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Tyrant on FX… Not so racist after all
by Firas Naji
August 8th, 2014 (3 Comments)
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Is the show Tyrant racist? Some will say yes, and some may not. I’m in the camp that says it is not… [Pause for Arab outrage.]

Amer Zahr, about six weeks ago, wrote what I would consider a scathing piece on how the new FX show is racist and negatively portrays the Arab people. Just to set the stage, I’m Arab, Palestinian in fact, born and raised in the U.S. Some would call me white, but we all know that’s not true.

Back to my thoughts on why Tyrant isn’t racist. Let’s take a look at some facts about the show. It is set in a fictional Arab country meant to depict a land that has a leader who rules with an iron fist, just like every real Arab country. The characters are modeled using typical Arab characteristics, beards for some men, hijab for some women, and general traditional Arab-esque garb where appropriate. These are all people and/or things you would see if you were walking the streets of Amman, Jeddah, Ramallah, or even Dubai. In the end, the show’s creators and writers are using stereotypes by which to model the characters. Now, since this is Hollywood, they’ve taken some creative liberties and I will not fault them for that. Creative liberty is what gave us so many different Batman movies. Should bats or batmen be offended?

The characters themselves give us a variety of the Arab stereotypes. The hard-nosed Arab leader (read Mubarak, King Hussein, King Abdullah, Saddam Hafez Al-Assad, King Fahd, etc.), the suave educated doctor type, the entitled misunderstood son of a Tyrant (read Saudi princes, any of Saddam’s sons, King Abdullah…), the Arab wife who has given up on her entitled husband, the Arab military leader that wants to shoot first and ask questions never, and the moderate Arabs that just want peace. Let us not forget the white women that play a role in some Arab men’s lives. In the show’s case there are two, the wife of the main character and the wife of the Tyrant. Both are semi-subservient and support their husbands 100%, yet are the voice of reason for their partner. The one character that you won’t find Arabs talking about in public, but we all know exists, is the gay Arab. And Tyrant has been kind enough in to include two gay Arabs, because what good is one without a partner. Technically they gave us 1.5 Gay Arabs – one of the Gay Arabs is the son of the main character, making him only half Arab. And no, I will not begin to debate homosexuality.

What is a stereotype? My personal definition of a stereotype is the depiction of a group of people through the use of actual traits/actions/behaviors of that group of people that are based on facts and/or actions by that group of people.   According to dictionary.com a stereotype is “a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group”.

What is racism? My view of racism is the deliberate derogatory and/or negative treatment of a group of people simply because of their race or nationality. According to dictionary.com racism is defined as “hatred or intolerance of another race or other races”.

If I had to pick one between stereotyping and racism to describe the way Tyrant portrays Arabs, I would say they are using stereotypes. After watching all the episodes so far, I could not find the racism. I actually laughed at the absurd way they over-acted the stereotypes. They overdid the Arab accents, even the Arab actors.   But we all need to remind ourselves that this is fiction, meant to entertain. And I was entertained and even pulled into the show’s storyline. It’s not the best show I’ve ever watched, by far, but it is good TV.

As an Arab, I believe that we, as a people, need to actually begin to embrace our stereotypes as part of our culture and not be offended when we see ourselves in the proverbial mirror of the characters on a TV show. It can only lead to positive things for Arabs. We should take pages from the books of the Irish, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and even African Americans. The one thing that all of these groups have in common is that through the internal acceptance of who they are and how they fit into American society they have helped themselves assimilate and even change the perception of their respective race. Here are some stereotypes that are not racist, and when you bring them up with that race they’re treated more as a joke than anything else. Jews are cheap, Italians are mobsters, Irish people are drunks, African-Americans are good athletes, Arabs have oil, and Asians are ninjas. If you’re offended by any of these statements, you’re not paying attention.

