‘Tyrant,’ FX’s Middle East drama, draws complaints of Arab and Muslim stereotypes

June 25, 2014

Ashraf Barhom as Jamal, Adam Rayner as Barry and Jennifer Finnegan as Molly in “Tyrant.” (Patrick Harbron/FX)

It’s no secret that FX’s new drama “Tyrant” — about the son of a Middle Eastern dictator who leaves his comfortable California life to return to his troubled home country — has had problems since its inception. Ang Lee was supposed to direct the pilot, but dropped out. People criticized the hiring of a white lead actor to play the main Middle Eastern character. The Hollywood Reporter has a long story about the struggle of making the show, which involved lot of behind-the-scenes issues for its creators.

Most notably, however, as the first episode aired Tuesday night, the series is getting many complaints for one particular issue: Arab and Muslim stereotypes.

Set in fictional Middle Eastern country Abbudin, the series kicks off as the long-exiled son comes home after decades away (he couldn’t handle his father’s dictatorship). After a series of unfortunate events, he may be forced to now help his native country, which is going through “complex and turbulent growing pains of a nation straining to break free from dictatorial rule,” according to the network description.

Before the show officially premiered, groups were already taking offense at its portrayal of the Middle East. After a pilot screening in Washington last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) fired off a release asking TV reviewers to address the cliches.

“In the pilot of FX’s ‘Tyrant,’ Arab Muslim culture is devoid of any redeeming qualities and is represented by terrorists, murderous children, rapists, corrupt billionaires and powerless female victims,” said CAIR’s national communications director, Ibrahim Hooper. “In ‘Tryant,’ even the ‘good’ Arab Muslims are bad.”

In the release, Hooper noted “the producers of the series claim that it is merely a reflection of the brutal actions of dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi. Unfortunately, ‘Tyrant’ will be seen by many viewers as an indictment of an entire culture.”

Previously, CAIR had requested a meeting with FX to address potential “Islamophobic stereotyping.” Hooper did say that a producer told him that future episodes will be more nuanced. THR reported that showrunner Howard Gordon (behind “Homeland” and “24,” also heavy on Middle Eastern themes) has talked with the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Muslims on Screen and Television in regards to the show. He also hired a Palestinian to serve as a consultant on the series, which films in Israel.

During a discussion about the show with a group of Middle Eastern policy experts, THR notes, one Syrian American participant said of the first episode, “In those 60 minutes, I noted more nuance when portraying the dictators than most major news networks have achieved in all their coverage.”

But some who viewed the first episode were disappointed in what they considered upsetting cliches of Middle Eastern culture.

The show’s made-up country, Abbudin, seems to be an amalgam of real-life events in Syria, Egypt and Libya; characters name-check figures like Hussein and Gaddafi. In the pilot, the main character is Bassam “Barry” Al-Fayeed, who fled his country and his father’s dictatorship 20 years ago to live in America. Now, with an American wife, Molly, and two kids, he’s pressured into returning to Abbudin to attend his nephew’s wedding. His older brother and presumed next in line for the presidency, Jamal, is introduced as he’s raping a woman while her husband waits in the other room. (Jamal later also sexually assaults his son’s new bride in a very disturbing scene.)

Throughout the episode as Barry reluctantly deals with his family, we see flashbacks of him and Jamal as kids, as their father — president Khaled Al-Fayeed — tried to train them to become cold-blooded dictators, killing people on the spot. As Khaled explains it, noting that anger is rising in the country: “After everything I’ve given the people, they’re still not satisfied. They say they want freedom. To do what? Kill each other? I give them order and prosperity, and all they want is chaos.”

By the end of the episode, naturally, Khaled suffers a stroke, and it looks like Barry might be next in line to take over instead of his evil brother.

After viewing the episode, multiple TV critics didn’t need CAIR’s call to point out stereotypes. The Washington Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever wrote, “Nothing could seem less appetizing at the moment than a clumsily written and stultifyingly acted TV drama stocked with tired and terribly broad notions of Muslim culture in a make-believe nation on the brink.”

In the Los Angeles Times, critic Mary McNamara said, “In attempting to mix West with Middle East, the show too often seems content with stereotyping both.” Time’s James Poniewozik pointed out in comparison to other shows, “If ‘Tyrant’ is meant to expand on the portrayals of the Middle Easterners peripheral to stories like ’24,’ it fails badly.”

NPR’s Eric Deggans sums up: “Most every Arab character outside of Bassam is seriously flawed,” he wrote, noting Jamal and another brutal general. “This is a show about the Middle East as seen through Americanized eyes, with little of the nuances in Arab or Muslim culture on display. The unfortunate effect is a constant, not-so-subtle message: If these people would just act like Americans, everything would be so much better.”

Beyond the complaints, however, the show did get some positive feedback, with some outlets calling the drama “engrossing” and “fascinating.” In a Daily Beast column titled “For Muslims, Howard Gordon’s ‘Tyrant’ Is a Step in the Right Direction,” writer Dean Obeidallah said he think it’s a very positive step that executive producer Gordon says he’s “included Arab-Americans and Muslims in the creative process.” Gordon reiterated he has been in contact with, among others, the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

“MPAC has had a significant impact on the development of this project from its inception,” he said. “I tried to address their concerns regarding cultural inaccuracies and potentially incendiary characterizations. I may not always have been entirely successful, but the dialogue has always been open and fluid.”

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.
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