American Arab Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again

When I was a kid, I thought Pinkard & Bowden were pretty funny. The comedy duo’s parodies of famous country songs were often promoted on TV for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling, and I got a kick out of them. “Blue hairs driving in my lane.” “Won’t you help me make it through the yard?” I never heard their song “Arab, Alabama” back then, and I wonder what I would have thought of it when I was 9 or 10. I might have thought it was funny just because they were referring to Middle Eastern stuff (the PLO!), and I was generally interested in anything that had to do with my Arab heritage. After six long years of grad school, though, I can’t not see some of the bizarre ethnocentrism underlying the song, which proudly declares, “There ain’t no PLO in Arab, Alabama!” Not long ago, Tropics of Meta discussed the pop cultural portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans, whose coming-out party in the US might well be considered Harold and Kumar. After years of being confined to subservient side roles (Sulu) or one-dimensional running gags (Apu), Asian actors could headline a major Hollywood movie. They could also be perfectly normal Americans, in a certain understanding of the term: pot-smoking college kids with a crippling lust for tiny cheeseburgers.

Arab and Muslim characters have enjoyed a similar kind of enhanced visibility in the early twenty-first century, albeit in a series of still-stereotypical roles. There was Whoopi Goldberg’s Iranian sidekick in her ill-fated 2003 sitcom, played by comedian Omid Djalili, who appeared as a similar character in Paul Reiser’s miserably failed NBC show: a paunchy businessman who always “knows a guy” who can get you what you need. In contrast to this stereotype—the stocky supporting character (mustache-optional) who provides comic relief—there was, of course, Sayid on Lost. The show could be accused of practicing mild Orientalism, given how Sayid was a soulful, mysterious lover with near-superhuman skills for fighting and fixing stuff, but it also deserves points for introducing American TV viewers to a diverse range of characters of different ethnicities, nationalities and languages. Middle Eastern peoples have long occupied a liminal and confused place in American culture: the oil-gouging sheikh (think of Ned Beatty’s speech in Network: “The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back!”); the amusing shopkeeper or small businessman (a role shared with South Asians and, to a lesser extent, East Asians); the mortal enemy of Western civilization and cartoonish film villain (Osama/True Lies); as well as the technical Caucasian and honorary white person. As America shifts from a white-black racial binary to a more complex understanding of diversity, Arabs and Arab-Americans still find themselves “othered” more often than not. Yet a look at the recent past shows how American pop culture has constructed the Arab Other in much more awkward and problematic ways. Tony Shalhoub’s journey from vaguely ethnic foreigner/sidekick in Wings to essentially not-nonwhite Adrian Monk might symbolize the slipperiness of the Arabic place in pop culture; the actor has played Italian, Cuban, Arab and many other characters in film and television, serving as a sort of all-purpose off-white.

Why There’s No Gorbachev in Moscow, Idaho

Pinkard & Bowden’s 1980s anthem “Arab, Alabama” is both a celebration of American exceptionalism and a way of identifying that uniqueness with the pride of the white working class. Like so many country songs, it hangs on a jokey hook – there are lots of places in America that are named after rather different places, such as Palestine, Paris and Moscow. America is both unoriginal and thoroughly authentic, because New Madrid is full of proud, peaceable folk, poor in style but rich in pride. Pinkard & Bowden can’t resist a few throwaway jabs at hoity-toity Europeans, especially given the largely European origins of the settlers who named many of these towns: “In Paris, Tennessee they don’t eat escargot.” Most of the song, though, is dedicated to contrasting American wholesomeness with foreign dysfunction and violence. Gorbachev, Castro, and the PLO come in for ridicule. Notably, the singers suggest that we take Fidel to Kentucky, “put a coal shovel in his hand, marry him off to one of Loretta’s sisters, and we’ll never hear from him again.” To my ear, they seem to be saying that Loretta Lynn, the icon of coal country womanhood, would have no trouble muzzling the obstreperous dictator, the man the CIA could not shut up despite numerous ridiculous assassination attempts. Communist despotism is nothing next to the ferocity of a coal miner’s daughter.

It would be easy to say Pinkard & Bowden are racializing the foreign nemesis, and perhaps they are. But a few stray references complicate the picture. The dig at Gorbachev contrasts the Kremlin capital of godless Communism with a town in famously white and conservative Idaho. The Russians may be honorary nonwhites – more red, in a sense, than white despite their skin tone. They also throw in a line about Dublin, Georgia, noting that “Irish people don’t shoot each other” there. At first I thought this was a general reference to bar-brawling Irish drunkenness and criminality, but it actually fits well into the no-PLO theme. We don’t have such terrorist organizations in the USA, although we do have right-wing extremists who blow up government buildings and Irish-American politicians who like to contribute to the IRA while inveighing against Islamic terrorism. (See King, Rep. Peter [R-NY].) Overall, the message seems to be “We don’t have that here”—“that” being the problems of dictatorship, terrorism, and war that plague the rest of the world. The theme is an old one, stretching back to the Founders’ disdain for the corruption and poverty of Europe, as well as the isolationist impulse of later Americans who saw their nation as a happy island far from the endless wars overseas.