That said, why do Arabs get offended when they’re called out for their faults, or even worse, for whom they really are? Yes, Arabs are late. Yes, there are Arab terrorists. Yes, there are rituals we do before a marriage. Why do these things offend? I’m sure some Italians didn’t like the way The Sopranos portrayed their people, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t accurate. I personally know Italians that talk and act like our friends on that hit show. I also personally know a lot of Arabs that talk, walk, and act like the Arabs on Tyrant. And you know what? I’m not offended when I meet these people, so why would I be offended by their portrayal on TV, let alone think it’s racist?

The sooner Arabs start saying, “Yes, that’s who we are and we’re proud of it,” the sooner we will be able to move on with our lives and deal with the larger issues in our culture and countries. Accept that you’re immigrant uncle from Ramallah wears a dress-looking thing when he goes grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. Embrace your aunt that wears a hijab at the beach. Give a big hug to that one cousin you think is a terrorist…then call Homeland Security. These are real people that you know and love. It should be a good feeling to see their likeness on a TV show.

Seriously though, we cannot grow as a people if we let these kinds of things get in the way of the big picture. We should look at shows like Tyrant and say, “Hey, they made a show about my people, nice.” Throw a Tyrant watch party and invite your friends and neighbors. Laugh at the laughable parts and explain the stereotypes your non-Arab friends won’t understand. Instead of expending energy on blasting this show, lets use this show to help bring our people together. Instead of outrage at the show’s creators and writers, we should all write letters (do people still write actual letters, with pens and stamps?), send emails, post on social media that we love the show, saying "thank you" for showing the different sides of the Arab people. Instead of that one side you always see in most modern war movies – the screaming Arabs throwing rocks holding an AK-47 (which is also 100% accurate, I’ve seen it). Or that other side where there’s an Arab with bad acting, see Ahmed Ahmed in Sullivan & Son on TBS. We love you Ahmed and congrats on the role, but step up your game bud, we know you can do better than that.

From a TV critic’s point of view, I would have to agree with Amer. The acting leaves a lot to be desired. There seems to be a lot of overacting and bad casting. I appreciate that they cast a Palestinian as the good/bad older brother, but I’m not sure he has the acting chops to deliver on the role. The character of the terrorist is played by someone who is far too clean cut to be an actual terrorist. Have you have seen a terrorist with a neatly trimmed beard?

Ultimately, it is just a TV show and the effect it has on us is only what we allow. So if we allow it to hurt our feelings, offend us, or even anger us, then we’re losing the battle at being an impactful race in American society. If you don’t like the way Arabs are portrayed on TV or in movies, then become a producer, writer, or actor and change that. Otherwise you’ll continue to see other races try to be you on TV.

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Firas Naji is a Palestinian American who was born near Chicago to Palestinian-born parents. He spends his time writing and trying to understand the problems of the world. And watching football, lots of football.

Comments (3)
  1. I married a Palestinian and have loved his family for many many years and lived among them. I LOVE Tyrant!!! I can’t wait to see more episodes when it comes back on! I’m not offended because the characters in the show are like real Arabs that I know. If there is negative images, it doesn’t mean they aren’t accurate. There’s negative aspects of all cultures. Just enjoy the show. It has its funny parts too.

  2. Why “Pause for Arab outrage” – I’m white atheist of Christian provenience European and your claim, as anyone elses, that this show isn’t racist, is outrageous !
    It’s propaganda piece against Arab “way of life”, without any context and background, and although I haven’t saw any blatant attacks on Islam, per se, it is Islamophobic too, through numerous cultural references.
    Jack G. Shaheen did much better job in his column at thereporteronline.com

