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I grew up during the 1980s. I think about the decade more than I should. The music. The movies. How simple things were before the explosion of the internet.
As awesome as growing up in the 1980s was, it wasn’t perfect because growing up as an Arab American in the 1980s was tough. I have written articles about it elsewhere, so there is no need to repeat the specifics of the difficulties. Trust me, it was often terrible. And then the First Gulf War happened in the very early 1990s, which made the 1990s tough too.
So, what would have made things better for me and other Arab American kids back then? Notwithstanding the excellent Tina Turner track from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, could we have simply needed a hero? Not just another hero, but an Arab American hero? Yes, we did and we still do.
When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of comic books probably because I was looking for heroes. But there were no Arab or even Middle Eastern comic book characters back then I was aware of (and I had no internet to search), but the world has responded with several comic book heroes with Middle Eastern roots. Bravo.
There are also Middle Eastern Disney cartoon characters, though many are romanticised caricatures from films like Aladdin. But why must these characters be so fantastical? Where are the “normal” everyday characters that happen to be Arab American or Middle Eastern? Is the thinking here that Arab Americans and other Middle Easterners haven’t assimilated enough into “American” society for us to just be regular Americans who happen to have ancestors from a particularly vilified region?
I wonder sometimes how many non-Arab Americans actually know that political activist and presidential candidate Ralph Nader is an Arab American. Or Tony Shalhoub from Monk or others. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe we can learn something from them by not caring where they are from. But for Arab Americans, we keep a running (albeit somewhat outdated) list of important Arab Americans. By why does such a list exist? Why do Arab Americans constantly remind ourselves and our children, “Hey did you know his grandma on his father’s side was from Lebanon?”
I think the reasons why are simple: the list isn’t a very long one and we need our heroes and success stories. Because of all of the vilification we have received for generations, we frequently keep telling ourselves of our DNA-related successes. And part of the blame is because I don’t think we have enough “regular” everyday heroes representing us in literature, film, TV shows, radio shows or otherwise.
But things are finally moving in the right direction.
One example is the show Ramy on Hulu starring actor/comedian Ramy Youssef, which explores the challenges of being an Egyptian Muslim living in New Jersey, as well as being a Millennial. Hulu has ordered a second season of Ramy, which bodes well for additional shows that have similar characters and messages.
Another example is the success of the actor Rami Malek for both his Oscar-winning role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, in addition to his role in Mr. Robot, which was created by another Arab American, Sam Esmail.
I’m also a big supporter of the independent science fiction dystopian series, The Raffle, currently a novel but soon to be a podcast, whose Arab American protagonist, Ramsey Arami, tries to navigate a security-obsessed, isolationist New United States to reunite with his family in 2027.
Hopefully, the continued success of actors like Rami Malek and others, and stories with Arab American characters, will produce more role models for kids growing up that need heroes. Regular, everyday heroes that are human and relatable and not some mystical product of someone’s unwitting colonial thinking.