#aliceinarabia, alice in arabia, current events, Islam, muslim, TV, twitter

My thoughts on "Alice In Arabia" and the American Muslim narrative*

When I first saw ‘Alice in Arabia’ show up via Ainee on my twitter feed, I thought it was a joke. A whimsical reference to the recent Saudi name bans [Alice, being one of the banned names].

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.

5 thoughts on “My thoughts on "Alice In Arabia" and the American Muslim narrative*”

  1. Hi there. you are the first person I have seen who is critical of the project who also appears to be okay with this show airing the “dirty laundry” of the culture in the middle east. I fully understand your concerns in regards to stereotypes and accurate portrayals.

    However, I'm not sure what stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals you are getting from the description. For a “rebellious” girl, being forced to wear the veil would feel like a set of prison bars. In fact, it would feel that way for millions of girls, and the reality is for many girls wearing the veil is not a choice. It's not a choice if it is the only option. I don't see how a television drama acknowledging this is racist, inaccurate, or a stereotype.

    This is a country where girls are not allowed to go outside without a man, not allowed to drive, and of course, not allowed to wear whatever they want for clothes in public. I just don't see how the people criticizing the project can realistically be against this shown in a negative way. These are freedoms every person should have, and they unfortunately do not have them in the country where the show is set.

    For me, something that is required by everyone is not a stereotype. Not everyone in the middle east is involved with terrorism, implying that they are would be a stereotype. Not every girl in the middle east is sold off for marriage at 10 years old, that would be another stereotype. But being required to wear the veil when out in public is required for every Muslim girl by law in the country, so how is this a stereotype? It appears to me that most of the people criticizing the project are more for censoring the truth as opposed to avoiding stereotypes.

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  2. I'm glad to hear a more nuanced critique of the project than what I was picking up after following (obviously 140-character limited!) twitter conversations. Because, yeah, the potential for awfulness is absolutely right there, but it's also hard to gather much nuance from a logline that's only intended to sell the show to tv execs. (Who are, after all, not known for being the most subtle people in the entertainment industry!)

    I have to say that I took great hope from the line about 'surprisingly diverse'. I'm sure they won't be surprisingly diverse to people who've, well, ever MET Muslims, maybe, but for folks in more ethnically homogenous parts of the country, (Utah & Arizona, I'm looking at you!) it might very well be the first time they're exposed to the notion that not every human being who identifies as Muslim is exactly the same. (Which also sounds pretty nuts to say it out loud, but having LIVED in some of these places, that actually is a prevailing attitude–that there is Only One Way of being, well, ANYTHING–and once you've figured that out you know everything anyone needs to know about everything. Oi.)

    And the idea that the promoters intended to use this entertainment platform to present a range of ideas/people/beliefs that all fit under the 'Saudi Arabian Muslim' umbrella — and that it was enough a part of their reason for writing that they kept it front & center in their pitch–was encouraging, I thought.

    It seems to me that as far as 'baby steps' go in representing people from other backgrounds/cultures/countries, this may prove to be an important first step. And if the writers can pull it off, it has the potential to change hearts- fictional characters are often folks' first introduction to people they've always considered 'other'.

    Always while acknowledging that– yeah, this show certainly has the potential to be atrocious. It could be as bad as people's concerns, but… Maybe not. Maybe it'll be a good thing?

    Probably not a perfect thing. Probably not even the Best Beginning to this (I believe, really VERY needed) conversation. But a beginning nonetheless. Keeping my fingers crossed that the show will exceed expectations, and that ABC will respond to concerns with understanding and interest, going forward.

    And on a happier note, isn't issue #2 of Ms. Marvel out soon?

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  3. Totally agree on Anonymous' comment earlier that when it comes to Saudi, there really are no stereotypes, as such.

    Plus, Perfect response from ABC to the premature 'muslim' outcry:

    “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”

    It isn't really incumbent on me to involve or get the approval of the muslim community towards my storyline, so we should stop acting like a bunch of entitled 'victims', we are not doing our 'image' any further favors by 'cracking down' – and that too, prematurely – on yet another piece of fiction!

    By all means, feel free to write a mean review, that's our prerogative.

    Or, it could be an honest review!

    Point is, perhaps maybe 'watch' the show before you LIKE 'review' it ;P

    – From a Muslim Born n Bred in Saudi to the Other Prematurely Offended Ones

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  4. Aisha, here is one message, which may be of interest for you…………

    Hope you all had a wonderful and happy New Year. My name is Arooj Sheikh and I, along with Akhtar Qureshi, would like to inform you that we have been working on a national organization to increase networking and knowledge of other attorneys and law students in our community – the Pakistani American Lawyers Association (“PALA”). If you have any lawyers or law students in your families, please share this message with them.

    We wanted to invite you to our next event. Please mark your calendars for March 28-30, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The APPNA (Association of Physicians of Pakistani-descent of North America) spring meeting will be there and we are holding our own networking event that Saturday morning (March 29, 2014) in the same building.

    We will send further information in the next few days if you know a lawyer or law student who would be interested. In the meantime, if you know anyone that may be interested, please have them contact me at arooj.sheikh@gmail.com or Akhtar Qureshi at akhtarquresh@gmail.com.

    .

    Thanks,


    Arooj S. Sheikh, Esq.
    Columbus, Ohio
    Arooj.Sheikh@gmail.com

    Like

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