This week, ABC Family picked up a pilot episode of “Alice in Arabia.” ABC Family belongs to the family of networks under the umbrella of the Walt Disney Company. The networks encapsulates the show for us:
Alice in Arabia is a high-stakes drama about a rebellious teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.
Ah, Disney, the same people who in 1992 brought us Aladdin, that thoughtful, delicate film. Aladdin messed up a whole generation of Arab American kids who were really confused about their identity, including me. I guess I was supposed to identify with Aladdin (an Arab), who had no accent, wore a cute vest and fez, and sang cute American songs to his princess girlfriend (who also, like me, didn’t have an accent). I wasn’t supposed to identify with Jafar, who had an accent, a beard, darker skin, and thought he was always right, no matter what. Ok, so I clearly wasn’t Jafar, but my dad definitely was. And it didn’t help that he wore one of those full-length gowns to bed every night.
So, in light of the complete devastation that Aladdin inflicted upon me over twenty years ago, forgive me if I am highly skeptical of “Alice in Arabia.” Furthermore, I need to do what I can to save the young Arab American children of today from suffering the same fateful bewildering disorder as me.
Now let’s look at the description of “Alice” again. While Aladdin didn’t have the nerve to use the name of a real country while stereotyping us, “Alice” goes right ahead and tells us that we are heading to Saudi Arabia. Yes, a young woman feeling trapped in Saudi Arabia. Sound familiar? And since freedom of thought is unheard among my people, Alice finds the diversity of these Saudis’ views “surprising.” It almost sounds nice. Maybe Alice will also be “surprised” to find that they breathe oxygen and drink water for sustenance. And, of course, ABC had to throw in the word “veil,” because if you’re going to typecast a whole people, you might as well pull out all the stops.
Why are we the last ones it is still OK to do this to? What have we done wrong? Is there something about our culture that just makes it easy and acceptable for anyone to stereotype us openly? Or is it just fashionable?
I mean, I know prejudice and bigotry exist. But there’s something about the racism against us that is different. Racists are not usually known for their tact, but at least they usually have the decency to say terrible things about other minorities behind closed doors. But with us, they do it right out there in the open. It’s really amazing when you think about it.
Imagine if ABC approved a new show titled “Monica in Mexico,” where Monica’s extended family whisks her off to Mexico and compels her to eat tamales and star in a telenovela. Every executive at the network would have to take a sensitivity seminar the next day.
Or imagine if ABC’s new show was titled “Katie in Kenya,” in which Katie’s extended family abducts her to Kenya, where she is forced to train for marathons and pose for National Geographic. It wouldn’t be five minutes before Al Sharpton showed up at Disneyland with 100,000 supporters.
This whole imagery of Arab and Muslim women being nothing but trapped and oppressed is getting kind of old. Sure, we have some problems. But don’t they know we had a Miss USA who sauntered around in a bikini on national TV, after winning a pole-dancing contest, and before getting arrested for DUI?
See, we’re just like everyone else.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."