Contributed by Yazan Al-Saadi
“Despite the variety and the differences, and however much we proclaim the contrary, what the media produce is neither spontaneous nor completely “free:” “news” does not just happen, pictures and ideas do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds, truth is not directly available, we do not have unrestrained variety at our disposal.
For like all modes of communication, television, radio, and newspapers observe certain rules and conventions to get things across intelligibly, and it is these, often more than the reality being conveyed, that shape the material delivered by the media.” – Edward Said, 1997
Community is one of the most intelligent, sophisticated, and greatest comedy shows on American television. It has so much heart, depth, and breadth wrapped up in a remarkable ensemble of wonderful multi-dimensional characters. Take notes people; this is how TV should be.
For those of you who do not know the premise of the show (you, uncultured flesh-bots), basically, the story revolves around a study group of seven individuals within a pathetic excuse of a community college called Greendale. It is a show that is truly difficult to describe. Not only is it about the characters and the setting, but also, it’s a show that takes risks in providing stimulating meta-commentary on the nature and structure of television shows in general. Watching the show over the past three years, one really gets the feeling that the writers, actors, and all those in-between, actually care about their work and tirelessly churn out great stories.
But…Something is off, at least to me, with one particular character in Community. A character that is both, arguably, the most popular and one that stands at the heart of the show: Abed Nadir.
According to the character’s fictional biography, Abed Nadir is a Muslim hybrid Palestinian-Pole, born in Palestine (in Gaza) and later moved to the US with his family. He is socially awkward and relies on forms of pop-culture to relate to people. Abed is the observer of the group and plays the role akin to the “Greek Choir”, typically breaking the Fourth Wall and commenting in a hilariously dead pan manner on the circumstance of the moment. He is, in effect, “the umbilical cord” for both the writers and the viewers.
Interestingly, Abed Nadir is loosely inspired by Dan Harmon’s (Community’s creator and show runner) real-life friend Abed Gheith, a Palestinian who was born in San Francisco. In fact, Dan Harmon initially campaigned for Gheith to get the part, but Danny Pudi scooped up the role. Danny Pudi, an American of Indian and Polish descent, is a talented actor who really made Abed Nadir his own. At this moment I can’t imagine anyone else really selling with the same comedic timing and unique voice.
On a superficial level, having an Arab and a Muslim as a normal character on the American screen does leave one to stop and take notice; especially, when they aren’t blowing up, hijacking, or screaming incoherently or are planning to kill Americans/Westerns because they just don’t like freedom (or something).
It’s frankly outstanding the mountains of movies, TV shows, comic books, and more in which Arabs and Muslims are presented within a violent, misshapen past-trapped reality. Jack Shaheen’s excellent research on the matter and the documentary based off his work, Reel Bad Arabs, reveals the absolute ridiculous level it has been over the course of the 20th and 21st century. Abed Nadir, on the surface, is just a normal guy who really likes pop culture, which isn’t profound but says much about the rarity of healthy non-white and non-Judeo-Christian characters in American fiction. That is a good thing; we can cautiously consider this “progress”.
Yet, underneath the surface, there are still certain issues that make this character and his portrayal somewhat unsettling.
Take the fact that Danny Pudi is playing an Arab. In the context of American movies and television, there seems to be a systematic trend of getting “brown people”, no matter what nationality or culture, to play other “brown people”; this is particularly so with south Asians playing Arabs.
For non-‘browns’, this is like if a Texan was repeatedly used to play a Swede (They are both white, after all), or a Thai to play a Japanese (They both are Asian, no?) and so on. This would not be an issue if it’s rare and if roles are doled out based on acting merit (which I do think Pudi deserves the role) but the sheer systematic nature of the process demands some serious questions. I hypothesize that within the shiny corridors of Hollywood and American network television brown folks are seen as a homogenous blob, without any consideration for their differences and their vibrancy. Thus they are completely interchangeable (They’ve got the same hue, who’s gonna notice, amirite?).
Granted, there is this mind-numbingly slow evolution in terms of having diverse and multi-dimensional characters within American mainstream fiction, particularly with the recent wave of “Brown People” in television as Pudi pointed out in an interview:
“I‘m just thankful that my character is not just a one dimensional character. There’s a lot to him, you know. I think times have changed a lot from the days of back in the early ‘90s, when I was growing up and you had Dhalsim in Street Fighter, Apu on The Simpsons, or magic rocks protecting Indian villages in Indiana Jones. The fact that I get to play a character that‘s really well rounded and kind of odd and quirky and exploring the world, is just so wonderful.”
Nevertheless, this evolutionary awareness of other cultures loses the ground it develops when producers and the networks continue the homogeneity in dealing with ‘Brown People’ (or any other group of people). On the other hand, it could be worse. They could proceed to whitewash everything (i.e. that depressingly-awful Prince of Persia and the upcoming cluster-**** that will be Akira).
