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.

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