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An Arab guy’s journey watching “Tyrant”
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
June 27th, 2014 (25 Comments)
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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.

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

Comments (25)
  1. Najwa Hadous ... June 27th, 2014 - 09:23

    It’s so unfair to keep stereotyping and portraying Arab as the villain and vicious people of the world. I found Tyrant to be revolting, and offensive. I agree with Amer Zahr and his assessment of the film , and also hope the show gets cancelled. If the show goes on, perhaps they can add to their warnings, that scenes of sexual content and violence were borrowed from the western society to make the show more interesting for their audience.

  2. It was written by Gideon Raff, the same Israeli behind Homeland!! No wonder… That was a despicable show!

  3. Had the show been stereotyping Jews, all hell would have broken loose. The “anti-semetism” red flag would have been raised and action taken on the spot… That’s because they rule in the States. I wonder why with all our presence in the US and the top posts we hold, we have not been able to reach a fraction of the power they posses, and hence keep quiet and shut our mouths and accept all the insults and stereotyping, which I would have accepted, had it been true. But it’s all a bunch of made up lies and distorted images to further ruin the image of the Arabs in the eyes of the average American viewer who would believe anything he’s told!

    • Until our good Arab-American lawyers do carry out lawsuits –PRO BONO –against such defamations we will never get anywhere! Why they don’t do it I have no idea!

  4. I was almost going to write about this next! Good job! I totally agree with everything you touched on! Great article! :D

  5. I haven’t seen it yet, it’s waiting on my dvr, but I have to say I was pretty surprised to hear this from a Palestinian, “She’s white. She has a British accent. This was confusing. Still, it was nice to finally make sense of Bassam’s blue eyes.” I am a Qaddoumi and the family tree on my wall goes straight back 900 years. I am half-American but I am the first time my bloodline has been “diluted” in hundreds of years, ethnically speaking. My dad had green eyes and his father had bright turquoise eyes. Lots of Palestinians have light eyes, hair and skin. And, Arab men marry white women all the time. So I don’t see why any of that seemed out of the ordinary.

    As for the show, sucks but I am glad to know what to expect. I still might watch the first episode to see for myself, but at least I’ll be on guard against throwing the tv out the window in fury.

  6. So the Sopranos and all those other shows that were successful with stereotypical Italian mafia etc are okay though? I thought the Uncle Jamal dancing was the best scene and I didn’t even realise there were all these arab stereotypes but I don’t live in the USA.

  7. I also like Homeland cause I always thought the CIA was a bunch of bipolar people with ace technology so I guess my taste in TV sucks..lol

  8. I haven’t seen the program and don’t intend to. The only thing I knew about it was what ADC had to say on its website. I’ve had discussions with Arab actors as to why they take on such parts that denigrate their own people. Many have replied that they need the access, and experience before they can refuse the typical Hollywood crap that gets spewed out whenever the movie or program has to do with Arabs. Incidentally, Arab and Muslim are interchangeable as far as Hollywood and the general population are concerned.

  9. Would you happen to know the name of the Arabic percussion music that was playing during the wedding dabke dance? I can’t get the beat out of my head! Thanks regardless.

  10. I think you are really nitpicking. They were late for the airport because they took the 405, that has nothing to do with being Arab. Anyone who lives in Southern California knows this. They cobbled together a fictional Arab country that looks like a cross between Ba’ath-ist Syria and a little bit of Dubai. I’m not sure what is wrong with that. Bassam is whiter because his mother is British, again this isn’t unprecedented as Queen Noor of Jordan is of Swedish, English & Syrian descent. An Arab in a Lambo is a stereotype? Lol, you haven’t been to Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar or Oman in awhile have you? That’s just an everyday thing. You might have a point about the story, but I think we need to wait and see how that develops. As for the American being good and the Arabs evil, we need to see how that develops as well. My feeling is that Bassam will become the Tyrant, thus the title of the show.