Furthermore, Abed’s ethnicity and religion is simple window dressing; it has no effect on the character. In the context of the show, it shouldn’t be at the forefront at every moment, per say, because I think it would be handled in such an awkward way and it’s not a political show. Still, I wouldn’t mind an iota of positive acknowledgment and it seems like they (the writers) are missing an opportunity here (he might as well be any other nationality and religion and there’s no consequence, while that is not true for the other characters).
Ponder with me for a moment, these examples.
Abed is half-Palestinian from Gaza. You know, Gaza. That small slice of land stuffed-full with refugees and is considered the world’s largest open air prison, illegally blockaded by Israel and has been brutally attacked by the Zionist State over and over and over again since 1947. Wouldn’t that matter to Abed, to some degree? Wouldn’t the issue of Palestinian refugees, statelessness, and collective desolation have some form of impact on his personality since he is a refugee? I understand that there is this fetish-like awe towards Israel and Israelis in American pop culture and, therefore, such attempts are limited, restricted, and risky but the silence by this half-Palestinian character is quite striking.
Beyond ethnicity, when Abed’s religion is noted what is invoked are the stereotypical (lazy) and grossly offensive tropes that outsiders have of Islam. One joke, which comes and goes very quickly, occurred during the Christmas episode of the first season. It was an argument regarding religion, where in the midst of the group’s typically endearing bickering, this line of dialogue popped up:
Britta: Guys, are we really going to let religion divide us? I think there’s one thing we can all agree on.
Abed: I get 72 virgins in heaven.
My, how I hate that ‘72-Virgin’ concept and its unending continuation (it just won’t die). As Leslie Hazleton, speaking as an outsider reading the Quran in this fascinating TED Talk, points out it’s not in the Quran (I resort to this white woman’s voice because she’s old, British, and so adorable that you’d probably take her word for it). Its origins are debated and considered by the vast majority as non-canonical. Personally, I, living in West Asia and studying religion here, only started hearing about this ‘72-Virgin’ thing from Western media agencies and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ post-9/11 as an elaborate explanation to why do “Muzzees” commit violence (Yeah, you got us. It’s all about an eternity of sex, patriarchal paradigm-style).
Another example comes up with Abed’s relationship with his father (played by a South Asian), who runs a falafel restaurant (Gee, that’s original). He’s this harsh fellow that thinks American culture is decadent or whatever and it comes across when Abed’s cousin from Gaza comes to visit (for the life of me I don’t know how the Americans gave her a visa and how does she easily leave Gaza since it is, you know, under a blockade – let’s leave that to suspension of disbelief).
What’s so groan-inducing with this particular story is that the cousin, being female, is completely covered in niqab (because, of course, all female Muslims wear the niqab) and there is this b-plot about how she wants to jump on a trampoline but Abed’s father won’t let her (because, I’m assuming, he’s simply an asshole). Here methinks the writers thought: “Hey, she’s female and Muslim! ENTER REPRESSED FEMALE PLOT POINT, POST HASTE!”
These are the examples we are left with when Abed’s religion and culture is in the forefront. They are played upon casually and mentioned off the cuff, but its effect is hugely damaging as it perpetuates these stale vulgar stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs.
I know I may sound obsessive and some may even say, “So what’s the problem? It ain’t real!”
You are right, it’s not real…
…But, fiction is powerfully influential and it has become very complex. Fiction shapes our reality just as much as reality shapes our fictions, and fiction is an excellent marker for the state of society at the time it manifests. Even more, the forms of racism, discrimination, and the negativities within fiction have adapted to the times – they come in seemingly-harmless easily-digestible shiny packages that hide a greater subtext of distortions, misconceptions, and degradation.
This is what I term “pop-Orientalism” in our Twitter Age.
Even though Abed is seemingly multi-dimensional and is portrayed as a quirky, fun, average guy on the surface, when it comes to tackling or acknowledging other elements of his identity, the writers are tapping into that pop-Orientalist well. This is what makes Abed troubling for me – here is a positive likable character that’s both a ‘token’, an avatar for the writer, and perpetuates foreign-based ideas on Arabs and Muslims on American television. He is a character who seems representative of that “progress” in incorporating the ‘other’, while simultaneously is part of the problem.
I love Community, it deserves my love and I expect that it show me love too. Out of love, I’ve tried to ignore these flaws, but I can’t anymore and I’m not alone in feeling this way about Abed.
So Dan Harmon and the rest of you in the Community writing staff, if you’ve stumbled onto this humble rambling of mine, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Community is a clever subversive piece of entertainment and an excellent way to enjoy a half -hour of television. Therefore, I challenge you to attempt to tackle Abed’s culture, his religion, and this other part of his identity in a way that doesn’t seem pitiful, stereotypical, or just plain stupid. I challenge you to give me a hilarious Ramadan episode.
Can you escape the pop-Orientalist trap?
Yazan Al-Saadi holds a BA Honors in Economics from Queen’s University, Canada and a Master’s of Arts in Globalization, Development, and International Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is currently working as a journalist and editor for an English-language newspaper in Kuwait and is a freelance researcher and writer.
Illustration by Nada Dalloul. You can see her work here: http://www.nadadalloul.com/Filed Under abed nadir, community, guest, nada dalloul, yazan alsaadi