By Ophira Edut
Hey, non-Arab America, guess what? There are Muslims living in the U.S.A. and some of ‘em are just like us. At least, that’s what TLC’s new reality show All-American Muslim is attempting to portray.
It’s groundbreaking…and it isn’t.
As a Detroit native who grew up a few miles outside of the show’s Dearborn, Michigan setting—a city with the largest Arab population in the United States—I was especially excited to see my hometown make it into reality-land. Simplified or not, it’s high time the media showed a three-dimensional portrait of Arab-Americans, and I’ve set my DVR.
The cameras follow five Muslim families as they navigate between custom and assimilation, and deal with everyday issues like love, family, work and generation gaps. There’s a single Lebanese mom who calls herself a “hillbilly at heart,” marrying an Irish Catholic man who’s converting to Islam. A young mother-to-be, already married at 24, is proud that her husband will break from tradition to be a hands-on dad. There are cops, football coaches, and a sassy blond businesswoman who dresses in short, tight dresses and heels. Some women are veiled (or partly veiled), others are glammed up with blond highlights and heavy makeup. Most of them speak in a flat Midwestern dialect, others with a trace of the Arabic cadence. Hookahs are puffed, prayer rugs unrolled, and daily Muslim life goes on amidst Americana.
While the show has (of course) been criticized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, I believe it’s a good start. (See one Muslim-American man’s food for thought here.) Obviously, it portrays only a small swath of Muslim life in America: the cast is Midwestern and most, if not all, are Lebanese. The mix of old-school and modern values helps humanize a group that’s been scapegoated more than ever in the last decade since 9/11.
Is it a representation of Muslims worldwide? Well, no. Arabs are only 20% of the total Muslim population. Some of the most concentrated Muslim areas are in Asia and southeast Asia (Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia) and Africa (Senegal, Somalia, Djibouti)—not in the Arab countries. Certainly, a TLC reality program can’t represent the entire spectrum of a religion that boasts over a billion members.
This small cast is not “typical Muslim” any more than Snooki and The Situation are ambassadors for Italian Americans. (What TLC left out is that many of Detroit’s Arab residents are also Christian, notably the Chaldeans from Baghdad and some Lebanese folk.) The show will have stereotypes, conversations that make people uncomfortable, all the pathologies of humanity on display. And if you want to get radical for a sec, a subtext does seems to be a message to whitey that the Muslim next door is just like you. But if it’s gotten people (and the media) talking about Arab-Americans without using the terms “terrorist” and “9/11,” it counts as progress in my book.
I grew up in Detroit during the 1970s and ‘80s, and I witnessed the area’s Arab-American assimilation process as a child. It was a similar path to the one taken by Jews (including my own grandparents, who escaped the Holocaust), and other immigrant groups that have fled to the United States.
In grade school during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Arab kids joined my classes mid-year, some not speaking a word of English. Their multi-generational families piled into homes and their families set up businesses, most visibly “party stores,” print shops, banquet halls, restaurants, and groceries. A slow creep of signs written in both English and Arabic peppered the neighborhood, and the kids started to assimilate, joining Girl Scout troops and sports teams and other extracurricular activities. Still, the process was slow, as many of their families still maintained customs from back home.
Over the years, like many other immigrants, some of our Arab neighbors became part of the nouveau-riche out in the sprawling suburbs, adopting Western beauty ideals and consumerism. Others took the educational track, studying business, medicine, law. Now, a whole first-generation group has grown up in America. Only their parents and grandparents remember the struggles of the old country, though they have faced a different kind of discrimination here. As a group of boys on a Dearborn football team explain on All-American Muslim, their high school is 95% Muslim. When they play rival teams, they’re jeered with Arab slurs. But, they insist, it only makes them work harder.
My father is an Israeli immigrant whose family hails from Jaffa, a city south of Tel Aviv with a mixed Jewish and Arab population. When he moved to Detroit three months before I was born, there were very few Israelis, and that’s remained the case. So, the closest thing to home in some ways has been Detroit’s thriving Arab culture. For 30 years, he’s bought his pita, olives, and Turkish coffee at the Arab-owned stores. Access to my own Middle Eastern heritage came from the comfort of pronouncing hummous with a throaty “ch,” and feeling a geographic and cultural kinship of sorts with my Arab classmates. In a school with few other Jewish kids, my ethnic features were often called out, notably my nose, and when people couldn’t figure out where my name or non-WASPy looks came from, they sometimes assumed I was Arab.
Because I grew up with my own version of cultural dissonance, and witnessed how invisible many cultures were in the media, my activism has centered around representation. In 1992, I co-founded a multicultural women’s magazine called HUES (Hear Us Emerging Sisters). The mission was much like that of All-American Muslim: to be a space where underrepresented groups could tell their own stories and be known.
One of HUES’ most popular articles was called “Veiled,” written by one of the hippest chicks you’ll ever meet—Muslim or not—Maysan Haydar. Maysan is from Michigan, too, and she sports both a tongue piercing and a veil. Back in high school, she would mix a full-body hijab (covering) with silver rollerblades and cheerfully skate through the halls. She’s now married to a Christian man, and, much like the TLC cast, has blazed her own trail while practicing “Islam a la carte.” How very American indeed.
But speaking of veiled, Arab and Muslim culture HAS been shrouded in stereotypes and secrecy here, partly because it hasn’t been revealed in pop culture until now. As troublesome and trashy as reality shows can be, they’re still telling the narratives of our times, giving us a voyeuristic glimpse into lives we wouldn’t otherwise see.
The All-American Muslim series is well-done, in my opinion, and also reveals the multitude of decisions that a bicultural American must make. We get a glimpse of women making choices that aren’t traditionally Western (much like in TLC’s controversial show “Sister Wives”); yet, these choices are shot through with American influence. Some women opt to cover their heads with scarves, but express their style with fashionable and colorful fabrics. Others mix full-length hijab coverings with sexy, strappy heels. The Lebanese-meets-Irish-Catholic wedding features a river dance AND a belly dance, veiled vows followed by a white dress reception, a flashy banquet hall that doesn’t serve alcohol. It’s fascinating to see how people walk the line, which elements of their customs they choose to keep.
These very choices, I believe, are what makes the show “all-American.” The notion of personal freedom is what America, in theory, is all about. And this freedom has left an indelible mark on even the most traditional cast members of All-American Muslim. In one poignant scene, the Irish Catholic mom, a little rattled by her son’s upcoming conversion to Islam, is matter-of-fact. She says she knows that society has to evolve—and that as much as we long for things to stay the same, they don’t.
It’s a truth that All-American Muslim challenges us to embrace. Hopefully, this will just be the beginning of fun, down-to-earth and realistic portrayals of a population that’s long overdue for a serious media makeover. Some of them have only been here for a while. But some have been here all along, as American as the rest of us.
If you’re Muslim, Muslim-American, or watching the show, tell us what you think! Keep the dialogue going, because that’s what it’s all about.