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An Arab guy’s journey watching “Tyrant”
Amer Zahr
Amer Zahr
Friday, June 27, 2014 - 2:30 am (25 Comments)

I watched “Tyrant” on FX the other night. I had to. Ever since I saw the preview, I knew I was Arab-ly required to take it in.

Cable television dramas are usually 60 minutes in length, but the premiere episode of “Tyrant” lasted 80 minutes. One hour simply wasn’t enough to squeeze in all the absurdity.

The broadcast began with a warning, “This program contains strong language, violence, sexual situations, and nudity.”

I’m used to Arabs on TV engaging in strong language and violence. But sexual situations and nudity? That was new.

We start with a quaint American house on a quiet American street with a big American flag. Then we meet Barry, whose real name is Bassam. This made me think of another Muslim guy who modified his Arabic name to “Barry.” He wasn’t the son of a tyrant (as far as we know), but he did become president of the United States.

Barry, Bassam, whatever, then starts jogging as he flashes back to images from his childhood. We see his father, the “tyrant,” addressing a group of what look to be really poor, hopeless Arabs. The tyrant is speaking in Arabic-accented English. That was weird. Arabs speak Arabic, especially when they are in their own country.

Bassam is readying his family for a trip back to his homeland, the fictional Abbudin, for his nephew’s wedding. Abbudin is the best they could come up with? You can’t just put “Abbu” in front of something and make it Arab. Ok, maybe you can, but it’s still a little offensive.

Bassam, his white American wife Molly (blonde and blue-eyed), and their two teenaged kids, Sammy and Emma, rush to the airport. They are late for their flight. C’mon man, the whole “Arabs being late” thing is so overplayed. Plus, flights are about the only thing we are on time for… well, that and dinner during Ramadan.

When they think they have missed their flight, Emma says, “Maybe it’s a sign from Allah that we should go to Disneyland like every other family.” Wow, that is some imaginative dialogue. As it turns out, Bassam’s father bought every other seat on the flight. This might be the only time an Arab has legally had a plane all to himself. Also, apparently, there are direct flights from Los Angeles to Abbudin.

When they are finally seated and situated, Bassam and Molly enjoy a glass of Dom Perignon (provided by the tyrant) and toast his brother Jamal, the only family member for whom Bassam seems to still hold any affection.

Up until this point, the stereotypes were fairly harmless. But right after Bassam and Molly’s glasses cling, we immediately shift to Jamal raping the wife of some poor man whose only crime seems to be that he is a citizen of this forsaken Arab nation. After Jamal finishes the deed, he departs to meet his brother, driving away in his Lamborghini, surrounded by his bodyguards, blasting Aerosmith.

Bassam and company arrive in Abbudin, greeted by Jamal and something of a royal entourage. They drive into the main city, and the kids see an image of their grandfather-dictator on the side of a building (which Sammy thinks is really cool).

Bassam finally encounters his father and gives him the traditional three-kiss welcome. This is a really unfair portrayal of this customary greeting, as the show made it seem that it is only reserved for dictators and generally bad fellows. In fact, the three-kiss welcome can be used on anyone, whether he is your father, brother, cousin, or someone you just met.

Then we meet Bassam’s mom. She’s white. She has a British accent. This was confusing. Still, it was nice to finally make sense of Bassam’s blue eyes.

As Bassam takes a walk with his father, we hear the first words that bring us into the present day. “Saddam and Qaddafi are dead, Mubarak is on trial, Ben Ali is in exile… After everything I have given the people, they’re still not satisfied. They say they want freedom. Freedom? To do what? To kill each other?” Because after all, these are Arabs we are talking about.

We move on to the night before the wedding and the traditional henna party for the bride. I have to say what bothered me the most was that they were playing Um Kalthum’s music in the background here. Um Kalthum was a musical legend. She was our Ella Fitzgerald. She is the one thing we all agree on. You can’t use her music while you are racially stereotyping us!

We also see the men hanging out in some sort of exotic sauna shaving the groom’s face, another pre-wedding ritual. Here, we find another cultural inaccuracy. Jamal has a hairy chest, while Barry is almost hair-free. I can tell you from experience that an extended period of time in America does not magically reduce or remove Arab chest hair. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.

