Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, July 2017
An Israeli raid in Bethlehem killed a young man in Dheisheh refugee
camp and Israeli forces closed Al-Aqsa mosque to worshipers on Friday
(July 14, 2017) after a gun battle between Israeli occupation forces and
Palestinian resistance fighters (although it is not clear what actually
happened in this incidence, closing the mosque is unprecedented in its
Free Gaza Activists Welcomed Home as Heroes, then Join Protest
Sharat G. Lin | 31.01.2009 08:10 |
After spending six months in Gaza and Cyprus working tirelessly to
defy the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory and defend
Palestinians from military attacks, two San Jose residents found upon
their return that the protests that they had helped start had mushroomed
a hundred-fold in response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
Jack Shaheen dies; scholar persuaded Disney to alter 'Aladdin' as he fought Hollywood's racial stereotypes
Courtesy Michele Tasoff Jack Shaheen, who taught for decades at Southern Illinois University, urged Hollywood to change its portrayals of Arabs as just "billionaires, bombers and belly dancers." Jack Shaheen, who taught for decades at Southern Illinois University, urged Hollywood to change its portrayals of Arabs as just "billionaires, bombers and belly dancers." (Courtesy Michele Tasoff) Steve Marble
Jack Shaheen, a prominent writer, scholar and activist who persistently — though diplomatically — challenged negative stereotypes of Arabs in film and television, has died at age 81.
Shaheen, who died Sunday in South Carolina after battling cancer, took on studio executives, offered counsel to actors and directors and lectured around in the world in his relentless quest to persuade Hollywood to move beyond the cinematic image of Arabs as just “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.”
“There is no escaping the Arab stereotype,” Shaheen wrote in the preface to his 2001 book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” before digging into what he said was the unrelenting portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, uncultured, wealthy and unspeakably violent.
“These notions are as false as the assertions that blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals,” he wrote in “The TV Arab,” a painstaking study of hundred of television shows, from sitcoms to cartoons.
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See MoreHe was the one who would say ‘This is not OK'— Michele Tasoff, daughter
In 1993, his efforts helped persuade Disney to change the lyrics to the song “Arabian Nights” in its animated musical “Aladdin.”
When the film premiered, the lyrics seemed the stuff of racism to people like Shaheen:
Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
In a opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Shaheen protested that Disney had managed to deliver a painful reminder to millions of Arab Americans that “the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp.”
Disney yielded and trimmed the ear-cutting lines from the video release of the film, but refused to erase the “it’s barbaric” line, arguing it was a reference to the landscape, not the people who lived there.
It was emblematic of the small victories Shaheen would win. Never expecting seismic change in how the industry would portray Arabs, he was comfortable winning converts one by one, lecture by lecture, email by email, book by book.
“He felt the greatest disservice would be to stand back and say nothing,” his daughter Michele Tasoff said.
Shaheen was born in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, 1935, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He grew up in nearby Clairton, an ethnically diverse mill town whose bleakness was captured in the movie “The Deer Hunter.” His mother — who raised Shaheen — wanted to be a school teacher, but settled for being a janitor at the schoolhouse instead in order to provide for her three children.
He became the first in his family to attend college, graduating from what’s now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and earning a master’s degree in theater arts from Penn State. He received a doctorate in communications from the University of Missouri before joining the faculty at Southern Illinois University, where he would teach for decades. He also was a visiting professor at New York University, where his archives — papers, notes, scripts, children’s toys and thousands of films dating back to the silent movie era — are housed at the Hagop Kevorkian Center.
Courtesy Michele Tasoff Jack and Bernice Shaheen Jack and Bernice Shaheen (Courtesy Michele Tasoff)
His drive to find and — if possible — root out the unflattering and often ugly portrayals of Arabs in film arrived when his two children were watching a cartoon. When they ran into the living room and announced that there were “bad Arabs” on TV, Shaheen came in for a look. He was aghast, and it dawned on him that is was quite possible his children would grow up without ever seeing a “humane Arab” on television.
He began collecting movies, television shows, other media that he believed offered clear and lasting evidence that Arabs and Muslims were rarely depicted as ordinary people. It was a painful and unpleasant task, his daughter said, but one he felt was necessary.
“He was the one who would say ‘This is not OK,’” Tasoff said.
But he made inroads. George Clooney used Shaheen as a consultant on both “Three Kings” and “Syriana,” both set in the Middle East, and directors sought him out for advice. He recently consulted on Nickelodeon’s “Shimmer and Shine,” an animated children’s series about a pair of in-training genies. Shaheen and his wife, Bernice, who worked as his consultant, established a scholarship for Arab American mass communication students.
