Then, I clicked over and realized it was not a joke at all, but instead, a TV pilot picked up by ABC Family. The premise of the show: [emphasis added]
“Alice in Arabia” is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.
Alice In Arabia comes from a novice TV writer, Brooke Eikmeier, who wrote the script while serving as cryptologic linguist in the Arabic language to the US Army stationed at Fort Carson, CO, where she supported NSA missions in the Middle East.
This stated premise of the show concerned me. If you’re Muslim you know the countless stereotypes that abound in the media. It’s not only frustrating, it’s frightening. The Media has a strong influence on people’s viewpoints and can easily perpetuate Islamaphobia. The wording of the press release, paired with the way I’m accustomed to seeing Muslims portrayed on television worried me. On twitter I saw many others expressing similar concerns. And so, thanks to awesome twitter-peeps with great advice like Sabina, we decided to have a conversation on the topic with the HT #AliceInArabia:
The topic drew people from all walks of life and very soon the topic was trending in the United States and getting covered by news outlets from Al Jazeera, Buzzfeed, BlogHer and Southern California Public radio, the station that shared ABC Family’s response:
“We hope people will wait to judge this show on its actual merits once it is filmed. The writer is an incredible storyteller and we expect Alice to be a nuanced and character driven show,” a spokesperson for ABC Family said in an email.
My goal with the HT was to let ABC Family know our concerns and how the premise, as stated, was troubling. I’m glad ABC responded and that CAIR is involved and requesting a seat at the table to discuss the concerns the Muslim community has. I’m also immeasurably thankful this conversation took place before the show was filmed and aired so when they go into developing it from this point, they will have our concerns in mind.
My worries with the premise of the show doesn’t mean I think Muslim stories shouldn’t be told. I also believe non-Muslims can write complex and powerful stories about Muslims. The TV show Aliens in America about a Pakistani exchange student, was excellent and written from someone outside the culture, and Suzanne Staples, Patricia McCormick, and Allan Stratton to name just a few, are authors outside the faith who have written nuanced and complex portrayals of our community. The issue for me personally was not that a non-Muslim was telling the story, but rather how the story appeared from the stated premise.
That being said I am grateful that people from within our community are finding their voices as storytellers and artists and are finally being heard. I am thankful for editors like Zareen Jaffery and Sana Amanat and authors like Jennifer Zobair, Willow Wilson, and Marjan Kamali and books like Salaam Love to name just a few for adding our diverse voices to the public discourse and to the American Muslim narrative. We must have space to tell our own stories ourselves also. It is vitally important. And it is happening.
And while I am against blanket stereotypes, I am not against against art that addresses challenges in our community. I’ve written before about the need to air our dirty laundry and the importance of discussing the challenges that exist within our communities and I think art is one of the most powerful and effective way to address those truths. I write young-adult fiction and my topics include addressing serious problems in the community that need attention and conversation. It’s not the prettiest stuff, but it’s important stuff. My point with this hashtag conversation was never to say we can’t highlight issues with Muslim communities, but to say that if issues are portrayed they be presented with nuance and complexity by whoever chooses to take this on. As someone within the community who loves her culture and faith dearly and who writes about problematic issues within it, it’s definitely a fine balance. We have issues and challenges like any community, and only through sharing our stories the good ones and the difficult ones with compassion, empathy and three-dimensional characters via our literature, films like Saving Face and art can these issues be addressed. The key is is that whoever writes the story, they write from a place of empathy.
Ultimately, this was the goal with the #AliceInArabia conversation for me: to have a conversation. To state our concerns that our stories be reflected with nuance and empathy. Done right, seeing our stories in the media reflected back at us is an incredibly powerful form of visibility.
Updated to add: Buzzfeed released a synopsis of the upcoming Alice in Arabia which you can read here.
Updated to add: Buzzfeed has released a statement that Alice in Arabia has been canceled.