And so on to the wedding, the event that has brought everyone together. As a way to quell any possible tensions, Bassam suggested that his brother invite a suspected opposition terrorist to the wedding. This terrorist, Ihab, was apparently thinking of bombing the festivities. But now that Ihab’s entire family was attending, the wedding would be safe from terror. Jamal’s uncle, a general (there’s always an uncle-general in every Arab dictatorship) greets the terrorist. After fireworks were displayed to open the wedding, the general asks Ihab, “Did you enjoy the fireworks?” The potential wedding destroyer replies, “Of course, who doesn’t enjoy fireworks? Boom, boom.” Tantalizing dialogue.

Now, there was some Arabic dancing at the wedding, which I always enjoy. And I must say, it wasn’t all bad. Half-white Sammy even got in on the mix, pulling off the traditional “right-hand-behind-the-head-and-left-arm-extension.” This is also where we got to see Jamal’s skills. Jamal is played by Ashraf Barhom, a Palestinian actor. His dancing here was genuine, as he has probably been doing it his whole life. The rest of his acting did nothing more than perpetuate every terrible stereotype of Arab men. I hope I’m not related to him.

During the wedding, Jamal shoots into the air, because that is what Arabs do. Bassam flashes back to their younger father trying to force a boyhood Jamal to shoot a man in the street. We’ll get back to this later.

Jamal then visits his daughter-in-law-to-be. In a scene that seemed to make even less sense than the rest, he affirms she is a virgin by sexually assaulting her. This is the second time we see Jamal commit sexual assault. And why not? After all, he is an Arab man.

Sorry to be a spoiler, but during the wedding, the tyrant collapses and later dies. Right before he dies, he tells Bassam, “It should have been you.” More really creative writing.

Bassam knows that his father’s death will throw the country into a frenzy, and he tells his family that is time to go… now. Sammy doesn’t want to leave. He likes the princely life. When Sammy talks back to his father, Bassam slaps him in the face… hard… twice. See, you can take the Arab out of Abbudin, but you can’t take Abbudin out of the Arab. And poor Molly is shocked by his behavior. You can just see her thinking, “Barry doesn’t act like this… but maybe Bassam does.”

Before Bassam leaves the hospital, he has a little encounter with Jamal’s wife Leila. There is sexual tension here. They are obviously going to get it on at some point later in the season. I hope the show gets canceled well before that happens.

Jamal, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to deal with his father’s death, and he acts out by going on a vodka-laden Lamborghini ride, accompanied by the woman he raped early on in the episode. He forces her into oral sex, she tries to kill him, and they drive off a cliff. I’m a peaceful guy, but I was hoping Jamal was dead. Dammit, he’s alive. Also, in case you were keeping count, that is three cases of sexual assault perpetrated by Jamal in one episode of television. That must be a record.

Bassam and his family rush to the airport. Of course, right before takeoff, they are prevented from leaving by his father’s men. Another obvious development.

One last flashback. Remember that scene where the tyrant was forcing young Jamal to shoot a man on the street? Well, predictably, Jamal couldn’t do it. Then, Bassam, a boy of about 10 years old, walks up to the man, picks up the gun Jamal had dropped, and calmly shoots him in the head. Yes, it was Bassam who fired the shot. Very inventive storytelling.

Back to the present for our final scene. Bassam looks at Molly and tells her, “I told you we shouldn’t have come.” The whole 80 minutes was leading up to this one unsurprising, banal line.

Ugh. There are basically three reasons why “Tyrant” is a terrible show.

First, the acting, writing, and storyline are just bad. One might think that the guy who brought us “Homeland” might do a better job. But he hasn’t. The dialogue is boring and contrived, the acting is mediocre, and the story has no gradations, degrees, or tones. The whole thing is just uncomplicated, unsophisticated, and predictable.

Second, the production is just amateur. For instance, the skyline of this fictional Arab city was not fictional at all. The main features were a mosque that looks exactly like Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and a skyscraper that looks exactly like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. It was simple copy and paste.

Third, the racism is just so… well, racist. It’s not even innovative or creative. It’s just the same old stuff regurgitated up again. Basically, the Arab characters are evil, and the American characters are good. Sure, we have our Arab hero Bassam, but he is heroic precisely because he left this Arab land and was “saved” by American society. Even when the tyrant’s son Jamal encounters the opposition figure that was looking to attack his son’s wedding, we are meant to have zero sympathy for either character. They are just two sides of the same ugly Arab coin.

In the end, “Tyrant” is just a very expensive soap opera, and a bad one at that. Not only did FX terribly racialize and vilify my people, they did it all so inartistically. I’m not sure what offends me more.

* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

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