Fox’s new show Tyrant a series of unfortunate clichés
The Fox network’s latest prime-time drama Tyrant offers American audiences a stunningly skewed glimpse of life in the Middle East. Think life in the Middle East as portrayed by the creators of Homeland and 24.
Unsurprisingly, given Homeland’s record for negative portrayals of Arabs and considering it filmed its Beirut scenes in Israel, that show wasn’t universally well received by American Muslims and Arabs.
Tyrant, too, hasn't been spared criticism. “[In Tyrant,] Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires and powerless female victims,” says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “In Tyrant, even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”
Having watched the three episodes that have been screened for American audiences at the time of writing, I can see where Hooper is coming from.
The show focuses on the Al Fayeed family. Dad Khaled (Nasser Faris of House of Sand and Fog, Ocean's Twelve) is the brutal dictator of the fictitious country of Abuddin. The oldest son, Jamal (Ashraf Barhom of The Kingdom, Clash of the Titans), is a Lamborghini-driving, Aerosmith-listening, psychopathic cliché: we first meet him in the house of an unnamed victim, having his way while the victim's distressed husband and children wait outside the bedroom. Meanwhile the youngest son, Bassam or Barry (played by Adam Rayner of Hawthorne and Waking the Dead), has been in self-imposed exile from his family’s vile ways, working as a paediatrician in California.
The wedding of Bassam's nephew, Jamal’s son, finally brings him back to Abuddin after a 20-year break. The show also comes with Islamic terrorists seeking to overthrow the Al Fayeed dictatorship, public executions, largely incidental female characters and a host of other stereotypes.
Although reviews have, by and large, been fairly positive, Entertainment Weekly noted: “The problem is that they’re stock characters. Maybe that’s an unfortunate side effect of setting the show in Abbudin, a distant desert land that seems to borrow its real-life events from Egypt, Syria and Libya. When you give your country a fake Middle Eastern name, you risk turning it into a stand-in for all Middle Eastern countries.”
Time magazine wrote: “Tyrant fails badly … Arab characters sneer, suffer and read ridiculous dialogue.”
Jack Shaheen, the author of Reel Bad Arabs, who has been documenting Hollywood portrayals of Arabs for 40 years, says: “The amazing thing is that certain Arab-American groups were invited to act as consultants on the show. I don’t want to point fingers, but the time to put things right with shows like this really is in production and if you don’t understand the process, it’s easy to become enamoured with being close to Hollywood.
“We maybe need just two or three people in Hollywood who are qualified to lobby to ensure that series like Tyrant don’t happen, and if they do, they’re not so awful.”
Tellingly, the show’s producers seem to have had little contact with the real Arab world in the process of making the show: it is shot in Israel, while the lead actor, Rayner as Barry, is, unfathomably, British.
Shaheen has some words of advice for the region’s big players in the movie industry: “Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha – they’re major players in Hollywood production now ... They really need to keep encouraging young filmmakers who want to make a difference ... They’re in a position to do something – they have the money, the intelligence and they have the contacts.”