When Policies Fail, It’s Time for Some Sitcom Diplomacy
If anything lacked from my tossed salad upbringing, it was this: a Persian Huxtable family. You could honestly say that about any non-black ethnic group in America, but to my childhood mind, none of them mattered as much as a sweater vest-enhanced “Baba Knows Best.” There could even be a Ramadan special. Sponsored by Arby’s.
I didn’t need “Baba Know Best” for cultural identity. Believe me, I grew up around enough Iranians to feel okay with my Farsi last name. But I’m also a half-American who grew up in the shadow of the hostage crisis, Not Without My Daughter, and Nightline broadcasts. Every time I saw someone like me on TV, that person was either playing a taxi driver or a bomber. I needed a Persian Huxtable family to feel okay with being American, because seeing Iranians play the good guy on TV meant that America was okay with me.
Twenty years later, not only is my Persian Huxtable family non-existent, it’s downright blasphemous to those who are still unenlightened enough to think that my skin color or religious background had anything to do with 9/11.
I’m not the only Middle Eastern American to feel this way, but there comes a point in American marginalization, particularly with the recent rise of Islamaphobia, when common sense more or less feels like a sermon to the choir.
Which is why Katie Couric felt like a breath of fresh air in December when she suggested, “maybe we need a Muslim version of The Cosby Show. I know that sounds crazy, but The Cosby Show did so much to change attitudes about African-Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of things they don’t understand.”
Just like The Cosby Show, a Muslim-American version wouldn’t be a cure-all solution, but instead a step in the right direction of “sitcom diplomacy,” as writer Firoozeh Dumas put it. Well-intentioned as Couric’s comment was, it was quick to fall under criticism and scrutiny by others who called her simplistic and “bird-brained.”
“Earth to Katie,” wrote New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser, “African-American, Eskimos, or imbecilic white ladies didn’t fly planes into the World Trade Center. Try again, genius.”
Now that’s a revelation that’s about ten years overplayed. Note to Andrea: Iranian-Americans, Arab-Americans, or little stubby-nosed Persian kitties didn’t fly planes into the World Trade Center. Think before you write, simpleton, and leave the cliched punch-lines to Leno.
Call me crazy, but I’ve been arguing the same thing as Couric since my “Baba Knows Best” days, and I’m not the only Middle Eastern American to think that way. “A TV show staring us would just make this point obvious: Middle Easterners come in all shapes, sizes and belief levels, just like every other kind of American,” writer Firoozeh Dumas stated in the LA Times.
It’s true. Despite our Islamic influences, what unites Middle Eastern Americans is not really religion. Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are prevalent in the Middle East, and with that come varying degrees of religiosity, from those who pray five times a day to those of us who use Eid as another excuse to throw a party.
“It takes some time for people to get comfortable with the unfamiliar,” Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani told MIT. “But the more people interact with Middle Eastern-Americans or if they see them in positive circumstances, they begin to see that these people are normal and good people. Unfortunately, it only takes the actions of one person to set us back, but it feels like we have been making some progress lately.”
What unites Middle Eastern Americans is this status we have of being “the other” in our own country, and in recent cases, even the scapegoat. We’re also united by a sense of ambiguity in that there aren’t any neat boxes to attach ourselves to ethnically. My skin is brown, but I’m not black, Asian, Hispanic, or American Indian, so like many like me, I inevitably fall into the catch-all “white” category.
Yet we’ve lived a certain degree of racism and ethnophobia that also makes us distance ourselves from that, and we’ve found a unity in being the other “white” in America. Most of us are either immigrants or first-generation Americans. Our parents have funny accents and we bring weird-looking food to school for lunch. Sometimes we marry each other, and sometimes we marry people from other backgrounds. Our names sound different. When I was a kid, I always knew when a substitute teacher got to me on the roll call list from the befuddled look on how to pronounce my name.
Sometimes we need a translator, even if English is our native tongue, because we learn certain words for the first time in our other language, and we revert back and forth linguistically like a DJ changing beats. We’re seen for our Arabic names first before our American passports. My husband, who is not Middle Eastern, is one of the few out there who tells people I’m from St. Louis, not Tehran.
“For a Muslim-American child to see people who look like him or her, a normal family living in the U.S., will make them feel a genuine sense of acceptance,” said Arab American Association of New York director Linda Sarsour. “Talking to a child about the constitution and their rights will go right over their head, show them a 30-minute sitcom and they will understand tolerance, acceptance and even equality.”
