How Are Arabs Depicted in Hollywood Cinema, 'Road to Morocco' (1942) as an Example

Mass media seems to be one of the most influential elements of modern societies. It’s almost always present in our daily life activities. With the global environment of individuals, media is not only omnipresent in everyone’s life to the extent that it’s impossible to live without, but it’s also the source of information about national and international affairs. American media in particular seems to be more influential over its audience, as the interviewees in Riz Khan Show[1]in Aljazeera channel seem to agree upon. In that, media is able to control shape individuals’ ways of thinking; “media is a large factor in the formation of stereotypes and ideologies[2]”.
Film industry is one of the paramount elements of media that every person consumes on a daily basis. Motion pictures reach almost everyone. Hollywood, being the biggest industrial institution of film in the world, has had a significant influence on our perceptions of things throughout its history. It “has always played a propagandist as well as a limitative role for the American imperial project, especially, in the Middle East[3]”. The evolution of the representation of the Other in the American cinema has been influenced by political and economic factors according to Sulaiman Arti.
From this perspective, my research is going to take the Hollywoodian film “Road to Morocco” as field to deal with the representation of the image of Morocco and Moroccans in the American cinema. As the film “Road to Morocco” was produced during the World War II mainly at some stage duringthe Operation Torch[4], it would be plausible to speculate the imperial intentions of the Americans, knowing that, as Edward Said mentions in his book Orientalism (1978), the representations of the East were closely entwined with the military, economic and political strategies of Western countries.
While analyzing the film I will dwell on the wide range of stereotypes and fixed images that American cinema has created on Arabs and Moroccans in particular. “Road to Morocco”, being one of the films about the Orient among many, promotes the perpetual stereotypical images that American media has generated on Arabs. Jack G. Shaheen[5], who has written the famous bookReel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People on the representation of Arabs in Hollywood films, considers Road to Morocco as “ one of the most stereotypical films ever to come out of Hollywood[6].”
Throughout my analysis, however, as the purpose is not only to highlight the negative images of Moroccans in the film, I will also emphasize the cultural encounters that the film discusses, because the film, as some reviews on the internet suggest, “doesn’t [….] portray the foreign population in a potentially offensive and insulting manner[7].”
Road to Morocco is a 1942 American comedy film directed by David Butler for Paramount Pictures, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour, and also features Anthony Quinn and Dona Drake. It is about two Americans stowaways who are tossed away after they are shipwrecked somewhere in ‘Morocco’.
The film plot begins with a news announcement of an explosion of a ship in many languages. Two Americans, Orville (Bob Hope) and Jeff (Bing Crosby), survive the explosion on a raft. On the seashore – a desert—they find a camel and take a ride to a city, singing “Road to Morocco[8]”. As they arrive with a nary a penny, they try various ways. Eventually, they enter a restaurant where Jeff shows up money to pay the food. Orville asks where the money is from; Jeff informs his friend that he’s sold him as a slave. Orville is dragged away by some strong men.
During the night, while Jeff is in his bed, Aunt Lucy’s ghost tells Jeff that he must rescue his friend. He then in morning scours the town in search of his friend, singing his song ‘Ho Hum’. Jeff gets to a luxurious where Orville is treated like a king—being kissed and cosseted by Shalmar (Dorothy Lamour) the Moroccan princess and many other beautiful girls. Girls in the palace serve Orville and Mihirmah (Dona Drake) says she loves him. He then discovers that, in a few days, Orville is marrying Shalmar.
The audience discovers that that Dorothy has been recommended by her astrologers that her first husband will suffer a brutal demise—Orville in this case, and that her second marriage will be long and joyful. However, we’ll discover later that the astrologers have made a mistake “confusing flies in the lenses of the telescope with Jupiter and Venus”.
