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A Powerful Voice Against Arab Stereotyping, Jack Shaheen, Dies

"For nearly half a century, I've tracked Hollywood's Arabs and Muslims. Almost always I found that they've appeared as villains," Jack Shaheen said in a talk at the National Press Club in March 2017.
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"For nearly half a century, I've tracked Hollywood's Arabs and Muslims. Almost always I found that they've appeared as villains," Jack Shaheen said in a talk at the National Press Club in March 2017.

Jack Shaheen, a researcher and writer who spent his life battling stereotypes of Arab-Americans and Muslims in pop culture, died Sunday in South Carolina. He was 81.

One of Shaheen's notable victories came in 1993, when he helped persuade Disney to change some original song lyrics in the movie Aladdin, on the grounds that they were insensitive.

Shaheen also worked to diversify the very industry he studied. He and his family created scholarships for Arab-American college students to study media, through organizations including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Center for Arab American Philathrophy.

"I want to see the Arab humanity in films that really reflect, that show Arabs pretty much like ordinary people," he told NPR's Michel Martin in 2007.

His book, Reel Bad Arabs, told the history of Arab-Americans and Muslims stereotyped as screen villains. His work underscored the long-lasting nature of those tropes, and he spoke of that research frequently, including at a recent conference at the National Press Club in March.

Born in 1935 in Clairton, Pa., to Lebanese immigrants, Shaheen became a professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a visiting scholar at New York University's Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Shaheen said he was drawn to his work decades ago, when his two children, Michael and Michele, were young and watching TV. They told him there were "bad Arabs" on the screen, he told AramcoWorld in 2016. That, he added, was when he realized his children were "growing up without ever having seen a humane Arab in a children's cartoon." That sparked his years of research.

Then, in 1992 and 1993, came the controversy over Aladdin.

The song "Arabian Nights" originally included these lyrics:

"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."

After protests by Shaheen and others, Disney omitted the lines "Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face." Shaheen had previously argued in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that the movie was a "painful reminder to 3 million Americans of Arab heritage... that the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin's lamp."

Reached by telephone in South Carolina on Monday, Shaheen's son remembered his father. "We in our family, we say that he was a great humanist," Michael Shaheen said. "He was a man who shared with not only his family, but with everyone he met, irrespective of class, race, religion or orientation of whatever kind. ... He lived his life that way, always."

Shaheen is survived by his wife Bernice, to whom he was married for 51 years; their two children, Michele and Michael; and grandchildren.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kat Chow is a reporter with NPR and a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is currently on sabbatical, working on her first book (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette). It's a memoir that digs into the questions about grief, race and identity that her mother's sudden death triggered when Kat was young.
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