Heritage in Subtitles

Tomb Raider, the Arab World in media, and me

This is an archive of a story that originally ran as “Heritage in Subtitles: Answering the Question of Arab-American Identity” for Harlot Media

I bought the new Tomb Raider on a whim. A reboot in the long running game franchise about a young British woman robbing ancient ruins of precious artifacts; it was an alright game that I never had any real attachment to. I’d played it before and I didn’t feel a real need to revisit it. What caught my eye the second time around was a small detail I hadn’t noticed before: Arabic language support. I downloaded it out of curiosity and there it was, a full fledged big budget videogame entirely dubbed in Arabic. While it was common to see games like this have options for say, Spanish or French,I’d never seen a game of this budget bother with Arabic. (I’d later learn this was the company’s first game to get this treatment). What struck me most, however, was how this game treated the language.

That is to say, Tomb Raider’s Arabic sounds like an Arabic that I recognize. While there are still men shouting aggressively in the language (as well as in Russian, making them fluent in both languages of the modern Axis of Evil), there is regular conversational Arabic in the game. People speak the way I know my relatives to, not in the same dialect, but with recognizable words and phrases. They speak like human beings, not fanatical agents of evil.

Anyone who’s been engaging with modern media, especially American media, will be exposed to Arabic pretty often. It has become the de facto language of our modern villains, Arab terrorists and Muslim extremists. It has become a shorthand for a fanatical evil beyond reason. When you hear Arabic, you are supposed to be scared. Speaking Arabic is justification enough for our heroes to open fire, or if you play videogames, to open fire yourself. It doesn’t even matter what those words mean.

A friend of mine told me of her experience playing Army of Two, a shooter where you play as a team of mercenaries fighting in Afghanistan. She played it with her brother, simply because it came with her system. Eventually, they reached a certain part in the game where enemies were shouting at them in Arabic while attacking. What exactly were the enemies shouting, exactly? Orders at a coffee shop. It’s a damning statement about both how little people care to represent it properly and how any message delivered in Arabic, no matter the actual message, has become shorthand for fanatical, violent ideologies.

In fact, I’m surprised we don’t hear about things like this more often. In fact, just a while back graffiti artists hired to work on TV show Homeland painted messages with statements such as “Homeland is racist”, “There is no Homeland” and “#BlackLivesMatter” in Arabic right in front of them, which even made it to broadcast .

At no point in the process did anyone even bother to check what the messages said. Having them in Arabic was threatening enough.

Hearing this everyday Arabic, to me, felt like being recognized. It might not have been coming out of the mouths of Arabic characters, but it felt like an acknowledgement that the language of my father was for more than the language of TV terrorists.

At the same time however, I couldn’t help but feel mournful. Not only were moments like this so few, but I couldn’t even enjoy them to the fullest. My mother is Filipino, my father, Egyptian. They each speak with their friends in their native language, with English the common language between them. So my family spoke only English in the house to communicate with each other, which resulted in me losing my ability to speak Arabic very early. So with this acknowledgment comes the recognition that I am also still not quite part of that culture. I don’t understand the dialects, and I pick up only a few phrases that I haven’t forgotten.

I experience my own heritage in subtitles.

It’s part of the particular alienation of being mixed. Even in on occasions where you can find representatives of your culture in the mainstream, they rarely look like you. Your face, your name, they’re reminders that you serve as both a link between the cultures you came from, and as an outsider to it. We commonly separate racial origins into discrete categories, but being mixed disrupts those boundaries and reveals how tenuous they are. Those boundaries still remain, however, and despite the strength of your identification with those cultures you begin to be pushed out by the perceptions of what you need to be. I can’t speak Arabic, I don’t look Arabic, and I’ve grown up away from my extended family and their homes back in Egypt, so how much claim do I even have to being Arab?

Tomb Raider is part of long tradition of Victorian Adventurers out to exploit “the Orient”

Playing Tomb Raider, I wanted so bad for Lara to be Arab. “She could pass, right?” I told myself. I tried to convince myself that if I squinted and pretended, Lara could be an Arab heroine I could identify with. Maybe she was mixed like me? I’m sure there are plenty of mixed race Arabs with European ancestry. In the end these are nothing but rationalizations. Nothing but me using the flexibility of mixed race appearances to mentally reposition a character who was created, and always intended to be, white. This is didn’t erase that, didn’t change the game series’ relationship with Orientalism, or erase its history with the colonialist tropes of “Victorian adventurers” that it originated from.

Being Arab still feels like an alienating experience from day to day. Despite what some people would love to believe, race continues to be an overwhelming factor in the human experience. I’ll still continue to see major news stations treat our existence as a threat, “well-meaning” people spread misconceptions and ignorance about us without understanding of how harmful it is, and my friends will still remain on the edge of panic attacks when passing through airport security. I might never feel truly recognized by the world, or my own community. Even with all that, there will be these moments where I do feel that connection, where I know the understanding and common ground I share with other Arab people will connect me to something larger than myself.