Film Terrorists, hijackers and villains: Arab-Americans get a raw deal in Hollywood. Now a number of actors are striking back.
A few years ago, when Ahmed Ahmed was a young Egyptian-American actor struggling to make a name for himself in Los Angeles, he asked his agent if she could get him a part - any part - that didn't involve him playing the same old stereotypical bad Arab. She told him that if he didn't change his name, he didn't stand a chance. "If you don't call yourself Ricky, or Matt, or Dave," she said, "you're never going to get work except as a terrorist."
Ahmed chose not to listen even though, in his words, he was so short of work he felt he "couldn't even get himself arrested" as an actor. "I'm never going to change my name. It's my birth name, my given name," he said. "I thought, if I have to wait until the world is ready to have a performer called Ahmed Ahmed, then so be it. I'll wait." It is no secret that Hollywood has been virtually incapable in recent years - particularly in the wake of the September 11 attacks - of portraying Arabs and other Middle Easterners as anything other than cartoon villains. Usually they are terrorists, or closet terrorists; at best they're some sleazy prince or a greedy oil magnate.
That, though, may be changing. Growing numbers of performers such as Ahmed are refusing to take parts that demean them and, instead, are launching themselves with their own material and promoting a more nuanced, more positive public image of Middle Easterners and Middle Eastern-Americans. After years of setbacks and frustration, the gamble appears to be paying off. Ahmed has a thriving career as an actor (he appeared in Iron Man, and in the Adam Sandler vehicle You Don't Mess With the Zohan), and as a stand-up comedian. He is part of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe that recently toured the Gulf and has earned enough positive attention in the United States to earn him a slot on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on CBS television, a featured slot on Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show and a regular headline gig at the Comedy Store, one of Los Angeles' premier stand-up venues.
It's a similar story with Ahmed's fellow Axis of Evil comedian Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American who grew up wanting to be Tony, John Travolta's character from Saturday Night Fever, but found, in the early going of his career, that the casting directors were only interested in casting him as "Mohammed or Abdul". Jobrani's moment of truth came when he was cast in a Chuck Norris movie of the week as an Afghan-American who plans to blow up a building but is thwarted by the steely resolve of Norris's law enforcement hero. The film was shot before September 11 but aired shortly afterwards - causing Jobrani to fear what might happen if someone recognised him on the street and confused him with his on-screen character. "I was freaked out," he said. "I mean, people were shooting Sikhs because they were wearing turbans."
So he told his agent: no more terrorists. "I don't need to play these parts," he said. "You want to see that, just turn on CNN and you'll see it? It just feels icky. It does. You feel like you are selling out." Since then, Jobrani has developed something of a reputation for the parts he has turned down. He didn't want to be in United 93, Paul Greengrass's reconstruction of the final moments aboard the hijacked plane that ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, because the only good guys in it were white and all the Middle Easterners were evil. He refused a part in Iron Man, although he thought it was a good film.
And he has done just fine for himself. He played a secret service agent in The Interpreter, the United Nations thriller starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, whose ethnicity is only incidental to his character. His comedy career, like Ahmed's, is soaring. And he is developing a lot of his own material. He has just sold a television series to CBS that he describes as a sort of Iranian Everybody Loves Raymond, centring on a man in his thirties who can't get away from his crazy family. And he has written a comic film script called Johnny Vestvood, American Hero, about a modest Iranian American rug salesman who lives with his mother (Westwood - with w's instead of v's - being an Iranian-intensive neighbourhood in Los Angeles) but dreams of becoming a superman like the lead characters in American films and television series.
It's not just the Middle Eastern-American performers who are sensing it is time for a change in Hollywood. A number of prominent producers have come to realise they have a special responsibility to portray Middle Easterners in a more sensitive, less clichéd way, not least because of the extraordinary power of film and television to create lasting cultural impressions. The Writers Guild in Hollywood - with backing from the prominent Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, and from the television producer and political fund-raiser extraordinaire Haim Saban - recently hosted a panel of writers, producers and filmmakers to discuss ways of breaking the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims.
The consensus was clear: Hollywood has dealt in stereotypes for far too long, just as previous generations of filmmakers stereotyped Italians as gangsters or blacks as criminals or house servants. Since the news media has largely fallen down on the job of explaining Islam and the Middle East in terms of anything other than fear and confrontation, it is now up to the entertainment industry to fill the void.
Nobody epitomised the realisation more than Howard Gordon, the creator and executive producer of the nail-biting television terrorist drama 24, who preached with the ardour of someone recently converted about the responsibilities he now feels. "Fear sells. It does," he acknowledged. "We need to be mindful of it." The moment he became mindful himself was during the second season of 24, in 2002. The plot line of the series focused on a suspect Middle Eastern family, and Fox's marketing department arranged for a giant billboard to be erected above Los Angeles's busy San Diego Freeway with an image of the family and the slogan: "They could be next door."
The Council on American Islamic Relations, perhaps the most vocal of any US lobby group representing either Middle Easterners or Muslims, was so alarmed it sought an immediate meeting with Gordon and the other producers. He listened to CAIR's concerns that the billboard, and the show, could be an incitement to violence and racial hatred, and he realised he agreed with them. "We were acting as handmaids to fear," he said. "The billboard came down that afternoon."
That same season, Maz Jobrani was hired to play a character called Marko - the last terrorist part he has played - and it was obvious to him the producers were getting more nuanced in their thinking. Marko was part of a crew delivering a truck bomb, only to have a change of heart when they see children playing at the site where they intend to detonate their load. "They decide they don't want to do it, which is kind of cool," Jobrani said. "That was OK."