  11. Not convinced ... July 13th, 2014 - 07:48

    Great article was great, made me laugh too. I think this show can’t be any more racist. Basically, it lowers Arab men to the status violent rapist/murderers who increase their status only by marrying white women and sucking on white men. Disgusting!

  12. Jessica blaisdell ... July 14th, 2014 - 03:42

    I love this show. I think Jamal is sexy and Barry is very intriguing. It gave me greater understanding of how it become tough ruling an Arab country. It needs an iron fist just to keep some peace because everybody is so passionate on what they believe. Italians were once known for their mob, so are yakuzas in Japan, but that gives them introduction to the world and gives us a glimpse of how hard it is to be in their place. Do not be disheartened…I think this TV series will give Arab a better view in the eyes of the world.

  13. Now, I’m not Arab, just saying that from the start, but I was ridiculously offended all the same. Maybe not by the whiteness of it totally but maybe the western supremacy angle? Way too much American Saviour Syndrome on display. Bassam could as well as named himself Clark.

    Also, I have an intrinsic dislike of the actress who plays his wife since her days on Bold and Beautiful. She does one persona constantly in everything – “self-righteous, blond, stupid bimbo person.”

    Hated the pilot, but oddly enough my favourite character is the insane rapist brother. When he was doing that dance at the wedding I was like “he’s a psyco… but this dancing is winning.”

    Number one sign of a really bad show is when the insane serial rapist has you thinking, “Well, he’s decent enough to keep me watching the show.” I don’t know the actor but he charismatic as hell when next to Barry and the weirdos in this. Bad casting maybe? Because Barry and his family are inanely dull where Jamal is all pizzazz and emotion, (and rapey actions)

    I watched the second episode to see if Bassam would start shaking off the Barry persona, and idk where they’re going with it, but if his wife and children somehow die, I think it might turn out to be worth it. Even though they used the slap to signify Barry going evil, I’m interpreting it as Bassam thinking, what the fvck is this retarded family I wound up with. So, here’s to him killing them in the finale.

  14. It’s interesting that, in a show ostensibly about a typical Arab country, no mention is made of Israel. Hating Israel, thinking the creation of the state of Israel an affront, is a reoccurring theme in the cultures of Middle Eastern countries. Its absence makes the country of Abbudin, where the drama of Tyrant is set, seem fundamentally inauthentic. As to the drama itself, it follows that this would seem contrived for a purpose other than accurately portraying aspects of Middle Eastern cultures.

  15. I too find “Tyrant” confusing. I know quite little about the Middle East, and I feel this series isn’t really helping in expanding my knowledge.

    As for the ruthlessness of men in power, the same is depicted in many other series, such as Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black etc. Tyrant could have also been situated in Latin America, Eastern Europe or North Korea, and in a smaller scale (political/economical power requires big differences in income and social status), in Western Europe or North America. And there would have been a character similar to Jamal (like king Joeffrey in GoT).

    But it is sad that when an American tv series finally focuses on in the Middle East (even if it is a fictional country), it offers us this. For example the every day struggles of ordinary people would have been much more interesting.

    Tyrant tells us nothing about the long history of the Middle East and gives us no background into why the nations, tribes and people are the way they are (different from the Western – from a Western point of view).

    I think that when introducing something fairly new to people, there is a responsibility to educate. Of course this raises the question of what to tell and which version is the most accurate (and to whom), but nearly anything is better than the Tyrant.

  16. I had really low expectations of this show, because it seemed like it would probably offend everyone in its attempts not to offend anyone in particular. And, lo and behold, it was everything I expected it to be, and more!

    Basically it seems like a badly written family melodrama where the extent of the sociopolitical commentary is ripping off bits and pieces of Game of Thrones. Like the first-episode beheading scene with Sean Bean. Or the opening credits animation… And, yes, it could just as easily be a telenovela set anywhere else in the world with kleptocratic dictators. (Like, say, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, complete with psychopathic children.) I’m really just watching it for the campiness factor at this point.

