Reel Bad Lebs

By | 5 December 2019

In addition to the racist construction of the Arab man in Reel Bad Arabs, Shaheen asks us to consider the historical portrayal of the Arab woman in Hollywood cinema. With but a few exceptions such as Princess Tam Tam (1935) and several Cleopatra and Arabian fantasy films (Shaheen 2009, p.29), the ‘Reel Arab’ woman has almost never been represented as a culturally diverse and three-dimensional human being. Instead she is the Arab man’s oppressed, submissive and objectified servant. We see her operating silently in the background of Arab-land; eroticised and hyper-sexualised, or paradoxically, covered from head to toe and desexualised. In the three-hour epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), we encounter her once, standing in a black burka atop a mountain ululating at the Arab soldiers below (Shaheen 2009, p.316). And in films such as Arabian Nights (1942) and The Sheltering Sky (1990), we see her as the disposable exotic dancer and harem girl.

Taken together, her mute on-screen non-behaviour and black-cloaked costume serve to alienate the Arab woman from her international sisters, and vice versa. Not only do reel Arab women never speak, but they are never in the work place, functioning as doctors, computer specialists, school teachers, print and broadcast journalists, or as successful, well-rounded electric or domestic engineers (Shaheen 2009, p.29).

Once again, Shaheen’s observations here seem to parallel the reel Arab woman of Australian film. While the female love interests for the Arab-Australian male protagonists in The Combination and Cedar Boys are White-Australian women, the only roles and representations of Arab-Australian and Muslim-Australian women in both films are restricted to the domestic space. In The Combination, John and Charlie’s mother, Mary, is first depicted washing dishes in the kitchen, and then she is seen hollowing out zucchinis while she watches television. Next we see her holding a washing basket, followed by scenes where she is serving Lebanese cuisine at the family restaurant, peeling potatoes back at home, and waking up from taking a nap on the lounge room sofa to ask her son, ‘Are you hungry, do you want something to eat?’ An even more extreme example of the domesticated and subordinate ‘Reel Arab’ woman in The Combination is the depiction of John and Charlie’s grandmother. In all of her scenes (which total about twenty seconds of screen time) she is sitting on the front veranda of the house or in the living room watching over the activities of the men, never speaking a single word.

In Cedar Boys we are introduced to the same domesticated Arab-Australian woman we had met just a few months earlier in The Combination, who along with her husband and daughter, is only ever depicted within the confines of the family house. In the first five minutes of the film we see her chopping up food in the kitchen and asking the lead character, her son Tarek, if he is hungry. Later, she is seen at the dining room table, eating dinner with her family, and next we see her standing in front of the house asking Tarek what time he will be home from visiting clubs in the city. The following morning, she is calling for Tarek to get out of bed and have breakfast, followed by a scene where she is serving breakfast to Tarek and his father. Then we encounter her in the living room questioning Tarek about where he gets his money (suspecting that her son is following his older brother’s drug path), and finally she is depicted drinking tea in the kitchen while Tarek takes a private phone call.

Growing up in a ‘traditional’ Arab-Australian household, in which my mother and grandmother were responsible for the domestic duties, and my father was responsible for the financial duties, the representation of a domesticated Arab woman in Australian film was not entirely shocking to me. Simultaneously however, as the older brother of four Arab-Australian Muslim women who became school teachers, lawyers, and sales representatives, I found the portrayal of Australia’s reel Arab woman to be simplistic, one-dimensional, stereotypical and essentialised. Was this the only kind of Arab-Australian and/or Muslim-Australian woman Australian filmmakers and writers could imagine? Where were the Arab-Australian women that may maintain traditional views and values in some regards, such as getting married and having kids, while at the same time having strong modern and feminist values pertaining to their role in society, such as gaining financial independence, achieving a good education and aspiring to a career? (Tabar et al. 2010, p.97).

Even if Shaheen is correct that Australia has created ‘top-notch’ Arab and Muslim representations in Australian films, it is only true with regard to some of the depictions of our men. The Australian representation of Arab women, and the absence of representation, conforms entirely to Shaheen’s description of Hollywood’s reel Arab woman.

Why has Hollywood constructed these denigrating and vilifying stereotypes about Arab lands, Arab men and Arab women? Shaheen suggests that there are many reasons for this form of contemporary American orientalism, including greed, peer pressure, the absence of vibrant film criticism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, stating that some industry professionals use their positions to push a political agenda. He also notes an increase in negative representations of Arabs and Muslims following the Gulf War and the events of 9/11 (2009, p.36). This suggests that the vilification of Arabs in film is heavily tied to political and military interests – the Arab and Muslim other must be constructed as inherently wicked to justify an assault. The reverse is also true: not only do these films validate a pre-existing conflict, they create the conflict: ‘Damaging portraits, notably those presenting Arabs as America’s enemy, affect all people, influencing world opinion and policy. Given the pervasive stereotype, it comes as no surprise that some of us – and the US State Department – find it difficult to accept Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and other Arabs as friends’ (Shaheen 2009, p.35). My entire life reverberates against the silver screen: every time I boarded a plane, every time I got pulled over by a cop, every time I watched the news, or spoke to a journalist, or even just went out in public, I questioned if the society that was staring back at me saw nothing but a terrorist, rapist and gangster.

It is not hard to see how Australia and its relationship to its citizens of Arab and Muslim background is influenced by this US agenda. After all, Australians watch more films from Hollywood than from any other country in the world, including our own. Perhaps this is the reason our country did not hesitate to blame all Arabs for a drive-by shooting in Punchbowl, a drug bust in Parramatta, and a gang rape in Greenacre. Perhaps this is the reason our country followed the United States into two unnecessary invasions in the Middle East: Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It doesn’t matter where we come from – a reel bad Arab in Arabia is nothing but a reel bad Leb in Lakemba.

So anyway, I never told you what happened after my fight with Matthew Pearce. I accepted that I would never be Van Damme, but I still wanted to be an action star. I attended acting classes at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the only ethnic in a shameless cloud of whiteness, and I regularly auditioned for roles in upcoming Australian films and television programs. The only call-outs I ever received from casting agencies were titled: ‘Searching for a male of Middle Eastern appearance for a role in a new Australian crime drama.’ I finally received my ‘big break’ at nineteen years old. I was cast as Vinnie Mahmoud in the third episode of the SBS TV series called East West 101, a buddy-cop show which focused on racialised crime in the western suburbs of Sydney. My character was a local ‘Lebanese’ drug-dealer who gets busted with a bag of pills in his tracksuit pants. He agrees to become an informant for the police in order to avoid prison. In the very next scene, Vinnie Mahmoud gets shot in the toe by his mob-boss for backstabbing their gang. He squels, ‘ma foot, ma foot,’ while he is driven around the corner and tossed onto the street curb as though he is a scrap of meat. 

My family gathered around the television the night of my debut TV appearance – parents, five siblings, aunts, uncles and at least a dozen cousins. I remember watching them all stare at the screen with grins and wide eyes, in what could only be described as ignorant admiration, as each of my scenes unfolded. Finally, when the title credits began to role, my older cousin Hassan said out loud, ‘That was hectic cuz – you were the lowest piece of shit I’ve ever seen on TV.’ Everyone congratulated me the traditional Arab way, with hundreds of kisses and ‘mabrouk, mabrouk’ for the next three hours. They were all so proud. But I wasn’t proud. I felt like a piece of shit. Lebanese shit.

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