Offensive, inaccurate, demonizing depictions of Arabs in American media is one of the most frequently lamented, painful aspects of the Arab American experience. Most have only complained in helpless frustration.
But for the past 30 years, one green-eyed, soft-spoken, animated man from a polluted, working-class Pittsburgh-area steel town, has made it his life’s work to expose and battle the constant perpetuation of debilitating stereotypes and imagery in television and film.
Jack Shaheen has published three books on the subject, and is now traveling the country and the world for screenings of the documentary film based on his book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.”
Born in Clairton, Pennsylvania to Lebanese immigrants, Shaheen was the first in the small Arab American community that he grew up in to go to college. He would eventually become a professor of media studies at Southern Illinois University, establishing himself as a formidable media critic publishing works on the social significance of public broadcasting and on nuclear war films.
But the academic support that he had earned would fade as soon as he turned his attention to unfair media portrayals of Arabs.
His first article on the topic remained unpublished for three years. One publication described it as “too well written,” to be printed, claiming that other ethnic groups would then want to publish similar essays that surely would not be as good.
“It was because of their prejudices. It had nothing to do with the quality of the writing,” said Shaheen bitterly.
Despite being stigmatized, his work being labeled “Arab propaganda,” Shaheen chose to expand his research and write a book, “The TV Arab,” which would also wait years for publication.
He received dozens of rejection letters despite the help of a book agent who would tell him that he’d “never in all his career experienced so much prejudice.”
It was the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University which finally published the book, after years of waiting in frustration.
When he received the letter that read “Dear Mr. Shaheen, we have read your manuscript and would like to publish it,” he thought he had read it wrong.
“I kept rereading it, looking for something I missed.”
“When I look back, I don’t know how I did it… what kept me going… being alone, with no help from anyone (other than his wife Bernice).”
Shaheen said that among his colleagues, he went from being known simply as ‘the Pittsburgh Steeler’ to being ‘the Arab professor.’
“And colleagues would not speak up to defend me,” Shaheen said, the pain still apparent in his voice. “A few did, but by and large… those who were on committees didn’t.”
“Why are you defending the Arabs,” Shaheen said detractors would ask him, or “Why are you defending the Muslims?” (Shaheen is an Orthodox Christian.)
A sense of responsibility, compassion and a sensitivity to “hurtful images” are what he said motivate him in his fight.
“The greatest sin of all is silence,” he said, loosely quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Clairton, where Shaheen grew up, was segregated. African Americans lived separate from everyone else. But the schools were integrated, and he said that being around Blacks, having them as friends, had a great impact on his sense of equality and sensitivity to prejudice.
He also credits his mother and family for instilling in him values of tolerance and relentless determination.
“It was a product of family and environment… There was never an unkind word about anyone based on ethnicity.”
He spoke emotionally, lowering his head and squinting his eyes introspectively, of the sacrifices that his mother made so that he could go to school. She “scrubbed floors in a school… stood out in the cold to take a bus. She made great sacrifices.”
“Those things they impact you… It’s a part of you… Her determination, her love, her sense of justice played a predominant role and are a part of everything that I do.”
The writings of other minority groups on disparaging media portrayals of African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans would also play a great role in his own work. Though before him, he said, no one, as far as he knows, had ever written about all the Arabs seen on television and movie screens for decades, who were nothing but “brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits and abusers of women… billionaires, bombers and belly dancers… bundles in black.”
“Bundles in black” is how he describes all the anonymous, fully covered women standing in the backgrounds of so many Arab film settings.
“It seems to me that the more Arab women advance, the more Hollywood keeps them in the past.”
In his research of about a thousand films from 1896 to the present that included Arab characters or references, Shaheen found that around 12 gave positive depictions, 52 were neutral, and some 900 were negative.
Among those with positive portrayals were more recent films like “Three Kings,” for which Shaheen served as a consultant, “Paradise Now,” and “Kingdom of Heaven.”
Negative, harmful portrayals were endless, ranging from cartoons and silent films to modern blockbusters.
“(Arab) stereotypes are deeply ingrained in American cinema,” Shaheen says in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs.” “From 1896 until today, filmmakers have collectively indicted all Arabs as Public Enemy #1 — brutal, heartless, uncivilized religious fanatics and money-mad cultural “others” bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners… Much has happened since 1896… Throughout it all, Hollywood’s caricature of the (Arab) has prowled the silver screen. He is there to this day — repulsive and unrepresentative as ever.”
Sections of the book and the documentary are dedicated to countless films in the 1980s made by a particular production company, Golan-Globus Productions, which seemed to maliciously inject gratuitous anti-Arab jokes, references, and imagery, even when plots had nothing to do with Arabs or the Arab World.
Golan-Globus produced films like “The Delta Force” and “The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington” which top Shaheen’s long list of offensive movies featuring offensive, stereotypical Arab villains.
The “Reel Bad Arabs” documentary puts together numerous movie clips with Arabs as hijackers and terrorists, often being killed by the dozen, and “often portrayed as not only dangerous, but incompetent.”
Shaheen said that when talking to producers during trips to Las Angeles while researching over the years, about one third of those he spoke to “basically hated Arabs… told me that they were prejudiced… that we didn’t matter, didn’t count about anything.”
Another third, he said, were apathetic, and the rest were “sensitive to the issue… sincerely and refreshingly interested.”
Today, said Shaheen, since September 11, 2001, “it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it.”
It irks him that current television shows like “Navy NCIS” and “The Unit” seem to follow a pattern of featuring gorgeous Israeli women who make love to American soldiers and hunt Arab terrorists.
“I didn’t quite understand why they can’t have a Palestinian agent fighting against terror.”
He’s optimistic, however, that the Arab American community, particularly young people, university and high school students who are “probably more aware of these issues than other people,” can be more active in “shattering myths of pop culture,” and stopping the “endless barrage of hate.”
“Help each other,” he said to an audience at the Arab American National Museum for a screening of “Reel Bad Arabs,” — for which he received a long, standing ovation — “reach out to each other, be kind.”
He said that in the past, those who have had the means in the community have not put forth significant coordinated efforts to put pressure on Hollywood.
“We react to issues instead of being proactive… We have not yet realized that we’re all in the same barrel. Oranges can be from all over the world, but all in the same barrel.”