Jack Shaheen dies; scholar persuaded Disney to alter 'Aladdin' as he fought Hollywood's racial stereotypes

Jack Shaheen, who taught for decades at Southern Illinois University, urged Hollywood to change its portrayals of Arabs as just "billionaires, bombers and belly dancers."

LOS ANGELES - Jack Shaheen, a prominent writer, scholar and activist who persistently — though diplomatically — challenged negative stereotypes of Arabs in film and television, has died at age 81.

Shaheen, who died over the weekend in South Carolina after battling cancer, took on studio executives, offered counsel to actors and directors and lectured around in the world in his relentless quest to persuade Hollywood to move beyond the cinematic image of Arabs as just “billionaires, bombers and belly dancers.”

“There is no escaping the Arab stereotype,” Shaheen wrote in the preface to his 2001 book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People,” before digging into what he said was the unrelenting portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, uncultured, wealthy and unspeakably violent.

“These notions are as false as the assertions that blacks are lazy, Hispanics are dirty, Jews are greedy and Italians are criminals,” he wrote in “The TV Arab,” a painstaking study of hundred of television shows, from sitcoms to cartoons.

n 1993, his efforts helped persuade Disney to change the lyrics to the song “Arabian Nights” in its animated musical “Aladdin.”

When the film premiered, the lyrics seemed the stuff of racism to people like Shaheen:

Oh, I come from a land

From a faraway place

Where the camels roam

Where they cut off your ear

If they don’t like your face

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.

In a opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Shaheen protested that Disney had managed to deliver a painful reminder to millions of Arab Americans that “the abhorrent Arab stereotype is as ubiquitous as Aladdin’s lamp.”

Disney yielded and trimmed the ear-cutting lines from the video release of the film, but refused to erase the “it’s barbaric” line, arguing it was a reference to the landscape, not the people who lived there.

It was emblematic of the small victories Shaheen would win. Never expecting seismic change in how the industry would portray Arabs, he was comfortable winning converts one by one, lecture by lecture, email by email, book by book. - Agencies