Re-Imagining Arab Americans in Film: A Reconciliatory Model

By Waleed Mahdi
Submitted to Session P2717 (Media(ting) Otherness: Visual Representations of “Islam” and “the West” in the Post-9/11 Era, 2011 Annual Meeting
Arab States; North America;
Arab Studies; Cinema/Film; Cultural Studies; Ethnic American Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
As cultural texts, films have been a critical venue for scholars to examine the U.S.-Arab cultural encounters, and have played a major role in shaping the popular imagination of the ‘American’ and the ‘Arab’ across the U.S.-Arab landscape. Central to this imagination has been the tendency to emphasize polarized depictions of ‘self’ against ‘otherness,’ i.e. ‘Arabness’ against ‘Americanness’ and vice versa. This polarized rhetoric has relied on a mediation of Arab Americans that culminated in interlocking their American and their conflated Arabic and Islamic identities in a state of contestation. Ever since the intensification of Arabs’ migration to the United States as the nationality-based quota was repealed in 1965, Arab Americans have been doubly cast as aliens to the U.S. landscape both in (1) American films that imagine them as invaders seeking to undermine the U.S. national security, and (2) Arabic films that characterize them as temporary migrants that ought to return and serve their Arabic homelands. Moving beyond this narrow understanding of the Arab American identity, my paper seeks to theorize a new emerging pattern in Arabic, American, and for the first time, Arab American films that forges a transnational space in which Arab Americans are re-imagined as a reconciliatory model that bridges the U.S.-Arabic cultural divide. This pattern engages with the racialized, sexualized, and gendered stereotypical images of Arab Americans, and nuances the Arab American identity as a construct beyond the ‘citizen-terrorist’ trope. It contributes to the emerging scholarship on Arab American studies through providing an account of the conflicting patterns that exist in imagining an autonomous and dynamic Arab American identity.