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Courtesy Amanda Suarez/Culture Trip
Courtesy Amanda Suarez/Culture Trip

How Arab Music Makes Movie Villains

Picture of Ryan Kristobak
Music Editor
Updated: 27 October 2017

“People are scared. Because any time they watch movies, and TV shows, and a character is Arabic, or they’re praying or something like that, that scary-ass music from Homeland is underneath it … it’s terrifying!”

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, actor and comedian Aziz Ansari was the host of Saturday Night Live. In his opening monologue, Ansari discussed the political divides of the American people, the growing “lower-case KKK movement,” and the strife that Muslims face in the U.S. when addressing Islamophobia directly, Ansari made a suggestion as to what might help calm people’s fears.

“People are like, ‘Aah! What are they saying?’” Ansari said. “Just ‘God is good!’ Normal religion stuff! It’s okay! You want to end Islamophobia? Honestly, just change that music. Like, if the music was different—if it was just, like, [singing theme to The Benny Hill Show], people would be like, ‘Man, Islam is one whimsical religion, isn’t it?’”

It would be imprudent to consider this the root of all Islamophobia, but Ansari’s theory is not as far-fetched as you might think. While Hollywood’s musical directions often go unnoticed, their impact is very real.

Throughout the course of film history, Hollywood’s jingoism has targeted just about everyone outside of the Anglo-Saxon cultural prism.

For Africans and African-Americans, there’s Mandingo (1975, “racist trash,” as renowned critic Roger Ebert put it), the Jim Crow schtick in Dumbo (1941), the centaur scene in Fantasia (1940), “the Super-Duper Magical Negro” of The Green Mile (1999), and the garbage fire that is 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. For Asians, there’s the incomprehensible casting of the character Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney in yellowface), exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984), and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai (2003). Peter Pan (1953) displayed just about every racial reduction of Native Americans, and let’s not forget the White Jesus and anti-semitism of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Hollywood’s racist overtones when depicting Arab and Middle Eastern culture goes all the way back to the silent films of the 1920s. The Sheik (1921), The Song of Love (1923), A Cafe in Cairo (1924), and The Desert Bride (1928) all vilify their Arab characters. The Sheik, for example, shows Arabs as savage men who auction off women for sport. Regardless, the film was a box-office smash, and it even spurred an equally problematic sequel in 1926, The Son of Sheik.

Fast-forward to today, and you see an increase in these kinds of portraits of Arabs in a post-Cold War United States. Racism-driven war films like Black Hawk Down (2001) and American Sniper (2014) are rolled out in abundance each year, and TV shows like Homeland and 24 are filled with Muslim characters that are either “duplicitous spies or bloodthirsty terrorists.”

Writing recently for The Independent, British-Iraqi actor and filmmaker Amrou Al-Kadhi explained how he has been sent nearing 30 scripts asking him to audition for terrorists on screen, role descriptions ranging from “suspicious bearded man on tube” to “Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka.”

“All your white friends get all these really interesting roles, but the problem is you never really get to act that well because you don’t get complex parts,” Al-Kadhi says. While every role the actor has been sent hasn’t been explicitly linked to jihadi fundamentalism, many of them still serve as antagonists to the “white heroes.”

“I got sent this one where the antagonist was a really stupid, rich Saudi guy, and all the white characters needed his money and they basically fooled him with prostitutes and gold,” Al-Kadhi says.

In some films, the Arab characters are deadly threats, but the plot is blatantly ludicrous. For Kareem Roustom, an Emmy-nominated composer and Tufts University Lecturer of Music, a film that immediately came to mind was 1994’s True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former California “Governator” plays a secret agent tracking down a nuclear weapon stolen by an organization known as the “Crimson Jihad.”

Unsurprisingly, this drew the ire of a loose coalition of Arab-American organizations, calling for the outright banning of the film in 54 Arab and Muslim countries for its “cartoonish depiction of fanatical, kaffiyeh-clad Arab terrorists”. This included such scenes where a henchman of the principal villain forgets to charge the video camera battery before taping Aziz’s threatening message, or when another henchman fires a rocket launcher the wrong direction through their truck.