Nationalism and exceptionalism may be the core of Pinkard & Bowden’s message, but they still cannot escape race. They suggest we take the “sheetheads” up to Alaska and “make them be Eskimooooooesssss…” as if white Americans can swap one troublesome race out for an apparently less threatening one. The music video for the song shows a cartoonish Castro and Arab sheikh jamming on a Kalashnikov, while lots of modest white people grill out, wave flags, and generally act goofy. This is America: a big, funny, all-white cook-out where caricatures of the nation’s deranged enemies are the hired clowns. The specific thrust of the song is ridiculing the Other, but the general mood of the video is simply one of exultation in the virtues of old-fashioned, homespun American whiteness.

Chubby Checker and the Crimson Jihad

Comedian-musician Ray Stevens has dipped his toe more than once into the Sea of Galilee, so to speak. I remember hearing his song “Ahab the Arab” many times when I was a kid, as I had relatives who loved screwball songs like “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” “Ahab” seemed like a fairly innocuous ditty about “the swingin’ sheikh of the burnin’ sands”—lacking the somewhat nasty edge of Pinkard & Bowden’s song, if also missing the progressive self-awareness of 1953’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Here is the rich Arab, “with rubies and emeralds just dripping off a him, and a ring on every finger.” But the lyrics also turn on a familiar tale of foreigners embracing American culture:

He brought that camel to a screeching halt
At the rear of Fatima’s tent jumped off Clyde,
Snuck around the corner and into the tent he went
There he saw Fatima laying on a Zebra skin rug
Wearing rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
And a bone in her nose ho, ho.
There she was friends lying there in all her radiant beauty.
Eating on a raisin, grape, apricot, pomegranate,
bowl of chitterlings, two bananas, three Hershey bars,
sipping on an ice cold Coca Cola listening to her transistor,
watching the Grand Ole Opry on the tube
reading the Mad magazine while she sung,
“Does your chewing gum lose its flavor?”
and Ahab walked up to her and he said,
(imitates Arabic speech)
which is Arabic for, “Let’s twist again like we did last summer, baby.”
You know what I mean! Whew!

The “zebra skin rug” and “the bone in her nose” are a more than a little cringe-inducing, but overall the song is more ignorant than racist. It could be trumpeting the superior appeal of US consumerism, or it could be simply saying we’re all the same, even the sheikh of the burning sand: everyone loves Coca Cola, Chubby Checker, and Hershey bars. The song was first released in 1962, years before the oil embargo revived Arabs’ long career as go-to villains in pop culture.

Of course, Ray Stevens has always gone with the times. His goofy song “The Streak” was one of the finest meditations on 70s exhibitionism; he touched on Middle Eastern kitsch again in his 1980 country hit “Shriner’s Convention,” which described the shenanigans of an “Illustrious Potentate” named Bubba at a Holiday Inn where a lot of redneck Shriners with Harley Davidsons and big-haired girlfriends come to meet. The video for the song features at least one African American character – not a common sight in country music videos or the traditionally white, middle class Shriner membership – who gets to join in the fun of wearing fez hats and driving tiny cars. The Shriners themselves were founded in the nineteenth century by a Mason who had attended a party thrown by an Arab diplomat and decided to start a men’s fraternity that aped Middle Eastern styles, traditions, and architecture. Playing Arab dress-up has a long history in the US, but the practice has clearly taken a more mean-spirited turn in recent years.

Indeed, the more recent work of Ray Stevens makes Shriner shenanigans look like good clean fun. Stevens may once have been a harmless spinner of novelty songs, yet his career in the early twenty first century speaks to an increasingly bitter tone in the way his mostly white, conservative audience imagines the ethnic Other. Ironically, the author of the syrupy Gospel ballad “Everything Is Beautiful” panders to racial resentment and lust for revenge nowadays, making his bread by catering to the Walker, Texas Ranger demographic with songs like “Obama Nation” and “Caribou Barbie.” His 2010 single “Come to the USA” offers an appalling portrayal of the persecution suffered by native English speakers at the hands of immigrants and big government. Such leanings were suggested by his 2002 “Osama Yo Mama,” a minor country hit that exploited the reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Opportunistic and undoubtedly conservative, the song is more about revenge than race. “Osama, yo mama didn’t raise you right, she musta wrapped your turban too tight,” Stevens sings, as he dances around in a pink costume. A tiny cartoon Osama darts across the screen while, randomly enough, Stevens fires at him as an ersatz Rambo. We’ve come a long way from Ahab eating Oreos on the burning sands.

