The Arab Trickster
Modern prejudices that are not modern.
This is the third entry in an ongoing project on Religion and Refugees. Check out my profile to get caught up and for more information.
The character of Jafar in the Disney movie Aladdin was always fascinating to me. He was fascinating in the same way that the night sky is fascinating, it is mysterious, even gentle, but terrifying all the same. He served as the perfect foil for the titular hero; whereas Aladdin was down to earth, masculine, and reliant upon heroism and courage, Jafar relied upon magic, trickery, and schemes. Interestingly enough, whether as an act of the subconscious or an intentional design, Jafar is much more “Arabic” in appearance, whereas Aladdin appears more white.
It is clear that, although Aladdin and Jafar have similar skin colors, the constructions of Jafar’s nose, the slant of his eyes, the exaggeration of his eyebrows, and his whispy facial hair point to the desire to make him appear more exotic, whereas Aladdin bears features that might indicate ancestors from Italy or Spain. This implication, that Arab people are more sinister, is not a new one. In fact, the trope of the “Arab Trickster” has been a long-standing, if subterranean, cultural phenomenon.
The Arab Trickster
Susan Nance dedicates a chapter in her book How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935 to the role of Arab Athleticism. In this, she analyzes how American citizens would flock to the big tent circuses that crisscrossed the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to get a peek at the raw masculinity of “Arab” horsemen. In these shows, featuring men and women from North Africa and Syria as well as Arabia, gymnasts who had trained themselves to ride horses would fulfill the audience’s expectations of great Arab horsemen, allowing the audiences to feel cultured without experiencing anything outside of their understanding of what it meant to be Arab. In these performances oftentimes the Arab character would play the role of a villain, but a noble villain. A villain, typically a thief, who was worthy of whatever white hero who would vanquish him. Out of this phenomenon the Arab Trickster arose. This character was conniving and clever. This conception was so important, so pervasive in society, that orphans in the urban hubs of the day were informally named “street Arabs,” due to their propensity to steal and the necessity of survival by wit alone.
You may be asking yourself, “So what?” It would be easy to dismiss this as a part of history, something that no longer holds merit or weight. Even more so, one may be tempted to dismiss this theme as pertaining to the entertainment industry alone with little effect on the real world. Who cares if Jafar looks more Arab than Aladdin? This writing is just another college student Social Justice Warrior working for the tyranny of political correctness. My friends, I understand your frustration, but there is much at stake.
The Muslim Trickster
Now, we must connect the theory of what was mentioned above to the purpose of our conversation, namely religion and refugees. Donald Trump has gotten much attention in the media. His calls to ban Muslims from entering the United States, including refugees from the Middle East fleeing civil war, as well as to conduct surveillance on mosques illustrates a deep belief that Muslims are untrustworthy. This is an extension of Orientalism, particularly the belief that Islam represents one thing. In the mind of many Americans, and in the mind of Trump apparently, Islam is the moniker given to a violent group of Middle Eastern, or Arab, men with an anti-American agenda. Orientalism is discussed more in depth in my last post. Let us walk through the algebra of this species of Orientalism:
- Therefore: Trickster=Muslim
- Also: Refugee=Muslim
- Then: Refugee=Trickster
It is because of a deep-seated prejudice in the collective cognition of our culture that we are unwilling to assist refugees. Refugees from Western Europe would not face the same scrutiny and hostility. Neither would refugees from Canada.
If this is something that you have not considered, that perhaps our fear of Muslim refugees reflects more on us than it does on them, it is okay. It’s not your fault. That’s what prejudice is. It becomes bigotry, however, when we refuse to change it. Now that you have this lens to look through, perhaps you will be able to see the reasons why we fear ISIS will harm us in the form of a modern day Trojan Horse of humanitarian need, instead of through the means of conventional warfare. Perhaps now, being more equipped for uncomfortable conversations and internal dialogue, you will be able to begin to confront the biases in your own heart and in those closest to you. And, as always, I hope that this post will start a conversation between you and me.
Dominic J. Mejia
Diamond, Jeremy. “Donald Trump: Ban All Muslim Travel to the U.S.” CNN, December 8, 2015. Accessed March 7, 2016.
Nance, Susan. How The Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790–1935. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.