“The community lost one of its best,” said American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Chairman Safa Rifka. “His work started a conversation about the representation of Arabs in Hollywood and the need for more nuanced depictions of the community. Dr. Shaheen will be greatly missed.”
Tasoff said her father was optimistic, yet pragmatic. Forward momentum may have been slowed with 9/11 and a wave of new television shows like HBO’s “Homeland.” President Trump’s proposed travel ban offered further discouragement.
“But he always remained hopeful,” she said.
He is survived by his wife, his daughter, a son Michael and four granddaughters.
The Aladdin Controversy, Disney Can't Escape
Jack Shaheen, one of the most respected and loudest critics of the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood
By Sophia Smith Galer
14 July 2017
For many, Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin conjures up images of innocence: star-crossed lovers on a magic carpet, a benevolent pet tiger and a comedic genie who would grant every heart’s desire. Less well known is the fact that the film sparked a racial controversy, one that is still reverberating today.
This week saw the death of Dr Jack Shaheen, one of the most respected and loudest critics of the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood, who successfully campaigned for offensive lyrics to be changed in the original Aladdin soundtrack. Now only days after his death, the live-action Aladdin remake has been questioned over its casting woes.
The film-makers – including director Guy Ritchie – are on the hunt for leads who can live up to the animated film’s loveable street urchin Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. It’s been revealed that they’re struggling to wrap up their months-long search because of a difficulty in finding a singing, dancing actor who is Middle Eastern or Indian to play the title role. Disney have not commented on the search, and although it has been suggested that the lengthy casting process is due to the studio's commitment to finding the right actors, some are critical of the studio’s struggle.
The abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp – Dr Jack Shaheen
“Nobody in their right mind can state that it is impossible to find a young male South Asian or Middle-Eastern actor who can dance, sing and act,” says Academy Award nominated director Lexi Alexander, who is half German, half Palestinian. “Bollywood is an entire industry made up of talents like this and the Middle East has equally as much talent. It’s a convenient system that insists actors-of-colour need to be household names to be cast, while nobody wants to give them a break.” Alexander posted a list of potential actors on Twitter, asking Guy to “give me a call.”
This isn’t the first time that Disney has been criticised in relation to Aladdin. The well-loved soundtrack for the 1992 animation - A Whole New World notably won Disney an Academy Award, along with another Oscar for the entire score - is actually an edited version of the one that was heard in cinemas. The original lyric in the first verse of the song Arabian Nights described Arabia as “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”.
“Aladdin is not an entertaining Arabian Nights fantasy as film critics would have us believe,” wrote Jack Shaheen in 1992, then a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University, “but rather a painful reminder to 3 million Americans of Arab heritage, as well as 300 million Arabs and others, that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp.”
The film was criticised for perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia. The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee saw light-skinned, Anglicised features in the heroes Aladdin and Jasmine that contrasted sharply with the swarthy, greedy street merchants who had Arabic accents and grotesque facial features.
Shaheen warned that these images would perpetuate negative stereotypes that “literally sustain adverse portraits across generations.” He argued: “There is a commanding link between make-believe aberrations and the real world,” and warned of the negative portrayal of Agrabah, the film’s fictionalised city that he called “Hollywood’s fabricated Ayrabland.” It appears that for some, this warning wasn’t unfounded: in 2015 it was revealed that 30% of Republican voters in the US would vote in support of bombing Agrabah.
After Shaheen protested against the film alongside the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disney agreed to alter the lyrics in Arabian Nights for Aladdin's video release in 1993, and defended it, as it was a rare film to feature an Arab hero and heroine.
Daniel Newman, professor of Arabic at Durham University, acknowledges that Western portrayals have come a long way from the lotus-eating, Orientalist fantasies of yesteryear, but “barring a few exceptions, what has happened is that one cliché has been replaced by another; from the scimitar-wielding lascivious Arab, we have gone to the bomb-wielding terrorist Arab.” While some ‘moderate’ characters have been introduced in shows such as Homeland, he says, “the pervading feeling is one of ‘threat’, based primarily – if not exclusively – on religion.”
“I’d ask the animators to add benevolent market-vendors and heroic guards who befriend Aladdin,” Shaheen said of the 1992 Aladdin, conscious of the image of Middle-Eastern people that might be made on the film’s young viewers. He also asked the producers “to respect Islam and to add a humane character, Aladdin’s mother, an Arab woman willing to sacrifice everything for her son’s happiness.”
Whether the new film-makers choose to stand in the old guard or vanguard remains to be seen. Back in 1992, Shaheen cited “cable television and videocassettes” as making it easy for stereotypes to travel far and wide. That is even more important in an era of mass media, all-you-can-watch online streaming. It might be worth asking ourselves when the new film is released: what would Jack Shaheen think?
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