Having heard Jeff –while he wonders in the magnificent palace—singing “Moonlight becomes you”, Shalmar falls for him and decides to marry him for in no doubt this time, knowing that the astrologers’ advice has been a mistake. Mullay Kassim (Anthony Quinn) learns that Shalmar is marrying; he comes riding into the town, takes Shalmar by force, and leaves Jeff and Orville tied up in the desert. After they’ve freed themselves, they eventually find Kassim’s camp. The two men sneak into the camp to rescue the princess Shalmar and Orville’s eventual girl Mihirmah. Using many magical mirages the two Americans have rescue the ladies and escape to New York.
As a comedy, the film succeeds at making use of many farces which bring up strange, exotic and dreamlike moods that attract and entertain the American audience. Of course, Americans are always shown in films as superior and heroes with good and humane deeds—rescuing the girl for example. Jack Shaheen states that, “as for the audience? Well, it also makes some of us feel better to see ourselves as superior to someone else[9].” The film monotonously uses a wide range of stereotypes and clichés that “are deeply ingrained in American cinema[10].” Generally speaking, the Arab is portrayed as different and threatening. The land is shown as an open and vast desert[11]with sheikhs surrounded by many girls. “There are also admirable queens and princesses in several Cleopatra films and Arabian fantasy tales[12]. It seems that most American films, according to Shaheen, inherit that fictional image of the Arabian Nights. Seemingly, Road to Morocco wouldn’t have escaped this kind of cliché.
Road to Morocco reproduces many clichés and stereotypes. I am going to mention as many as possible with reference to events and scenes in the movie. One of the first is that the whole story happens in a desert as if Morocco is merely a desert. It is obviously an inherent and perpetual image that Hollywood has circulated. I was astonished to see that the camel Jeff and Orville ride; it’s a Bactrian camel. This kind of camel doesn’t live in the desert –according to online research according to my knowledge as a Moroccan.
Other stereotypes about the language, the costumes are obviously noticeable in Road to Morocco. You could easily notice how fast and strange the Moroccans speak in the city while they try to sell their goods to the American two men—the classical dichotomy of ‘our language is better than yours’. As for the costumes, men appear with their turbans and black cloaks everywhere. Women are portrayed most of the time as belly dancers or as princesses with sexually attractive wears; Shaheen states that women “appear as bosomy bellydancers leering out from diaphanous veils[13]”. In the movie, as Orville gets to the luxurious palace[14], he finds himself surrounded by a number of women who serve him and dance for him. You can see that women are always at home serve only as sexual manuals. I think this cliché is continuously repeated in the American films like Garden of Allah (1917 and 1927), Flame of the Desert (1919), An Arabian Night (1920), Arabia (1922), Tents of Allah (1923), Fleetwing, (1928) and others[15].
Road to Morocco seems unavoidably obliged to find a role for the rich, pervert sheikh to enact in the story. This gives the story its magical and mysterious atmosphere. Unconsciously, it must perhaps be that way. The Sheikh Mullay Kassim in the film kidnaps the princess Shalmar to oblige her to marry him. The princess is muted and powerless to defend herself, but luckily the American hero –as always—rescues her.
Talking about stereotypes and images that have been inherited in the American cinema about the orient, I wouldn’t skip having an argument about the names of the characters that are supposed to be from Morocco in the film. I find Shalmar and Mihirmah not only far to be Moroccan names, but also far to be Arabic either. They sound Persian, Turkish and Indian for me. I think Shalmar sounds like Scheherazade[16] which apparently denotes the possible allusion between the two characters. As for Mihirmah, there is a possibility to be referent to the historical Turkish princess ‘Princess Mihrimah Sultan’, the daughter of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I[17].
The film Road to Morocco is comedy film with light romantic scenes that interweaves jokes and romantic ballads that lighten the heart of the viewer. It could mistakenly portray Morocco from a stereotypical vision point, as it makes stereotyping powerful and hard to eliminate, but still a look at the Moroccan life with admiration and wonder as well. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound Recording and Best Writing, Original Screenplay[18]. It was also selected by the Library of Congress as being as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and reserved in the United States National Film Registry.

