Arab countries are very often represented through stories about ancient Egypt, involving mummies and archaeological digs, stories about deserts, tents, camels, and also stories about the Holy Land.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has figured as a site of fantasy and mystery in U.S. popular culture through stories about pharaohs, mummies, and pyramids. In stories inspired by Egyptology, Western scientists and heroes often rescue ancient civilizations from oblivion and exhibit such findings in Western museums as symbols of Western progress and civilization. This reinforces the notion that Arab civilization is of the past and not the present and therefore, backwards and uncivilized. Examples include films such as the many The Mummy series (1932-1944, 1959-1971 and 1999-2008) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The Middle East is portrayed as being in need of Western intervention to help them become modern and civilized.

Desert Landscapes

In a similar vein, Arab countries are often depicted as a place of camels, genies and flying carpets, a site of adventure and fantasy. In these representations, Arab countries appear as if there are no cities, and the whole is comprised of one great desert expanse with small villages made up of tents, clouding the diversity of landscapes from cities to villages and deserts. At the other extreme are depictions of extravagant palaces in the desert. Examples include films such as The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and cartoons such as Disney’s Aladdin (1992). The desert comes to signify a lack of civilization while the opulent palace comes to signify unreasonable extravagance and greed.

The Holy Land

The Middle East has been made meaningful to Americans, according to Melani McAlister in Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (2001), through Judeo-Christian representations of Jerusalem as the holy land. Deserts and an ancient Arab region are often represented in relation to Biblical stories and visually dominate epic films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959) and provide the setting for an amusement park in Orlando, Florida called “The Holy Land.” In these instances, Arab peoples are often erased from the landscape.

See video
Professor Alsultany on the History of Representations of the Middle East in U.S. Popular Culture
See video
Professor Shohat on Representing the Middle East Through the Rubric of the Holy Land