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Talk Challenges Middle Easts Representation in U.S.

By Gabriel Rom

From schmaltzy mass-market romance books to pop-culture staples like the Disney film Aladdin, the ubiquity of representations of Islam and the Middle East in almost every single medium of American culture points to a fascination, even an obsession, with Islamic civilization. Whether these representations are offensive, orientalist or a mirror of American culture itself is a more difficult question to answer. UCLA Visual Culture historian Jonathan Friedlander hopes to answer these questions.

Friedlander gave a lecture, The Middle East: Made in America, last Tuesday. He discussed whether American appropriations of Islamic culture are a funhouse mirror, an enlightening one or both.

Over the course of his lecture, Friedlander shared several representations of the Middle East in American pop culture, including books, pulp magazines, film posters, musical scores and newspaper advertisements. Despite these various representations, which were often offensive and stereotypical, Friedlander took a balanced stance, never describing the representations as wholly bad or wholly good. Instead he focused on questions asking why. Why the fascination? Why the obsession? Friedlander said.

Ultimately, Friedlanders main purpose was to show how reproductions of identity can create a new narrative and show that Arab-American voices are entering the conversation. Things are changing, but not fast enough, he said.

While Americas appropriation of Islam is fascinating, it obviously marginalizes Arab Americans themselves, according to Friedlander. Instead of mass American representations, Friedlander stressed that Arabs need to represent themselves, ultimately sharing new stories and viewpoints.

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