A few years ago, when Ahmed Ahmed was a young Egyptian-American actor struggling to make a name for himself in Los Angeles, he asked his agent if she could get him a part – any part – that didn’t involve him playing the same old stereotypical bad Arab.
She told him that if he didn’t change his name, he didn’t stand a chance. “If you don’t call yourself Ricky, or Matt, or Dave,” she said, “you’re never going to get work except as a terrorist.”
Ahmed chose not to listen even though, in his words, he was so short of work he felt he “couldn’t even get himself arrested” as an actor. “I’m never going to change my name. It’s my birth name, my given name,” he said. “I thought, if I have to wait until the world is ready to have a performer called Ahmed Ahmed, then so be it. I’ll wait.”
It is no secret that Hollywood has been virtually incapable in recent years – particularly in the wake of the September 11 attacks – of portraying Arabs and other Middle Easterners as anything other than cartoon villains. Usually they are terrorists, or closet terrorists; at best they’re some sleazy prince or a greedy oil magnate.
That, though, may be changing. Growing numbers of performers such as Ahmed are refusing to take parts that demean them and, instead, are launching themselves with their own material and promoting a more nuanced, more positive public image of Middle Easterners and Middle Eastern-Americans.
After years of setbacks and frustration, the gamble appears to be paying off. Ahmed has a thriving career as an actor (he appeared in Iron Man, and in the Adam Sandler vehicle You Don’t Mess With the ­Zohan), and as a stand-up comedian. He is part of the Axis of Evil comedy troupe that recently toured the Gulf and has earned enough positive attention in the United States to earn him a slot on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show on CBS television, a featured slot on Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show and a regular headline gig at the Comedy Store, one of Los Angeles’ premier stand-up venues. . . .
The Writers Guild in Hollywood – with backing from the prominent Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, and from the television producer and political fund-raiser extraordinaire Haim Saban – recently hosted a panel of writers, producers and filmmakers to discuss ways of breaking the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims.
The consensus was clear: Hollywood has dealt in stereotypes for far too long, just as previous generations of filmmakers stereotyped Italians as gangsters or blacks as criminals or house servants. Since the news media has largely fallen down on the job of explaining Islam and the Middle East in terms of anything other than fear and confrontation, it is now up to the entertainment industry to fill the void.
Nobody epitomised the realisation more than Howard Gordon, the creator and ­executive producer of the nail-biting television terrorist drama 24, who preached with the ardour of someone recently converted about the responsibilities he now feels. “Fear sells. It does,” he acknowledged. “We need to be mindful of it.”
The moment he became mindful himself was during the second season of 24, in 2002. The plot line of the series focused on a suspect Middle Eastern family, and Fox’s marketing department arranged for a giant billboard to be erected above Los Angeles’s busy San Diego Freeway with an image of the family and the slogan: “They could be next door.”
The Council on American Islamic Relations, perhaps the most vocal of any US lobby group representing either Middle Easterners or Muslims, was so alarmed it sought an immediate meeting with Gordon and the other producers. He listened to CAIR’s concerns that the billboard, and the show, could be an incitement to violence and racial hatred, and he realised he agreed with them. “We were acting as handmaids to fear,” he said. “The billboard came down that afternoon.” (MORE)