Heba Amin, an Egyptian visual artist, Karam, an Egyptian-German artist, and Don painted Arabic graffiti on the set of Showtime’s series Homeland [Al Jazeera]
To read the article on Al Jazeera’s site, click here.
Homeland hacker challenges media portrayals of Muslims
Visual artist Heba Amin discusses the thin line between news and entertainment and making a point through humour.
When the German publisher Don Karl approached Heba Amin, an Egyptian visual artist and researcher, to paint Arabic graffiti on the set of Showtime’s series Homeland, her initial impulse was to decline, as others had before her.
She rejected what she viewed as the programme’s orientalism and its framing of diverse peoples from South and West Asia as monolithic evildoers.
But then she reconsidered. What if she could use the moment to spark a dialogue?
So, in collaboration with her colleagues, Karam, an Egyptian-German artist, and Don, she did just that.
"You're Arab American?"
"Yep." I nod, knowing what they'll say next.
"I never would've guessed. You don't even look Arab."
"That's what people tell me," I say with a smile, shrugging my shoulders. Over the years, I've played with different responses, having heard this reaction innumerable times from both Arabs and non-Arabs...
To hear me interviewed about the article on the podcast Popaganda, click here.
I look at how Jeannie, from the 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, started off as an over-the-top Arab stereotype, but over the show’s five-year run was forced to assimilate due to pressure from network executives who wanted her to be more “likeable,” i.e. American. I also break down how Orientalism helped ratings and why, even though Jeannie calls Tony “Master,” she can be read as a feminist, transgressive character.
The Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI) conference starts tomorrow in Minneapolis! I’m speaking on a panel Friday morning about Arab American identity. I had the honor of interviewing some heavy hitters: poet and author Naomi Shihab Nye, novelist and memoirist Diana Abu-Jaber, poet and essayist Lisa Suhair Majaj, playwright and actor Leila Buck, and writer and scholar Amira Jarmakani. I asked them why, as mixed-heritage Arab American woman who could “pass” as white, they instead choose to “flame” as Arab, boldly communicating their Arabic roots. (The language of the study, as the study itself, are works in progress as almost no one thinks that they “flame” — as one participant put it, is not hiding who you are the same as flaming?)
I found that their experiences show that identities are not static, they shape shift along with us and can serve as powerful tools to connect with broader communities for storytelling, activism and a sense-of-self.
Drop by at 9AM on Friday to hear all about it! (For those of you who won’t be at the conference, unfortunately, it won’t be streaming live on Skype just yet. Maybe next year. Email me for the cliff notes.)
P.S. Thanks to the A-B in my name I’m at the top of the list of presenters! Check it out here.
The “Tough Issue” hits newsstands June 1st. I’m honored to have been chosen as one of five featured contributors:
My article, “Alice in TV Land” addresses what went down with ABC’sAlice in Arabia, as well as the divide between media critics and makers but looks to bridge the gap: “As an Arab American feminist trained to critique popular culture, I want to find ways to spark, influence, and create it as well.”
Here’s a pulled quote to wet your appetite:
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RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers, Inc., is an organization for Arab American writers, scholars, and artists. RAWI conferences bring these usual suspects together to share ideas and words by day and to shake our booties by night. This year’s gathering will be held in September in partnership with Mizna, in Minneapolis, MN.
My paper, “Passing for White, Flaming as Arab,” has been accepted — FUN! Here’s the scoop: Many Arab American women writers are mixed-heritage, with one parent of white European descent and the other of Arab descent – myself included. Why, when many of us could “pass” as white, have we chosen to instead “flame” as Arabs, using signifiers to communicate our Arab heritage, in particular through our writing? I suspect the choice is both personal and political. To find out, I will interview a handful of AMAZING writers: Naomi Shihab Nye, Diana Abu-Jaber, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Leila Buck and Amira Jarmakani. I will also include myself in the study, referencing my essay “No Longer Just American” published in the anthology Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, in which I describe my own experience grappling with identity and choosing not to pass.
Here’s a pic with Leila Buck from the last conference I attended (in 2006) — before our silver streaks came in.
As an Arab American with a background in media criticism, I often feel like a broken record, calling out the endless stereotypes of Arabs in U.S. popular culture. I long for transgressive representations, those that break the mold and offer audiences thought-provoking stories about humanity. When I find them, I exclaim, “Alhamdulillah!”—an Arabic expression that literally means, “Praise be to God,” but culturally translates as: “Hell, yeah!” The independent film Detroit Unleaded deserves such a shout-out.