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“Tyrant”, Hollywood’s novel plot to vilify Arabs

By Roqayah Chamseddine | In Homage to the Struggle | July 10, 2014

Our earliest intimate interaction with the foreign characters in Tyrant comes in the form of an aggressive sexual assault where we quickly learn that Bassam’s older brother Jamal is a sexual predator and philanderer in a scene featuring the first close encounter with an Arab woman. She is brutalized while her husband and small children wait outside, clearly able to hear the sounds. Juxtapose this with the show’s inaugural note between Bassam’s American and non-Arab wife, and children, who are made to appear as the quintessential American family, as the teens sit discussing the prospect of being attacked during their visit to Abbudin by “them.” We are sent flashing back and forth between the naiveté of Bassam’s immediate family and episodes of violence that overwhelm and saturate the fictional land of Abbudin, with the sounds of traditional Arabic music tossed at viewers as a constant emotional trigger which exaggerates the foreign element of the land and those who occupy it. “You better be careful, this isn’t America,” warns Bassam’s teenage daughter after her brother is told he’ll be attending a bachelor party. The Arab man is a daunting figure after all and even during the bachelor party, which is held at a sauna, there is no escaping his malevolence. Bassam calls his brother out of the sauna so they may deal with the relative of a man who is allegedly planning to attack the wedding Bassam’s family is in Abbudin to attend, and then he watches as his brother beats this man nearly to death. The towel draped around Jamal falls as he applies blow after blow to the defenseless man and then attempts to cut off his fingers. Not even the shame of his nakedness pulls him away from wielding violence.

As the story marches forward we notice that Bassam, who had left Abbudin for a more tedious but unrestrained life in America, is clearly disturbed, possibly dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and cannot even attend his nephew’s wedding without being reminded of the brutality he witnessed as a child. In a flashback we see a younger Jamal being pulled out of a vehicle by his father so he can shoot a man in the head. “The Arabs teach their children to hate,” as the stale orientalist adage goes, so it is not a far stretch for the writers to construct a murderous child influenced by the savagery of his culture. The audience now knows that his violence was part of the greater Arab mentality, which fosters a culture of hate and barbarism. Jamal’s savagery continues as we watch it being unleashed upon the next stock character we see in film and television – the Arab woman – the docile, obedient, easily manipulated and disposable creature. After witnessing his newlywed son’s wife laughing publicly alongside a male attendee of the wedding the audience immediately knows where things are going. The Arab man is angry. How dare she dishonor her husband and his relatives. Jamal soon follows her into the dressing room where she stands playing with her hair, and then the tension builds. His hands glide around the lines of her face as he lectures her on purity. “It would break Ahmed’s heart if the woman he married was not pure,” he whispers. Then, as we watch her beg him to stop, viewers are once again thrown into a brutal rape scene, this time with the second Arab woman they have been familiarized with. This is not even the last rape scene the writers crammed into the 50-some minute pilot, as later on we are shown the Arab woman at the beginning being viciously raped once more by Jamal in a moving vehicle. If you did not already view Jamal’s character as being nothing more than an insatiable barbarian it is pounded into you for good measure in that scene.

Bassam’s character, who may be categorized as being the “good Arab” in this series, is slowly undressed as we begin to examine his psychology and that of the Arab mind. Bassam is emotionally inhibited at all times and once in Abuddin his wife begins to feel a great disconnect, and the distance only grows after Bassam slaps his son across the face, twice, as she looks on – terrified. Here we find that even the “good Arab” is a monster in disguise and his identity as an American is nothing more than a frail shroud of deception, and the violence of the Arab culture is one which Bassam cannot escape, no matter how long his self-imposed exile lasts. Bassam’s wife grows anxious, confessing “I don’t know who you are anymore, I don’t think I ever did,” and suddenly a flashback: Jamal, who had been instructed by his father to kill a man, drops the gun and scurries back into the vehicle. As his father screams for him to return and finish the job we see Bassam, the younger of the pair, exit the car and stand before the man. Without hesitation he coldly points the gun at the weeping man and shoots him twice, killing him. Bassam does not flinch. The point being made here is that this is Bassam at his core, and at his core he is frighteningly cold.

The stock characters and sounds in Tyrant are the same as all other mainstream films and TV shows involving the Arabs – men with darkened beards, unnerving and penetrating rounds of ululation from veiled women and the muezzin’s call to prayer as a haunting backdrop. Then there are the elite Arabs who are flashy, play American music, and mingle with affluent white Americans. They do not adhere to religious dress codes, nor to religious moral codes, and they drink and fill themselves with the best liquor money can buy. Yet despite all this they cannot break away from the shackles of Arab society. No matter how Westernized the elite Arab woman is, with her casting away of the hijab and her captivating sexual presence, she remains a device, written into this script as being almost entirely silent but for whimpers and terse statements bolstering the fanaticism of male characters. Bassam’s teenage daughter is written into the script as being intellectually superior to the foreign Arab woman – when she is invited to the bachelorette party and told she would have fun and get a “henna tattoo” she scoffs, refusing to take part in what she finds to be a “patriarchal tradition.” The Arab woman is either dressed in subdued colours, her head lowered and sexually inhibited or she is a sensual and hyper-exotic creature that still has no authority over her sexuality but for being exploited and dehumanized by the Arab man. In Tyrant, and other similar television shows, the Arab man is a savage creature who rapes and pillages. He lovingly kisses his mother’s cheeks and hands but strikes his wife’s face and brings her crumbling to the floor beneath him. He gets drunk, dresses like the white man and speaks like the white man in bouts of broken English but is nothing more than an animal in a suit.

The evil Arab archetype is ever-present in film and television – the Arab is inept, blood-thirsty and unscrupulous in the serial drama 24, in Homeland we see the Arab and Muslim through American eyes as an abusive and murderous infiltrator and in Tyrant the one-dimensionality of the Arab is almost cartoonish. The impacts of these orientalist depictions are far reaching. These portrayals work to justify the day-to-day xenophobia Arabs and Muslims face to Israel’s current butchery in the besieged Gaza Strip; from encouraging the US spy on Muslim-Americans to rationalizing setting a Palestinian boy on fire or carpet bombing an entire people. Hollywood has not moved far beyond Lawrence of Arabia or Disney’s stereotypical portrayal of Arabs in the fictional desert-land of Agrabah who “will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” (as the original lyric from the soundtrack goes). “It’s barbaric,” sang the peddler in Agrabah, “but hey, it’s home!” — the exotic natives dancing with veils in the streets, gargantuan swords, sorcery and over-exaggerated accents are as much a part of film and television today as they were long ago. In the 1992 film the protagonist and thief Aladdin (nicknamed “Al”) takes magic carpet rides with Princess Jasmine while in the TV series Tyrant Bassam (‘Barry’) and his family arrive in Abbudin in style by way of airplane, where they are the only passengers aboard, and their feet land on thick oriental rugs that have been laid on the ground. Here they come, straight from an American whole new world to the desert.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes ‘Letters From the Underground.

July 10, 2014 - Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Islamophobia | ,

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