Patrick Harrington interviews:
Jack Shaheen – author of Reel Bad Arabs
Reel Bad Arabs
by Jack Shaheen Arris ISBN 1844370194 £14.99
Your book Reel Bad Arabs deals with how Hollywood films portray Arabs. It’s certainly comprehensive. Just how many films did you watch?
About 95 percent of the 900-plus films I discuss; the movies I could not see were the silent films of the early 1900s (they were destroyed)… films such as The Arab, and an early sound flick Tom Mix in Arabia, and a 1926 cartoon Felix the Cat Shatters the Sheik.
What motivated you to undertake such a daunting task?
I’d always been sensitive to hurtful images…I grew up in a small steel town, Clairton, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. A terrific place to interact with various ethnic groups. One problem, though: Blacks were still considered to be “less smart”. I had several good black friends. Some of my white pals looked down on them because of their color; I would speak out and defend them but it was difficult, being a single voice and going against the tide.
Also, our home was free of prejudicial barbs. No-one vilified another person because of color, creed or culture. Not a single member of the family.
Later, in the late 1960s when I began teaching at Southern Illinois, I started seeing all these ugly Arab caricatures prowling TV screens. Then my children saw them on Saturday morning cartoons, asking, “who are these ugly Arabs?” so I went to the library and tried to find some research.
Zilch. No essays…no books… so, I began reading everything I could find on how others were demonized in the media — Jews, Asians, Blacks, American Indians.
The readings helped and I became the first scholar to seriously examine this issue, though all my research was not in any way related to the my broadcast journalism. Thus, I had two jobs — normal teaching during the day, and at night researching Arab images in US popular culture.
There are over seven million Arab-Americans living in the US. Have you been able to find any positive or even neutral portrayals of Arabs in US movies?
Yes… notably recent films such as Three Kings and The 13th Warrior and Party Girl.
To save time, see my recommended RBA viewing list.
What is the overall stereotype of Arabs depicted in US films?
Subhumans — Arab Muslims are fanatics who believe in a different god, who don’t value human life as much as we do, they are intent on destroying us (the west) with their oil or with their terrorism; the men seek to abduct and brutally seduce our women; they are without family and reside in a primitive place (the desert) and behave like primitive beings. The women are subservient — resembling black crows or we see them portrayed as mute, somewhat exotic harem maidens.
If you had to name the three worst modern films in terms of a negative portrayal of Arabs what would they be and why?
Rules of Engagement — a film which “justifies” US Marines killing Arab women and children.
Wanted Dead or Alive — Arab thugs, with the help of American Arab terrorists, plan to ignite Los Angeles… killing millions.
True Lies — “Arnold S. INC.” shoots dead Palestinians like clay pigeons.
How do they get away with such racism? If Jews or Black people were depicted in this way there would be an outcry. How come few say anything about this?
Fear of being perceived as pro-Arab; greed; pro-Israeli feelings; lack of an American Arab pressure group in LA; reluctance of any major political or church leader to condemn this stereotype.
How far do you think negative portrayals of Arabs in films and fiction influence the way Americans (in particular) interpret the news? How does it colour the way they view the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for example?
100 percent. Consider… what we do not see is also as important if not more important than what we do see. What, for example, would be the public and policy behavior if we stereotyped Israelis as subhumans in the same way we show Arabs as subhumans? Think about it.
You were a consultant on the 1999 post-Gulf War film Three Kings. How did that come about?
Terrific. Because the two producers with whom I worked — Chuck Roven and Doug Segal — did not want to vilify anyone. We were a fantastic team; mutual respect prevailed. I was brought in from the beginning and met regularly with them — an ongoing dialogue.
You had two Jewish producers on that film. What did they think of these issues? Were they sympathetic to your attempts to portray Arabs (in this case Iraqis) in a more complex and sympathetic way?
I never think about a producer’s color or religion, I simply study the artist’s movie[s] and praise/criticize him or her based on what appears on the screen.
What was the reaction to your book when it was published in the US?
Not bad. The problem was, and remains, the popular trade entertainment/film and TV magazines — Variety-Premiere, Hollywood Reported, Film Comment, People, Entertainment Weekly — failed to review it or acknowledge the book’s existence. The N.Y. Times and Washington Post were silent… No major TV critic who reviews movies addressed it. Not one.
Has the reaction in the UK been any different?
More receptive… more interest, more concern, more intelligence.
What are you working on at the moment?
Documenting how American TV shows project American Arabs and American Muslims.