“I was convinced that a good story needed to have foreigners in them”

Why we need to overcome the dangers of a single story


By Laila Mostafa

Our professor looked down in disappointment as the last group of my fellow classmates finished their presentation. They stood nervously and looked at her, waiting to field questions. Surprisingly, our professor did not have many, but she did have one concern that seemed to pattern across most, if not all, presenting groups. She opened her mouth to speak, addressing the question to the whole class. 

“I must say, you all did a wonderful job of bringing forward the different scenarios you tutors-to-be might face while working at the writing center. However, I did notice one issue that I saw recurring in all of your presentations. It is not a technical issue, don’t worry, but I was just curious and wanted to point it out for the future.”

We all nodded in understanding, waiting for our professor’s next words.

“Why is it that in all of your scenarios, you chose to use foreign names? I noticed that you used a lot of Toms, Jacks, and Emilys. Why is that? Do you come across these names often?”

We shook our heads in disagreement.

“Choosing foreign names was, for the most part, a given to us; it was a thoughtless, senseless action that we made on a daily basis.” 

“You know, what interests me even more is that most of you, if not all, are of Arab nationalities. You also live in the UAE, a country where Arabic names are the most common, so, why do you not use them for your scenarios instead?”

We all fell silent. We had never thought of this before. Choosing foreign names was, for the most part, a given to us; it was a thoughtless, senseless action that we made on a daily basis. 

But why were we doing it? Why did we always take the Western direction? Why did we always choose names that were unfamiliar to us and the culture we live in? 

I thought over these questions a hundred times after that class ended, but I didn’t get an answer until two semesters later…

Adichie on the “The Danger of a Single Story”

The term “single story” is one that I have only very recently come across. Although it sounds simple, its meaning is an entirely different matter. “Single story” is a phrase used by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to describe the exaggerated and false perceptions we form about a certain individual or group of people. Adiche uses the term to explain the dangers a single story has, especially with regards to the stereotypical and over simplistic narrative we constantly subject people under. At first, I did not think much of this term; I did not want to believe that I contributed to the dangers of a single story in any way, shape or form. However, after watching Adiche’s 2009 TED talk titled, “The Dangers of a Single Story,” I understood just how mistaken I was. 

While watching her TED talk, I came across a statement that moved me. Adichie was speaking of her childhood and how she was a writer from a very young age. She narrated her experience and the types of characters she would illustrate on paper as well as in her mind. “All my characters were white and blue-eyed,” she said, “they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.” Adiche then continues to state that, as a child who grew up in Nigeria, she was unfamiliar with the lifestyle she would draw for her characters. “We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.” 

This scene, as innocent as it was, is a powerful one. It got me thinking about my childhood and the characters I used to draw in my creative works. The funny part? I found out that my experience with writing and drawing was very similar, if not identical, to Adichie’s. I realized that even though I am an Egyptian girl who lived her entire childhood life in the UAE, my characters did not resemble me whatsoever. Looking back at them I can confidently say that all of my characters, both male and female, were colored in to have light-skin, golden hair, and sky blue eyes. Rarely did they ever feature the colors that I would actually see around me. My characters did not have dark hair or brown/black eyes. They did not even speak the Arabic language, or feature my Arab culture in any way. 

“I, too, wrote about characters who played in the snow even though I had never experienced it myself. I, too, was convinced that a good story needed to have foreigners in them, that people like me had no place in the narrative, even if it was my own.” 

Realizing all of this, my 21-year-old self felt embarrassed. I was overwhelmed with a sense of shame that I had never experienced before. Was I embarrassed of my own culture? Did I not appreciate it enough? Was I not proud to be Egyptian? Was I not proud to be an Arab? 

A few moments later, I received my answers with another statement from Adichie, “What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.” Adichie then confirmed her theory by acknowledging the fact that her single story of her own culture was destroyed when she was introduced to African books and literature from her own culture. 

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As a girl who spent 100 per cent  of her childhood reading Harry Potter, Archie’s comics, and hundreds of other Western works, I can understand Adichie’s theory and where it came from. I say this because I, too, realized that I based my characters off of the ones I would read about and perhaps even watch in my cartoons. I, too, wrote about characters who played in the snow even though I had never experienced it myself. I, too, was convinced that a good story needed to have foreigners in them, that people like me had no place in the narrative, even if it was my own. 

Learning to overcome the dangers of a single story

To combat the dangers of the single story I put myself in, I started introducing myself to literature and works from my own Arab culture. I started reading Ahmad Mourad’s novels, Ahmad Khaled Tawfik’s short stories, Naguib Mahfouz’s most famous works, and many others. Through them and the characters they wrote, I started to notice names and stories that could easily take place around me. I started to see elements of my Egyptian and Arab culture, and features that I could personally identify with. I felt happy to see people like me being written about and having their stories told. I was proud to be an Arab and Egyptian. I was proud to be me. 

Then I began to think, how was I ever so invested in foreign works that I neglected to learn my own? How did I manage to form a single story about a culture that I was very much living in?

“I felt happy to see people like me being written about and having their stories told.”

While I cannot yet fully answer these questions, I must point out that everyone has their own single story, about themselves or others. It could be about a person, a culture, a country, or even an object. That being said, what is the single story that other people of the world have of us, the Arab world? 

How are Arabs represented in Western media?

