Reel Arabs vs. Real Arabs: Historicizing/Critiquing/Remaking the Arab Image in Popular Culture

Help your students separate the reel from reality. Take a 100-year historical tour of representations of Arabs and Muslims on film (and discover how Hollywood really began with Orientalist Arab stereotypes) by creating your own film program, including introductions by Jack Shaheen. These films make for a comprehensive classroom or even school-wide activity. On a smaller scale, after watching Reel Bad Arabs together, have students write a review of one of the following films (or any other film with relevant content) to analyze how each film’s Arab and/or Muslim characters are portrayed.  Make the activity comparative if you wish by using films focused on other groups.    

This is a wonderful activity to pair with the affordable traveling exhibiton, A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

Please note: Make sure to watch all films you are considering screening in your classroom in advance as some of them contain violence or allusions to violence, and some of the stereotypical images can be graphic.  These films are recommended for high school audiences or older. All of these films are widely available on or on  Films can also be borrowed for classroom use only from the Hagop Kevorkian Center at NYU free of charge:  email to check them out.    

Introduction to Reel Arabs Vs. Real Arabs Film Program         



Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

(2006, 50 min) 
This documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged from the earliest days of silent film to today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. It explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs--from Bedouin bandits and submissive maidens to sinister sheikhs and gun-wielding “terrorists”--along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in US history, and why they matter so much today. Shaheen shows how the persistence of these images over time has served to naturalize prejudicial attitudes toward Arabs and Arab culture. By inspiring critical thinking about the social, political, and basic human consequences of leaving these Hollywood caricatures unexamined, the film challenges viewers to recognize the urgent need for counter-narratives that do justice to the diversity and humanity of Arab people and the reality and richness of Arab history and culture. Purchase on
Find a study guide at

The Sheik

(1921, 80 min, silent) 
“When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her.” The Sheik introduces this stereotype still prevalent today (for example, Taken, 2008, starring Liam Neeson) One of the first “desert soaps,” this film also launched the trend of revealing the Arab hero as really being a European.  The Sheik (played by Rudolf Valentino) abducts a fair-skinned beauty and holds her in his luxurious desert tent-palace. Eventually the heroine falls in love with her captor. 

The Mummy

(1932, 73 min) 
Boris Karloff’s representation of the “Mummy” is just one--if the most classic-- creation in  a long line of mummy films culminating most recently with Sommer’s  Mummy Trilogy starring Brendan Fraser. This film is set in 1921 as a team of British archaeologists led by Sir Joseph Whemple uncovers the 3700-year- old mummy of Imhotep, inadvertently bringing him to life.  Unknown to them, the Mummy masquerades as the mysterious Egyptian Ardath Bay, who helps the expedition uncover the tomb of his ancient love. He then uses his mystic powers to mesmerize the reincarnation of his lost love in the form of Helen Grosvenor--the trademark European heroine that recurs so commonly in Hollywood’s  “mummy” films.

Adventure in Iraq

(1943, 65 min) 
Five Allied soldiers in an airplane flying to Egypt crash-land in Iraq. Taken  in by a local “sheik,” they soon begin to suspect that he may not be quite as friendly as he appears to be. This film references in a very damaging way nearly every stereotype of Arabs and Muslims ever seen in Hollywood to date. 

Lion of the Desert

(1981, 173 min)
An epic obscured in the eyes of critics by Lawrence of Arabia, this  movie film tells the story of Omar Mukhtar, an Arab Muslim rebel who fought against the Italian conquest of Libya in WWI. Portraying Muslim characters, including children, with respect, the film marks one of Hollywood’s first challenges to the setereotypes so prevalent in the previously mentioned films.  It gives viewers a glimpse into this little-known region and chapter of history, and exposes the savage means by which the conquering army attempted to subdue the Arabs.  Find yourself cheering for the Bedouin!

Three Kings

(1999, 114 min)
Follows a small group of adventurous American soldiers in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War.  Jack Shaheen consulted on this script and found it peppered with offensive dialogue and stereotypes.  The end results include well-rounded, emphathetic depictions of Iraqis and Americans and an honest account of cross-cultural encounters in the most dire of circumstances.     

Planet of the Arabs

(2003, 9 min) 
Inspired by  Shaheen’s work and available on Youtube, Jackie Salloum made the short film Planet of the Arabs to reveal the systematic racism towards Arabs and Muslims propagated by Hollywood.  Salloum was awarded “Best Editor” at the Cinematexas film festival and the film was a 2005 Sundance Film Festival selection.  Also directed by Jackie Salloum is Sling Shot Hip Hop (2008, 83 min). Salloum braids together the stories of young Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel as they discover Hip Hop and employ it as a tool to surmount divisions imposed by occupation and poverty. From internal checkpoints and Separation Walls to gender norms and generational differences, this is the story of young people crossing the borders that separate them.  An example of new work from an Arab-American filmmaker that counters stereotypes.


The Visitor

(2007, 104 min)
This lovely independent film looks at one of the tragedies that followed 9/11--the widespread deportation of Arab and Muslim immigrants.  The film follows the boring life of widower and lonely Professor Walter Vale, who teaches college and is trying to learn how to play the piano, despite not having the necessary musical talent. When he meets Tarek, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor, he finally comes out of his shell. 


This film program is presented by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute and the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU, with special thanks to Distinguished Visiting Scholar Jack G. Shaheen.  For more information on the Jack G. Shaheen Archive at NYU, click here.    



Consider these other resources developed with the content of the Jack G. Shaheen Archive









Traveling Exhibition: A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

Powerful, accessible and compelling, the A is for Arab traveling exhibition reveals and critiques the stereotypical portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in U.S. popular culture. Providing historical context about these images, which range from film stills to comic books to editorial cartoons, the portable and affordable display available for rent (only $250 for non-profit, educational institutions) aims to educate and stimulate discussion about the impact of stereotypes on both individual perceptions and national policy.



Publication: A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture features photographs of objects and materials from the Jack G. Shaheen Archive, and documents U.S. popular culture representations of Arabs and Muslims from the early-20th century to the present.