“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” —Edward Said, "Islam Through Western Eyes" (The Nation, April 26, 1980)
On the first day of school in 2002, a boy with spiked blonde hair and glasses walked down the bleachers as we waited for gym class to start, introducing himself to his classmates one by one. As he approached me, he asked for my name, and when I replied, he asked, “Where are you from?” I said, “Yemen.” When he looked confused, I explained, “It’s right by Saudi Arabia.” His face became flush with disgust as he responded simply before turning away: “Terrorist.”
Though not my first experience as a victim of a racial attack, this was the first time in my life that I saw how media representation affected me. The news painted the Middle East as an ultra violent hotbed for terrorists, creating a perception of the Muslim world that was mirrored by film and TV portrayals of Arab-Muslim culture.
That perception is more relevant than ever as FX premiered its newest series, Tyrant, this week, brought to you by the same people responsible for such successes as 24 and Homeland, both notorious for perpetuating negative Muslim stereotypes. While this particular program presents a slight departure from the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as terrorists, one theme continues to repeat itself in mainstream crime and political dramas like Tyrant and its aforementioned predecessors: the seemingly innate relationship between Muslims and violence.Tyrant, influenced by the 2011 revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Arab world, tells the story of Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, an Arab-American son of a dictator who fled his home country of Abbudin at age 16 in search of a better life in the United States of America.
He eventually becomes a doctor, marries an American woman named Molly, and together they raise two kids in California. Twenty years later, he decides to end his exile and return to embattled Abbudin at the request of his mother to attend his nephew’s wedding, bringing Molly and their children along to meet his family and explore his background.
Abbudin, the fictional nation in which the show takes place, appears to be based on a number of Arab-Muslim countries including Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Upon Bassam’s return, he finds, among other things, that the revolutions which had toppled such dictators as Muammar Al-Qadafi, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Hosni Mubarak has spread to Abbudin, threatening his father’s reign, and he is unwillingly catapulted into his family’s destructive politics.
Here in the United States, when it comes to political dramas about Middle Eastern characters, we’re obviously talking about much more than just entertainment.
Here in the United States, when it comes to political dramas about Middle Eastern characters, we’re obviously talking about much more than just entertainment. The struggles involved in these stories are representations of real struggles that affect real people in real places.
In a 2012 article published in Cinema Journal, titled "Television Crime Drama and Homeland Security," film scholar Yvonne Tasker argues that “in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US crime drama has increasingly drawn on themes of political violence and homeland security, developing narratives that deal with actual, threatened, and suspected terrorist acts.” She highlights certain programs that have increasingly “featured episodes dealing with political violence linked to Islam, to Arab nationals residing in the United States, and/or to Americans of Middle Eastern descent.”
In the case of Tyrant, however, the show’s creators, Gideon Raff (Homeland) and Howard Gordon (24), have moved beyond the trend of portraying Muslims as just terrorists. This show has embarked on what may turn out to be a new trend of portraying Muslims as victims of oppression and political turmoil. But the theme of violence remains, only this time it’s Muslims vs. Muslims.
The show’s pilot begins with a short snippet of Bassam’s life in the United States, followed by his family’s trip to Abbudin. As they land, they’re greeted by Bassam’s brother Jamal, who is introduced to the audience first and foremost as a violent rapist; he is responsible for three acts of rape in the pilot alone. All the while, Bassam’s story is sporadically interrupted by flashbacks to his childhood, when he lived as the adolescent son of a president who was under attack by what the regime called “terrorists.”
All of these themes follow suit in what literary theorist and founder of postcolonialist theory Edward Said called Orientalism, which he defines as a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.”
The theory is explored in detail in his 1978 book Orientalism, in which he claims that “there were—and are—cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West.”
The book highlights Western art from the 19th and early 20th centuries that romanticized life in the Middle East as something exotic and subject to Western voyeurism, among other things. Post-9/11 film and television in the United States can be seen as a modern practitioner of orientalism, and despite Tyrant’s departure from terrorism-heavy plotlines and foray into semi-honest depictions of political violence, the show’s representation of a violent Middle East only supports Said’s position.
Some have come out in defense of Tyrant’s representation of the Middle East, claiming it’s OK since showrunner Howard Gordon hired an Arab-American writer and consulted the Muslim Public Affairs Council while writing the pilot. But the fact still remains that the story was created and developed by a group of white non-Muslims who have no experiential tie to the Muslim world.
Entertainment is never only entertainment. The implications of creating a story that involves characters whose creators do not identify with are monumental, especially when those stories involve generalized depictions of life in the Muslim world.
Bassam’s story echoes that of many Arabs who have fled their countries to escape violence, poverty, and extremist ideologies, including my own father. Yet his story and the story of every Muslim who has ever disavowed the perception that all Muslims are violent continues to go untold, buried under more visible stories portrayed by non-Arabs and non-Muslims on major American networks.
Ramy Zabarah is a writer living in Brooklyn. He tweets here.
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