Business As Usual:
Exploring the Other from Arabia to Appalachia

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2007, Volume 6, Issue 2

Usame Tunagur
Ohio University

Thomas R. Britt
George Mason University

Muslims and Appalachians – at first glance this seems an unlikely pairing. We have traditionally perceived these peoples a world apart from one another, with no apparent connections. However, these seemingly disparate groups share a history of negative representation. Both have been demonized through common stereotypes, which provide an intersection for the “Moon-Shining, Wife-Beating Hillbilly” and the “Seventy-Two Virgin-Seeking Terrorist.” Fiction and non-fiction accounts about these groups create, situate, and exploit them as the cultural other. Out of these accounts, narrative film has been the leading purveyor, utilizing a unique power to mask, even as it transmits, negative messages about marginalized groups.

In this paper, we will explore two such films, The Sheik (1921) and Songcatcher (2001). These texts embody the insidious approach that characterizes Muslims and Appalachians as the cultural other. The Sheik presents an external otherness and portrays Muslims through the myopic lens of Orientalism. Songcatcher portrays an internal otherness that similarly characterizes Appalachians as uncivilized, primitive savages.

Our goal in analyzing these texts is to examine this (sometimes very subtle) process through which these narratives shape cultural realities and understandings. By choosing films at opposite ends of the film history spectrum, we hope to highlight the persistence of this pattern. Despite technological advances in film production, there is near-stasis in storytelling technique. As a result, certain cultural misconceptions and stereotypes continue to thrive in narrative films when the represented cultures are not speaking for themselves. From 1921 to 2001 and beyond, this is business as usual.

In the seventeenth century, as the Orientalist project took shape, the overtly negative perception of Islam had already been strongly instilled in the minds of Europeans. Orientalists developed various media around this “imagined East,” including paintings, novels, essays, travelogues, and finally films. The image content of this invented Orient was, as the late Edward Said describes it, “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1).

This Orientalist discourse “establishes a set of polarities in which the Orient is characterized as irrational, exotic, erotic, despotic and heathen, thereby securing the West in contrast as rational, familiar, moral, just and Christian” (Lewis 16), and it is also through this binary spatial construct that Europe, and later the United States, identified and expressed themselves. This sheltered expression enabled the Orientalist artists the freedom to cross boundaries, express repressed sexual desires, reestablish nostalgic masculinities and femininities, and unearth the bottom of the iceberg of the Freudian id, all in the disguise of the Orient. As Christian scholar Montgomery Watt observes, 

The war of light and darkness sounds well but in this post-Freudian world men realize that the darkness ascribed to one’s enemies is a projection of the darkness in oneself that is not fully admitted. So in this way the distorted image of Islam is to be regarded as a projection of the shadow side of European Man. (83)

In the specific example of the Muslims and Islam, this imagined reality is ever present and consistently being recharged and kept alive. Indeed, Orientalist perceptions can be found at the root of assumptions made by contemporary government, media, and military, that the Muslim world needs liberation and freedom. Recently, even prominent figures have publicly fallen victim to Orientalist thought. On September 12, 2006, in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict the XVI uttered the following sentence, referencing a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith that he preached” (qtd. in “Aula Magna”). Such contemporary expressions of the Orientalist discourse expose its persistence and its methods of othering for today.

The impact of the Orientalist discourse about Islam and the Muslims on the minds of contemporary Western audiences can best be seen in films and the news media. In fact, there is one filmic text, which is adapted from an Orientalist bestselling novel, that sets the tone for years to come and also provides critical readers with a number of apparatuses utilized across the board in othering attempts, even to the present day.

This film is The Sheik, which could also be called Orientalism 101. It is the 1921 blockbuster Hollywood production that carried Rudolph Valentino to super-stardom. The Sheik also initiates and epitomizes what Jack Shaheen calls Sheik, one of five character types along with Villain, Maiden, Egyptian, and Palestinian (19). He records around 160 sheik character-type movies. The Sheik is the father and the formula in sheik dramas for years to come, including Arabian Love, The Arab, Song of Love, Burning Sands, The Son of the Sheik, The Shriek of Araby, and The Adventures of Hajji Baba, among others (Shaheen 20). The Orientalist sheik tradition continues even today. A current well-known example is the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin. The jinni voiced by Robin Williams, while introducing the story sings:

Oh, I come from a land 
From a faraway place 
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face
It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.

