Reel Bad Lebs

By | 5 December 2019

In Shaheen’s introduction he contrasts ‘Real Arabs’ to ‘Reel Arabs’. Of ‘Real Arabs’ he is referring to the 265 million people who reside in the twenty-two Arab states and the many millions around the world who originated from those states (2009, p.8). Though Shaheen does not specify, this includes the hundreds of thousands of Arab migrants and Australian-born citizens of Arab background like me that today live in Australia. Shaheen describes the contributions that the ancestors of us ‘Real Arabs’ made to contemporary global civilisation as a result of an early Arab enlightenment period, which made it feasible for Western scholars and artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, to develop and practise advanced educational systems hundreds of years later. He describes ‘Real Arabs’ as diverse and from mixed heritages, which is why some of us have dark skin, black eyes and black hair and others among us have fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. While most people who live in the Arab world are Muslim, Shaheen also points out that about fifteen million of us are Christian – a reality that is often forgotten in the Western construction of the Arab. ‘Their dress is traditional and Western. The majority are peaceful not violent; poor, not rich; most do not dwell in desert tents; none are surrounded by harem maidens, most have never seen an oil well or mounted a camel’ (2009, pp.8-9). In these descriptions Shaheen is offering an image of the Arab that refutes the common stereotype presented in Hollywood cinema. This is followed by a specific discussion about his own Arab-American identity, explaining that contrary to stereotypes, the largest populations of Arabs in America are from Christian not Muslim backgrounds, and that Muslims in America include immigrants from sixty different nations, not just Arab ones, as well as hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are African-American – a reality that is ignored by moviemakers who depict Arabs and Muslims as one and the same people (2009, p.10).

This observation resonates strongly with my experiences as an Arab-Australian. Our nation’s news media and politicians regularly refer to my multiple identities as one and the same with terms such as ‘Lebanese’, ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘Muslim’. Under these interchangeable labels, there have been three primary characteristics which can be identified in mainstream Australian representations of Arab-Australians:

  1. Gangsters: In Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime, Collins et al. site dozens of Australian news media reports in which the Australian perpetrators of crimes such as the murder of Edward Lee in 1998 and the drive-by shooting of Lakemba Police Station in 2000, were collectively identified as ‘Lebanese’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ (2000, p.1). Furthermore, between 2005 and 2012, every representation of Arab-Australians in Australian film and television, including East West 101 (2005-2008), Underbelly: The Golden Mile (2010), The Combination (2009), and Cedar Boys (2009) depicted the leading Arab-Australian characters as criminals involved in gangs, drugs, murders and theft.

  2. Sexual predators: In the year 2000, fourteen Australian young men were charged for a series of orchestrated gang rapes in the western suburbs of Sydney. Due to the Arab and Muslim backgrounds of the perpetrators, Australian politicians and news media attributed the crimes to an issue of foreignness, race, religion and un-Australian values, with ongoing commentaries in newspapers, television and radio which made statements such as the following: ‘Most troubling was the misogyny and racism of the crimes: the rapists were of Lebanese Muslim background and their victims were not. The rapists had targeted ‘Australian’ teenage girls, who they called ‘Aussie pigs’ and ‘sluts’ … in what was a home-grown form of ‘ethnic cleansing”’ (Devine, Sydney Morning Herald, 2002). From Devine’s ongoing and highly racialised commentary on the crimes, one would think that prejudiced slurs, misogyny and sexual assaults in Australia were unique and specific to men of Arab and Muslim backgrounds. As noted by Abdalla, ‘In the case of the 2000 Sydney ‘Lebanese gang rapes’, linking ethnicity with crime led to a ‘paranoid nationalism’ that constructed all Lebanese/Arabs and/or Muslims as the new threat to Australia’s Western culture’ (2010, pp.26-27).

  3. Terrorists: Particularly after the events of September 11, 2001, suspicions and concerns in the media about Arabs and Muslims in Australia as potential terrorist suspects had risen to an all-time high. As noted by Persinger, ‘While the media’s response to the ‘war on terror’ was based on the need to cover actual events, it also hinged on the recognition of editors that stories about radical Islam or aberrant, ‘bad Muslims’ have the kind of shock value that sells papers’ (2010, p.51). Although this had become a common narrative about Arabs and Muslims around the world, anthropologist Ghassan Hage explains its unique manifestation in Australia: ‘While Islam was becoming homogenised as the global threatening other, the category that embodied the Islamic threat differed from one country to another: Asians in Britain … Turks in Germany and North Africans in France. In Australia it is the category Lebanese that came to embody this threat’ (2011, p.161). Hage’s observation explains why incidents such as the 2005 Cronulla Riots, in which 5000 White-Australian citizens rioted against anybody that was of Middle Eastern background and/or appearance, believed that they were specifically targeting ‘Lebanese’ people, chanting remarks such as ‘No more Lebs’ (Kennedy & Murphy 2005).

Shaheen’s analysis of the ‘Real Arab’ is followed by a chapter titled, ‘The Stereotype’s Entry’. Here, Shaheen reveals the emergence of the ‘Reel Arab’ – a caricature that exists in the film reels of Hollywood cinema. Shaheen explains how, in some of the earliest Hollywood films ever made, filmmakers such as Georges Méliès created images of a mythic Arabia where, ‘Arabs ride camels, brandish scimitars, kill one another, and drool over the Western heroine, ignoring their own women’ (2009, p.14). In the present day, the stereotype prevails: ‘reel’ Arab men, Arab women, and in some examples like the film Rules of Engagement (2000), even Arab children, are frequently represented as inherently villainous and violent (2009, p.21). Shaheen recognises that the stereotypical image of the Arab here did not begin with filmmakers; rather, they inherited a pre-existing image: ‘In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European artists and writers helped reduce the [Arab] region to a colony. They presented images of desolate deserts, corrupt palaces, and slimy souks [markets] inhabited by the cultural “other” – the lazy, bearded heathen Arab Muslim’ (2009, p.13). Similarly, Australian theorists such as Isakhan observe that contemporary representations of Arab-Australians in the Australian news media did not begin with Australians: ‘Contemporary Australian journalists have not so much invented the tropes and stereotypes that they have used to construct this negative image [of Arab-Australians] and limited discursive field, as they have invoked a rich tapestry of pre-existing notions about the non-Western world’ (2010, p.4). In such a way, the Arab-Australian and the White-Australian become part of the global historical, social, cultural, political, religious, economic, and ideological phenomenon originally exposed in Orientalism:

All this inflamed the sense of persecution felt by people forced, on almost a daily basis, to declare themselves to be either Westerners or Easterners. No one seemed to be free from the opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them’, resulting in a sense of reinforced, deepened, hardened identity that has not been particularly edifying (Said 2003, p.335).

Within this context, we can see how after the events of September 11, 2001, Arab-Australians were forced to assume the role of a ‘folk devil’ – we moved seamlessly in the White-Australian imagination from gangster to rapist to terrorist, and so on (Poynting et al. 2004, p.49).

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