Waled Mahdi on Arab Americans in film

Waled Mahdi discusses his forthcoming book, Arab American in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation, and talks about the politics of portraying Arab Americans in the cinema.

SUP: Your work, Arab Americans in Film, compares Arab American portrayals in both the movie making hubs of Hollywood and Egypt. Why these two culture centers? And what is gained by surveying these film landscapes side by side?

WM: Indeed, these are important movie-making hubs. For decades, Hollywood filmmakers have produced works that model good citizenship and normalize what it means to be American in ways that alienate Arab and Muslim Americans along with indigenous Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, and African Americans, among other minorities. When it comes to subverting Hollywood in the Arab world, the most important media culture to examine is that of Egypt, home to the largest, most popular, and most prolific Arabic film industry. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and boasts a critical history in developing anticolonial and postcolonial narratives of struggle for Arabic and Islamic identities.

Both industries have played major roles in mediating the collective imagination of the dominant forces in the two respective cultures. Comparing them reveals clues about East-West polarization in the cultural imaginations of “Self” and “Other” that exist in both US and Arab nationalist rhetoric. Despite major differences between the two cinematic industries in power, production, and circulation, I argue, the filmmakers in these filmic sites have subjected their imagery of Arab Americans to binaristic portrayals through glorification of Americanness and vilification of Arabness in Hollywood and vice versa in Egyptian cinema, leaving no imagination of Arab Americans as complex communities defined by a multitude of identities and  experiences.

SUP: Today’s media environment is a crowded one. From traditional forms like broadcast television and music, to new social media platforms and streaming services, audiences don’t have to look far for cultural productions. Why did you choose film as the means for your comparative analysis? What does film uniquely offer as a site of inquiry?

WM: It is true that our age is saturated with content, especially with the quality improvement of television series and emergence of social media as well as subscription-based platforms. Film remains an important medium with multi-layered importance in popular culture, especially in countries like the United States and Egypt, as it serves a venue for both entertainment and education.

Films are intriguing because they mold visual imagery into codes that reflect and shape both a nation’s collective memory and national identity in an entertaining way. They tend to be accessible to audiences regardless of their language competency, educational status, or cultural background. They often serve as educational tools in a world increasingly centered around, if not mobilized by, mediated images and messages. They also have the power to function as tools for visibility, podiums for authenticity, and mirrors of reality.

And when adding the enriching effects of genres, it becomes obvious that the medium of film is a vehicle of thoughts and emotions that is often packaged as mere entertainment, but that carries the power to connect with audiences in personal terms, voice social commentary, mobilize public sentiments, and patrol the boundaries of national and cultural realms of belonging.

And the process of inclusion and exclusion that goes into all aspects of film making presents itself as a rich site for analysis of constraints and monopolies of power. Therefore, I should emphasize the instrumentality of film imagery especially in relation to this book’s critical site of inquiry, i.e., identity and representation.

SUP: How have your experiences influenced and inspired the task of writing this book?

WM: One of the key contributions of the book is to illustrate how Arab Americans’ struggle for belonging and citizenship is not exclusively a product of US Orientalist and racialized histories. I rather imagine this struggle as one against existing polarizations in the cultural imaginations in both US and Arab state nationalist narratives. This argument is inspired by my personal experience as an Arab American of Yemeni background constantly wrestling with American, Arab, Muslim, and Yemeni narratives of belonging and citizenship.

In my travels, I have encountered conflicting public attitudes and government policies preconfigured to define me and confine my identity within a specific national, ethnic, or even religious frame. During trips to Malaysia, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Yemen over the past few years, people would often question me about US foreign policy towards Arabs and Muslims. Uniting such questions, in most cases, was not so much interest in my scholarship but rather a desire to read my responses through the prism of allegiance. My interlocutors sought to package me as either an American or a Yemeni—identities implicitly presumed to be incompatible.

In the meantime, my return story to the US in the aftermath of every overseas trip has involved an additional layer of security, whether before boarding in Tokyo, London, Dubai, Doha, and Amman, or when landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The “SSSS” designation on my boarding passes, which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection, speaks of an institutional anxiety around my ethnic background and conflates it with a potential act of terrorism.

Since I consider myself as a film buff, I have watched hundreds of films that perpetuate the sense of alienation that I have experienced in travels and while growing up in both Arabic and American cultures. This sense of alienation strips Arab Americans like me of our capability of occupying our own third space, one that does not have to be completely rooted in either Arabic or American cultures, and one that does not present Arab Americans as either aliens to our American culture or traitors to our Arabic heritage. And that’s why the book adds emerging Arab Americans films, limiting as they may be, as an important site for projecting a sense of Arab American authenticity that is about how Arab American individuals define themselves rather than how others define them.