The Sheik is a story about Lady Diana (Agnes Ayres), a French upper class independent woman, who is abducted in France by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), an Arab tribal leader. She is then`taken to what seems to be the deserts of Arabia. Initially, Diana is imprisoned in Sheik’s tent and prays for her freedom. First, Sheik attempts to rape her. However, he is unsuccessful with an implication of impotence. Her prayers come true in another way, and Sheik falls in love with her. However, Sheik Ahmed’s darker-skinned opponent Sheik Omeir (Walter Long) abducts Diana to rape her – and he is definitely not impotent.

With his army, Sheik Ahmed attacks Omeir’s tribe and saves Diana seconds before she is raped, but Ahmed is attacked by the darkest-skinned African slave and rendered comatose. He recovers slowly, opens his eyes on his bed and finally declares his love to Diana. She replies positively to this and announces her love. The audience is challenged with a white woman declaring her love to a non-white man, but then they are immediately relieved, as Sheik’s best friend tells Diana that actually Ahmed is not an Arab. He is the son of a British man and a Spanish woman.

Appalachians, while coming to North America as a part of the European colonies, were soon appointed as the uncivilized mountain people, pushed to the background, and even used as a justification for slavery, with the argument that the white trash mountainfolk were so lazy and incapable of labor, that the slaveholders were obliged to use black slaves as a workforce. Since then, the media image of the uncivilized mountainfolk emerged with two inseparable attachments: moonshine and the family feud. The following is an editorial from a 1912 edition of the Baltimore Sun, which was written in reaction to a deadly shootout in Hillsville, Virginia:

There are but two remedies for such a situation as this, and they are education and extermination. With many of the individuals, the latter is the only remedy. Men and races alike, when they defy civilization must die. The mountaineers of Virginia and Kentucky and North Carolina, like the red Indians and the South African Boers, must learn this lesson.  (qtd. in Harkins 35)

Ironically, a secondary image of the Appalachian was being popularized at the same time. This image is of the one who stands up for true rugged individualistic American attitudes. The Appalachians were presented as a possible alternative for the iron-caged industrialized people who were tired and worn-out by modernity, urbanization, and strict bureaucracy. In 1896, Pencraft, the lead character in Francis Lynde’s Moonshiner of Fact, takes a trip through the mountains of eastern Tennessee. He says: “These people are poor and ignorant and simple and primitive – anything you like along that line…but they are as hospitable as the Arabs, as honest as they are simple, and as harmless as unspoiled country-folk anywhere” (qtd. in Harkins 40-41).

As with shoot-from-the-hip representations of Muslims, the treatment of Appalachians in the media has moved only negligible degrees away from the traditional stereotypical characterization. In this case, the Orientalist attitudes are imported and applied to portions of the United States and its people: “The other of internal orientalism belongs to the state where the othering is produced” (Jansson 267). When the Sago Mine accident captured the attention of America in 2005, the cable networks’ freshest faces were sent to West Virginia to report from the front lines. And while their reporting was for the most part reverent with respect to the event itself, their descriptions of the native people were virtual echoes of Pencraft’s statement, extolling the simple virtues of a simple, hospitable people. More vicious and deliberate are the representations in lightweight Hollywood fare such as Someone Like You (2001). Where the script requires a character to give commentary on cows, the finished film makes the obvious choice and gives him dirty overalls and a Southern accent. Even in an innocuous romantic comedy, Appalachians and Southerners receive no mercy.

In Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) flees her university in the wake of professional and romantic frustration and escapes to the Appalachian Mountains for the purpose of retreat. A second (soon to be dominant) goal of her trip emerges, which is to collect the songs of the people in this untouched (read: unwashed) environment. A surface reading of the inciting incident and the ensuing journey is that Dr. Penleric needs to forge her own path if she is going to distinguish herself in the academic world. A deeper reading of the entire set of narrative events suggests that in order to assert her identity as a strong modern woman, Dr. Penleric needs to exercise control over an entire group of people. That control involves appropriating their precious, if not sacred, songs, offering reams of unsolicited aid and advice, and taming one of its more feral men – this is how she will drag them into the realm of civilization.

