Reel Bad Arabs: Aladdin, Al-Qaeda, and Arabs in U.S. film and TV
by Christian Blauvelt
Myths of Arabland
Cultural identity partly derives from geography so that landscape often points to patterns of economic and social activity. Rivers, such as the Huang and the Nile, have fostered the agrarian economies as well as transportation networks. An island country like Japan often becomes a prime hub of sea-bound trade networks, with fishing playing a large role in local food production. However, topographic-ethnic associations can also lead to reductive connotations. The Inuit people traditionally have lived within the Arctic Circle in frigid, ice-filled tundra environments, but when such an association leads mainly to imagery of Inuits living in igloos and ice fishing, the complexity of a great people’s culture gets reduced to what is little more than Rankin Bass imagery. (Image 1) Worse yet, geography may be used metaphorically to take on a personified quality that translates into attitudes toward that part of the world. When Africa means the “Jungle,” that’s not just a landscape but a state of mind. Thus Conrad’s Heart of Darknes, links cultural “backwardness” to geographic “backwardness” and finds Western morality impossible in a realm of incessant Darwinian struggle.
Such pejorative association between topography and cultural identity shapes the mise-en-scene and is the initial locus of much of Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Arabs. As Shaheen puts it,
“The depiction of Arabs always begins with the desert.”
As with depictions of Africa where the jungle connotes both danger and cultural “backwardness,” the “hostility” of the desert environment often translates into attitudes about the people who live there. (Image 2) Certainly many parts of the Arab world do feature desert landscapes. However, any uniform marriage of people and place in terms of the connotations of "desert" would ignore both physical and cultural variety, including the modern urban environments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Mediterranean climate of Tunisia, Libya, and Lebanon, the fertile fields of the Nile Valley, the rugged plateaus of Kurdistan, and the mountains of Morocco.
Looking at this kind of reductionism in more cultural terms, Hollywood not only gives Arabs a Muslim identity but all-too-often gives Muslims an Arab identity, when in reality Arabs make up only about 1/3 of the total worldwide Muslim population of over one billion people. Narratively linking Muslims with the desert sets in place an even more sweeping misperception of the great faith’s cultural diversity and complexity. How could tying Islam to those living in the desert relate to the experience of Muslims living in sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or Indonesia — regions that don’t feature deserts as prominent topographical features? For example, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, is primarily tropical in its climate, with mountains, the rainforest, and the sea as the most prominent geographical landmarks. For Hollywood films to create a link between landscape and religion shows a profound ignorance of the world. (Image 3)
“We inherited the Arab image primarily from Europeans.”
Shaheen is referring here to 19th century Orientalism, a movement inspired in part by British and French acquisition of lands in the Middle East and North Africa. European cultural production, both artistic and popular culture, included a plethora of fantastical travel writing which emphasized the exoticism of the Middle East through mythopoetic stereotypes that revealed little about the actual local culture but attracted rich European tourists. In the visual arts, Eugene Delacroix’s Orientalist paintings portrayed Arab culture as beyond decadent, with lascivious sultans wearing vibrant colors and sensual silk while surrounded by scantily clad harem girls. (Images 4-6) Delacroix also frequently depicted Arab sexuality as paired with death as in "The Death of Sardanapalus" (1827). (Images 7-8) These exotic stereotypes were transmitted to United States where they found a parallel cultural foothold, especially in the early 20th century when dime novels promoted ethnocentric adventure narratives about the “superior” Western culture taming the U.S. West and its Native American inhabitants. The dimestore novelists attached a similar xenophobic sense of “otherness” to the Middle East, to Native Americans, and to Asians, especially the Chinese. And Columbia University Professor Edward Saïd demonstrated the ways that these stereotypes persist today, even in academic analysis:
“All academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged with, impressed with, and violated by 19th century Orientalism.”
Characterizing this “otherness” is the sense that Arabs are “backwards.” As a character relates about her fictional Middle East-inspired country in the Elvis Presley movie Harum Scarum (1965):
“When you cross the mountains of the moon into our country, you will be stepping back 2,000 years.”
Shaheen argues that the mythopoetic trappings of Arab culture as depicted in Hollywood films have become so rigidly codified that they have an amusement park-like uniformity:
“We have this fictional setting called Arabland, a mythical theme park. And in Arabland, you have the ominous music, you have the desert as a threatening place, we add an oasis, palm trees, a palace that has a torture chamber in the basement.”
In a common mise-en-scene, opulent, palatial interiors reveal a cruel, bloated pasha reclining on cushions and surrounded by harem maidens. The pasha possesses an unquenchable appetite for the flesh and requires sensual handmaidens and harem girls to appeal to his lascivious desires. (Images 9-10) However, as in the movie Samson Against the Sheik (1962), the Arab harem maidens don’t attract the pasha’s attention as much as the blonde European girl does, so he must abduct and ravish her against her will.
The codified trappings of Arabland which Shaheen identifies as the “Instant Ali Baba Kit” include costuming women in belly-dancing outfits and transparent pantaloons, while giving the male villains long, curved, scimitars. Since Arabland is clearly a mystical land, its inhabitants ride on magic carpets, and snake charmers hypnotize deadly cobras with eerie flute music. These trappings are not merely found in Classical Hollywood films that demonstrate an Orientalist influence like The Thief of Baghdad (1924 and 1940) or The Garden of Allah (1936), or films featuring Jamie Farr, but in even more recent fare including the 1992 Disney blockbuster Aladdin. Aladdin, in fact, continues the stale Orientalist fantasy, portraying all Arab men as either street thugs, pickpockets, emasculated palace guards, beggars, sultans, or sorcerers.
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