jews and Christians; and demonstrating a love for wealth and power."

Compounding this problem is that when actors from Arab backgrounds do make it our cinema and television screens in non-stereotypical roles, their ethnicity is almost always whitewashed. How many people are aware that Shannon Elizabeth, Catherine Keener, Salma Hayek and Wendie Malick all have Arab ancestry?

At the same time, there seems no limit to how disparagingly Arabs can be discussed in the news media.

Just last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman decided to use the popularity of the film Crazy Rich Asians, set in prosperous Singapore, as a hook to take a swing in a column titled 
Crazy Poor Middle Easterners, blaming all of the region's problems on its refusal to "leave the past behind," as if all that foreign intervention has nothing at all to do with it.

It's no surprise studies of the representation of Arabs in the news media find negative depictions of Arabs and Muslims (the two are routinely conflated making it both necessary and impossible to try and separate them) 
has been steadily increasing. This duality - Arab villainy offset only by absence - creates a very lopsided caricature of what it means to be an Arab; either we are terrible people or we just don't exist.

This skewed framing is the context in which all incidents of Arab representation must be interpreted, including that famous clip of John McCain's 2008 election campaign town hall meeting that was all over the internet once again, following the Senator's death last month.  

Directors clearly have no trouble locating Arab talent when the script calls for a suicide bomber

Gushing approval came from ordinary citizens and celebrities alike, with Stephen King calling it McCain's "finest moment."  In the video, an elderly white woman informs McCain that she doesn't trust Obama because "he's an Arab," (she likely meant "Muslim" but there's that darned conflation again), to which McCain, looking much like a disappointed dad, shakes his head, confiscates her microphone and replies, "No Ma'am, he is a decent family man, a citizen."

Sure, we could give McCain the benefit of the doubt and assume he was trying to address both the smearing of Obama and the implication that Arabs are by default untrustworthy, but the problem is precisely that this "heartwarming" clip was being shared without that disclaimer.

Read more: 'Israeli' hummus is theft, not appropriation

In a world where meanings and interpretations are constantly twisted and clouded, both intentionally and inadvertently, and where Arabs are already equated with violence and deceit, it is dangerous as well as disrespectful to hold up such a clip as a measure of decency.

As it stands, what that clip represents is a rebuke, not of that woman's public denigration of Arabs, but merely of her claim Obama is one of these deceptive crypto-Arabs. Yes, we can analyse both hers and McCain's intentions until we also expire, but regardless of what he meant to say, and of whether she meant "Arab" or "Muslim," most people watching the clip are unlikely to analyse or question it in such detail.

92 percent of shows have no MENA regulars, and for those that do, 78 percent are terrorists, tyrants, or soldiers

The damage is done yet again to Arabs who have to watch over and over as someone is hailed as the height of human decency for apparently excluding Arabs from this decency, family, and citizenry; you know all the things that regular people going about their regular lives do.  

In such a climate, how can Arabs be blamed for objecting to our ongoing erasure, not only from the public sphere, but from our own cultural output and traditions?

When everything from our language to our clothing is feared and denigrated, the sudden rush to claim our food is particularly jarring.

Readers are likely already familiar with
Israel's ongoing appropriation of Arab falafel and hummus, but it is important to note that this erasure occurs elsewhere and on a less explicit basis.

Google the word "tahini," for instance, and you'll be directed to 
American blogs that refer to it as an Israeli food and to cook books that don't bother to acknowledge its origins at all, even though the name itself is Arabic.

As I've written before, "Sure, it's tempting to laugh it off, but this is true cultural appropriation: Taking one aspect of a certain culture and praising it, adopting it, and claiming it as one's own, even as the culture from which it came is maligned and disempowered."

Arabs are routinely and persistently maligned, silenced, and erased. Sometimes we deserve just a little credit, even if it's as small and simple as calling our labneh by its rightful name. It may not be a big deal to you but it helps us Arabs to remember that despite everything, we are still here.

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.