Whenever we see a new American show set in the Arab world, we shudder in anticipation (and not in a positive way). Step forward Amazon Prime and the streaming service's new adaptation of the popular Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy, which premiered over the weekend.
It begins in Yemen, where previously desk-bound CIA analyst Ryan, played by John Krasinski, is about to turn into the action man audiences know and love (he was previously portrayed by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Chris Pine). The show takes many steps in the right direction, but it also gets a lot wrong.
The show flits around the Middle East and South Asia, from Yemen to Syria, and Palestine to Pakistan, and beyond. In many ways, the locations seem interchangeable, despite representing different regions and continents.
The series is mostly shot in Morocco (with some scenes filmed in Lebanon), and there are unifying elements that play into stereotypes: women are universally oppressed, men’s main hobbies include assaulting women and shouting “Allahu Akbar” while firing off a Kalashnikov, and the West must be destroyed, in this case via an elaborate plot involving an airborne strain of the ebola virus, as well as occasional bombings and more traditional forms of terrorism.
In fairness, there are some positive points. The show does at least use Arab actors in lead roles – including Dubai International Film Festival regular Ali Suliman (Lone Survivor) as terrorist-in-chief Suleiman, and Saudi actress Dina Shihabi as his wife Hani. Arabic speakers who have watched the show also tell us that in terms of language and dialect, it hits the target.
Jack Ryan also at least shot scenes in the Arab world. We could, admittedly, criticise the fact that the catch-all "Middle East" of the Moroccan desert is somewhat ignorant of the region's varied landscapes.
The man who negotiates away some of the stereotypes
Some of this can doubtless be put down to the fact that Paramount TV, who produced the show, brought on a cultural consultant in the shape of Omer M Mozaffar, a professor of Islamic studies and the Islamic chaplain of Loyola University, Chicago.
Among Mozaffar’s triumphs on the show were the rewriting of a draft script in which Suleiman had four wives (“Could you think of a bigger cliché?” Mozaffar tells us), and the removal of a section in which guards in Pakistan fed falafel to hostages (“Nobody eats falafel in Pakistan,” he says.)
There’s still plenty wrong with the show, but the very fact that producers felt the need to consult someone at all is perhaps a step in the right direction, although it’s not one that Mozaffar thinks we’re likely to see too much more of in the near future.
“I don’t think there’s any real urgency in Hollywood to be culturally sensitive to Arabs, or Muslims, or anyone else. I just don’t think it’s a big priority right now,” he tells us.
"I was brought onto Jack Ryan because these producers felt it was important. The writers also wrote on Lost, which had the fascinating, complex and sympathetic Iraqi character Sayid, so they're already the exception there, and that says a lot about them and the producers in terms of their integrity, but generally, they're definitely an outlier in Hollywood."
With Jack Ryan, Mozaffar adds that he feels he managed to play an integral role in developing the back stories of the show's lead Arab characters.
“With so many Hollywood scripts, the Arab villains are just faceless terrorists. I managed to convince the producers that these aren’t all people just driven by theology, that they have their own back story, that they should be part of the drama, not just ‘terrorists.’ You can watch a film that you may not agree with the politics of, but at least if they get the drama right, there’s a lot you can forgive.”
Nonetheless, all the signs suggest that the road to a more realistic portrayal of the Middle East in Hollywood may still be a long one. Despite Mozaffar's own small successes on Jack Ryan, it's hard to see it as much more than a jingoistic fetishisation of all things red, white and blue at the expense of the wicked Arab bombers. So will Mozaffar now be dedicating his life to putting Hollywood on the right path?
“It’s a process that I enjoyed, sure, though my hands are very full with my work at the university and in the community here in Chicago,” he says. “This show is definitely the exception to the norm in terms of Hollywood too, so I’m not sure it’s a role I could ever carry out full time, but I’d definitely do it again. Ultimately all it takes to try and put this right is just take a small handful of people, and if we can get that then I’d be happy to take a step back, but yes, I think it’s a role that needs to be filled.”
The professor does pinpoint a couple of recent developments that could slowly lead the way in terms of approaching non-American culture with more care, however.
Firstly, he says the huge success of Crazy Rich Asians has shown that films set in a different culture can be commercially successful, and secondly, he notes the importance of streaming services, and their global reach.
"There's a Turkish show on Netflix, Ertugrul. It's huge in the Muslim community, I think it roughly translates as Renaissance, and is the story of Anatolia in the years leading up to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire," he says.
“The characters have a number of different outlooks, but it’s very Muslim-oriented, and it’s huge with Muslim communities all over the US. Netflix may not give figures out about specific audiences, but you only have to look at social media to see that people are watching it.
"It’s on its fourth season now I think, and last time I looked at my social media earlier today people were talking about it, so it’s doing something right. This is people in Chicago and Los Angeles, all over the US. It may be US Muslim communities, but it’s not just a success in the ‘Muslim world,' it’s very much a success in the US.’”
It could certainly be worse than Jack Ryan: four years ago, Fox set a new, and unrepeatable low for misrepresentation of the Arab world, with its poorly researched, stereotype-pushing, racist, homogenising and unfortunately mildly successful paean to all things cliched, Tyrant.
And we perhaps shouldn’t be too harsh on the show’s portrayal of all things Arab or Islamic. In fairness, it manages to miss the target on other cultures too:
- The French intelligence services are bumbling incompetents in the style of Inspector Clouseau, who can barely put together their own cafe-au-lait without the kindly assistance of their wise CIA mentors.
- The show’s token Russian baddie meanwhile is, we’re told, a veteran of the “Soviet-Chechen War”. We can only assume our wise CIA mentors mean the Russian-Chechen War, which first broke out in 1994, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.