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Arab-American Artists Challenge Negative Stereotypes

For decades, America's image of Arabs has come largely from Hollywood filmmakers, who often portrayed them as one-dimensional characters: romantic sheiks or heartless villains. Americans have learned a lot more about Arabs and Muslims since Islamic terrorists attacked the United States on September 11th, 2001 - but many Arab-Americans say that new image is just as one-dimensional. A growing number of Arab American artists and journalists are trying to present a more complete and accurate picture of their culture and heritage.

Media professor Jack Shaheen has been studying the portrayals of Arabs in American movies for more than 20 years. As he often tells his students at Southern Illinois University, he doesn't like what he has seen:

"What the films did was to portray all Arabs as sub-human and to portray Islam as a faith of violence," Says Jack Shaheen. "In almost every one of these films when a Muslim would pray, the prayer would be followed by violence. So what Hollywood has done is it focused primarily on the lunatic fringe."

In his book, 'Reel Bad Arabs' - that's 'reel' as in film reel - he describes what he calls 'a climate of contempt for Arabs and Muslims' in Hollywood. But that is changing, with the arrival of young Arab American film makers, musicians and writers. One of them is Jordanian-born director Omar Naim.

"I think art is the universal language," Naim says. Painting, music, films, books, stories, all these things, they do not know cultural boundaries. I think they may be the most important way (to get) beyond politics, beyond religion, beyond any thing. I think we all have our imagination in common and to stimulate each other's imaginations is a very intimate way to communicate with people."

Naim has worked from within the Hollywood system to portray Arab characters who are not one dimensional -- and not all bad. In his 2004 science fiction movie "The Final Cut," he introduced an Arab named Hassan as a major character, whose heritage was never made an issue.

Jackie Salloum is a Michigan-born Palestinian American filmmaker whose documentary, "Planet of the Arabs," was screened last year at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

"It is a short piece that I did," Salloum explains, "that incorporates Hollywood's depiction of the Arabs, their dehumanization, vilification of Arabs and Muslims. So I made a 9-minute montage piece that sort of hits back at Hollywood."

Salloum hopes her documentary will serve as an eye-opener for Americans and create a dialogue, especially among young audiences. Her latest film, the politically-charged "Sling-Shot Hip Hop," features a cross-section of Palestinian hip-hop artists, and spotlights what she calls their "alternative voices of resistance," expressed in lyrics such as these:

"I swear! to the microphone in my hand;

I swear! to be a genuine soldier;

I swear! that justice will be my way…"

Alternative voices are also being heard on the pages of American newspapers. Ashraf Khalil is back in the United States after a long assignment as the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad. He stresses the importance of having more Arab Americans working in the news media to objectively explain Arab perspectives to the American public:

"Arab Americans in the news media have made a lot of progress in the last couple of years," says Khalil. "There is an older generation that has been there for a while, Helen Thomas obviously, Nora Bostani from the Washington Post…"

Khalil also points to Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Khalil describes Shadid as the "patron saint" of the new generation of Arab American journalists.

"His success - really, the twin influences of Anthony's success and ironically enough, 9-11 and the Iraq war -- have boosted many of our careers."

These journalists, authors and artists who have the ear of the American public hope their work will make it easier for Americans to recognize the difference between real- life Arabs-- in all their cultural and political diversity -- and the stereotyped Arabs of TV and film.