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Writing “Reel” Arabs in a World of Stereotypes

Cherien Dabis mines her own experiences to create authentic films that highlight issues important to Arab-Americans.

Should filmmaker Cherien Dabis ever want for inspiration, all she needs to do is look out the window of her Hollywood Hills sublet. Her writing desk offers a wide view of the verdant hills and a clear blue sky. But the books on the shelves are not hers, and she doesn’t know where the fuse box is. She’s joining that class of transplanted New York writers in Los Angeles to realize a new project she’s working on, a TV series about an Arab-American family in Dearborn.

“I don’t know that I can live in one place,” says Dabis. “I’ve moved around so much my whole life and lived between places, and that’s where I’m most comfortable.”

This is why, on her Twitter profile, the filmmaker refers to herself as a “citizen of the world.” Dabis has lived in many of the glamorized, cosmopolitan cities of the world: New York and Los Angeles, Paris and Milan. The daughter of Arab parents, she grew up in “small-town Ohio” but spent her summers in the West Bank and Jordan. Her latest film project, May in the Summer, released this week on DVD and Blu-ray, draws from her own diasporic experiences—the main character, May Brennan, played by Dabis herself, is the daughter of a Palestinian mother and a white American diplomat. May returns to Amman for the summer to plan her wedding to a Palestinian Muslim academic, with the help of her mother and two sisters.

Brennan’s mother, played by the legendary Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, is a born-again Christian who disapproves of May’s imminent marriage to a Muslim. Their contentious mother-daughter relationship provides much of the emotional conflict that drives the film. It’s a poignant story, punctuated with moments of wry humor that exploit the experiences of having dual cultural identities.

“I wanted to portray strong Arab women,” says Dabis. “It’s very much a movie about four Arab women who are speaking their own inner truths, struggling to be who they are in a family, in a culture, in a society that has so many expectations of who they should be.” (When asked at a screening of her film last fall why May in the Summer features so few male characters, she answered, “My film doesn’t really need them.”)

Womanhood and motherhood were also strong themes in her 2009 feature film debut, Amreeka, a critically acclaimed family drama about a mother and son who leave the West Bank to live in Chicago with their relatives, only to confront the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism of post-9/11 America. The film was inspired by the Dabis family’s own experiences with discrimination after the first Gulf War. Dabis’ father, a doctor, lost some of his patients who no longer felt comfortable being treated by an Arab man. Her family regularly received death threats. Her sister was questioned by the Secret Service about a plot to kill the president, which was, Dabis says, “absurd.”

“Some idiot called an FBI hotline or something with a tip,” says Dabis, still frustrated by the experience.

Dabis’ films are rife with these kinds of anxieties, and she draws not only from her life in the U.S. after the Gulf War but from her experiences living in New York in 2001. Dabis was studying film at Columbia University when the twin towers fell. She had moved there just a few days before.

“You know that you’re in trouble when you have relatives in the West Bank calling to make sure you’re ok,” says Dabis. “That was an interesting turn of events.”

In Amreeka, Dabis often treats her characters’ immigrant experiences with the same kind of droll humor she uses to recount these brushes with prejudice. But other times, her scenes are far more subdued, somber even. Take the scene where Muna goes grocery shopping in America for the first time with her sister, Raghda, who’s married to a doctor named Nabeel. Two white women inconspicuously stare at them. “Who are they?” asks Muna. Raghda tells her that they are Nabeel’s former patients. “What happened?” asks Muna. Raghda answers, “Nothing. They found another doctor.” Raghda doesn’t need to explain to the audience why the patients left because the post-9/11 tensions present throughout the film already make it clear.

Cherien Dabis and Alia Shawkat in a scene from May in the Summer. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Although May in the Summer and Amreeka are family dramas, they are not apolitical. There is a scene in May in the Summer set at a Jordanian beach resort where May and her sisters are celebrating May’s bachelorette party. Emotions that had been long-simmering among them throughout the film come to a head, and the girls begin fighting loudly with each other. Suddenly, a fighter jet flies by overhead, they fall silent, and the scene becomes very still. It’s a jarring reminder of the violent political context in which the region is mired.