Songcatcher is a period piece whose narrative events depend on the dual oppression of women in the city and hillbillies in the mountains. The film perpetuates and invigorates the White Female Intellectual Liberal Liberator (WFILL) character type, and it is also an example of internal orientalism. It announces itself as a film that intends on exploring the pioneering spirit, but as the film unfolds that spirit quickly morphs into one of appropriation akin to colonialism. Unlike The Sheik, it stays within our gates, yet it offers a comparable tenor of negative representation. The film reinforces the notion that negative portrayals are almost certainly around the bend when the film itself “looks at privilege from the position of privilege and thereby excludes the disenfranchised” (Rocchio 117). To complicate matters, the film (and by extension, its maker) seems to mistake its protagonist as belonging to the sphere of the disenfranchised.

Perhaps the most problematic element of this narrative type is a central contradiction:  It is predicated on evolution yet rarely operates in a way that moves its supposed causes forward. And in many cases, the formulaic narrative thrust requires regression, often through the monolithic portrayal of disenfranchised characters that depend on the saving grace of the main character. The elements of the formula are almost always thus:

  1. The protagonist enters a foreign environment and discerns certain needs of the native community.
  2. The ability to intercede, speak and/or act on behalf of the other is regarded as a goal and function of the protagonist.
  3. The protagonist’s upward mobility occurs at the expense of the group(s) to whom she is offering aid.
  4. The audience is not asked to consider the collateral damage left behind once the main character has achieved her goal and/or learned her lesson.

Audience reaction to the films, then, depends on the degree to which viewers accept these stereotypes in the service of their protagonists’ goals being met. When the formula works, the audience members become unconscious accomplices to negative representation through alignment with their hero.

Interestingly, the central figures in these stories are women who hope to move beyond a traditional notion of females as passive and to activate practical changes in exotic environments. We suspect there is a degree of calculated justification at play here. For instance, one might say the worth of the films is found in their progressive gender representation, thus excusing the otherwise negative portrayals of race and culture. Yet even this gender evolution is self-defeated when the protagonists are inevitably overwhelmed by emotion and impulse. Suffice it to say that such films, and particularly the two films in question, suggest that the women cannot “have it both ways.” Again, despite the seeming good intentions of the filmmakers, the cumulative meaning or message of the tale denudes the occasional or incidental step forward, and the films reveal themselves to be anything but progressive. Despite the pioneering efforts of these women, they ultimately fulfill only that which their proximity to a new masculine dominator allows. This character type – the WFILL – is therefore central to both the stories and ideological underpinnings of The Sheik and Songcatcher.

These films share a number of traits, plot points, and other cinematic-narrative devices. In the following section, we will examine these films’ similar representation of violence, sex, and religion as fundamental elements in shaping perceptions of Muslims and Appalachians.

The first two scenes of The Sheik are Orientalism-in-a-nutshell and introduce the audience to the implications that follow. The first scene opens with a shot of a minaret from where a muezzin (caller) is calling to prayer (adhan). Then, we are in a desert where a group of generic Muslims are performing the Islamic daily prayer. Not only is it performed incorrectly but also in a way that is disrespectful and insulting to an ordinary Muslim. The following scene is a slave-marriage in the desert where women are presented to Sheik Ahmed. He buys whichever – not whomever – he likes and for which he lusts. These women are sold and bought in the desert, to put it plainly. The combination of these two scenes forms a single-minded conclusion: They are Muslims, they pray, and they treat women like livestock or property. Steven Canton concludes that the editing of these two scenes together suggests “that religion is to blame for this reduction of women to commodities” (114). 

The following scene conveniently introduces Diana as a prototypical WFILL, who is clearly not interested in marriage due to its restrictive nature. After she exchanges gazes with Sheik Ahmed for the first time and goes in disguise by getting dressed in a belly dancer costume, she goes into Sheik’s party in the hotel. Sheik Ahmed is gambling the women he bought in the previous scene. Here, again, the film re-emphasizes the correlation between Islam and the commodification of women. Sheik Ahmed’s guests are happy to gamble for a white woman. But she instructs the West on how to deal with the Orient: She takes her gun out and saves herself from rape. 

The ill treatment of women is accompanied by violence and bloodshed. It is interesting to note that in the scenes featuring the tribe of Sheik Ahmed, they are armed with rifles. In a classic case of sabre-rattling, they always carry their rifles and point them upwards, in an extra effort to make them visible for the camera. The second half of the story involves gunfights with the rival Sheik Omeir and Ahmed’s final assault to Omeir’s settlement. Cumulatively, the film shows Muslims’ lives consisting of ill treatment of women, warfare, and prayers – or something that looks like it.