If you think about it, the Middle Eastern American experience is really not all that different from any of our previous immigrant-American experiences. What sets us apart is 9/11, and we’re fighting an uphill battle with the rest of mainstream media to prove that we’re just as entitled and also in service to this country as the next person.
We can’t deny that the hijackers who took down the World Trade Center were Arab, but at the same time, America can’t deny us the basic personhood that allows us to say that what happened that day was wrong, and that we don’t stand for it.
“Tehran’s politicians make it easy for an Iranian American to get a laugh–I need to thank them for that,” wrote Dumas. “But they have also created a PR challenge worthy of Sisyphus. No matter how many laughs I get, I can’t push that rock up the hill far enough or fast enough. My people need a TV show.”
“We want to see a typical Arab-American family that is just like every other family in America,” Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah told Popeater. “Television has had the ability to demonize Muslims and Arabs, but we realize that it also has the ability to humanize us.”
Couric’s idea of Muslim Americans on comedy TV is actually not new. In 2002, British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, who starred in Whoopie Goldberg’s one-season sitcom, was set to have his own show on NBC, but it was derailed by the Iraq War.
Little Mosque on the Prairie has been a Canadian hit since January 2007. Last year, the CW put out a new sitcom, Aliens in America, which depicted the story of a Detroit family and a Pakistani boy who comes into their home as a foreign exchange student.
Despite all its critical acclaim, the show didn’t do well in ratings, and it was pulled after one season. Some point to the network rather than the show for its low ratings; CW as a whole attracts a much lower viewership than its other network TV counterparts. Maz Jobrani of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was set to star in a sitcom adaptation of Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi for ABC, but after shooting the pilot, the show ended up not getting picked up. Jobrani now has his own solo tour, “Brown and Friendly.”
Comedian Dean Obeidallah developed a pilot for Comedy Central. Aasif Mandvi is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show. The activity has been out there amongst Muslim Americans…the issue is exposure.
“Hollywood would definitely embrace a Muslim Cosby Show with one caveat: It would have to be really good,” said producer Tariq Jalil. “It’s the one factor that has linked shows about minorities like the Cosby Show or even Will & Grace. I believe Americans are open to any minority as long as the show speaks to universal human truths and makes them laugh.”
Which, like recent issues brought up with the lack of Oscar-contending African-American films, really boils this all down to economics. Hollywood works on supply-and-demand. They supply the entertainment we demand through ratings. With 9/11 still a fresh wound and our military still engaged in two wars in the Middle East, it’s hard to gauge the demand for a Middle Eastern American sitcom beyond those of us who would like to see some Arabic and Farsi names represented on the TV screen.
If Hollywood does decide to pioneer a Middle Eastern American sitcom, it’ll be a gamble, but a precedent-setting one that can open doors to dialogue in ways that other forms of media can’t. We’re a self-deprecating bunch, and by inviting others to laugh with us and about us, we’re tapping into a universal language that Bill Cosby used to trump African-American stereotypes almost 30 years ago and make his show TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s.
More importantly, a Middle Eastern American sitcom would give us a nationwide platform to reclaim and reset everything that other people have been saying about us and to set the record straight about how we see and integrate ourselves as Americans.
“People don’t know these things because these avatars, these icons, these voices, these images don’t exist in the public sphere,” said lawyer/jouralist/playwright Wajahat Ali. “It’s also a mistake of Muslims because we chased doctory, engineering, and business and did not encourage our younger generation to invest in the arts, in culture, in teaching, in civic sectors. It goes both ways.”
Which is why we can’t rely on comedians, writers, and even Katie Couric to make the push. Hollywood is a numbers game, and we have to back up the need for a Middle Eastern American sitcom if we want to see it happen. Many Muslims who were raised to chase science over culture did so before things got viral against Middle Easterners in the States, when doing your own things was enough to be left alone. But times have changed, and science can’t puncture the Islamaphobic ballon like the arts can.
The best way to fight a culture of fear is with a culture of enlightenment, and what better way to do that than to give the media images of us as Americans who just happen to have a different history, but want to use it to contribute to a variegated future.
Photo courtesy of Tim Olson via Flickr
Photo: Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah at a 2008 PBS Showcase