Waleed F. Mahdi, Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation (Syracuse University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Waleed Mahdi (WM): This book critiques the mutual forms of exclusion and alienation that many Arab Americans face not only in the United States but also in the Arab world. When visiting Arab countries or coming back to the United States, I find myself constantly confined to rigid national definitions of belonging that do not often recognize how my various identities as Yemeni, Arab, Muslim, and American are mutually inclusive. The sense of alienation that I have experienced in travels and while growing up in both Arabic and American cultures strips Arab Americans like me of our 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 this rigidity is institutionalized, whether through racial profiling and policing of Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, or through confining and torturing Arab American dissidents in the Arab world.
The book examines how such US-Arab mutual forms of exclusion operate through film by exploring misrepresentations of Arab Americans in both Hollywood since the 1970s, and Egyptian cinemas since the 1990s. While Hollywood films have presented Arabs in the United States as a national security threat or as a foreign policy issue, I argue that Egyptian films have also presented polarizing images of Egyptian Americans as either glorified Arabs or denigrated Americans within a limiting post-colonial critique of the United States that prescribes national allegiance to their Egyptian homeland. The book also examines post-September11 efforts in the two industries and in emerging Arab American films to reflect nuanced images that push back against the national narrations of Arab American in American and Egyptian mainstream cinemas.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MH: The book asks several questions. What are the discourses shaping the mutual construction of Arab-American Otherness in US and Arab collective memories? What is the role of American and Arab filmmakers in perpetuating images of inclusion and exclusion? Is it possible to renarrate the Arab-American story beyond the imperatives of suspicion and patriotism? What does it mean to develop a complex sense of Arab American identity in film? The book engages with these questions by exploring Hollywood, Egyptian, and Arab-American cinemas and comparing the politics and portrayals of Arab Americans in each―how and why they vary, and what is at stake in their circulation.
The book also theorizes Arab-American cultural citizenship, which I define as an ever-changing amalgamation of thoughts, attitudes, and positions that results from Arab Americans’ cross-cultural and multi-dimensional positionality. This understanding challenges hegemonic and homogenous understandings of Arab Americans, whether in the United States or the Arab world. What defines Arab Americans, in this case, becomes less about how others define them and more about how Arab-American individuals define themselves. It is a chance to de-center nationalism and render it less important while acknowledging that nationalism is not irrelevant in today’s globalized yet heavily policed borders and populist agendas.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MH: Throughout my previous research, I had initially been interested in exclusively exploring the representations of Arab Americans in Hollywood, but I soon realized the limitations of my framework. For example, important studies on Arab-American identity and anti-Arab sentiment have proliferated since September 11, which have examined how Arab Americans have been treated as “ambiguous insiders” in the United States, to echo Nadine Naber’s term. Arab-American complex communities are presented as a monolith; they are racialized as white but are treated as a people of color, they are racialized through religion (Islam) rather than biology, and their structures of identification that often stress religion are often dismissed by the US racial-ethnic structures of identification. My new book adds another layer by considering how Arab Americans wrestle with being simultaneously embraced and alienated in both American and Arabic narrations of belonging.
Therefore, the book argues that Arab-American Otherness cannot strictly be viewed as a mere by-product of US orientalist and racialized histories, but as an outcome of the polarized cultural imaginations of “Self” and “Other” that exist in both US and Arab state nationalist narratives. The book’s comparative framework unsettles the “national” as a theoretical category of analysis as it seeks out alternatives for deeper understanding of the Arab American image at the crossroads of US and Arab sociocultural and geopolitical encounters. Thus, the comparative framework presents an intervention in the field of Arab-American studies by simultaneously critiquing and transcending the nationalist rhetoric of cultural producers that mediate sensational narratives of Arab-American Otherness to American and Arab audiences.
The book also contributes to the field of Arab-American studies by identifying post-September 11 filmic efforts in Hollywood and Egyptian cinemas, as well as the filmmaking of Arab Americans themselves, that challenge restrictive representations of Arab Americans in American and Arabic mainstream cinemas. To move beyond the nationalist cultural politics that have divided Hollywood and Egyptian filmmakers and denied Arab Americans their own distinct space, I focus on films that offer representations with alternative narratives of Arab-American belonging through Arab American characters who are complex, realistic, and fluid.
J: Why did you choose Egyptian cinema as representative of Arab cinemas?
MH: I am not arguing that Egyptian cinema is necessarily representative of Arab cinemas, which have experienced tremendous growth and deserve further research. As we speak, Egyptian cinema faces several obstacles undercutting the quantity and quality of its production and the level of its reception, especially regarding films with critical edge. Egyptian filmmakers must grapple with licensing bureaucracy, state censorship, celebrity wage hikes, production monopoly, and copyright piracy. The country’s sociopolitical conditions and the annual Ramadan competition for television shows and dramas present additional pressures for the cinema’s growth.
Egyptian cinema is still a mainstream medium that retains a powerful role in making the most money, producing the most films, and attracting the most viewers. Egyptian cinema has been dubbed “Hollywood of the Nile” due to its filmmaking history, which stretches back to the silent cinema era. The popularity of the Egyptian dialect in the Arab world makes Egyptian films more accessible to Arabic-speaking audiences. Equally important, the nature of Egyptian cinema’s postcoloniality in producing counter-Hollywood portrayals is so analytically compelling because it draws from Egypt’s critical role in the development and collision of Arab nationalism, political Islam, and state nationalism.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MH: The book addresses multiple readers. Learners of media and popular culture, especially film, will find its engagement with national and diasporic cinemas a useful methodological model in pursuing post-nationalist inquiries. Researchers of identity politics will benefit from its comparative framework, which could translate into future topic-specific comparative readings of nation, family, class, gender, sexuality, race, and disability. Academics and students in American studies, Middle Eastern studies, and film studies seeking models of transnational inquiries could find the book a useful tool. The book provides a learning material to undergraduate and graduate students in cultural studies, area studies, ethnic studies, and other interdisciplinary fields that entertain issues related to comparative literature, postcoloniality, race, migration, diaspora, and transnationalism.
