As I sat to write one of the many versions of what would become this first chapter, it struck me that all previous iterations of this chapter began with a discussion of ‘the Muslim problem’.
I tried instead to strike a more optimistic note, from a place that does not foreground the limits of being Arab or Muslim (or both) in modern-day Australia, but rather from a place that is entirely full of possibility and hope. In the world of fiction, possibilities seem endless.
Cultural creatives can summon worlds where animals speak; the most unlikely individuals fall in love; witches and wizards are real; cars fly; and wardrobes are a doorway to a fantastical land. Yet in the world of Australian film and television, there is great difficulty in imagining a place for Arab and Muslim Australians beyond stereotypes and clichés—if these people appear at all.
This book is about the significance of acknowledging difference in visual modes of storytelling. It is equally about the limits of storytelling in multicultural Australia, where hierarchies of belonging order our nation.
In such matters, Australia in the year 2017 strikingly resembles the America of 1978 and before. The dehumanisation of Arabs and Muslims in modern Australia is inescapably oppressive. Muslims in particular occupy a position of such visibility that on any given day you would be hard pressed to find a media outlet that is not reporting on ‘Islamic terrorism’, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘Islamic extremism’ or any one of their derivatives.
Muslims are so visible that even the most mundane aspects of their lives become newsworthy. One recurring example is how Muslim women who play any kind of sport become fodder for supposedly ‘feel good’ current affairs segments. These kinds of stories may appear innocuous in tone, and may even appear to be ‘positive’ stories about everyday Muslims who are just like ordinary Australians, but they exist as exceptional, as newsworthy only because of the assumption that Islam is fundamentally problematic and Muslims embody these problems.
Muslims are so visible that even the most mundane aspects of their lives become newsworthy.
These stories do not say that Muslims are everyday Australians. Rather the like becomes imperative: Muslims are like everyday Australians. The difference is significant. To be like something by definition means not to be that thing.
It is my hope that this book reveals the nature of the structural limitations of representation concerning Arab and Muslim communities in Australian film and television, and also serves as a reminder that the ‘problem’ is not with Arab and Muslim people.
This book examines the representation of Arab and Muslim men in Australian film and television, and in doing so it brings to the conversation a much-needed recognition that filmmakers and television producers often use their art for overtly political purposes. The ‘failure’ of these artistic endeavours, however, does not always lie in an inability to present new characters on screen, but rather in an inability to reimagine the nation beyond hierarchies of cultural belonging.
Why art is important - The Combination and Cedar Boys
The Combination and Cedar Boys go some way to challenging a number of common sense understandings of the Arab and Muslim man. Primarily the films offer voice and attempt to present complex explanations about the reasons young men ‘choose’ crime.
These two films begin to fill a glaring gap in the Australian film market. For years Australian feature films seemed to ignore the diversity of Sydney’s western suburbs. While films such as Looking for Alibrandi (2000) and The Wog Boy (2000) acknowledged the, at times, frictional relationship between European migrants and the mainstream (mostly through humour), it was only with the release of The Combination and Cedar Boys that stories of Arab-Australians begin to be explored on the big screen in Australia.
These films tell the story of young men from working-class backgrounds. Both The Combination and Cedar Boys give voice to a cohort of men not often heard from in the mainstream. Both Charlie and Tarek are examples of the ongoing struggle that working-class, Arab men experience living in Australia. These young men are often spoken about, but rarely spoken with, in discussions about their struggle to belong and their outward expressions of difference.
It is for this reason in particular that films like The Combination and Cedar Boys are necessary. These films expose us to the narrative of struggle and sometimes despair through the eyes of young working-class Australian men from Arabic-speaking backgrounds. Secondary to this, it also reveals the diversity of Australians from Arabic-speaking backgrounds—in particular making clear that Arab is not a synonym for Muslim.
These films expose us to the narrative of struggle and sometimes despair through the eyes of young working-class Australian men from Arabic-speaking backgrounds.
Given the controversy surrounding young men from this background in the decade leading up to the release of these films, such films become important in understanding the perspective of young men from Arabic-speaking backgrounds who do not fit the mould of the ‘good’ migrant.
This by no means suggests that all young men in this situation will turn to crime as a solution to the social pressures, and I detail the limits of films like The Combination and Cedar Boys, as they sometimes reinforce a very limited perception of Arab and Muslim men in the Australian media. Despite the limits, however, the voices of these men in fiction is still a valuable contribution. As Caradee explains:
"No-one asked how or who their role models are and how and why they make these choices to fall into this world. That’s not saying they all fall into this world. Like some of them end up being doctors and lawyers and politicians and bank managers and [the] Aussie Home loans [man] or footballers and that’s fine."
However, it is significant that these characters are presented to us as having a backstory of complex family and community ties, and a long history of alienation in school and in the workplace. It is within this exploration that both films attempt to explain, artistically, the intersection between ethnicity, class and gender.
In this case the experience of marginalisation and the expressions of ‘protest masculinity’ are related to experiences of class and race. The Combination and Cedar Boys offer a glimpse into the sometimes unpleasant realities of marginalisation of this complexity. Additionally, these films, in particular The Combination, attempt to break down or challenge the binary around ‘good’ and bad’ migrants.
The following is an extract from Mehal Krayem's book 'Heroes, Villains and the Muslim Exception' $49.99. Published by Melbourne University.
Mehal Krayem will be in conversation with Randa Abdel-Fattah for the launch of the book at UTS on Thursday May 3.
You can follow her on Twitter @mehalkrayem.