Welcome to Faculty Spotlight, a new CIS Snapshot feature profiling our faculty in the Department of International and Area Studies. Our first subject is Dr. Waleed Mahdi, an Assistant Professor of US-Arab Cultural Politics who also teaches in the Department of Modern Languages, Literature, & Linguistics and is affiliate faculty in Film and Media Studies. Now in his fifth year with the College of International Studies. Dr. Mahdi teaches courses such as US-Arab Cultural Encounters, Global Islamophobia and Arabic Literature and Culture.
Mahdi is originally from Yemen, but immigrated to the US after college, earning his MA in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature from the University of New Mexico and his PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. He is now an American citizen, and his experiences as an Arab American inform his scholarship, which focuses on US-Arab issues of cultural representation and identity politics. “Having lived in both Yemen and the United States and learned as well as taught at various universities in both countries, I have certainly developed a cross-cultural sensibility,” he explains, a sensibility which “defines the transnational nature of my research inquiries and my critique of American and Arabic institutionalized forms of alienation and exclusion.”
In his first book, just published by Syracuse University Press, Mahdi explores these issues of identity, belonging and cultural citizenship through the lens of cinema. Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation examines the politics of portraying Arab Americans in Hollywood and Egyptian cinema, as well as works by emerging Arab American directors.
“There is something magical about cinema that not only draws from one's cultural narrative and heritage but also shapes how audiences connect with their sense of being,” Mahdi explains. “Films are also powerful in transcending national borders and connecting with wider audiences in personal ways regardless of their language competency, educational status, or cultural background.” He chose to focus on Hollywood and Egyptian cinemas in particular, he notes, because these films have shaped American and Arabic cultural narratives of one another.
Since the late 1960s, Mahdi notes, American cinema has routinely portrayed Arab Americans as villains as well as “ambiguous insiders” who are not quite American, but Other. Students in his courses are often surprised, he says, to revisit films they grew up watching—like Aladdin or True Lies—and recognize for the first time their two-dimensional and harmful depictions of Arab Americans.
Arab Americans in Film is concerned not only with stereotypes like these, but also with the sense of polarization running through American and Egyptian films. For Mahdi, who was exposed to both Arab and American pop culture growing up, researching the book has led him to explore more deeply the sense of alienation he and many Arab Americans feel, which stems from pressure to identify as one or the other. “My book is a critique of how American and Arab filmmakers have recycled existing American and Arab state nationalist polarizations in ways that often erase the possibility of imagining the existence of Arab American individuals like me outside the ‘you are either American or Arab’ frame,” he says.
In exploring this issue, Mahdi decided it was important to include in the book films by emerging Arab American directors, though the field is still small. These films, he found, managed to capture the Arab-American experience in a new way, conveying “a sense of Arab American authenticity that is about how Arab American individuals define themselves rather than how others define them.”
Arab Americans in Film is out now with Syracuse University Press, and Mahdi has two future projects in the works: a co-authored book that examines Arab support for American deployment of soft power in the “war on terror” era and a second book exploring Yemeni and Yemeni American creative expressions of agency in the twenty-first century.
To learn more about Dr. Mahdi and his work, check out his CIS faculty page. And for more discussion of Arab Americans in Film, read his recent interview with Syracuse University Press.