While we should never judge or stereotype people based on the images we see in movies and on television, it is a fact that the films and shows that we consume provide us with an easy way to learn about things that are foreign to us. Furthermore, these shows shape our understanding of popular culture.
Despite the fact that I grew up in South America and Europe, my knowledge of American pop culture was ingrained into me long before I first arrived in New York City in late August 2001. A childhood that was centred on a love of television shows and films quickly turned into dissatisfaction and frustration after the events of September 11 that year, when demonisation of Arabs and Muslims in the media seemed to increase all around me.
In 2006, the documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People was released, based on Jack Shaheen's book of the same name. Shaheen claimed that in 1,000 American movies depicting Arab characters that came out between 1896 and 2000, an overwhelming 936 showed negative portrayals, 52 were neutral and a mere 12 were positive.
The fact that more than 90 per cent of films contained negative stereotypes is very easy for me to believe. Given the way American and European media incessantly framed news about Muslims and Arabs, I sometimes even found myself suspicious of strange bearded men and hijab-wearing women.
While I have no issue with an Arab or a Muslim playing the role of a baddie in a movie or a television show, I wish the creators and actors and anyone else involved in these productions would, at the very least, not insult the viewers’ intelligence by constantly resorting to one-dimensional tropes.
This is why, when I was first introduced to the character of Abed Nadir in one of my favourite shows, Community, I was annoyed. Abed, who was supposed to be a Palestinian Muslim was clearly south Asian to me (the actor Danny Pudi is an American of Indian and Polish heritage). I couldn't help but wish that they'd hired an Arab actor. I was so sick of people conflating Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs and south Asians. But as my love for the show and character grew, I was able to look past my initial frustration.
I would rather have Abed – one of the most loved characters on the show – than no regular Arab or Muslim characters at all on television. Finally, there was an Arab character who was just one of the group; his ethnicity and religion were not used to reduce him to a one dimensional stereotype.
I felt the same way when I picked up John Green's novel An Abundance of Katherines. The main character's best friend was an Arab-Muslim-American, but it was just a usual coming-of-age story. There was no secret jihad going on, no ulterior desire to convert the unsuspecting Caucasians in town. Just Colin and Hassan going on an adventure.
While I don’t agree with forcing diversity on to a show or movie, I understand the need for it, and the recent push from various ethnic groups in the US to be recognised. If TV shows and movies are not going to include a variety of races and religions in a positive way, they should at least refrain from propagating harmful stereotypes. We should hold people to account for irresponsible portrayals that feed into an environment ripe for hate. As Arabs, we should take control of how we are portrayed.
It is so encouraging for me to see Emirati directors such as Ali Mostafa, Nayla Al Khaja, Mohamed Amal Al Agroobi and Nujoom Al Ghanem make a name for themselves. With the success of recent films like From A to B, we can start influencing the way we are being depicted.
I am hoping that in the same way that I would go to small art-house theatres to watch French, Brazilian or Spanish films, soon people from all around the world will have access to Emirati films so that this reductionist view of the stereotypical backwards and violent Arab can be eradicated.
Fatima Al Shamsi is a globetrotting Emirati foodie, film buff and football fanatic