It must be nice to be able to watch television and movies and regularly have “me too” moments — to be allowed identification in the culture around you and feel that, yes, you are seen, and yes, you are heard. It must be downright luxurious to experience this without worrying you’ll have to outrun the same media in which you find yourself depicted. For Muslims and Arab-Americans, the lack of media diversity disproportionately empowers a few stories, not written by us, to inform the mainstream culture’s idea of who we are. ABC Family’s forthcoming Alice in Arabia has many of us braced for just that.
The show — whose title draws an analogy between Saudi Arabia and Lewis Carroll’s make believe Wonderland and was written by a former U.S. Army soldier and National Security Agency operative — reminds us that once again we may be forced to answer, explain, and correct visions of ourselves created by someone indulgent enough to tell stories for us.
As generous as it is for writer Brooke Eikmeier to “give Arabs and Muslims a voice,” she may be surprised to know they already have one. And we are so tired, so utterly over, having to use that voice to address the stigmas placed on us. It doesn’t bode well that Eikmeier describes the criticism she has received as hate, as if Arabs and Muslims only ever react out of pure irrational rage. Although that would certainly put Alice in Arabia within a rich tradition of Hollywood caricature.
I don’t know what exactly the titular Alice will learn about “Arabia,” but I know I’ll be shadowed by its plotlines, my friends and family compared to its characters. Eikmeier can’t expect us to be grateful for the anxiety that awaits us.
Stereotypes busy the targeted community with the task of responding to them. Correcting stereotypes during post-9/11 America’s newfound interest in “that part of the world” feels like bailing a boat in a rainstorm. We’re compelled to speak out, but aren’t afforded enough credibility to be believed. Meanwhile, Islamophobes go on six-figure speaking tours. The mythbusting so many Muslims have dedicated themselves to is resigned to terms of discourse set by the ignorant, forcing us to say what we are not (a monolith), when you should be learning who we are (a widely diverse global population of individuals subject to the same forces anyone on Earth is).
After anything evoking our identities airs, the burden of proof is set upon every Muslim — or person perceived as Muslim — to explain ourselves, to explicate our relationship to all the claims about us made by others.
Muslims have lived in America since before it was called America, yet the frame of reference many Americans have for us is bookended by Aladdin’s, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” and shaky handheld camera footage of Taliban trainees on monkey bars. Between those are references like that in one episode of Disney’s cartoon The Proud Family , which erroneously claimed all Pakistani women wear a hijab and would force a guest to fast during Ramadan. I’m still living that one down. If Muslims are nervously anticipating Alice in Arabia that’s the natural reaction of a community subject to violence and scrutiny at a time when little we do or say seems to discourage all the one-dimensional tropes passing for insight.
Muslim individuality remains to be recognized. By virtue of having a religion in common, a global population of 2 billion is somehow supposed to have everything in common. To be Muslim seems to mean hosting a condition that trumps all social, political, and economic context in favor of crediting “muslimness” for any attribute. According to Gallup, a majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam. The same poll found a majority of Americans admit to not knowing much about it.
If a teen drama predicated upon an American teenager’s kidnapping has decided to shoulder the responsibility of highlighting a misunderstood group, it’s a slim hope that it won’t become the latest burden Muslim-Americans have to bear.