Music and Performing Arts

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

Jack Shaheen, New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001. 574 pages.

When it comes to Arab characters in movies, Hollywood has only one kind: Bad Arabs. So argues Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus of mass communications at Southern Illinois University and a former CBS News consultant on Middle East affairs in his new book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. In this groundbreaking study, Shaheen provides long-awaited evidence that since “cameras started cranking to the present,” Hollywood, for more than a century, has targeted Arabs. It has portrayed them, knowingly or unknowingly, as “uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural ‘others’.” He convincingly makes the case that filmmakers must not be pardoned for distorting and sacrificing the truth under the false pretext of artistic license.

The book is divided into two main parts. Most important, perhaps, is the introduction. The second part reviews films from A to Z. The book contains notes, appendices, a glossary, an index of films, and lists and discusses, in alphabetical order, more than 900 feature films containing Arab characters. The overwhelming majority of them, such as Prisoner in the Middle East, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Delta Force, and Executive Decision negatively stereotype Arabs. Only a handful of scenarios that surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s featured Arab characters as heroes. The Lion of the Desert and The 13th Warrior come to mind.

Shaheen eloquently describes the links between the ability to create fictional narratives and images and the power to form social attitudes, shape thoughts and beliefs, and construct prisms through which people view the world, themselves, and other peoples. Over time and through repetition, these stereotypes become self-perpetuating, enduring, and hard to eliminate. Part One consists of 12 sections, which enables the reader to navigate easily what otherwise could have been complicated issues and concepts.

The first section, “The Genesis,” discusses the negative stereotyping of Arabs in American pop culture. After this, he introduces “Real Arabs” as he has known them: his family, friends and colleagues, and people he has met and experienced throughout his life. Another part, “The Stereotype’s Entry,” deals with how stereotypical Arab images entered American popular culture. Here he argues that American image-makers did not invent the negative Arab stereotype, but rather “inherited and embellished Europe’s pre-existing Arab caricatures.” He elaborates, without giving specific examples, that these inherited tales were inhabited with “cheating vendors and exotic concubines held hostage in slave markets.” He concludes that the American public’s acceptance of those images as valid tremendously influenced American culture in its relationship with the “Oriental” Arab.

The book offers a plain glimpse into how Hollywood movies depict the desert and the Arab: “The Desert locale consists of an Oasis, oil wells, palm trees, tents, fantastically ornate palaces, sleek limousines, and, of course, camels.” The screen Arab male becomes an instant “Ali Baba kit” who lives in the desert with all of the kit’s components: “curved dagger, scimitars, magic lamps, giant feather fans, and nargelihs.” The Arab female follows the Arab male with “chadors, hijabs, (or) belly dancers’ see-through pantaloons, veils, and jewels for their navels.”

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