SUP: The American dream is one subject that Egyptian cinema constantly returns to in its portrayals of the Arab American experience. In certain segments of US society there is an increasing disillusionment surrounding the idea of the American dream. Do you see a similar cynicism toward the American dream in more recent Egyptian films?

WM: Egyptian filmmakers have always attached a sense of disillusionment to the American dream and presented it as unrealizable and unrewarding, urging their audience to seek out their own dreams in Egypt. As early as the film Amricany min Ṭanṭa (An American from Tanta, 1954) and as late as Talq Senaʿi (Induced Labor, 2018), Egyptian films have done so as part of a nationalist critique of the public fascination with the American culture. And as I argue in the book, this sentiment is driven less by a hatred of the US than by a sense of insecurity, loss, and anxiety regarding Egypt’s relative appeal as a place to live in and build a future. This is especially the case since many Egyptians would express a desire to live in the US, where hard work, social mobility, and justice are relatively cherished. Some Egyptian corporations have even capitalized on this fascination with the American dream via consumerist trends that primarily market US commodities, pop culture products, and shopping malls.

That’s why Egyptian films not only articulate disillusionment in the American dream but also imagine and advance an alternative Egyptian dream, one predicated on deterring Egyptians from leaving their homeland. This alternative dream will be made in Egypt, one in which migrating in search of social mobility, individual success, and even personal ambition is considered a selfish measure divorced from a commitment to one’s own Egyptian community. It is also worth noting that this simultaneous critique of and construction of alternatives to the American dream not only is limited to the films’ portrayals of Egyptian immigrants but also is deeply critical of the Egyptian elite’s promotion of consumerism and neoliberal economics as a global fulfillment of the American dream in Egypt.

As for American-based experiences, the American dream has always been a socio-political construct meant to uphold the American nationalist project, often entrenched in white privilege, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color. The surveyed Arab American films in the book both celebrate and critique the limitations of the American dream. The films present Arab immigrant characters seeking to fulfill their own aspirations in the US but not without providing insightful critiques of the American dream notion as a celebratory site of inclusion in the American society. The lead Arab immigrant characters in films like American East (2007), Amreeka (2009), and The Citizen (2012) have various strives to fulfill material desires (e.g., houses, jobs, cars, etc.) and seek belonging to the United States, but they are forced to navigate both a racialized system and a post-9/11 reality that constantly challenge their American cultural citizenship. The characters enjoy happy endings with their dreams fulfilled or reconciled but the films are filled with situations and images that question the very idea of dreaming in a country that itself questions the presence of Arab immigrants.

The fact that many Arab American filmmakers and actors have struggled for decades to make their voices heard in Hollywood, an industry reluctant to embrace diverse Arab and Muslim perspectives, is a testimony to many of the critiques that the films themselves communicate.

SUP: In a post 9/11 world, there is an issue of typecasting Arab American talent. But, film making is a multilayered operation. From funding producers, to script writers, and even on marketing teams, what area of film making do you see as most in need of Arab American self-representation?

WM: 9/11, the growth of Arab and Arab American independent film festivals, particularly in the US, has provided Arab American filmmakers with a valuable alternative to casting and narrating their communities, with some limited success in distribution. And the prospect of providing support for Arab Americans seems promising with the competitive rise of such content-streaming services as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Yet, Hollywood presents an institutionalized challenge for truly diverse narratives and experiences. Most Arab and Arab American actors, for example, have struggled against a casting practice that feeds on their vulnerability. Their roles are usually subsidiary and deeply entrenched in a racial hierarchy—despite evidence suggesting consumer demand for more diversity in lead roles.

It is certainly hard to prioritize any aspect of film making because production, writing, acting, filming, and marketing are all parts of a crucial process in film making. But I see the most urgent and past due change within Hollywood is to mainstream images of Arab Americans’ experiences beyond stereotypical lenses of national security and foreign policy. While some Arab American actors like Emmy Award winners Tony Shalhoub and Rami Malek have achieved prominence in Hollywood and transcended being cast in stereotypical ethnic roles, I am not convinced that success for such actors should only be limited to the desire of the privilege of being non-racialized in the industry.

I am for once hopeful that Hollywood’s production companies will experience a shift from their institutionalized lack of appetite to entertain non-mainstream perspectives, particularly ones that feature critical voices and ethnic community narratives. But this will not be possible without truly embracing the notion of multiculturalism. Until then, Hollywood’s positive portrayals of Arab Americans are merely sympathetic and function no more than tokens for inclusion in films that primarily entertain white perspectives.

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