The ready availability of guns, violence, and misogyny are impossible to miss in Songcatcher. Conflict is resolved by drawing one’s rifle. When Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) first appears, he comes into the house wearing a readily identifiable hillbilly outfit, and of course, carrying his gun. In his informative book, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, Anthony Harkins summarizes the media-constructed hillbilly imagery in seven features: “A surly disposition, bare-feet, long scruffy beard, suspender-clad overalls, shapeless oversized felt hat, moonshine jug or flask, and long-barreled rifle” (39). Most of these tropes are evident in Bledsoe with a few upgrades to make him likeable to contemporary audiences. Honeycutt (Greg Russell Cook), a teenage boy hired by Dr. Penleric to assist with her belongings, breaks the fan she gives to Deladis (Emmy Rossum) as a gift. His violent reaction to the introduction of a high culture accoutrement establishes the movie’s pattern of hillbilly psychology, based on pure emotion and violent reflex rather than reason or intellect. When an Appalachian is mad, he/she breaks, beats, or shoots a gun.

As with The Sheik, womanizing is also prevalent throughout Songcatcher. One of the main Appalachian characters, Alice Kincaid (Stephanie Roth Haberle), is a mother to many children. However, her husband, Reese (Michael Harding), is cheating on her with another woman and he is never around. When he fails to show up as Alice gives birth to their child, it is Miss Butler (Pat Carroll), the old lady of the town, and Dr. Penleric the WFILL, who deliver the baby. Although Dr. Penleric takes it upon herself to reunite the couple later, this dysfunctional mountain marriage is destined to fail. The womanizing and violence go so hand in hand that at the end of the movie Reese’s mistress kills him in front of his family in a makeshift Appalachian church. Even the church does not provide sanctuary for this Appalachian family feud.

These movies portray religion as backward and simple and as a roadblock to civilization. While The Sheik presents Christianity as the cure for Islam, Songcatcher offers intellectualism and modernity as the cure for Christianity. In The Sheik, Christianity is presented almost as an antidote to this problem-ridden tribal society. As Canton argues, “the film means to leave no doubt as to the power of Christianity in saving this young woman and her lover and thus triumphing over its arch adversary, Islam” (115). After Sheik’s unsuccessful rape attempt, he orders Diana to get dressed for dinner, and she comes out with a large shining cross on her neck. After dinner, Sheik Ahmed tries once again to have her but is interrupted with the news that his horses had gotten loose during the sandstorm. When he leaves to attend to the problem, “Diana, visibly relieved, slumps by the side of the bed with her hands clasped in fervent prayer, her head raised heavenward, the cross around her neck gleaming like a beacon in the infernal darkness” (Canton 115). The cross is elevated above all other elements of the mise-en-scene, virtually becoming a tool of exorcism.

In Songcatcher, however, Christianity is no longer the cure but the problem. Not only is Christianity portrayed as accompanying low-culture barbarism, but also it is juxtaposed against rationalism, civilization and development. For instance, Reverend Merriweather (Taylor Hayes) knows the most ballads, but does not give even one song to Dr. Penleric because he has found the good old religion and now considers singing as the devil’s work. When Honeycutt and his friend discover that the two female school marms are in a lesbian relationship, they burn down the school in another fit of reactionary violence. The rage continues as Reverend Merriweather verbally attacks and rebukes the teachers during the Sunday service. Interestingly enough, Merriweather’s daughter, who is also Reese Kincaid’s mistress, kills Reese during the very same service. Absurd as it seems, this scene is the height of the movie’s indictment of Christianity as the meeting place for aberrant sexuality and violent nihilism. Yet there is a deeper function to these exorcisms and fiery baptisms. They prepare us for final revelations that both movies strategically use to separate the true indigenous hoi polloi from those who are capable of cultural salvation.

