Reel Bad Lebs

By | 5 December 2019

In the opening scene to the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin, an Arab-type merchant rides through the desert singing an introductory song called ‘Arabian Nights’, a reference to the popular Arab, Persian and Indian stories from The Thousand and One Nights (Dawood 1973). According to Shaheen, in the film’s 1992 cinema release, the opening lyrics were: ‘Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but hey it’s home.’ Disney producers later toned down these lyrics for the VHS/DVD release of the film, so that the merchant now sings: ‘Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam. Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric but hey it’s home.’ (Shaheen 2009, p.57). While there is some difference, Shaheen notes that the changes Disney made to the words were ‘not quite enough to change the message’ (2009, p.57). This is because the entire film is based on the portrayal of a ‘barbaric’ Arab world. It is not a ‘real’ Arab world, a place that you can go and visit, nor does it resemble what the Arab world looks like today or what it looked like at any time in recorded history. It is certainly not the fifteenth-century Baghdad where the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp was originally set (Shaheen 2009, p.57). Disney’s Aladdin is set in a completely fictional Arab realm that the producers named Agrabah – a backward, mythical kingdom with a sombre desert castle, thieves, harem maidens and ugly vendors (Shaheen 2009, p.57). This is not an uncommon image of the Arab landscape in Hollywood cinema. Often, we are asked to accept this version of the Arab world – blazing heat and enormous sand dunes, gigantic palaces, marketplaces with grotesque merchants who will cut your hand off for stealing an apple, women who are either belly dancers or completely veiled servants, herds of stubborn spitting camels and wells in the middle of an empty desert. Shaheen names this fictional world Arab-land:

Arab-land is populated with cafes and clubs like ‘Shish-Ka-Bob Café’ and ‘The Pink Camel Club,’ located in made-up places like ‘Lugash,’ ‘Othar,’ ‘Tarjan,’ ‘Jotse,’ ‘Bondaria,’ and ‘Hagreeb.’ The desert locale consists of an oasis, oil wells, palm trees, tents, fantastically ornate palaces, sleek limousines, and of course, camels (2009, p.14).

As a second-generation Arab-Australian who spent his teenagerhood roaming the western suburbs of Sydney, the Hollywood depictions of the Arab world are as fictional to me as its depictions of Mars. My Arab world is a dome mosque in Lakemba, a McMansion in Punchbowl, charcoal chicken burning the night air in Granville, a WRX flooring it down Church Street, Parramatta, and Tupac screaming ‘Westside motherfucker’ from a bass speaker in Bankstown City Plaza.

From the inception of Hollywood cinema, the Arab-Muslim man in particular has always been reel bad, especially regarding his relationship to women. A 1921 film called The Sheik sums it up perfectly: Sheikh Ahmed, played by Valentino, imprisons a British heroine and says to her, ‘When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her’ (Shaheen 2009, p.26).

There are frightening parallels here between the historical American representations of the Arab man and the contemporary Australian representations of the Arab man. As noted by Tabar et al., during the reportage on the Skaf gang rapes in 2000, tabloid media and radio stations put forward the idea that Islam was a religion which incited hatred of White women, and encouraged young ‘Lebanese Muslim men’ to commit acts of sexual violence against them. ‘By attributing misogyny and violence to the Lebanese/Muslim culture, the issue of sexuality was brought forward to enact the Australian nation and define its “male” component: Australian men are imagined as “civilised” towards the opposite sex in contradistinction to Lebanese men’ (Tabar et al. 2010, pp.96-97). Within this framing, reportage on the Skaf gang rapes in 2000 not only reinforced the view that all Arab-Australian Muslim men are inherently misogynistic and patriarchal as an extension of our cultural and religious backgrounds, but also the view that we are culturally inferior to White-Australian men who are ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’. This is in spite of the fact that White-Australian men have an incredibly disturbing history of sexual violence against women, including the rape, torture and murder of Anita Cobby in 1986 and the rape and murder of Leigh Leigh in 1989, though of course, when the reports about these crimes were revealed to the public, the perpetrators were not labelled as ‘Anglo’ or ‘Irish’ or ‘Christian’ (Collins et al. 2000, p.9).

As an alternative to the many degrading images we have seen of Arabs in Hollywood, Shaheen recommends several ‘top-notch’ movies about Arab identity produced in Australia, France, Germany and Italy (2009, p.40). Since Shaheen does not name the Australian films, it is difficult to know which he means exactly. However, he is likely referring to Field’s The Combination (2009) and Caradee’s Cedar Boys (2009), given that they were the first and only films to have ever represented Arab-Australian identities in Australian cinema by the time Reel Bad Arabs had been published. If this is the case, then Shaheen’s observations on Australian films, though containing an element of truth, seem to come from an American perspective that does not fully appreciate the uniqueness of the Australian demonisation of ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ identities.

In both The Combination and Cedar Boys, young Arab-Australian and Muslim-Australian men from Western Sydney take the lead as characters in stories produced and performed with the involvement of Arab-Australian and Muslim-Australian directors, writers and actors. In this way, it is fair to recognise that Shaheen is correct that Australian cinema, unlike Hollywood cinema, has offered new and alternative roles for Arab and Muslim men. On the other hand, The Combination and Cedar Boys both reinforce the same Australian-specific fantasy that all Arab-Australian men are gangsters, drug-dealers, thieves and murderers.

In Cedar Boys, Tarek is keen to escape his low socio-economic status and turns to stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs, which he and two friends begin to deal throughout Sydney. Finally, the gang that he robbed capture him and shoot him dead. This culminates in the final scene of the film, in which Tarek’s older brother Jamal, an ex-drug-dealer serving a term in prison, seeks out a member of the gang and exacts vengeance by shanking his throat on the prison yard.

Similarly, in The Combination, Charlie seeks ‘money’ and ‘respect’ by becoming a drug runner for the local drug lord, and after an altercation concerning some misplaced merchandise, he is shot dead. This leads into the final scene of the film, in which Charlie’s older brother, an ex-drug dealer recently released from prison, John, seeks out the drug lord and exacts vengeance by beating him almost to death on a residential street.

The first encounter between John and the lead female character, Sydney reveals the hypocrisy of The Combination’s own existence: Sydney is randomly attacked by two men of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ and John heroically intervenes, threating to ‘cap’ the men if they don’t apologise to her. After the attackers leave, Sydney asks John, ‘Were you really going to shoot them?’ John replies, ‘You watch too much TV.’ John’s response here was obviously aimed at addressing the crude racial stereotyping about Arab-Australian men that was now commonplace in the Australian news media. Ironically, considering that The Combination’s primary focus was the drug, gang and gun violence associated with young Arab-Australian men from Western Sydney, John might as well have said to her, ‘You watch too much of The Combination.’

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