Jack Shaheen, a prominent writer, scholar and activist who persistently — though diplomatically — challenged negative stereotypes of Arabs in film and television, has died at age 81.
Shaheen, who died Sunday in South Carolina after battling cancer, took on studio executives, offered counsel to actors and directors and lectured around in the world in his relentless quest to persuade Hollywood to move beyond the cinematic image of Arabs as just “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.”
“There is no escaping the Arab stereotype,” Shaheen wrote in the preface to his 2001 book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” before digging into what he said was the unrelenting portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, uncultured, wealthy and unspeakably violent.
“These notions are as false as the assertions that blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals,” he wrote in “The TV Arab,” a painstaking study of hundred of television shows, from sitcoms to cartoons.
In 1993, his efforts helped persuade Disney to change the lyrics to the song “Arabian Nights” in its animated musical “Aladdin.”
When the film premiered, the lyrics seemed the stuff of racism to people like Shaheen:
Oh, I come from a land
From a faraway place
Where the camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
In a opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Shaheen protested that Disney had managed to deliver a painful reminder to millions of Arab Americans that “the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp.”
Disney yielded and trimmed the ear-cutting lines from the video release of the film, but refused to erase the “it’s barbaric” line, arguing it was a reference to the landscape, not the people who lived there.
It was emblematic of the small victories Shaheen would win. Never expecting seismic change in how the industry would portray Arabs, he was comfortable winning converts one by one, lecture by lecture, email by email, book by book.
“He felt the greatest disservice would be to stand back and say nothing,” his daughter Michele Tasoff said.
Shaheen was born in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, 1935, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He grew up in nearby Clairton, an ethnically diverse mill town whose bleakness was captured in the movie “The Deer Hunter.” His mother — who raised Shaheen — wanted to be a school teacher, but settled for being a janitor at the schoolhouse instead in order to provide for her three children.
He became the first in his family to attend college, graduating from what’s now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and earning a master’s degree in theater arts from Penn State. He received a doctorate in communications from the University of Missouri before joining the faculty at Southern Illinois University, where he would teach for decades. He also was a visiting professor at New York University, where his archives — papers, notes, scripts, children’s toys and thousands of films dating back to the silent movie era — are housed at the Hagop Kevorkian Center.
His drive to find and — if possible — root out the unflattering and often ugly portrayals of Arabs in film arrived when his two children were watching a cartoon. When they ran into the living room and announced that there were “bad Arabs” on TV, Shaheen came in for a look. He was aghast, and it dawned on him that is was quite possible his children would grow up without ever seeing a “humane Arab” on television.
He began collecting movies, television shows, other media that he believed offered clear and lasting evidence that Arabs and Muslims were rarely depicted as ordinary people. It was a painful and unpleasant task, his daughter said, but one he felt was necessary.
“He was the one who would say ‘This is not OK,’” Tasoff said.
But he made inroads. George Clooney used Shaheen as a consultant on both “Three Kings” and “Syriana,” both set in the Middle East, and directors sought him out for advice. He recently consulted on Nickelodeon’s “Shimmer and Shine,” an animated children’s series about a pair of in-training genies. Shaheen and his wife, Bernice, who worked as his consultant, established a scholarship for Arab American mass communication students.
“The community lost one of its best,” said American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Chairman Safa Rifka. “His work started a conversation about the representation of Arabs in Hollywood and the need for more nuanced depictions of the community. Dr. Shaheen will be greatly missed.”
Tasoff said her father was optimistic, yet pragmatic. Forward momentum may have been slowed with 9/11 and a wave of new television shows like Showtime’s “Homeland.” President Trump’s proposed travel ban offered further discouragement.
“But he always remained hopeful,” she said.
He is survived by his wife, his daughter, a son Michael and four granddaughters.
An earlier version of this story stated that "Homeland" is on HBO. It's on Showtime