Only when the truth about Ahmed is revealed at the very end of The Sheik, does the film’s true intent become clear. He is the son of a British nobleman and a Spanish mother. This revelation completely re-contextualizes the story, attaching a new set of characteristics and values to Ahmed’s actions and attributes. At this point, the film’s new argument is that the evil attributes of Ahmed, which are also shared by Sheik Omeir are original, primordial Muslim values. However, his virtues and his readiness for Western values are due to his ancestry. These values are further prefigured by his noticeably lighter complexion. The fact that he allows a slave girl to marry his associate Yousef (George Waggner), that he never raped Diana, and that he fought for his love, are all attributable to his Western background. At the end, the real Arab/Muslim is not Ahmed but Omeir: Omeir abducted Diana, imprisoned her under a big black guardian, attempted to rape her, and was killed and corrected by a Westerner Sheik, Ahmed. Shohat and Stam summarize the revelation of Ahmed’s background, “Valentino, as long as the spectator knows him only as an Arab, acts as the id. Revelation of his status as the son of Europeans, however transforms him into a superego figure who risks his life to rescue the [European] woman from ‘real’ Arab rapists” (168).

While The Sheik advocates the power of nature to redeem, Songcatcher emphasizes nurture. After the fire, Dr. Penleric decides to return to civilization without completing her research. However, she takes Tom and Deladis with her. These two are the only Appalachians who are tamable, upgradeable, and civilizable: Tom has already been out of Appalachia as a youngster and Deladis is still young and impressionable. Penleric’s initial plan to collect songs scientifically, introduce them to mass culture, and thereby promote Appalachian heritage changes course. Now equipped with Tom’s guitar and Deladis’s great voice and vast repertoire, Penleric recognizes the commercial potential of these songs. At the film’s conclusion, the trio is ostensibly bound for fame and fortune thanks to the appropriation and commodification of the Appalachian people and their land. Songcatcher argues that as long as the mountaineer is exposed early enough, science and a modern urban lifestyle will cure his/her backwardness.

Penleric’s choice to explore and educate (rather than exterminate) evokes several filmic precedents, among them the work of Robert Flaherty. Early in his career, Flaherty, regarded as a key founder of the documentary tradition, “plunged with all his heart into the role of explorer and prospector” (Barnouw 45). His work as a prospector amidst exotic worlds and people reflected what Flaherty later interpreted as his participation in a kind of cultural destruction. His films therefore “[banish] the intruder from the world he portrayed” (Barnouw 45). Flaherty’s own words reveal the perspective from which he hoped to shoot real-life subjects:

I am not going to make films about what the white man has made of primitive peoples…What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible – before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well. (Barnouw 45)

In Nanook of the North (1922), for example, Flaherty succeeded in his mission. When he could have intervened with his rifle or other modern instruments to help his onscreen subjects, he restrained for the sake of his portrait. While some say his approach was overly romantic – having his subjects reenact already outmoded practices for the sake of preservation – he nonetheless empowered them with the ability to convey their experiences themselves, free of too heavy an intervening authorial hand. Until more filmmakers confront and remedy their own tendencies to exploit the cultural other through this formulaic Orientalist lens, their films will continue to be business as usual.

Works Cited

Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements, John Musker. Perf. Jonathan Freeman, Linda Larkin, Scott Weinger, Robin Williams. 1992. DVD. Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2004.

“Aula Magna.” 3 October 2006 < benedict_xvi/>. Path : Speeches; 2006; September ; Meeting with the representatives of science in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg.

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Canton, Steven C. “The Sheik: Instabilities of Race and Gender in Transatlantic Popular Culture of the Early 1920’s.” Noble Dreams Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930. Ed. Holly Edward. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000.  99-119.

Harkins, Anthony. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.

Jansson, David R. “‘A Geography of Racism’: Internal Orientalism and the Construction of American National Identity in the Film Mississippi Burning.”  National Identities 7.3 (2005): 265-285.

Lewis, Reina. Gendering Orientalism. London: Routledge, 1996.

Nanook of the North.  Dir. Robert Flaherty. Perf. Allakariallak, Nyla. 1922. DVD. Criterion Collection, 1999.

Rocchio, Vincent F. Reel Racism: Confronting Hollywood’s Construction of Afro-  American Culture. Boulder:  Westview Press, 2000.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Press, 1979.

Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001.

Shohat, Ella & Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge, 1994.

Someone Like You. Dir. Tony Goldwyn. Perf. Hugh Jackman, Ashley Judd, Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei. 2001. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2003.

Songcatcher. Dir. Maggie Greenwald. Perf. Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Emmy Rossum. 2000. DVD. Lions Gate, 2001.

The Sheik. Dir. George Melford. Perf. Agnes Ayres, Ruth Miller, Rudolph Valentino, George Waggner. 1921. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2002.

Watt, Montgomery W. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1972.


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