Muslims in a Liberal Mirror

If YouTube videos by Ray Stevens were all there were to American pop culture, of course, we would be in serious trouble. Meanwhile, liberal Hollywood has tried to portray Arabs and Muslims in a favorable light, in an awkward quest to build intercultural bridges through the time-tested means of TV. The networks once sought to build sympathy for urban people of color by placing them under benevolent white tutelage (The White Shadow, Webster, Diff’rent Strokes), and the 2007 sitcom Aliens in America seems to fit into this history. The show, which only lasted a season on the CW, tells the story of a Wisconsin family that takes in a foreign exchange student from Pakistan named – wait for it – Raja Musharraf. For some reason, Raja is always wearing a shalwar kameez, presumably because that’s what all people from Pakistan wear. The family tries to adjust to this Muslim “alien” in their home, and everybody does their best to overcome the cultural misunderstandings that provide much of the grist for the plot. The show did not quite work; even though the Pakistani character was overdone, the dynamic between him and his hosts never created enough real dramatic frisson or humor. Tip-toeing around cultural sensitivities may be the problem – how do you make a Muslim-Christian conflict funny without offending someone? The show’s writers made Raja into a sweet, innocent soul who almost always tried to do the right thing, like a smarter version of Balki, the Perfect Stranger. If the producers wanted to cast a Muslim character in a favorable light, they likely went too far. The  problem with humanizing the inhuman is that you run the risk of coming up with something in between.

Which brings us to Abed, the star of NBC’s well-loved but still-struggling postmodern sitcom Community. The show depicts its Palestinian character as a robotic sponge for pop culture, who quickly identifies the film and TV tropes that each episode parodies. It plays with the idea that Abed is “different” while he is “just like us” in his love for everything American. In one episode, the cranky boomer played by Chevy Chase is surprised to find out that Abed loves Christmas: “Don’t your people spend this season writing angry letters to TV Guide?” Yet the Muslim character still loves the holiday for its TV specials, colorful gifts, and general (secular) spirit of camaraderie. Community tries hard to situate Abed in the show without pandering to Muslim or Arab stereotypes or going the opposite direction by making him completely “normal” – say, a dumb jock who loves Ed Hardy, Katy Perry and disc golf. This is part of the reason why Abed is so appealing, and works as a sitcom character better than the pious Raja. He is different, and that difference may derive in part from the conditions of his origin as an immigrant – he seems to possess a detached, outside view of American pop culture, like Chance the Gardener in Being There – yet the writers have not constructed his difference in direct response to some set of expectations about race or religion.

I would count that as progress – getting out of the straightjacket of the Crimson Jihad and writing a unique character on his own terms. What does not work so well is casting. Danny Pudi plays Abed, yet he is half-Indian and half-Polish. Sayid, the Iraqi character from Lost, was played by the Indian-British actor Naveen Andrews. Even the evil terrorist Salim Abu Aziz in True Lies was played by a Pakistani-British actor. Tony Shalhoub, who is Lebanese, is one of the only Arab actors in Hollywood and he gets cast as almost everything but Arab. Shalhoub has, of course, made a conscious effort not to play stereotypical terrorist characters and has worked to promote different kinds of roles for Arab actors. Yet Arab and Muslim identities continue to be fraught with tension in the US; even as shows like Lost, Aliens in America, and Community attempt to present characters who are more varied and three-dimensional, we still see political abortions like the preposterous election year campaign against the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Such events not only gin up fear and hostility toward Muslims. They cast doubt on whether certain groups will ever be fully admitted into the privileges and the imagination of American citizenship.

Also known as Masih ad-Dajjal

This blog does not accept the pessimistic premise that Arabs and Muslims, from the Barbary Pirates down to Pamela Geller, are doomed to be a permanent out-group in America, forever barred from possessing full citizenship. (For a compelling overview of the argument, see this piece by Steven Salaita.) Dearborn is as much America as Arab, Alabama. So are Edison, New Jersey and what we like to call “Little Edison” in Decatur, Georgia. People on the Right may bloviate about our Judeo-Christian heritage, as if Islam were not an inheritor of the exact same tradition; a novelty country singer may whip out the word “sheethead” in a general screed against the outside world; and no doubt, the receptiveness of country music and talk radio listeners to racist name-calling is troubling; but such mischief is not equal to the totality of American culture, and certainly not its potential. Why Americans have fixated on the Arab Other from the Shriners down to Barack Obama (our “Arab American” president, according to some theorists) is a question for another day. Perhaps their indeterminate place in the US spectrum of race makes people from the Middle East an ideal screen on which Americans can project our jumbled hopes, desires, anxieties, and fears about the politics of identity. If that’s the case, Abed may represent a turning point: a mirror, not a screen, that reflects us back at ourselves.

Editor’s Note: Readers may object to treating “Arab” and “Muslim” as if they were interchangeable categories, and that is not quite our intent.  Rather, it seems necessary to be able to talk about a Pakistani Muslim character like Raja and an Arab character like Sayid in a shared context, since many of the same stereotypes apply to both figures in American pop culture.  Many TV viewers may not distinguish between an Iraqi and Iranian character; half of the country seems to think India is in “the Middle East,” which is not surprising given that half the Arab characters are played by South Asian actors.  Indeed, when Americans talk about “sheetheads,” they are probably not being very specific in casting aspersions on brown folk of various ethnicities and faiths.