Ruba Al-Sweel | June 18 2016
I remember the first time I felt miffed about a depiction of the Arab World. It was back in the mid 90’s when Aladdin was occupying the screens and preoccupying the minds of most households I knew. I wondered why Aladdin, the protagonist, had a seamless American accent, while the scheming peddlers, the hooligans, the street urchins, and the rest of the antagonists, spoke in an obnoxiously thick Arab accent. This made no sense because it seemed like the tassels on their fezes fell on the same side, and they both lived in Agrabah, the fictional city inspired by a mystical medley of Eastern cities like Agra in India, and Baghdad in Iraq. I remember being asked in a playground somewhere in McLean, Virginia, if where I come from really “cut off your ears if they don’t like your face,” a lyric from the opening of the film, to which I would retort dramatically “yes, we all want you killed!” only to realise that I had singlehandedly cut off my nose to spite my face. The lyric went under fierce scrutiny from the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, and was changed thereafter to “Where it’s flat and immense, and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” This, amongst other subtle depictions of barbarism and lopping off of limbs, made me feel a certain way. At the time, I didn’t know what this sensation of lowgrade, lingering annoyance was called.
Cut to my angsty adolescence, and I was introduced to Edward Said and his book ‘Orientalism’. My agitation was instantly relieved by an overdue eureka moment. Not only did Orientalism serve as an instruction manual on how to tame a teenage girl, it also brought about widespread awareness to the oft good natured, but historically problematic Western depictions of the Orient. Edward Said posits that these depictions are inherently imperialistic and political. He then studies how Western scholarship of the Middle East begot a fanciful, exotic reality of the region, of which the people internalised and became surrogates. I remember just how much the concept of orientalism changed my life and my world view. But that was only the tip on the iceberg. As a heavy consumer of American publications and productions, I started spotting orientalism at every juncture like it was a fast growing plague. It undermined the fun. I couldn’t watch an episode of my favourite show without having a State of the Union address with a friend who shared similar interests. It also made me a horrible spoiler of great shows and an all around Debbie Downer.
As I became older, I learned that most people don’t want to hear about two things: 1) your erratic sleep patterns and 2) world problems. I learned how to channel this in less repelling and destructive ways. I started chasing the work of women of colour like chasing a rainbow. I was enthralled by these creative women. I watched films and read books by women who created soft power like counter waves that raged and rippled, and it reduced me to a silence akin to that in the presence of a demigod. I quickly noticed that these artists/demigods face a fork in the road: they could either create accurate depictions, tell the truth, point fingers, but make no money and no friends, or take the other direction and float in the same universe, using the same language and tools of their predecessor orientalists. The problem with the former is that they aren’t consumable. They are unlikeable female protagonists, who very rarely would dilute their work to cater to the sensibilities and preconceived notions of an international audience. In a Blockbuster metaphor, they would occupy the very last shelf in the tucked away and dimly lit corner of the store.They aren’t lucrative. They are confrontational and are labelled aggressive, and nobody is beleaguered enough to pay for someone to disagree with them or challenge that with which they are comfortable and familiar.
The problem that beset the latter is that they would fall prey to the whirling black hole of the aforementioned universe. They unwittingly perpetuate the disagreeable notions of the mystical, chaotic, far removed, “other people,” and “other land” in the Eastern hemisphere of the world. A prime example is Deeyah Khan’s documentary about honour killing in the Kurdish community in Britain. Banaz: A Love Story follows the life and death of Banaz, a Kurdish girl brutally murdered by her cousins, who later flee to Iraq but are quickly extradited and are served scorching justice. The documentary was the unequivocal chronicles of the quest for justice, and is celebrated as such, but the omnipresent subtext of the benighted brown peoples could not be overlooked. This doesn’t mean genital mutilation or honour killing is not a pressing problem, nor that it is something we should sweep under the rug. It simply means that the plight of a people is not The Trilogy of Life, Terror, and Death. It is not to be prepackaged and ready to be delivered on Netflix to a suburban mom, who will likely not alleviate the problem, and will likely vote to throw more drones on the problem.
It is clearly no walk in the park to walk the line. It is hard to balance between telling the truth and being accessible and likeable. It is why so many creatives with a cause struggle. That does not mean no one has successfully tackled an issue with the least number of casualties possible. Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour in Wadjda, and Hind Al Fahhad in Basta are two exemplary filmmakers who have delicately captured the nuances of the problems they chose to tackle, without perpetuating any fanciful imagery or diluting a truth to cater to an audience that has never experienced the subject matter. Needless to say, they sent a shockwave through the discourses surrounding their topics. But, herein lies the challenge of being a truth cannon creative of colour. They are nestled between two caving walls. They must fight from within and without their communities. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. But they carry on. They don’t respond to narratives that oppress them, vilify them, or dehumanise them, or patronise them, or attempt to liberate them, whichever side of the fictional divide it comes from. They keep making art. They keep finding constructive outlets. They act. They don’t react.
Collage by Yasmine Ziadat
Ruba Al-Sweel is an apolitical Arab who often finds herself in political protests on her way back from school. When she is not busy being apolitical, she is a student at Sciences Po, Paris. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and her apolitical podcast Broads Who Brain.