The answer to this question can be determined through the media. I specifically noticed it being shown in the movies, series, and the other forms of media that we are exposed to every day. One of the most popular movies that advertises a single story about the Arab world is MCU’s very own Iron Man 1. Before I get into the details, I must note that the Avengers franchise is one of my favorites out there, which is why these realizations came as a personal shock to me when I recently decided to rewatch the first Iron Man movie. 

Of course, no one is unfamiliar to the genius, billionaire, playboy and philanthropist that is Tony Stark. Played by Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man is a character that constructed itself into the hearts of every child and adult in our world, including mine. However, when I decided to look at the movie from an orientalist perspective, I noticed that it was drilled with stereotypical characters and a single-minded, very inaccurate representation of the Arab world. I especially noticed it throughout the beginning of the movie when Stark travelled to Afghanistan to showcase his new line of missiles. After the demonstration, Stark found himself being kidnapped by a group of Arab terrorists. As a child, this information did not mean much to me, mainly because I was too busy waiting for Stark to put on the suit, become Iron Man, and destroy all the bad guys. Back then, I also found it quite nice that I could understand the language being used in some of the scenes, especially that one of the men spoke in the Egyptian dialect. However, when I look at the movie now, I think: Why do the bad guys have to be Arabs? Why were they presented as people with ragged clothing, bad accents and questionable ethics and behaviors? Is that really how the West sees the Arab world, as gun fanatics and terrorists? 

“Was I embarrassed of my own culture? Did I not appreciate it enough? Was I not proud to be Egyptian? Was I not proud to be an Arab?”

Even though Iron Man 1 is categorized as an Action/Sci-Fi movie, it is still packed with cultural stereotypes, generalizations and Islamophobic cases that can easily convince uneducated viewers of this single story and unrealistic image that the West seems to have of us. Coupled with Adichie’s case, one may also use Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism to broaden the perspective on the narrow-minded lens through which the West views the East. I say this because, similar to Adichie, Said, too, believed in the dangers of believing the single story of this culture, even if his focus was on the East and the Arab world. 

Another example that I, and many others, know to advertise a single story about the Arab world is none other than Disney’s Aladdin. As a child, Aladdin was one of my favorite Disney movies. Spending my childhood with the genie, the carpet and Abu has honestly introduced me to a whole new world of imagination, friendship and romance (pun intended). However, even with that being said, I cannot deny the fact that this animated movie was drilled with offensive and stereotypical notions.

For one, while the movie does not take place in the real world; its setting, Agrabah, is assumed to be a part of Southeast Asia and the Middle East region. This, in addition to the opening song titled “Arabian Nights” are more than enough hints to assume an Arabian location in the movie. You may have also noticed that from the very beginning, this so-called Arab world is shown as a desert-surrounded, genie-driven land with camels and barbaric characters with bad accents who get their way with violence. Other than that, the women in the movie were also depicted as harem girls whose sole expectations were to be “bought” and get married. Jasmine, the female lead character, also commented on this single-minded ideology numerous times while addressing the suitors her father, the Sultan, had for her.

Even though Aladdin is an animated romance/family movie, the cultural stereotypes, generalizations, and whitewashing cases displayed were very questionable. Not only were they offensive, but they managed to make me question Disney’s purpose for releasing it at all. Did they know the kind of image they were spreading about the Arab world? Were they aware of the single story and one-dimensional narrative they were putting out? Is that really what they thought of us?

Even though two movies were exemplified in this article, there are numerous others out there who show us what we are to the West. However, it must be noted that, by watching them, we are unconsciously conditioning ourselves to have this single story of our world, too. These movies, as well as many others, are just a few of the main contributors to the formation of the infamous “single story.” 

The only way forward is to embrace our Arabness

That being said, in order to avoid the dangers of a single story, according to Adichie, we must rid ourselves of the power it holds over us. During the TED talk, Adichie mentions a Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, who says, “if you want to dispossess people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’” In other words, tell the subject’s story in a way that makes them feel inferior or less important than the main topic at hand, taking away any power their story may hold. To put it mildly, the single story we hold of ourselves in addition to the one perceived of us by the West contributes to our sense of inferiority in the world. It is the reason we do not see the power our Arab world holds; it is the reason we feel empty when our inspiring heritage, diverse culture and vast language should make us feel whole. 

“We must learn to embrace our culture and be proud of it.”

 So, in order to avoid and overcome the one-dimensional narrative we put ourselves in, we must realize the goldmine that is our Arab heritage and culture. We must understand the richness of our history, the wonders of our traditions, and the uniqueness of our Arabic language. We must educate ourselves on our world by studying and reading our own works and productions. Whether it was a short story, a novel, a play, or even a mosalsal in Ramadan, we must learn to embrace our culture and be proud of it. We must learn to be fluent in our Arabic language, for it is a goldmine of words just waiting to be discovered. We must also learn to produce more of our works, translate them and show off our talents to the outside world. We must, as people say, show the world what we are made of.

I know that this is all easier said than done, but, as part of the Arab world, don’t we owe it to change the current narrative people have of us? Don’t we owe it to rediscover our roots and be proud of them? Don’t we owe it to change our own single story as well as the one the West has of us? Don’t we?

Laila Mostafa is an Egyptian writer and a literature student at the American University of Sharjah. Her passions include arts and culture, theatre and contemporary literature. She is currently interning at Sekka.

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