Amr Goes to Hollywood: An Actor's Perspective on Hateful Arab and Muslim Stereotypes and Narratives
BY: Amr El-Bayoumi / Arab America Contributing Writer
Despite my ongoing commitment to avoid perpetuating demeaning depictions and narratives of Arabs and Muslims (or any other group of people for that matter), I have encountered these stereotypes and distorted narratives regularly as an actor.
To name just a few of the 19th and 20th-century precursors to today’s hateful Arab and Muslim stereotypes and distorted narratives, toxic and pervasive images of the bloodthirsty Native American, the Jewish Shylock, the Irish drunk, the African American pimp or subservient maid, the incoherent or submissive Asian and the lazy Mexican bandito often served (and continue to serve) as a rationale for the oppression of the “others” (i.e., anyone other than a White, Protestant male).
After years of first-hand experience, I have established the following five types of film, television, and theater projects that include ugly stereotypes and/or distorted narratives concerning Arabs and Muslims, which I will have no part of, and which I am describing in hopes that they are more readily identifiable, and, therefore, more readily objected to. Perhaps it is a perspective that will lead to a better understanding of the hatred behind the next ‘Muslim Ban’ or military invasion for ‘liberation’. Dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims through these stereotypes and narratives has been and will continue to be an essential component of U.S. foreign policy and the destructive use of force that goes with it, whether in Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, or Libya.
1. The Terrorist
The blatant, one-dimensional negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists remain prominent in today’s mainstream productions, whether it’s the bloodthirsty, suicide bombing, child-murdering caliph in a major television series, or a lead in a major studio film described as an Arabic man who was raised by the Taliban, a vicious and calculating extremist, who is devising a plot to bomb key locations using kidnapped child suicide bombers.
2. “Balanced” Depictions Through Bad Guy and Good Guy
In an effort to “soften” the vulgar, one-dimensional Arab or Muslim stereotype in film and television, a technique is used to maintain the one-dimensional character and “balance” him or her with a “good” Arab or Muslim, thereby sanitizing the presence of the one-dimensional character with a pretext of claiming that the particular film or television show does not portray all Arabs and Muslims as bad. Nevertheless, the narrative is still about Arabs or Muslims inextricably linked to terrorism and violence and not associated with thousands of other potential storylines.
3. Rewriting History
The feature film “Devil’s Double” graphically portrays the brutality of Saddam Hussein, his sons and his henchmen. Entirely absent is any indication of the installation of Hussein in 1979 with the support of the CIA, the U.S. Government’s ongoing support of the Hussein regime for over two decades, and the entirely fabricated Weapons of Mass Destruction pretext for the illegal invasion of Iraq as parroted by General Colin Powell on the floor of the U.N. Security Council, let alone the mass torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. Forces. The final scene is of U.S. soldiers in a Baghdad square after the “liberation” surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis waving American flags chanting “USA! USA! USA!”.
4. False Equivalence
In the recent Broadway play “The Band’s Visit” a group of Egyptian musicians are scheduled to perform in a village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but take a wrong turn into an Israeli settlement. After very tense and awkward initial encounters among the musicians and the settlers, somehow a little music, food and human connection results in the group interacting like the best of friends. All it takes is a little human bonding to solve the world’s problems.
Similarly, another recent Broadway play “Oslo” dramatizes the negotiation process between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in the lead-up to the so-called 1994 Peace Accords of the same name. Cozy up to the fire with a few tumblers of Johnnie Walker Black Label and make eye to eye, real human connections, and voila! A feeling of lasting peace is imminent.
Both of these pieces ignore the decades-long injustices and atrocities committed by Israel leaving no room for the glaring and brutal reality described in a 2022 Amnesty International research report “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity” as ‘an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination defined as apartheid under international law’. If a problem realized is a problem half solved, then a problem unrealized denied and materially distorted will never be solved.
5. Selective Viewpoints
In the new Broadway production of “The Kite Runner”, the brutality of the occupying Soviet forces and then the Taliban regime are on full display, and the main character flees to the San Francisco Bay Area, which is depicted as an idyllic haven, not to say that it is not valid to portray this.
However, the timing of this production just after the official withdrawal of U.S. forces after a two-decades-long, illegal invasion and occupation touted as a “nation building” exercise that amounted to nothing more than a destructive, over two trillion-dollar junket for the military-industrial complex funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars is notable.
I am often asked by many young Arab and Muslim artists when I give presentations about dehumanizing Arab and Muslim stereotypes and narratives about how to make a film that will ‘sell’ in Hollywood. My answer is always: “Don’t”. Instead, I encourage them to tell their own stories, develop their own characters, and share their own worlds. I also share the advice of independent filmmaker and professor, Haile Gerima: “You have no excuse not to write your story.”
Amr El-Bayoumi is an Egyptian-American actor, filmmaker, voice-over artist, producer, professor, and international lawyer based in Washington DC.
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