    I agree with the above commenter that Jamal is the most interesting character in the entire show. He seems seriously unhinged, in a self-loathing antihero sort of way. Versus Barry, the closet sociopath who is as boring as all get-out. I will be really disappointed if Barry doesn’t become evil and pathetic á la Richard III, complete with “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in the finale.

    This show won’t get “canceled” because it’s cable television and they make the entire season up front. At the same time, the plot is incoherent enough, and the sex is PG enough that the show feels like a bad network television show that just got rejected by Fox. They even called the first episode a pilot! It’s hard to believe that this is from the same network as Fargo.

  17. Hi ,can someone please tell me which Um Kalthum song was played at the party?

  18. I dont see anything racist here….i am black n from kenya…we hv seen lots of movies that place africans in a very weird state…we r depicted as slaves all the time despite the top positions we hold.
    my point is…if u feel u r being violated.. u hv an option of watching boomerang…

  19. Anthony Muhammad ... February 16th, 2015 - 19:27

    What is the name of the song played when they danced in the circle while clapping his hands at the wedding party and he shot the gun in the air and asked his brother to shoot too?

  20. I am not Arabic, just plain white, so I am probably not qualified to comment, but wanted to attempt to anyway. I’ve watched several of the episodes and did not come away thinking wow that is how all Arab men are! That would be equivalent to watching an American tv show where the American actor was a murderer/rapist, and assuming all Americans are murderers and rapists. My point being, rational people would not automatically think that.

    Instead, I thought the show was beautiful even in the sad parts, which according to the news does happen, in Middle Eastern countries as well as Central American countries. I love seeing how people in other cultures live, good or bad.

    Yes, there were some unrealistic, soap opera type scenes and not the best writing, and while I understood and even agreed with a number of things Amer Zahr said, I honestly didn’t come away from the show thinking terrible things about all Arabs anymore than I think that all people from all cultures are capable of evil behavior.

  21. Blinding to fault! Do a series diluted to the ratio of 1:100 of same, basing it instead on facts and real life events about Israelis and you wouldn’t know what hit you; even if backed with testimonials by refusenick-Israelis and righteous Jews from around the world. And do not play down fiction and entertainment’s power on minds, for it plays on the subconscious and the subconscious is how we infect masses with ideas and rally them on ideologies… this series as hundreds of other programs target and demean an ethnic group that can do with some positive image right now.

  22. While I do agree with some of the points about being cheesy, I don’t think the show portrays all Arabs as evil, gun-wielding rapists. In fact, at this point in the show I have found myself thinking several times about the kindness, bravery, and resilience of the people of Abbudin. I am a white American, so I’m sure there are things I cannot possibly understand, but I imagine that the idea that the world will watch this and think all Arabs are “tyrants” is the equivalent of someone watching House of Cards and thinking that it’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal of all Americans. Instead, I see the show as a portrayal of power and the ugliness that comes along with it. Yes, it happens to be set in the Middle East, but as we all know, there are and have been dictators all over the world since the beginning of time. I personally was impressed that an American show took place outside of America, as research by television analysts shows that they do not typically do well. From my perspective, it seemed like a step forward. I do, however, understand the confusion of them speaking English with an Arabic accent, but I just trumped it up to the winters needing to make it clear the setting is in another country, but without having to produce it in another language, as it is made for American television. I hope this gives some insight from an outside perspective!

  23. Someonewhodoesn'tputtheirnameallovertheinternet ... January 31st, 2016 - 00:54

    Unbuntch your panties. The show is called Tyrant not, Your Normal Average Everyday Arab Family. Exaggerated, sure. It isn’t based off of true events. If they wanted to make it realistic it would be called a documentary.

  24. It’s a show. Its fiction. Don’t like it, make your own. It’s not real, but your hate is.


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