“I was really politicized as a kid, whether I wanted to be or not,” says Dabis, “Any time anyone heard that I was Palestinian or any time I told anyone I was Palestinian, my ethnicity became a political issue.”

Reel Bad Arabs

Anti-Arab sentiments in the 1990s and early 2000s weren’t just symptoms of political events. They were also byproducts of the narrow representations of Arabs in film and TV. The celebrated Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz once famously said: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” The overwhelming majority of images of Arabs available to American consumers in the ‘90s were of monsters: terrorists and greedy sheikhs, misogynistic men and cruel dictators.

Within this genre, there is the 1992 Harrison Ford film Patriot Games, the 1996 Kurt Russell picture Executive Decision, and the 1998 Denzel Washington film The Siege. In the documentary based on his critical tome of the same name, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, film researcher Jack Shaheen notes, All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain. That is a given. There is no deviation.”

The problem for Dabis and other Arab-Americans growing up during that period wasn’t about a lack of representation; it was about the one-dimensional nature of the representations that were already available. “I was getting frustrated that all we ever saw were depictions of war and violence and extremism,” Dabis says. She comes from a “big and loud and proud Arab-American family,” and there were no images of Arabs in film and media that reflected their lives. “We see stories of average Americans all the time,” she says, “I just felt like Arab-Americans weren’t part of that fabric, and it was time that they became part of it.”

Cherien Dabis in May in the Summer. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

The events of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” breathed new life into the “Arab terrorist” film genre. There are roles aplenty for dark, bearded men who want to play armed combatants in films like Zero Dark Thirty. Arab women appear on TV shows like Homeland as oppressed subjects of Arab men. Last summer, FX debuted Tyrant, the first-ever American drama about an Arab-American family, from the same executive producer of Homeland. The series follows the life of Bassam, played by a white actor, whose father is the dictatorial leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country. Although the series creators sought the guidance of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the show still suffers from accusations of racism. “In Tyrant, even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

This year’s film awards cycle offers yet another example of how these depictions shape public perception of Arabs and Muslims. Take American Sniper, the patriotic war drama by director Clint Eastwood nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It’s a celebration of Iraq war veteran Chris Kyle, who, in his memoir of the same name, frequently referred to Iraqis as “savages” and confessed regret that he did not kill more of them while serving. Some audience members leaving the film declared on twitter that it made them want to “kill some fucking ragheads” and “shoot some fuckin Arabs.”

Image via Twitter user Amro Ali (@_amroali)

Fighting for Representation

First- and second-generation Arab-Americans, however, have louder voices than they once did. Last year, ABC Family announced plans for a new TV show called Alice In Arabia. The network described the show as a “high-stakes drama” about an American girl who is “kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian.” It didn’t take longer than a day before #AliceInArabia was trending on Twitter. Any Hollywood publicist would kill for this kind of early buzz—except the hashtag was dominated by Arab-Americans outraged by the show’s premise, denouncing it as racist. By the end of the week, the show was canceled.

The Alice in Arabia incident revealed at least one important thing: Hollywood is cognizant of an Arab-American audience, and it’s trying to reach out to them. It just doesn’t know how. Dabis is among a small number of emerging Arab-American filmmakers that includes Lebanese-American writer-director Rola Nashef (Detroit Unleaded, 2012) and Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir (When I Saw You, 2012). All can be powerful players in an industry bereft of diversity.

Dabis seems spurred on by the challenge. In addition to her potential TV show, earlier this month, she was one of 46 recipients of the Creative Capital Award, a grant for emerging artists. Dabis will use the funds to complete a film about a young Muslim journalist campaigning for women’s rights in Egypt.

“If we’re not going to [get our story out there], no one’s going to do it for us,” she says about Hollywood’s lack of diversity. “And no one’s going to be able to do it as authentically as we can do it.”

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