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Is Middle Eastern Representation In Pop Culture Going In the Right Direction?

SWANA Representation Panel in Pop Culture at AwesomeCon

From a white man playing an Arab swordsman in 1983’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” to the use of desert landscapes in science fiction to Persian vampires, one could argue that Middle Eastern representation in pop culture — while making good strides in the right direction — still has a ways to go.

That was the conclusion of a panel at AwesomeCon in Washington, DC, which consisted of Adult Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and Adult Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) descent.

Swara Salih, a Kurdish-American writer and podcaster on all things pop culture and co-host of the Middle Geeks podcast, makes the point that the SWANA region is exceptionally diverse, consisting of not only Arabs and Persians but also Kurds, Amazigh, Armenians, Azeris, Afro Arabs, Afro Iranians and more, not to mention religion with not only Islam but also Christianity, Judaism, Druze, Yazidis and others.

SEEING THROUGH WESTERN EYES

SWANA Representation Panel in Pop Culture at AwesomeCon
SWANA Representation Panel in Pop Culture at AwesomeCon

Another aspect of SWANA representation in Western pop culture is the lingering taint of Arab or Middle Eastern characters depicted through Western eyes.

For Darya Bajestani, an Iranian American storyboard artist and character designer, “it’s one of the first markers of culture that we experience from our home as children.”

One thing that sticks out to her is that the Disney princesses all tend to be very young teenagers.

“Jasmine is the same age, if not younger, than the other Disney princesses, but wears more revealing clothing and is also modeled after a white woman, has that sweetheart neckline, exposed midriff, even though that’s not congruent with a lot of different styles from West Asia, and of course her seduction scene with Jabbar in ‘Aladdin,’ despite her being a teenager and him being an adult,” Bajestani says.

As to the reason why Western audiences still have so many bad examples of SWANA cultures, it comes down to the term “Orientalism,” coined by the late comparative literature professor Edward Said, who wrote:

Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

For Roxana Hadadi, an Iranian-American film and TV critic for “Vulture” and “New York Magazine,” an Orientalist perspective will inherently always consider this part of the world as “other” and will invent ways to maintain its “otherness,” with a recent pop culture example being in “Wonder Woman 1984,” which is set in the 1980s and has a segment of the film that shows Egypt as a monarchy.

Gal Gadot (By Gage Skidmore - https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/42855138655/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74236548)
Gal Gadot (Photo by Gage Skidmore –  CC BY-SA 2.0)

“It basically invents an entirely different history for Egypt in the 1980s,” she says. “It’s really playing into this idea of, ‘We need Wonder Woman to come to this place, to save this country from itself,’ when in reality Egypt was modernized and totally fine.”

The movie presents a U.S. or Western perspective, creating or engineering ways to maintain the Middle East as being backward, exotic, oversexualized or flattened into a generic Muslim presentation, according to Hadadi.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Additionally, Orientalism itself often leads to the often-unspoken aspect of cultural appropriation, Salih says.

“When you look at one of the most famous franchises in film history, ‘Star Wars,’ George Lucas literally took the name Tatooine from the city of Tatouine in Tunisia, where he filmed,” Salih adds. “So much so to the extent that in an article written by our friend Hannah Flint, who is Tunisian-British, she noted that there’s an Arabic word in a certain dialect, ‘al Jeddi,’ meaning ‘master of the mystical warrior way.’

“The word ‘Jedi’ is taken straight from Arabic,” he continues.

Even though the first “Star Wars” movie came out over 40 years ago, this kind of appropriation is still prevalent, with a prime current example being director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” movie series.

“I think especially in science fiction, we have this idea that the Middle East has become such a common kind of place for writers to draw inspiration that it becomes something that people almost see as invisible,” says Zaina Ujayli, a Syrian-American screenwriter and graduate student at the University of Virginia focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Arab American writers.

“Of course, you’re going to have these desert landscapes and these hooded people and they’re going to speak in Arabic words,” Ujayli, who went to high school in Saudi Arabia, says. “And it’s just become this idea of like a forever frontier of what the Middle East will always look like in science fiction. And frequently that inspiration is not credited.”

I think especially in science fiction, we have this idea that the Middle East has become such a common kind of place for writers to draw inspiration that it becomes something that people almost see as invisible.

Consequently, the lesson for Ujayli is that “it’s not bad to take inspiration from other places. However, in 2024, it’s really important that when we take inspiration, we also give back. That means making space at the table inviting people into the conversation because it’s true that especially in science fiction, even though there’s so much SWANA aesthetics, music, cultural ideas, women present in science fiction, people and creators who are SWANA of background are frequently absent in these films and in these conversations.”

Squire cover
Squire cover

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

For Ali Nasser, an actor who was born in Egypt and spent his formative years in Kuwait going to school at the Gulf English School before moving back to Egypt with his family, having Western actors portray SWANA-coded characters isn’t something new to the industry.

