Arab Adventures in Hollywood 

Hip young actors are refusing roles as terrorists and creating their own material

Wednesday, Sep 24 2008

On an otherwise unexceptional night at the Comedy Store a couple of Fridays ago, an Iranian-American performer named Maz Jobrani got up and almost immediately had the audience eating out of his hand.

“It’s not a good time to be from Iran,” he lamented. “We’re next. They’re invading all the countries of the world in alphabetical order — in reverse!”

He riffed on cultural stereotypes, managing both to humanize the notion of being Iranian while also sending up the alarmingly radical people who run his native country. The Iranians he conjured up in his routine were more bumbling than frightening — he imagined President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling a friend before making his infamous speech denying the Holocaust and being told: “Hey, Mahmoud, you should probably keep that shit to yourself.”

click to enlarge TED SOQUI - Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani formed his own Axis of Evil.
  • Ted Soqui
  • Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani formed his own Axis of Evil.

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And he gently suggested that American politicians were not, in the end, a whole lot less crazy. (The main difference being that while Ahmadinejad says a lot of “stupid shit,” George Bush says a lot of “shit, stupidly.”)

The crowd loved it — it wasn’t just funny, it was also a new perspective on the Middle East. Performers and pop culture critics have been complaining for years about the cartoon-cutout depiction of Arabs and the wider Middle East, especially since the 9/11 watershed. In Hollywood, Middle-Eastern American actors have found it nearly impossible to find work as anything other than terrorists or sleazy oil sheiks.

That, though, is starting to change, in part because the performers themselves are taking matters into their own hands, and in part because some film and television producers are coming around to the idea that stereotyping Middle Easterners may have a negative impact far beyond Los Angeles.

Alan Ball’s just-released movie Towelhead, about a Lebanese teenage girl stranded in Texas, is the latest example of a new kind of story that’s light on stereotypes, and it may be no coincidence that one of the sleeper independent hits of the year was The Visitor, about a Syrian musician struggling to avoid deportation from the United States.

Jobrani is part of a successful comedy troupe called the Axis of Evil, which has toured the Middle East and United States. He’s just sold a television series to CBS, which he describes as a sort of an Iranian Everybody Loves Raymond, about a man in his 30s who can’t get away from his crazy family. And he has written a comic film script called Jimmy Vestvood, American Hero, about a modest Iranian-American rug salesman who lives with his mother in Westwood, the epicenter of Tehrangeles, but dreams of becoming an American Superman.

Maybe most significantly, Jobrani has made a conscious decision not to accept any parts as a random Mohammed or Abdul nefariously plotting to blow things up.

He turned down a part in United 93, Paul Greengrass’ reconstruction of the passenger rebellion aboard one of the hijacked 9/11 planes, and he turned down another in this summer’s hit Iron Man, even though he liked the film overall. “I don’t need to play these parts,” he says. “You want to see that, just turn on CNN and you’ll see it.... It just feels icky. It does. You feel like you are selling out.”

It’s a similar story with his fellow Axis of Evil comic, Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American who refused to change his name — despite the repeated entreaties of his agent. His comedy standup got him an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and his recent acting credits include the Adam Sandler vehicle You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. He created a production company, based in Los Angeles and Dubai, called Bonus Features (so named because, for years, his roles were cut out of movies and ended up only in the “bonus features” on the DVD.)

“We want to pioneer a new outlook on the Middle East,” he says. “Doing that through food, music, art and culture is much better than politics. Most people would rather listen to a standup comedian than a boring politician or a dictator.”

That view, perhaps surprisingly, is shared by Howard Gordon, the creator and executive producer of 24, which via its terrorism-centered plot lines has done its share of demonizing Arabs. Not so long ago Gordon was more than happy to play off their stereotype as evil and conniving — his team once erected a billboard above the 405 freeway that depicted a family who played bad-guy Arabs on 24, warning: “They could be next door.” (That billboard, which triggered noisy protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, came down the same afternoon it went up.)

These days, though, Gordon sings a different tune. He thinks Hollywood has a special responsibility to portray Middle Easterners in a multidimensional way and resist taking the easy road of fear and confrontation. “Fear sells. It does,” he acknowledges. “We need to be mindful of that.”

So now Gordon listens to the Middle-Eastern actors he hires — even when they play bad guys — and tries to make them human. For instance, he once hired Maz Jobrani to play a would-be terrorist who has a change of heart about detonating a truck bomb when he sees a group of children playing at the target site.

Gordon’s thinking is, in part a business decision: He’d noticed that Arab-American performers were turning down parts in his and other shows, and he knew that the pool of Middle-Eastern actors was not so huge in Los Angeles that he could afford to ignore those who didn’t want to stand up and utter clichés like: “In the name of Allah, I will kill you all.”

Gordon is front and center — along with the politically oriented film production company Participant Media — which made Syriana and The Kite Runner — Democratic Party donor and billionaire Haim Saban and the Brookings Institution — in a coordinated effort to change how Hollywood and its writers, directors and producers portray the Middle East.

They feel the news media are falling down on the job, and understand that the entertainment industry’s global reach gives them a unique influence. One idea is to promote a series of dialogues with writers and experts on various aspects of Middle-Eastern culture, who could explain facets of the practice of Islam, or discuss day-to-day life in Egypt or Syria. They are considering creating a help line for writers wondering, say, what any given Middle Easterner eats for breakfast.

But for now, the stereotypes haven’t shifted much. One Palestinian-American actress, Nicole Pano, told the Weekly she has trouble getting work because she’s attractive. “They want ugly,” she says. “They want us to play terrorists, and terrorists are ugly.” She has had more luck playing Italians, happily going along with the assumption that because her last name ends in “o,” she must be Italian.

One casting director who specializes in casting Middle Easterners, Jane Sobo, says she confronts casual prejudice all the time. She has an Algerian client who has difficulty getting work because of his “almost feminine” facial features. “He is not booking roles because his face isn’t swarthy enough to intimidate lily-white audiences,” she says.

One veteran Egyptian-born actor, Sayed Badreya (he plays Saddam in Oliver Stone’s upcoming Bush movie, W.), says the only response to such stereotypes is to play along with them, and then gently subvert them. “For the first five minutes, the audience will think you are an Arab, then they will think of you as a character,” he says, “that you, as the actor, have to do.”

He continues to play bad guys but is established enough to pick his directors — opting as much as possible for those smart enough to take his suggestions of what is and is not authentically Arab. Like Jobrani and Ahmed, Badreya believes the best way to overcome the stereotypes is for Middle-Eastern performers to generate their own material. “The more we do that, the more Hollywood will be scared of the competition they might offer,” he says. (He recently had a role in an independent L.A. movie called American East, and has more projects like it in the pipeline.) “No white guy makes films about Harlem, they leave that to Spike Lee.... I want to follow Spike Lee and do something for my own people.”

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