Arabs in Hollywood: Savage, evil, barbarians

Image of Aladdin from the live action Disney movie “Aladdin.” Screenshot from the official trailer on Walt Disney Studios‘ YouTube channel. Fair use.

This article was written by Zizi Shusha, and was originally published in Raseef22 on January 29, 2024. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The ongoing Israeli war on Gaza has brought to light a number of complex questions that are likely to persist for years. Among these is the imagined image of the East and of the Arab people in the Western mind.

In his Time Magazine article “Gaza and the End of Western Fantasy,” Bruno Maçães, former Secretary of State for European Affairs in Portugal, analyzes the war on Gazans through a political and cultural lens. He ultimately dismantles the Western fantasy of Arabs and the East, concluding that it is over.

What is this Western fantasy, and what dangers does it pose to Arabs? To answer this question, we must explore the idea of the “Other.”

Before the formation of the European continent, the idea of the Other did not exist in the way we now commonly understand it. According to Palestinian thinker Edward Said in his book “Orientalism,” Western thinkers believed that Western culture would gain more power and identity clarity by positioning itself in opposition to Arabs and the East. The Arab as the Other was particularly singled out in this regard.

If Western power is derived from confrontation with the Other, then it is in Western interest to weaken, colonize, distort, and falsify the history and beliefs of the Other, ultimately stripping it of its humanity.

Western fantasy has played a crucial role in distorting and falsifying the Arab individual and Arab culture. Hollywood has played the most dangerous role in cementing a horrific image of Arabs. Here, we explore the various images of Arabs in American cinema to reveal the many ways Arabs have been dehumanized by Western fantasy.

Jack Shaheen was Arab American writer and lecturer specializing in addressing racial and ethnic stereotypes. Screenshot from “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Documentary” on Abe Berry's YouTube channel. Fair use.

Jack Shaheen (1935—2017), a film critic of Arab origin from the United States,  received a grant that enabled him to live in over 15 Arab cities in the 1980 and 1990s. On his way back to the US, he spoke of the terrible injustice towards the Arab people. He wondered how American cinema distorted these kind, peaceful people into savages?

This is where the idea for his encyclopedic project about the evil image of Arabs in American cinema took shape in the book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

The Arabic translation was published in two parts by the National Center for Translation in Cairo. Shaheen spent many years of his life completing the book, in which he critiqued and analyzed over 900 American films from the silent cinema era to the age of films relying on sophisticated technologies.

Out of all the films he reviewed, Shaheen was only able to reference twelve films that depicted Arab characters positively, while the overwhelming majority portrayed an extremely negative, barbaric, and aggressive image, considering the Arab individual as a source of threat. Hence, the Arab character warrants being killed without pity or mercy.

Who are the Arabs portrayed by Hollywood?

According to Jack Shaheen, throughout history, film directors have labeled Arabs as hostile, savage, barbaric, and as religious fanatics obsessed with money. Culturally, Arabs represent the Other, responsible for terrorizing civilized Westerners, especially Christians and Jews.

Despite the wars, the rises and falls of entire countries, and the cultural achievements related to freedoms and human rights that have taken place since 1986, according to Shaheen, “Hollywood’s caricature of the Arab has prowled the silver screen in search of prey. He is there to this day—repulsive and unrepresentative as ever.”

The critic suggests that American directors did not create the stereotypical image of the Arab themselves, but rather inherited it from Europeans, who were the first to spread such caricatures of Arabs. Shaheen explains:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European artists and writers helped reduce the region to a colony. They presented images of desolate deserts, corrupt palaces, and slimy souks inhabited by the cultural other—the lazy, bearded heathen Arab Muslim. The writers’ stereotypical tales were inhabited with cheating vendors and exotic concubines held hostage in slave markets.

Such portrayals of foreigners and barbarians oppressing and “subjugating harem maidens” were received by audiences as the truth, until the stereotypes became engraved in the Western mind and rooted in European popular culture.

Shaheen examined the enormous impact of the tales of Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights on the West’s perception of Arab people. By 1979, the stories were translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible, and their impact went beyond just shaping perceptions. They ignited the Western imagination and fantasy of Arabs, which led to the fabrication of many images and stories.

According to Shaheen in the early 1900s, “imagemakers, such as the Frenchman Georges Méliès, served up images of dancing harem maidens and ugly Arabs.” Arabs rode camels, wielded curved swords, killed each other, while they drooled over European heroines and ignored their own women. Shaheen writes, “In Méliès’ The Palace of Arabian Nights (1905), submissive maidens attend a bored, greedy, black-bearded potentate; a stocky palace guard cools the ruler, fluttering a huge feather fan.”

Hollywood frequently portrays Arab women wearing belly dancing outfits living in harems. Screenshot from “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Documentary” on Abe Berry's YouTube channel. Fair use.

As for Arab women in Hollywood, over 50 of the reviewed films depicted them as victims of suffering. Women were either insulted, posssessed or victims of sexual abuse. Sixteen of these films included half-Arab women, or silent slaves. Arab women were not shown to marry any Western man, and physical contact between men and Arab women was found to be rare, which led Shaheen to conclude, “It seems that the marriage of an Arab woman to a Western man is taboo in Hollywood. This has only happened in a very small number of films.”

The image of the Palestinian

Jack Shaheen observed that although many films produced in the 1980 and 1990s featuring Arab characters included Palestinians, they failed to portray them authentically, strongly condemning the false image crafted by Hollywood for Palestinians in particular. Hollywood films addressing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict lacked the portrayal of human drama showing Palestinians as ordinary people.

Shaheen noted that Palestinians were never shown as the innocent victims of brutal Israeli oppression; films never showed settlers uprooting olive groves and killing Palestinian civilians with their rifles in Palestinian cities. These films also failed to portray Palestinian families fighting for survival under occupation or living in refugee camps, struggling to have a homeland or a passport that bears the name “Palestine.”

Just a year after the establishment of the State of Israel, the film “Sword in the Desert” presented Palestine as a land without a people, echoing the popular Zionist slogan, despite the fact that the majority of those living on the land at that time were in fact Palestinians. The myth “There are no Palestinians living in Palestine” was repeated in the 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow and Judith.

A scene from the 1994 film “True Lies” depicting terrorists as dark skinned, presumably Arab, wearing Palestinian kufiya. Screenshot from the trailer of “True Lies.” Fair use.

According to Shaheen, 7 films, including “True Lies” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” depict Palestinians as nerve-gas-using terrorists. In over 11 films, including “Half Moon Street,” “Terror in Beverly Hills,” and “A Date with Death,” Palestinians hurt and torture Western children and women.

After he witnessed this deception and distortion, Shaheen wondered whether there existed an unwritten law that Hollywood must portray Palestinians as irrational and evil, while depicting all Israelis as rational and righteous. There is much to question about the lies, misinformation, and falsification of facts, but the ongoing genocide of Palestinians is not an answer.

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