  3. Nothing you say here makes sense. You were born and raised in the U.S and maybe you were raised in arabic culture yet you cannot understand the views of Arabs who live among Arabs, Muslims and are overall raised in an Arabic country. You, as an “Arab-American” (never heard of that term before if I’m honest), can’t be as attached to your culture as any other Arab because you just can’t have the same life as someone who only knows Arabs and grew among them. The only Arabs you know are probably your parents and maybe 5-6 friends you met along the way. It’s just who you are, not as attached to your country or community as you could have been if you grew up in Palestine. Sure, some Arabs hate their country and we’re more aware than most of the flaws it has.
    Still, I feel like you’re losing yourself as you write, saying things like “Jews are cheap” and “Italians are mobsters” and even worse “Asians are ninjas” (omg what point are you even trying to make) is racist, it may be not be the most offensive but it certainly is racist. It’s not even on the same level of racism as Tyrant so it’s irrelevant. All and I mean ALL Arabs in this series so far have a significant flaw, even the ones you’d expect to be “good”.
    The major problem I have with this article i how your whole view on racism is resctricted, you go by the rule that racism has to be aggressive/balant but that’s just you not getting to point. Have you been living under a rock to not witness every type of racism there is? Sure you can be racist on purpose by calling people names or not hiring them because of their origin but you can also be racist by ignorance and genuinley thinking that Arab children go to school on camels for example (I actually met a lot of people thinking that…sad). Judging by how you go about things, you’ll probably try and say that actually, there are SOME Arab children who ride about on camels but that’s just you “not paying attention”, IT’S STILL A RACIST STEREOTYPE. It’s like saying, some Jews are cheap so it’s not racist to think Jews are cheap. Do you see? I suppose not ’cause you make a strict disctinction between stereotypes and racism and got lost trying to decrypt the amalgam and ended up creating an even bigger one for yourself.
    I don’t even know why you can’t fanthom that this show can be racist AND stereotypical at the same time. You can’t actually be racist without being steretypical. I suppose you feel like you are part of the Palestinian culture and are entitled to speak as an Arab feeling that Tyrant is an accurate representation of Arab culture but you even go as far as to admit that it is in fact stereotypical to the point of ridiculousness. Why would you even write an article about how the show accurately depicts Arab culture if it’s to defend the fact that it’s not racist but stereotypical (wow. that’s some nuance you got there). You go on about how absurd it was and even made you laugh and immediately contradict yourself and say “embrace the stereotypes”. I dunno if you’re talking about harmless things like accents or, maybe the fact that raping is not a big deal, y’know, everyone does it round here. I dunno, I’m not too keen on embracing that “stereotype”.
    I know I may come off as overly aggressive but your article just pissed me off and promotes ignorance dangerously. I was actually searching to know if I was too sensitive about that show, if I was the only one to find it deeply disturbing. The fact that the main character is a white American trying to play an Arab was stupid to me and made me even less forgiving everytime a stupid “stereotype” (again talkin about heavy shit not just the way they dress, no one was offended by the way they dress that was just you not seeing what everyone is complaining about) was thrown my way. The directors too, mmmm such whitness. It’s like that annoying french History teacher I have who loves the Arab culture so much he tries to teach us about our own culture and gets it wrong. He even tries to speak Arab with that same horrible accent actors who supposedly speak fluently arab on TV have. I actually had a feeling this was made by non-arabs before researching it. I had a hard time finishing the pilot because of how biased it feels and I’m not alone. And, to answer your question, have you ever see a terrorist with a neatly trimmed beard? I suppose you have not, and the only one you saw were on NCIS or some shit like that. A lot of terrorsits are Moroccan, (where I’m from and I still live here btw) and they look like every other Morrocan. Yet another proof that you don’t even know what a stereotype is. They don’t all have beards. I want to finish by saying that Tyrant misrepresents a whole people and the only good character is the one who lived in America. It depicts the idea that Arab countries are corrupted from head to toe and all those misconceptions are fed to US citizens already afraid of Islam and all that Trump nonesense. Yeah, lets educate those Americans by not challenging their views on the middle east but by showing them everything they are afraid of. This is such a step back, it’s like the Orientalism movement. Stereotypes everywhere to misinform the masses, yay. Tyrant just took it a step further by using harmful stereotypes, it’s stuff like that that works on creating new forms of ignorants, your article, too. Objectivly speaking, very bad written and very bad points. I know my comment is messy but i just winged it without organizing my thoughts, hopefully, you get the idea still


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