WRITER: Raya Jalabi PHOTOGRAPHY: GION STUDIO
Talking to Dr. Jack Shaheen about the negative images of Arabs in American popular culture reveals that the stereotypes started at least a century ago. Meet the man who singlehandedly set out to rewrite a peoples’ portrayal.
On the tenth floor of New York University’s Tamiment Library lies a treasure trove of peculiar memorabilia. There’s “Honest Abdul’s Oil Well”, a ludicrous board game from the 1970s, in which children are taught the privileges and responsibilities of maligned sheikhdom; mountainous copies of the TV Guide, some Archie comics, DC comics, film posters, DVDs, trashy romance novels and even an offbeat Halloween mask of an indeterminate Middle Eastern man. These 4,000-odd objects are amassed in 36 boxes, meticulously labelled and stored in this bustling academic bulwark.
The common thread binding them may not be immediately apparent, the sheer volume of objects on display is overpowering. However, commonalities quickly emerge: the caricature sheikhs, the belly-dancing beauties, the overzealous oil-related puns – it becomes abundantly clear that these objects are rife with negative Arab stereotypes.
Together, these items make up the Jack G. Shaheen Archive, a cache of Arab-related memorabilia and a sweeping archive of thousands of cultural items, poached from the fabric of American life over the past forty years. The collection, now housed at NYU, was amassed by one assiduous man, one of America’s preeminent and highly decorated scholars, author, media critic and film industry consultant, Dr. Jack Shaheen.
The archive’s purpose is to document the history of anti-Arab bias in American popular culture, Shaheen – or Dr. Jack, as he likes to be called – told me in a recent interview, from his base in South Carolina. In many ways, the eponymous archive is the apex of a highly intriguing and varied career, one spanning four decades and countless honours for his radically innovative work on cultural images of Arabs.
Though novel to him when he first began his research in the 1970s, the words “anti-Arab bias” don’t have quite the same shocking resonance for most of us in 2013. After all, our world – the post-9/11 world – is one of hate crimes, warfare and Homeland, in which dominant cultural narratives propel the vision of Arab and Muslim as perpetrator, terrorist, ne’er-do-well. In short, the anti-American. In our world today, Arabs and Muslims pre-emptively apologise for terrorist attacks (the Boston Marathon) which have nothing to do with them. In our world, an “all-American” NFL football player is labelled “controversial” for taking pride in his Palestinian roots (Oday Aboushi). In our world, NYPD cadets are reared on propaganda footage like “The Third Jihad.”
But, in many ways, our ability to recognise these negative reactions to Arabs in America would not have been possible without Dr. Shaheen. “I was shocked when I first began my research,” he says of the level of racism he found against Arabs which dates back at least a century.
This despite the scholar’s background. Born to Lebanese immigrant parents in Pittsburgh in 1935, Shaheen spent his first 21 years in a small steel town. “I was the first American with Arab roots to go to college in that town,” he says of his early life. “Looking back, our house was the centre for ethnic sharing in the neighbourhood. All different ethnic groups would meet in our kitchen and eat together.”
That fact that none of Clairton’s Greeks, Italians, Lebanese or Serbians spoke badly of one another is something Shaheen says sheltered him from negative perceptions of his own ethnic group.
So when he began teaching broadcast journalism at Southern Illinois University in the early 1970s, representations of Arabs weren’t exactly foremost in his mind.
“I was on what you might call the fast track,” Shaheen recalls, slightly uncomfortable with heaping such praise on himself. “I was a great teacher, I was publishing a lot. I was basically the up-and-coming young professor on campus.”
He could have carried on down this path to a glittering academic career, free of controversy. But then, Donald Duck got in the way.
“I remember my children, quite young at the time, were watching TV one morning and they came crying to my wife and I, saying that there were ‘bad Arabs’ on the television,” he said. “I realised that my kids were watching extremely racist cartoons.”
Shaheen, who had raised his children to be proud of their Arab roots, asked them to keep track of racist references to Arabs in the cartoons they watched, while he began his project of amassing “Arab collectibles”.
He spent a year at the American University in Beirut in 1974, which he credits with opening his eyes to the realities on the ground, not just those in his books. From Beirut, he travelled around the region, amassing more understanding. “That year helped propel me into the world of shattering stereotypes.”
However, Shaheen’s university back home would embrace the very stereotypes he was beginning to fight against. His first proposed research project in 1975, on Arabs in television, was rejected on the basis of being propaganda.
“I had never before, in and out of the classroom, experienced any prejudice,” Shaheen writes in his book, “A is for Arabs”. This was to be a blessing in disguise. The abject racism in the rejection of his proposal and the lack of any literature on the subject propelled him to investigate the implications of anti-Arab cultural narratives further.
Several years – and several anti-establishment struggles – later, Shaheen published his trailblazing book, “The TV Arab” in 1984. It’s an exploration of how major American entertainment negatively casts Arabs. With it, Shaheen effectively positioned himself as the pre-eminent scholar on representations of Arabs and Muslims in American popular culture. He followed this up with “Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11” and “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”.
“One reason I decided to collect and write about Arab images in US popular culture was because I wanted to shelter children, especially those with Arab roots,” Shaheen says in his latest book “A is for Arabs,” which was written in conjunction with New York University.
According to Shaheen, America inherited its ideas of Arabs from older European empires, which selectively framed the Orient. This image only got worse with the country’s increasing political role in the region, especially after 9/11.
“The danger remains that actions like the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are all the more acceptable because of the ‘othering’ that has relegated the Arab and Muslim to the role of ‘bogeyman’ and evildoer.”
Shaheen’s endeavour to trace the roots of negative portrayals of Arabs helps to promote a change in dialogue and also grants Arabs agency in constructing their own narratives.
“After all,” he continues, “presence propagates power. Arab-Americans have to say ‘we are here, it is normal that we are here. We are not evil’.” His desire to shift dominant narratives stretches to the numerous consulting jobs he has undertaken to try and help re-orient the narrative of Arabs in Hollywood. He was a consultant on both “Three Kings” and “Syriana”, for example, as well as with other Hollywood production companies. By working with the studios, writers and directors, Shaheen feels that he is helping to change American attitudes towards Arabs, something he argues is already underway.
“Change is happening, but slowly. Like other groups who have struggled, we are struggling. But the future belongs to the optimists and the children of immigrants long-marginalised. It’s going to take a while,” he says of the possibility for breaking the negative cycle once and for all. “But Arab-Americans need to speak up and assert their presence.”