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.

Related Articles:

Rep. Peter King: American Muslims Aren’t “American”

Great Books on Islam and the Arab World

All White Creative Team Uses Blackface Minstrelsy on Broadway


Photo courtesy of Tim Olson via Flickr
Photo: Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah at a 2008 PBS Showcase


jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

great post

Kath R.
Kath P6 years ago

Little House on the Prairie is an award winning, comic look at two cultures coming together on the Canadian prairies.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman6 years ago

thanx for article and info

Yvette T.
Past Member 6 years ago

Long article, but, makes points. Humor is a tricky thing when extremist make threats to slit throats in the name of defending the name of Allah, as seen in Holland with one cartoon image. We need to educate people about the source of writings in all world religious texts! So much has been deleted, so much never validated, while what remains points to personal mystical inner experiences and secret initiations into the INNER WORD or PRIMORDIAL VIBRATION. To translate this into physical "word" spoken or written is a fallacy that has proven to be dangerous, not only erroneous. We can start there!

Tana Williams
Tana Williams6 years ago

The people who took down the Towers were a bunch of morons who happened to be Muslim.
If you don't live in lower New York state, you have no idea how nasty and ultra far right the NY post is. Racist too, but they hide that pretty well.
I would love to see an Arab-American sit-com.
And finally, not all Arabs are Muslim, many are Christian, too, among other things.

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p6 years ago

great article, hope the idea is taken up on

Jane W.
Jane Warren6 years ago

I was going to mention Little House on the Prairie but it looks like several people beat me to it. It is just as enjoyable as British television shows. Possibly more - because it portrays North American life more realistically.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Robert O.
Robert O6 years ago

Excellent article with many truths in it. Ignorant people are so simple minded that they try to simplify everyone they don't know much about and don't like. Much of what the article stated can also apply to other groups as well, especially Hispanics that are the currently the center of an ugly immigration debate and are being demonized as a whole regardless of birth status and country of origin.

A Muslim-American themed show sounds like fun, but ultimately I doubt it would go over well with many people (most of them Caucasian) that think the airwaves are already flooded with too many images of people (minorities and those of other faiths) they can't and don't want to relate to. Plus with so many people still insistent that ALL Muslims and ALL Arabs are the enemy of America it would be a tough sell, but hope springs eternal.
Bottom line is many countries, the United States in particular have a long way to go in accepting others that don't fit the preconceived ideal of what an every day citizen of their respective country should look and act like.

Julia W.
Julia W6 years ago

I *really* want "Little Mosque on the Prairie" on American tv! We import "Flashpoint" from Canada and we used to import "Due South." Heck, there's a whole network for Britsh tv.

NBC take off your embarassingly bone-headed and insulting "Outsourced" and put on "Little Mosque on the Prairie." Or on Comedy Central. Or USA.

Am I the only one who remembers Dr. Bashir from "Star Trek: Deep Space 9?" He was a great character played a great actor (Alexander Siddig) who happened to be Middle Eastern in origin. Why so few --except for Tony Shalhoub-- since him?