Arab-American Representation in Cinema

Last week, an Assistant Professor from the International Area Studies Department, Waleed Mahdi, came to speak to the Global Engagement Class about how Arab Americans are portrayed in film around the world; however, the professor specializes in Arab-American representation in Egyptian cinema. Mahdi spoke with great passion about this topic. He discussed with us how he has a personal connection to the subject because of his identity. When it comes to minority representation, each minority group in some shape or form is presented in a way that creates an overall narrative for the entire group.

When it comes to Arab-American representation, Mahdi pointed out that this group of people is portrayed in a negative light in cinema. Too often are Arab-American characters associated with islamophobia. They are usually seen as a national security threat to America and associated with some sort of foreign policy concern. I have seen for myself Arab-American characters in media being portrayed as terrorists or fearful people. Film is a powerful platform that has the ability to shape one’s views and understanding of life, so if a negative depiction of Arab-American characters is constantly portrayed, then this portrayal will morph itself into reality and become part of how society sees Arab-Americans as a whole.

Professor Mahdi offered a great example to back up his claim. He showed the class a small clip from the Disney movie, Aladin. In the clip, we clearly see the supposedly scary Arab guards wielding sharp swords around with a menacing look in their eyes, all the while wearing what seems to be traditional Arab clothing. This film was obviously meant for children. Still, Disney has unknowingly perpetuated a stereotype about Arabs, in which children who watch Aladin will soak up and associate this information to an Arab or Arab-American person in the real world.

Whether we realize or night, film feeds into a single narrative, which in turn helps facilitate clashes between cultures. When we box a group of people into a particular identity, we created exclusion, alienation, and ignorance around us. The professor ended his talk by stating that representation has become better, but there is still work that needs to be done. This work must come from not only the film industry but from the public demand as well to seek change.

How do we approach helping people?

In one of my Global Engagement classes, my classmates and I watched a TED Talk video titled “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen” by Ernesto Sirolli. The speaker’s main argument was that the best way to help people is to be quiet and listen to them and their dilemmas without any intention of influencing them with our own agenda. The first step is not only to listen but to hear people with the intent to understand their needs and desires fully. Ernesto backs his argument by recalling back to a time when he did aid work for an Italian NGO in Africa during the 70s and realized that the work was ineffective. In Africa, he attempted to teach the people there how to grow food, but the agricultural project failed because hippos in the region would eat the plants. Ernesto states that if he had just been mindful of the native people, he would have known that they do not grow agriculture for that reason. Instead, Ernesto came to Africa intending to be, in a sense, a savior for the African people from starvation. 

Ernesto points out that when it comes to western people helping others, especially those in developing areas, we tend to have a mindset that is naive and egotistical. We portray this false persona that we are here to provide guidance when, in reality, we promote our own interest and treat people from different areas and cultures as children who need to absorb every ounce of aid we offer to them. This mindset is deplorable and should not be our way of helping others. Afterward, Ernesto says something that resonated with me. He states that “the principle of help is respect.” The method of going about helping people is through considering their interests and passions rather than our own. Those who wish to help must rid themselves of a superiority mindset and put themselves on the same level as those who seek help. 

 On the other hand, I do disagree with which group of people Ernest wishes to help. He tends to focus his speech more on assisting the entrepreneurial society of developing areas rather than the people who live and struggle there. We must focus our attention on not only transforming the economic community but also supporting those in the community who are left out of the discussion because of the barriers that are facing them so that everyone is included in the overall benefit to society. The “shut up and listen” method can be effective if we use it with the intent of helping those who truly need assistance.