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By ABDERRAZAK BADDOU
Footnotes


[1] Riz Khan Show aired from Thursday, January 14, 2010, discussed The role of media in the USA
Has the mainstream media in the US replaced serious coverage with tabloidism?,you can watch the whole show online:http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rizkhan/2010/2010/01/201011483425672442.html (accessed on Dec 02, 2011)
[2] Jamal Koubali, Islam in the US Press, Middle Ground- Issue N°1, Beni Mellal, 2007
[3]Sulaiman Arti, The evolution of Hollywood's representation of Arabs before 9/11: the relationship between political events and the notion of 'Otherness', Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, Vol 1, No 2, 2007, p. 1
[4]Operation Torch was the British-American invasion of French North Africa in World War II during the North African Campaign, started on 8 November 1942. It was meant to allow the Allies to carry out a military attack against Axis forces in North Africa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Torch (accessed Dec.1st, 2011)
[5]He is aProfessor of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University. He was also a consultant on Middle East affairs for CBS News. He studies portrayals of Arabs and Islam in American media. Dr. Shaheen mainly addresses stereotypical images of racial and ethnic groups. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Shaheen(Nov 28th, 2011)
[6]Shaheen says this in an interview with Elizabeth Blair, Senior Producer on the Arts Desk of NPR (National Public Radio) News, (you can listen to the interview online at http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=127054238&m=127054782 (accessed on Nov 28th, 2011) , it’s quoted in (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Morocco) as well.
[8] A Ballad opening this way :
We're off on the road to Morocco
This camel is tough on the spine (hit me with a band-aid, Dad)
Where they're going, why we're going, how can we be sure
I'll lay you eight to five that we'll meet Dorothy Lamour
(Yeah, get in line)
Off on the road to Morocco
Hang on till the end of the line (I like your jockey. Quiet)
I hear this country's where they do the dance of the seven veils
We'd tell you more (uh-ah) but we would have the censor on our tails
(Good boy)
We certainly do get around
Like Webster's Dictionary we're Morocco bound
We're off on the road to Morocco
Well look out, well clear the way, 'cause here we come
Stand by for a concussion
The men eat fire, sleep on nails and saw their wives in half
It seems to me there should be easier ways to get a laugh
(Shall I slip on my big shoes?)
Off on the road to Morocco
Hooray! Well blow a horn, everybody duck
Yeah. It's a green light, come on boys
We may run into villains but we're not afraid to roam
Because we read the story and we end up safe at home (yeah)
Certainly do get around
Like Webster's Dictionary we're Morocco bound
We certainly do get around
Like a complete set of Shakespeare that you get
In the corner drugstore for a dollar ninety-eight
We're Morocco bound
Or, like a volume of Omar Khayyam that you buy in the
Department store at Christmas time for your cousin Julia
We're Morocco bound
(We could be arrested)
[9] Jack Shaheen,Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Olive Branch Press, 2001, p.190
[10] Ibid. p.172
[11] In the movie, Jeff sings his song ‘Ho Hum’ as he scours the town which maybe a sign of boredom and ennui. As he says:
Rolling along at a loss
never gathering moss
Ho hum.
Ho ho, hum.
[12] Jack Shaheen,Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Olive Branch Press, 2001, p.184
[13] Ibid. p.183
[14] Another inherent image found in the fictional stories of Arabian Nights; one can conspicuously notice the interference between fiction (Arabian Nights) and reality.
[15] Sulaiman Arti, The evolution of Hollywood's representation of Arabs before 9/11: the relationship between political events and the notion of 'Otherness', Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, Vol 1, No 2, 2007, p.6
[16]Scheherazade is the famous protagonist, the legendary Persian queen and the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scheherazade (accessed Dec. 09th, 2011)
[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihrimah_Sultan (accessed on Dec. 07th, 2011)
[18] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Morocco (accessed on Dec. 08th, 2011)

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