While director James Cameron countered claims of racist depictions by stating he “just needed some convenient villains,” Roustom explains that the ignorant, mindless blockbuster is far from innocent.

“They are stupid films,” Roustom says. “They are really unintelligent films, and they are designed with a very narrow focus and one-dimensional, two-dimensional characters. And they sell, and I suppose that’s the whole point, but I think it does shape perspectives of how people view the quote-unquote other. I think decades of these kinds of films and what’s happening in the world and the unfortunate leadership that we have now, we are seeing the results of this. People getting shot simply because they are a different color, or they speak a different language.”

And just as Hollywood has always had problems with non-Western people, the same goes for non-Western music.

When examining stylistic variations of the music of the Arab world, there are four clear musical boundaries. There is the Western Arab World, which includes countries along the northern coast of Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). There is the Eastern Arab World, encompassing Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. There is the Arabian Gulf, which includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Finally, there is Iraq, which has its own separate music theory.

For decades, Cairo in Egypt was, and in some ways still is, the combined Hollywood and New York for film and music of the Arab world. The labels and film studios of the region were all located in the city, and the work of artists, like singer Umm Kulthum during Egypt’s “Golden Era” of music, significantly influenced other countries. In time, Beirut in Lebanon, and Aleppo in Syria joined Cairo as the most important locales for the development of Arab music. Given that most listeners in the West are entirely ignorant of the original music coming from these areas and cultures, your average Westerner associates the music of the Arab world with the music associated with Arabs in movies.

For many films, the score employs the region’s musical stylings, often in combination with deeper tones intended to help get the heart racing. You hear it in Iron Man 3 (2013) during the recordings concocted by the Mandarin. You hear it in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) during the courtyard scene when the Pakistani police and Inter-Services Intelligence capture Abu Faraj. And you hear it in American Sniper (2014), the film opening up with the adhan, aka the Muslim call to prayer.

“It’s usually poorly done and just slapped together,” Roustom says. “You could take a recording of the call to prayer and put a deep tone underneath it that’s in a different key and it gives it a real harmonic tension. And then you just make it dark and ominous and all that stuff.”

“It’s such a cliche, you know. If someone gets on a plane and lands somewhere in the Middle East, within three seconds you will hear the call to prayer,” says Scott Marcus, an ethnomusicology professor at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and founder and director of the school’s Middle East Ensemble and the Music of India Ensemble. “Or at least in that first scene you will hear it coming across the city.”

While Marcus describes the reflexive use of the adhan as ridiculous, there is a grain of truth to every clicheacknowledging that when you are in Muslim countries, you will hear the call to prayer five times a day.

For any given day, you can find the five times the adhan happens, to the minute, in newspapers and on calendars, and most television and radio stations will stop their programming, to broadcast the call. In most places that Muslims live, the native language isn’t Arabic, and so you need a specialist called a muezzin who is hired by a mosque to lead the call to prayer. However, in places like Cairo, everyone speaks the language, and so a muezzin isn’t needed, and so lots of people take turns doing the adhan. You get merit for leading the call to prayer, and merit is needed to get into heaven, so most people end up leading it. The adhan is generally only practiced by men—although not alwaysand the general rule is that you need to be over 10 years of age. And so in countries like Egypt, it becomes a communal endeavor.

In his book Music in Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2007), Marcus dedicates a chapter to a summer spent in Cairo and his interactions with the call to prayer. Each day, right before one of the five daily recitations of the adhan, Marcus would head into whatever mosque was closest, to hang out with the muezzin and his friends, discussing the practice and recording them doing it.  

Marcus remembers, “Once I realized this was happening, I started asking everyone that I knew, and that week I went into a store to buy some cheese, so I said to the guy cutting the cheese, ‘Have you ever done the call to prayer?’ He says, ‘Of course I’ve done the call to prayer.’ And then this guy who is on the ground mopping the floor with a wet rag, clearly a lower-level worker, he says, ‘We’ve all done the call to prayer.’”

While Roustom notes that he has been informed that in a religious space—whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc.—chants such as the adhan are typically not considered music, Marcus has been told that this is not necessarily the case. According to “one of the main scholars of Arab culture,” Quranic recitation, even though it is conducted with melody, cannot be considered music. There is a need in the culture to separate between the worldliness of music and the otherworldliness of religious practice, and the call to prayer is not God’s word; it’s just normal phrases, and so it can be considered music. Ultimately, it seems to be a matter of interpretation of the individual, and, music or not, the effect is still the same.