Gordon's change of heart was, in part, a business decision. He too had noticed that Arab-American performers were turning down parts in his and other shows, and he knew that the pool of Middle Eastern actors was not so huge in Los Angeles that he could afford to ignore the ones who didn't want to stand up and utter the ultimate clichéd line: "In the name of Allah, I will kill you all." He made sure he listened to the performers he did hire, so at least some of their suggestions for making their characters better-rounded would make it into the completed show. And he realised it was also important to cast Middle Eastern-Americans in parts where their ethnicity is not necessarily a determining factor - as doctors, or telephone operators, or teachers.
By now, Gordon is front and centre - along with the politically conscious film production company Participant Media, which made Syriana and The Kite Runner - in an effort to wake up Hollywood and persuade writers, directors and other producers to grow up about the Middle East. The idea is to promote a series of dialogues with writers at which experts on various aspects of Middle Eastern culture could explain how the practice of Islam works, or how day-to-day life operates in Egypt or Syria. Cynthia Schneider of the Brookings Institution even talked about instituting some sort of helpline for writers wondering, say, what any given Middle Easterner eats for breakfast.
Not everyone at the forum - which was called Rewriting the Divide: Hollywood and the Muslim World - was entirely impressed by their efforts. Several participants took issue with the fact that the problem was identified as being about Islam rather than a broader East-West divide. Nicole Pano, a Palestinian-American actress, pointed out that many Arabs like her are Christian. Others observed that plenty of white Americans - including one of the panelists - are Muslims and don't necessarily suffer from the stereotyping.
Many in the audience also felt that a writer serious about depicting Middle Eastern characters would know how to do his or her own research and wouldn't need a helpline. The problem, rather, was that the writers peddling in stereotypes just didn't care about getting it right. Everyone at the forum agreed, however, that the ignorance of American audiences about Middle Eastern culture was both breathtaking and disturbing. Dalia Mogahed, a researcher with the Gallup polling organisation who wrote a recent book titled Who Speaks for Islam?, said that when she asked Muslims around the world what they most admired about the United States, they generally pointed to the country's political freedoms and its technological savvy - two things they would like more of for themselves. When she asked Americans what they most admired about the Muslim world, their two most common answers were "nothing" and "I don't know".
That's not all Hollywood's fault. Clearly, the American news media is falling down on the job, too. (Even now, five years into the Iraq war, it is rare to see a Middle Eastern face on television talking about the conflict.) But the degree of crassness that the average American film or television viewer is exposed to is relentless. Take a film such as American Dreamz (2006) which recently aired in heavy rotation on the cable station HBO. The plot centres on a television talent show very much like American Idol, and on two members of the same Arab family who end up competing to participate. One of them - naturally - turns out to be a terrorist who only wants to get on the show so he can blow it up and kill an eccentric US president who has decided the best way to shore up his failing popularity ratings is to appear as a guest judge.
According to Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American university professor who has made a career of cataloguing Middle Eastern stereotypes in books like Reel Bad Arabs and his latest, Guilty, told me American Dreamz was actually pretty tame compared with some of the insidious nonsense out there. One thing, though, was particularly striking about the film: of the numerous members of the Arab family at the heart of the plot, only one was played by an actual Arab, the Lebanese American actor Tony Yalda. The rest were mostly Iranians, with one Indian actress, Noureen DeWolf, playing Yalda's sister.
Shaheen saw several possible reasons for this sort of casting choice. Either Arab-Americans didn't want to play these parts, or the producers weren't interested in casting Arabs - someone with brown skin was good enough. Or something sneakier might be at work. "Producers and directors may want to avoid Arab-American actors," he said, "to avoid alerting the community that the film contains damaging stereotypes."
Those stereotypes have now become so pronounced that some Arab-American performers are now being told they don't look Arab enough. "They want ugly," said Nicole Pano, the Palestinian-American actress who happens to be good-looking. "They want us to play terrorists, and terrorists are ugly." (She has had more luck playing Italians, happily going along with the fiction that because her last name ends in "o", she must be Italian herself.)
One casting director who specialises in casting Middle Easterners, Jane Sobo, said she had an Algerian client who had great difficulty getting work because of his "almost feminine" facial features. "He is not booking roles because his face is not swarthy enough to intimidate lily white audiences," she said. This is the atmosphere that has prompted Ahmed, Jobrani and others to strike out on their own. Ahmed sees a dual opportunity for a new kind of film and television in the United States and the Gulf, and is setting up a production company in both Los Angeles and Dubai called Bonus Features. (So called because, for years, his roles were cut out of movies and ended up only in the "bonus features" on the DVD.)
Others seem to be moving in the same direction. Jonathan Friedlander, a Middle East expert at the University of California in Los Angeles, said the comic-book world is seeing an explosion of new Middle East-themed material, including one based on the Thousand and One Nights and another called 99 (inspired by the 99 names of Allah from the Quran). In Canada, a television series called Little Mosque on the Prairie, is a hit and coming to the United States soon. In Australia, a cop show called East West 101 features a Muslim as its main crime-fighting character and a Samoan sidekick.
"We want to pioneer a new outlook on Middle East," Ahmed said. "Doing that through food, music, art and culture is much better than politics. Most people would rather listen to a stand-up comedian than a boring politician or a dictator."