In media today, Arabs tend to be treated as a monolith. The truth is the word “Arab,” when referring to a whole region is reductive as it is one part of a much more complex identity. Arabs do not hate that they’re referred to by their identity, but hate the standard stereotypical image that comes with it.
A widespread misconception about Arabs is that they’re all Muslims. While they constitute the majority of the population, a shocking fact would be that there are more Muslims outside the Arab world than in it. This misunderstood region is actually home to a variety of religions including Judaism and Christianity and an extensive amount of varied sects. The next time you meet an Arab, don’t directly assume they’re Muslim!
“But…you don’t look Arab” and a dubious look are the standard package an Arab receives when she/he does not meet a foreigner’s expectations. Many have a set image in their brain of what an Arab looks like and forget all the stereotypes challenged above. In a massive region with a deep history there is no one “look” that a person should have. Arabs can be of any complexion, hair color, and physique. It is ridiculous to think that in a region which extends from Africa to the Gulf people look the same.
It is true that many Arab countries are behind on the issue of women’s rights but that does not mean that all women are oppressed. A vast number of women in the region are educated and successful. A macro-view of the situation of women will not accurately tell you about their lives, as people tend to view Arab women as another monolith. In the UAE, Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is a minister in the government, Lubna Olayan is one of Saudi’s most prolific businesswomen, and the Yemeni Tawakkul Karman is the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Prize.
While some Arab women are forced to put on a Hijab, that number is decreasing with the rise of education. People also tend to simplify the scarf until it boils down to either oppression or choice. Many, inside the Arab world and outside, do not understand that every scarf story is different and many societal, religious, and personal aspects go into each one. A majority of Muslim women, for example, put it on by choice, while others see it as a necessary cultural inheritance which they embrace and many may not even be Muslim but have a variation of the scarf in their own system of beliefs. The hijab even means power and liberation from sexual objectification to some! Try not to lump a Hijabi you meet into a category and recognize the complexity of that comes along with it, much like any human choice.
Arab men are also never free of the most caricature-ish of stereotypes. We all know him: that Arab man with a piece of cloth on his head, tanned dirty face, gun in hand, and loud harsh demeanor. Movies today still perpetuate this unfair portrayal of male Arabs as a step away from savagery. Again, take what you see on the media with a grain of salt and remember that Arab men are diverse in every way, as they range from actors to businessmen and even athletes.
While those exist, most Arabs are normal people looking for a desk job and a clean apartment to live in. Not all Arabs are rich nor are they all poor. It’s been established how diverse they are. Jobs in the Arab world, like any other place, range from bartender to accountant or farmer.
We all know that place as well. It’s always there in films and TV shows as a run-down ancient city in the Middle of the Desert with merchants, Aladdin-type thieves, and miserable women. The thing is, many Arab cities, like Beirut for example, are historically cosmopolitan and share much of the same aesthetic as their European counterparts. That’s not to take away from the well-maintained historical cities in Morocco and Egypt or the odes to the future in Dubai!
A big misunderstanding about Arabs is their history. Affected by Orientalist ideas and historical attempts to “civilize the Arabs” the region’s history is obscure to even the Arabs themselves. The truth is, being part of the old world, the Arabian Peninsula has a deep and complex cultural, religious, and political history that was definitely tainted in the 20th century. Much of the region’s past also seems to be obscured by the focus on the rise of Islam despite there being settlements in the region since 10,000 BCE. Being a central part of the pre-historical, ancient, and modern world, it’s hard to see why Arab culture has been reduced to this extent.
To many, the only exposure they’ve had to Arabic is unintelligible yelling and mumbling in a war movie. The “phrase unintelligible yelling and mumbling in a war movie” really encompasses the challenge Arabs and their language face. Usually those films are met with laughter and anger by Arabs when they realize that the stock character wasn’t even speaking Arabic but some variation of Dothraki perhaps. The reality is, in such a vast region Arabic has become as diverse as English with dialects that can be viewed as different languages. The Tunisian’s dialect may be foreign to the Lebanese and vice versa.
The most dehumanizing and reductive stereotype of the bunch, the label “terrorist” haunts many of today’s Arab youth. Many find it embarrassing and unfair to be lumped in a category of hate and violence. It’s disheartening to some, especially Muslims, that they are always trying to prove their innocence. Personally, I always have qualms about traveling for fear that others will not accept my misunderstood identity. Arabs in general condemn terrorism and a lot of it happens in their own countries, making them the most affected by terrorism morally and physically.