In a recent piece for The Washington Post, Dr. Hussein Rashid, an adjunct professor of religion at Barnard College and the founder of Islamicate, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy, called the use of the adhan “a soundtrack for violence,” one of the “most egregious abuses of Hollywood portrayal of Islam.”

“Muslims find it painful to hear the sound they love tied to the violence they abhor,” Dr. Rashid continues. “Non-Muslims find it basically impossible to approach what Muslims find beautiful if they hear it connected to what we all find ugly.”

But violence isn’t always involved, and as Ansari points out in his monologue, the chanting in itself is scary. So why is it that the West can feel so startled by something as innocent as worship? According to Marcus, it’s largely trussed to the lack of accompaniment, common amongst Arab music.

“The one thing about Middle Eastern music, and specifically Arab music, but all of Middle Eastern music is that it’s what we call monophonic,” Marcus says. “What that means is that it’s essentially just a melody, there are no chords. If you have two musicians, they’re playing the exact same melody. If you have two musicians and a singer, everyone’s playing and singing the same melody. If you have a 30-person orchestra, everyone’s just playing the same melody. [To the West] this sounds surprisingly bare, it sounds skeletal.

“The thing is, normally, the monophonic music has drums, and a big orchestra. Someone in the West can just enjoy the percussion, it’s generally very easy to feel the groove. The rhythms are shorter and syncopated. It’s really easy to listen to Middle Eastern music and tap your foot and dance to it. But by taking away the rhythm and just doing the call to prayer, now all you have is the single melody by a single voice. That is strange to the West. You can see how that sounds a little spooky to a non-Eastern ear. But if you put an orchestra and drums on top of it, it would no longer be strange.”

Adding on to the singular melody’s “other” sound is the difference in tonal systems between the West and the Arab world. The West only has two scales: a major scale and a minor scale. (Technically, there are three versions of the minor scale, so it ultimately adds up to four scales.) When compared to the Middle East, and many other parts of the world, Marcus calls this is a “pathetically” small number.

“The Middle East has dozens upon dozens of more scales of tonal variety, that if you just listen and have no idea about music, you’d say that sounds weird,” Marcus says.

Looking at the specifics, there are two components that greatly contribute to these disparities. First, the Middle East uses intervals between the notes of scales. For a scale, think “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music (1965): A scale extends from “do” to “do” (the octave notes). In the West, there are whole steps and half steps, but in the Middle East they have augmented seconds. This means that one note is flat and the next note is sharp, resulting in a step-and-a-half jump; and when you have two of those in a scale, the sound is definitively non-Western.

“If you put the augmented second in the bottom half [of the scale] and an augmented second in the top half, any film composer knows that when you want to land in Egypt, and you have to have a new sound so the audience knows you are landing in Egypt, you put those augmented seconds in both halves and it sounds unusual,” Marcus says. “It’s a cliched Middle Eastern sound.”

Looking at films like The Mummy series, you will hear these scales constantly.

Second is that Middle Eastern music uses notes between the notes on the Western piano. These notes, from a Western perspective, are called half flats and half sharps. Marcus explains that Western music teachers will often not recognize these notes, saying that there’s “no note there.” While augmented seconds still use notes found on the piano, half flats and half sharps will sound eerily out of tune for those not accustomed to hearing them.

Indeed, the scales of Arab music, called maqams, include the Western major and minor scales, and many of them use Western-recognized notes, but the shifting placements of augmented seconds are what separate them. The other maqams use half flats and half sharps.

For other films, there are darkly toned scores that have no ties to music from the Arab world—for example, think the pounding chords with tri-tones that marked the most tense moments of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. At the time of our conversation, Al-Kadhi was particularly upset with the 2015 French-Belgian film Les Cowboys. Widely noted as a rework of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the film focuses on a father and son’s search for their daughter/sister after she suddenly goes missing with her Muslim boyfriend Ahmed following a “cowboy fair” from their prairie town east of France.

