Ron Lahoud became suspicious three weeks ago when Central Casting put out a call for “Arab-looking” extras to appear in Protocol, the Goldie Hawn comedy then being shot in Washington. Assured that the movie was not derogatory, Lahoud and other American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) members tried out. But his suspicions were rearoused when the casting people draped a torn T-shirt atop his head (to simulate a kaffiyeh, or Arab headdress), photographed his hooked-nose profile and urged the Lebanese-American to look “sinister.” Lahoud got the part, then became even more alarmed when he heard Protocol’s directors discussing the name of the movie’s fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom: “Elohtar,” or “Rathole” spelled backward. “It put a big question mark in my head,” says Lahoud, a legal adviser for the ADC. He demanded to read the script. “It had every possible Arab stereotype,” he recalls. “I was outraged.”
Thus began another emotionally charged controversy between an ethnic group and Hollywood. The often heavy-handed screenplay, by Buck (Saturday Night Live) Henry, has produced discord between the film’s producers and the ADC. “Protocol is insulting, hurtful and defamatory to people of Arab descent,” declared James Zogby, executive director of the committee, calling for a series of demonstrations against the film. “They make fun of Arab culture and values and show lusting Arabs everywhere. It’s a typical Hollywood caricature.”
In the film Goldie Hawn is typecast as Sunny Davis, a ditzy blond cocktail waitress recruited to become a White House protocol officer. Her mission: to seduce an Arab emir into providing the United States with a military base in his strategically positioned land. “It’s a funny movie. It’s a comedy,” asserts Hawn, who also is the movie’s executive producer and adds that she has “no problem” with her own stereotypical barmaid/bimbo role. “The one thing my dad always said to me was maintain a sense of humor about yourself. Some people don’t have the same sense of humor, I guess.”
Some of the ADC’s anger is aimed at Protocol’s portrayal of the emir as a rich Arab leader who hands out Rolls-Royces like nickels and has a multitude of wives. But the group is most upset about the film’s irreverent treatment of Islam. In one scene, holy man Nawaf al Kabeer (played by Lebanese-American actor Richard Romanus) becomes so smitten with Goldie that he falls to the floor in wails of ecstasy and grabs her skirt, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great”). “It’s insulting to Islam to portray a religious leader as someone so crude,” says Lahoud. “We’re always shown as being so deprived that we’d do anything for a sexy blonde.” In another scene, Hawn turns to a kaffiyeh-adorned Jordanian security guard and quips: “I have the napkins that match your hat.” “That’s a joke, I suppose,” says Zogby angrily. “But it’s stinging to my children.”
Most offensive to the ADC is a scene in which Nawaf encounters prostitutes outside a nightclub and greets them by name. “Here we have a holy man who cavorts with hookers,” says Zogby. “It’s spiteful toward a religion.”
The committee took to the streets last week, demonstrating at the Jefferson Memorial and outside the movie crew’s Ramada hotel. The ADC claims that when the Colombian Embassy had refused the day before to allow Protocol to film on its grounds, for fear of Arab picketing, the film producers became miffed and threatened to take the film out of Washington. “The ADC will follow them,” vowed former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, chairman of the committee. “We have chapters everywhere.” The group even threatened to disrupt scheduled filming in Tunisia by alerting the government to what they consider Protocol’s anti-Arab content.
Protocol’s producers gradually agreed to look over some of the ADC demands and are considering changing the religious character to a secular man and eliminating some of the more offensive one-liners. “They say they agree in principle on the issue of not producing a film that’s insulting to Arabs,” says Zogby. “They’re going back to the drawing board.” That means Buck Henry is doing some rewriting. Says Abourezk: “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
But many Americans of Arab descent say the fracas is only the latest disturbing symptom of Hollywood’s insulting treatment of Arabs. “You never have Arab heroes,” says Jack Shaheen, a Lebanese-American professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University. In films such as Sahara, Rollover, Network and Black Sunday, Shaheen maintains, “Arab women are primarily harem maidens or terrorists. Arab men are terrorists or oil tycoons intent on buying up America, Islamic fanatics or white slavers who want to abduct any female from 13 to 19 and put her in a bordello. Why can’t Arabs be genuine human beings?” Says ADC director Zogby: “A television executive told me four years ago, ‘Let’s face it. Jewish groups come down hard, blacks come down hard, Hispanics are starting to come down hard. You are the last guys we can do this stuff to and get away with it.’ ”
But screenwriter Buck Henry defends Protocol and charges that the increasing activism of such antidefamation groups poses a threat to creative freedom. “The only person you don’t seem to offend these days is a middle-aged, middle-income, white Protestant with no physical affliction,” he says.
In Washington’s Arab community there was mixed reaction to the Protocol furor. Take Fred Shwaery, a Lebanese-American who read about the controversy in a newspaper. Shwaery promptly put on his coat and rushed out the door—not to join the demonstration, but to audition for a part in Protocol. He was hired to play an Arab security guard. “I wanted to get myself into a movie,” he shrugs, “just to have some laughs.”