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Arab Representation in Popular Literature

posted on: Mar 8, 2021

Arab Representation in Literature

Representation in literature is important for many different audiences! It is important that children see their identity represented. Therefore, they will not grow up with the notion that only white people can be represented in many forms of media. Understanding representation in literature is essential. Representation is an issue in literature because many of the literature in schools do not reflect the identity of the students. With the issue of representation, there comes an issue of misrepresentation. The Arab American community is no stranger to misrepresentation. An issue in literature has to with “orientalism”. This causes people to perceive Arab culture as exotic, uncivilized, and other dangerous stereotypes. These stereotypes account for misrepresentation and distort the way people view Arab culture and people.

Lack of Representation

Arab people are not represented in literature often. This is detrimental for young students to see themselves in literature. Today, American culture has shifted toward an increase in the diversity of representation. Luckily, there has been a difference with more LGBTQ+ characters, more black characters, and more. There have even been more Muslim characters! This is certainly a cause for celebrating. However, there are no Arab characters. Many people think that Arab equals Muslim. This creates a false idea of awareness and leads many people to become presumptuous of cultural and religious identities.


Mark Twain, a famous American writer, is not innocent of orientalism. In his book entitled The Innocent Abroad, Twain upholds these ideologies. He depicts Arab lands, such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, as messy, wild, and just barren deserts. Such a depiction ignores the beautiful cities and landmarks in these areas. This book’s other racist sentiments include when Twain describes all Arab people as liars and cheaters. This proliferates orientalist sentiments. Because of this, some may view Arab people as “lawless” and “uncivilized”.

Mark Twain is not the only author that has tried to depict Arab people in their works. There have been a few Arab characters in the works of William Shakespeare. However, the most substantial issue within his writing is the exotification of places such as Morocco, which reinforces the idea that Morrocco, and other Arab countries, are lawless and uncivilized. 

These works were not written recently, however, they are frequently taught in schools. By teaching these stories in schools, this gives many people, specifically students, the idea that these nations are uncivilized and lawless, which creates many stereotypes about Arab people. This is significant because it exposes children to negative stereotypes, as well as 

Men versus Women

Arab men are depicted as rough and violent in various media. This also frames terrorism as connected to Arab men. Such stereotypes are a product of orientalism, in tandem with paranoia among certain groups of people. These are examples of the impact of gross misrepresentation, which proliferates a certain culture around Arab people. This is one root of racist sentiments against Arab people. 

Conversely, Arab women are not typically depicted as violent or lawless, instead typically stereotyped as docile, fully covered from head-to-toe, and obeying their husband/father. This stereotype is especially dangerous and leaves many people with the thought that Arab women are not strong and independent. Western schools of thought have adopted the idea that women wearing head coverings and structuring their families in a specific way automatically make these women oppressed. Greater light needs to be shed on cultural differences and norms. This will help others understand specific aspects of Arab culture, which can lead to greater appreciation and understanding. 


In order to break down stereotypes, we must call out the stereotypes in the popular literature taught in schools. The issue of stereotyping has gone too far. For example, many writers, directors, and other artistic producers do not even realize the stereotypes they pepper into their art. Older works, such as Twain, were more blatantly racist. However, newer popular literature is more subtly racist and targets specific groups through micro aggressions. These stereotypes are not always acknowledged. Therefore, students may proliferate these stereotypes. By acknowledging these issues and shedding light on them, this creates a pathway for the younger generation to call out these stereotypes and prevent them from happening again. 


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