Nasser cites the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior,” which starred Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, as a “missed opportunity” for that role to be played by a SWANA actor.

While the Spanish region of Andalusia for centuries was part of the Muslim world, and Spanish and Middle Eastern cultures in that sense are interconnected, “I feel like with this one there’s a little bit of a missed opportunity in terms of casting” with all the “amazing talent that’s already available” for actors from the Middle East, he says.

According to Nasser, this situation also applies to the “Dune” movies.

“People who know how to pronounce ‘Lisan al-Gha’ib’ pretty well, and also … understand the nuances of what it takes to be Fremen, take that as inspiration, because again, [for author Frank] Herbert, the main inspiration for that story was the Amazigh warriors and the Tunisian-Algerian revolution,” he says.

INCREASING REPRESENTATION

Despite all the problems with SWANA representation in pop culture, the number of examples of good representation is increasing, according to the panelists.

One of those good examples is the Netflix film “The Swimmers,” which is about real-life Syrian sisters who are Olympic swimmers.

“It’s amazing when you actually get to see a movie where they are human beings, right? Like, they have wants and they have needs. I think it’s just a beautifully crafted movie that isn’t just about a certain lens or a certain stereotype about the Middle East,” Ujayli says.

Two other good examples of SWANA representation are the Netflix series “Ramy,” about a character who is the son of Egyptian immigrants living in New Jersey, and “The Persian Version,” about a large Iranian American family.

For Hadadi, “The Persian Version” elicited mixed feelings.

“The only thing that I will say is that I think that these stories are … not just about the trauma” of being an immigrant, she says. “And that’s the step forward: That they can be immigrant stories, stories about starting over, that, yes, are inherently about like, hey, there’s racism, and a lot of it sucks. And also, being like, what do your families bicker about and what are holidays like and what happens when you bring home the person you’re dating?”

I think it’s just a beautifully crafted movie that isn’t just about a certain lens or a certain stereotype about the Middle East.

The movie is more in the realm of an average sitcom or coming-of-age story than something maintained as outside of the norm of everyday experience, according to Hadadi.

For Nasser, who recently guest-starred on an episode of “Law and Order: Organized Crime,” his character’s Middle Eastern origin wasn’t the main reason he was a “bad guy.”

“It’s sort of like an evolution where yes, Middle Easterners can play bad guys too,” but who “don’t use religion or faith as their crutch for their villainy,” he adds. “So, I think that was kind of like a nice change of pace.”

That said, Nasser hopes there will be more opportunities for actors like him to play themselves in a more positive light.

Hadadi echoed Nasser’s comment and took it further: “I feel like I’m being greedy by saying this. But the goal, also, at a certain level, is to have Middle Eastern actors play characters who their heritage is not integral to the character, but it’s still a step forward for representation.”

NANDOR IN ‘WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’

Another interesting character brought up by the panel was that of Nandor from the FX show “What We Do in the Shadows.”

FX's WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Photo courtesy FX

For Hadadi, “Nandor [played by British-Iranian actor Kayvan Novak] is great because he is a sexually voracious vampire warlord who uses a wish from a genie to bring his 37 wives back to life — and some of the wives are men.”

“It’s just a very different presentation of a character who is of Iranian origin,” she says. “He’s a little bit of an idiot. He’s a little bit of a Himbo. He was a warlord, so he has killed like thousands of people, but he’s just a fun warlord.”

She continues: “There’s something about that that is very charming in that the tone is humorous, while there are also … episodes that are very heartfelt.”

Hadadi cites an episode about how Nando has forgotten Persian.

“His ghost returns because his ghost has a mission that he needs to complete to go on to the afterlife,” she says. “Nandor realizes that he’s forgotten Persian, but his ghost only speaks Persian. So how are the two of them going to communicate? Like, what did he lose by forgetting his home language?”

Hadadi also highlights the diverse cast of “What We Do in the Shadows.”

“There is an actress who plays the character Nadja, who is Greek, and there are a lot of episodes that deal with her Greek heritage, including the fact that her village was once warlorded by Nandor,” she says.

“What We Do In The Shadows” is an example of a show that talks about culture, faith, heritage and religion but not in an “emotionally weighty” or “devastating” way, Hadadi adds.

ADDITIONAL REPRESENTATION

Other instances of good SWANA representation include the character Khalid Nassour in the animated series “Young Justice Phantoms,” along with Palestinian-Egyptian actor May Calamawy in Marvel’s “Moon Knight” and Eman Esfandi — whose parents immigrated to the United States from Iran and Ecuador — in Lucasfilm’s “Ahsoka,” among others.

“These are still few and far between, but we are sort of breaching into this space a lot of us have loved so much,” Salih says.

For Bajestani, progress can feel slow.

“I feel like the getting where we want to be as a society,” Bajestani says, “is a constant struggle; the fact that we’ve materially been able to move the needle is just amazing.”

Check out the video of the entire panel below.

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