“What I found really problematic about that film,” says Al-Kadhi, “was that when he discovers that his daughter converted to Islam, and he opens up this book with text like a diary, the music went into a Jaws-like ‘dun-dun,’ and it gave a really ominous quality to the Arabic text, which is actually quite beautiful and florid and feminine. But the music underneath that made it seem like the text just said, ‘kill all white people.’ Which, obviously, it didn’t.”

And it’s here that we reach the heart of the problem of Arab-tinted music used in cinema in conjunction with negative Arab characters: Such music amplifies the stereotype, as well as confirming it in the mind of the audience. “The thing that film and TV does that news can’t, is that it’s emotional,” Al-Kadhi says. Roustom takes it a step further by saying that it is the “job” of music in film to “manipulate” emotions.

However, it’s important to remember that a score’s sincerity is always immediately limited by the work to which it is attached.

“These films don’t often allow for that to happen,” Roustom says. “There’s usually no room for it. You are limited by what the film is doing, what’s it’s saying, what it’s about, so even really capable composers are limited by that and what the directors are telling them to do. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem on the parts of the composers, but it has more to do with the films and the direction that they are getting.”

However, the added sonic images make the message of these scenes more powerful and convincing than they could ever be on their own. Using music paired to Native Americans in film as an example, Roustom explains how that “sound” has become ubiquitous.

“It has become such a sound that even people who have not seen these types of cowboys and Indians films from the 1940s and 1950s, it’s so pervasive in the culture that people still know what that sound is somehow,” Roustom says.

If you told a group of people to act like Native American stereotypes, everyone might dance in a circle around an imaginary campfire, switching between deep-toned chants and high-pitched vocalizations while smacking their hands to their mouths in the conventional war-whoop. If you asked that group to act like stereotypical white people from the United States, there would be much less consistency among their performances. Through the writing and musical selections, groups of people like Arabs are flattened, their culture and identities reduced to products on a screen-bound conveyor belt of images.

“Middle Eastern music is typecast the same way these actors are typecast, in the sense that if you look Middle Eastern, you’re only going to get Middle Eastern ‘roles.’ In the music, if it sounds Middle Eastern, then it will only end up, unfortunately, in a terrorist type scene or something where there’s a war zone or something awful of that nature,” Roustom says.

The results are undeniable: Negative depictions of Middle Eastern people served through film and TV, paralleled with the music that accompanies both mediums, directly affects the way we perceive people of the Arab world in reality. An Islamophobe like Donald Trump was elected by other Islamophobes. Certainly, the ascent of these men who are fighting tooth and nail to implement a Muslim ban is far more complex than cinema, but as the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti once said, “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.”

Yet, in a time where headlines are almost guaranteed to read #OscarsSoWhite, it would be foolish of us to expect Hollywood to genuinely progress its attitude any time in the near future. So what can we do?

Let’s start by familiarizing ourselves with musicians from the Arab world. We should be running through the discographies of legendary artists like Egypt’s Umm Kulthum, Lebanese singer Fairuz and her longtime writing partners the Rahbani brothers, Sabah Fakhri of Syria, Nazem al-Ghazali of Iraq, and Mohammed Abdu of Saudi Arabia. We should be experiencing modern artists like Brooklyn-by-way-of-Morocco collective Innov Gnawa; Helly Luv, the Iraqi singer who is on the Islamic State’s death list; and Omar Souleyman, “the king of Syrian techno.”

“I live in the world of performing Arab music, and it is always so ridiculously successful,” Marcus says. “So, in my world, there’s nothing about Arab music that creates fear. People are so ready to accept it.”

We should be watching films directly from the source, like Appropriate Behaviour (2014) by Iranian-American film director and actress Desiree Akhavan, Caramel (2007) by Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki, and Zinzana (2015) by Emirati director Majid Al-Ansari (the film is exclusively streaming on Netflix under the title Rattle the Cage).

“Western cultural content is so systemically white-centric that I think Middle Eastern people are going to forge their own cinematic narratives,” Al-Kadhi says. “It’s a really emotional culture. It’s actually quite camp and queer, and really collective. It’s all about generosity. We just aren’t going to get Middle Eastern identities from the West.”

This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.