The book also contributes to growing interest among Arab American scholars in transcending US-based scholarship in their conceptualizations of the Arab American subjectivity. I hope the book will bolster the call for scholarly interventions in the field that apply a transnational and comparative lens to other cultural forms, including, to name a few, television (news, shows, programs), music (hip hop, pop, blues), performance (theater, dance, gaming, sport), design (fashion, décor), visual art (painting, cartoon, graffiti), and alternative media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube).
I very much hope that the book will also connect with Arab and Muslim American filmmakers, actors, writers, and contributors to art and popular culture, as they navigate the fine line between pursuing individual successes and responding their community expectations. I finally hope that the book will connect with general readership looking for an Arab and Muslim-American critique of how nationalist sentiments shape and circulate American and Arabic popular cultures and learn about the possibilities of challenging them.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MH: I am currently co-authoring a book with Nate Greenberg that examines the Arab support for American deployment of soft power in the “war on terror” era. I am also developing plans for another book that explores Yemeni and Yemeni American creative expressions of agency at the interplay of September 11 and Arab Spring moments.
Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)
Please note that this excerpt does not feature citations and footnotes that may be available in the original work.
Two moments collided and produced this work. The first is personal, the second is political. The personal moment draws from my experience as an Arab American of Yemeni background constantly wrestling with American, Yemeni, Arab, and Muslim 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 toward Arabs and Muslims. The impetus for 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. The “Yemen place of birth” line in my American passport presents a special challenge for government officials in many of these countries as they are forced to treat me at once both as a Yemeni and as an American.
In the meantime, my return to the United States 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. This anxiety stretches across the globe via a US mandate of national security, which locates individuals like me at the periphery of American citizenship. That mandate grows out of a post-9/11 paranoia that continues to shape the experiences of first-generation immigrants and Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds. The transnational nature of my personal encounters made me curious to explore meanings of Arab American citizenship and belonging in a globalized but fractured world. But it was a political moment that solidified my interest in examining these issues.
September 11, 2012, marked not only the eleventh anniversary of the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, but also served as a violent testimony to the failure of a decade-long, US-led “war on terror.” Motivated by a mixed sense of frustration and anger, hundreds of Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Tunisians—to name only protesters in Arab revolutionary spaces—swarmed US embassies to decry a sensational film titled Innocence of Muslims (2012), written and produced by US-based and Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (also known as Mark Basseley Youssef). The film’s satirical, if not cynical, imagery advanced conceptions of the prophet of Islam that were perverse and sadistic. Violating Muslims’ taboo against the pictorial depiction of the prophet, not to mention vilifying his spiritual message, the work rendered the United States a breeding ground for anti-Islam narratives. The film’s charged content, along with its decontextualized circulation through social media, left no room for recognition of the American actors, who categorically condemned it and denied their previous knowledge of the director’s true intentions. It was easy to label the film as an American product and embed it in a post-9/11 Islamist critique of the United States as a neocolonial religious entity bent on what President George W. Bush once called a “crusade” against, as what many Muslims would say, Islam. Protests against the film and, more broadly, against its perceived endorsement by the United States, turned violent and opened doors for extremists to dominate the scene. Crucially, these extremists were now positioned to transform earlier grievances against a poorly composed Islamophobic film into a sociopolitical statement of a Muslim identity in crisis.
The significance of this moment is threefold. First, it embodied the state of insecurity following the peaceful calls for change celebrated as the “Arab Spring” in Western media, and the emergence of extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS) as de facto geopolitical alternatives in unstable states. Second, it raised questions about the transnational modes surrounding these alternatives, whether in terms of their ability to produce high-quality propaganda materials, employ alternative media to recruit Western-raised Muslims, or generate Islamophobic reactions across Europe and the United States. Third, the moment spoke of the power of film, however poor and underfunded, to spur transnational cultural politics; equally important, it underlined how an independent work by an Egyptian immigrant could circulate globally out of context to become symbolic of America’s Islamophobia. It is this instrumentality of film imagery specifically and its relation to identity and representation that is this book’s critical site of inquiry.
The confluence of my personal struggle to navigate East-West efforts to gauge my allegiance and my realization of the importance of film in visualizing difference and producing changes beyond the screen forced me to ask several questions. What are the discourses shaping the mutual construction of Arab American Otherness in US and Arab collective memories? What is the role of cultural producers in perpetuating images of inclusion and exclusion? How is the interstitial experience of my Arab American community codified in the two spheres? Is it possible to renarrate the Arab American story beyond the imperatives of suspicion and patriotism? What does it mean to develop a complex sense of Arab American identity in film? In order to make sense of these questions, this book explores both the construction of Arab American subjectivity in US and Egyptian cinemas and the role of Arab American filmmakers in the process.
Arab Americans in Film directly engages with the questions raised above by examining how Arab American belonging is constructed, defined, and redefined in a transnational context, i.e., US and Arab realms of cinematic imagination. The book explores the representation of Arab Americans in Hollywood, Egyptian, and even Arab American filmmaking, comparing the politics of portrayals in each. It unsettles the “national” as a theoretical category of analysis as it seeks out alternatives for deeper understanding of the Arab American image at the crossroads of US and Arab sociocultural and geopolitical encounters. This comparative framework, therefore, presents an intervention in the field of Arab American Studies by simultaneously critiquing and transcending the nationalist rhetoric of cultural producers that mediate sensational narratives of Arab American Otherness to American and Arab audiences.