Marvel bucked its own streak of Orientalist tropes with its latest film, Moon Knight, directed by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab. The New Arab charts the media franchise’s portrayal of the SWANA region and explains why Moon Knight could be a turning point.
As people of South West Asian and North African (SWANA) descent, we are used to popular media portraying our home countries and peoples as foreign, exotic and dangerous. Western mainstream media, especially action movies, superheroes, fantasy films and television perpetuate this orientalism.
Representation is important in this massive entertainment scene for the ease and extent to which it influences how non-SWANA view the region and its people.
While we are so diverse in our region and in our own countries, the perpetuation of this flattening gives the public mental permission to see us all as interchangeable, violent, “backward” and monocultural.
“There are so many new stories of all of us to tell. While it’s important to undo the Orientalism of the material when we can, like Diab does with Moon Knight, I hope it helps create more ‘opportunities to tell our original stories to popular acclaim as well’
Any Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Amazigh, North African or other SWANA person knows the truth about the rich diversity and beauty of our people and our region, but has not had the opportunity to speak this truth on a flat -shape as massive as Marvel. So far, with Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s portrayal of his home country in the current MCU series, Moon Knight.
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has been less than ideal in its portrayals of the region. In one of the recent series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldierthe opening action sequence takes place in Tunisia, with Sam Wilson tracking the criminal Batroc, through dangerous gorges.
We then see Sam and Joaquin Torres sipping tea in a market, and local Tunisians approaching them to thank them for being there. While having the orientalist yellow filter that American film and television always like to use for the SWANA region or anywhere else in the Global South.
These elements combine to paint Tunisia (and North Africa as a whole) as a dangerous place to be saved from American soldiers and to perpetuate these lies.
While the general public consumes this film and other neo-Orientalist films and televisions, such as Country and Tehran, these notions become harder to break down. This is especially evident with the portrayal of the villain Sam was chasing in this scene.
“As far as I know, the MCU’s problems with the representation of North African countries start with The Winter Soldier (2014), when they introduced Georges Batroc,” says a Franco-Algerian literature student and fan of Marvel Comics. Boumrane Derrar Meftah. “In the comics, he’s a cartoonish Frenchy villain with a big French accent and a big mustache, but to match the more serious tone of the movie, they decided to write him as a French-Algerian terrorist.
“They never fully fleshed out his cultural background in the film, except for this hurtful line, said by Alexander Pierce to correct someone who calls him a French criminal: “For the record, he is Algerian.“Arabizing a terrorist character for no reason has terrible connotations in itself, but making a French character Algerian is so specifically targeted given the past of both countries and the way Algerian immigrants are viewed in France,” Boumrane adds.
“Arabizing a terrorist character for no reason has in itself a terrible connotation, but making a French character Algerian is so specifically targeted given the past of both countries and the way Algerian immigrants are perceived in France”
“This specific line that he is Algerian and not French is something that racists and the media commonly use to stigmatize us whenever there are criminals of Algerian or Arab origin, although they are most of the times born and bred in France – which seems to be the case with Batroc from the little backstory they give him.
“When they brought the character back Falcon and The Winter Soldierthey didn’t restore his ties to Algeria (it says in episode 5 that he was in an Algerian prison) and they made it even worse by having Sam Wilson fight in a yellow-filtered Tunisia.”
So what a delightful surprise it was when Marvel announced Egyptian director Mohamed Diab as chief director of Moon Knightwith Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and Egyptian-Palestinian-Bahraini actress May Calamawy of Rummy fame will be one of the tracks.
Although I haven’t read his comics, I knew the Moon Knight/Marc Spector character was a Jewish American mercenary with the powers of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu.
I knew the comics themselves (like many others) perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes about the region, but if there could be an opportunity to rectify and revise that, then this might be it.
Although I was disappointed that they didn’t cast a well-known Jewish actor in the role (although it should be noted that Oscar Isaac has Jewish ancestry), Diab and Calamawy’s announcements filled me with hopefully this series would imbue Egypt and its people with an ingrained humanity, grace and beauty that is too often unapproachable in Western media.
“Any Arab, Kurdish, Turkish, Amazigh, North African or other SWANA person knows the truth about the rich diversity and beauty of our people and our region, but has not had the opportunity to speak this truth about a platform as massive as Marvel.”
As someone from the Middle East, I see the potential for Moon Knight for all of us.
Egypt in Moon Knight does not have an ugly yellow filter. Cairo is not a “backward” place, but a prosperous and bustling city full of light.
There is a scene of joy with Egyptians dancing to their beautiful music on the Nile, the bazaar in which Marc meets Layla is colorful, showing the Arab protagonist enjoying a delicious tamarind drink, and is more modern than traditional. other representations of a bazaar.
It’s a real place with real people living their lives and marveling at the changing night sky.
These scenes are mostly brief, with much more emphasis on the main character’s action and psychedelic plot, but it’s still a step up for other portrayals of the SWANA people in genre media. .
Even the depiction of Egyptian gods – perhaps minus some of the accents – seems more authentic than typical Orientalist depictions, with at least some of the gods played by real Egyptians and not made to look so supernatural, but grounded and therefore more relatable.
The biggest step up by far is the mesmerizing Layla El-Faouly played by May Calamawy. While her analog in the comics was a white woman named Marlene, the creative team, led by Diab, made the wise decision to cast her as a true Egyptian who retains her ties to the country, even though she had already was forced to leave for unknown circumstances. .
In Layla, May Calamawy brings enormous strength, vulnerability, humor and complexity in a way rarely offered to Arab or other SWANA women.
She has her own goals and travels alongside Marc/Steven and her own development, especially in episode 4. And the fact that May Calamawy herself contributed production on how to avoid stereotyping l Egypt and the Arabs is wonderful and has clear results. on the screen.
Basically, for all of us SWANA people, it’s all about presenting ourselves as people, and any specific cultural representation about us must be done with our input and leadership in the case of Mohamed Diab. In this, Layla provides the model for other Arab and SWANA characters in popular media.
Moon Knightwhile being a step forward, only one step remains.
The media landscape of Arab and SWANA representation in Western media remains infinitesimal, but hopefully with the scope of a Disney+ MCU series like this, it will compound the opportunities that Mohamed Diab, May Calamawy and other North African, Arab and other SWANA creators enter Hollywood.
There are so many new stories of all of us to tell. While it’s important to undo the Orientalism of the material when we can, as Diab does with Moon Knightwe hope this will help create more opportunities to tell our original stories to popular acclaim.
Swara Salih is a writer and podcaster who has written for The Nerds of Color and But Why Tho?. He co-hosts The Middle Geeks podcast, which covers all things SWANA/MENA representation, and is co-host of Spider-Man/Spider-Verse. Into The Spider-Cast podcast.
Follow him on Twitter: @spiderswarz