This article surveys a representational pattern in Egyptian cinema since the 1990s that both counters Hollywood’s Orientalist binaries and produces alternative imaginations of Arab Americans. Egyptian filmmakers, I argue, have confined the filmic imaginations of Arab Americans within the parameters of Egyptian identity. While embedded in nationalist articulations of class, gender, and generation, and presented within multilayered critiques of materialism, power, and nostalgia, the Egyptian American characters in the surveyed films are either denigrated as American or celebrated as Egyptian. Thus, the Egyptian cinematic form of subversion, I contend, fails to navigate away from reversing Hollywood’s polarizing portrayals.
How do filmmakers in the United States play a role in perpetuating narratives of belonging to the American culture? What is the marking line between Orientalist and post-Orientalist articulations of Arabness? In what ways have the transnational configurations of geopolitics affected the image formations of Arab Americans in Hollywood? This article emerges at the intersection of those inquiries, and provides a historical account of Hollywood’s representation of Arab Americans rooted in the 1970s. This decade, I argue, constitutes a turning point in the industry’s nationalist projections of Arabness from an Orientalist trope for Arabia to a post-Orientalist notion influenced by U.S.-Arab and Arab-Israeli geopolitics. It replaces an earlier moral geography that consumes the Orient while remaining distant from it with a new moral geography that constantly questions Arab Americans’ belonging through narratives of alienness and terrorism. The significance of this work lies in its investigation of the historical trajectory of Hollywood’s engagement with the Arab American cultural identity.