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Arab Americans in the Movies: the Cultural "Other"

November 21, 2014

Waleed Mahdi isn't your average film buff. Over the last five years, the American Studies Ph.D. candidate has watched more than 500 films made in the United States and Egypt, searching for clues about how the two societies view Arab Americans. "Films have the power both to reflect and to shape popular perceptions," Mahdi explains. "They reveal a lot about how societies view each other -- and themselves."

Raised in Yemen during the escalating anti-American protests of the 1990s, Mahdi spent his youth perplexed by the intensity of the U.S.-Arab conflict. His chance to seek answers came via a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where he earned his M.A. in U.S.-Mideast cultural politics in 2008. Upon beginning his doctoral studies in Minnesota, he opted to focus on cinematic portrayals of this country's 3.5 million Arab Americans.

The pictures he's discovered aren't pretty. U.S.-Arab hostility made its way to the screen early in the history of cinema, but not until the last century's final decades did Arab Americans become a target for slurs and suspicion. Egyptian and Hollywood film producers still feel the political winds of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, observes Mahdi, and the chill is evident in their work. "Neither group of film producers seems interested in creating an authentic portrait of the Arab American," says Mahdi. "They're mostly interested in depicting him/her as the 'cultural other' " -- an outcast whose imagined deficiencies are invoked to confirm each group's sense of superiority.

Portrait: Waleed Mahdi
Waleed Mahdi, Ph.D. candidate in American Studies, is supported by U of M fellowships from the International Center for the Study of Global Change, Department of American Studies, Immigration History Research Center, and the Graduate School. Advisor: Roderick Ferguson
Photo by Lisa Miller

"Look at the typical Hollywood movie," suggests Mahdi. "It presents the Arab-American male as a foreigner living on American soil, speaking with a heavy accent, displaying distinctive physical features -- almost always a beard. He's engaged in national networks of terrorism. He doesn't care about the lives of women or children. He's ready to die for a cause that's somewhere in his head."

And the Egyptian film? "It focuses on questions of loyalty," Mahdi responds. "It depicts the Arab American either as someone who is still connected to his cultural roots, still speaks Arabic, still values Arabic codes of honor and still is critical of American foreign policy -- or as a totally Americanized person who doesn't care about anything Arab or Islamic, who doesn't care about his community, his relatives or his religion. He worships the dollar, and feels total allegiance to American foreign policy."

These one-dimensional characterizations serve as ammunition in a war of "mutual vilification," Mahdi says -- a competition waged at the expense of a common scapegoat. And though each movie-making camp paints the Arab American with its own brand of tar, both groups ultimately send the same message. Says Mahdi: "The point is straightforward. 'You are either with us or against us. You can't be both Arab and American.' "

Millions of Arab Americans insist that they are both -- and can't help but be. Mahdi takes heart in the emergence of a post-9/11 generation of Arab American filmmakers eager to portray the genuine complexity of Arab Americans and to push back against the misrepresentations of past decades. The films produced so far skip polemics in favor of poignant humor. Among Mahdi's favorites is Cherien Dabis's Amreeka, a 2009 award-winner depicting the heterogeneity of an Arab-American family.

The timing of this new cinematic wave is encouraging for Mahdi, who sees self-representation as the only avenue to accurate portrayal of the diverse Arab American community. "Finally," he says, "it's possible to see films depicting Arab Americans as they really are: People of many nationalities and religions who sought refuge in this country because it values equality and diversity. People who might very well be willing to criticize U.S. foreign policy, but who would never act to undermine the security of the country they call home. Their story is actually a very American story."