Comedian | Professor | Writer
(& Smartest) Arab
Is the show Tyrant
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.