There’s finally enough Muslim representation in modern pop culture to warrant academic investment – but it’s not necessarily progress. Amal Awad speaks to academic Mehal Krayem.
‘Is it okay to say that my area of research is definitely among the coolest? After anyone who gets to research Bollywood, of course.’
It’s not every day you hear an academic so blatantly try to make their area of study sound uber-cool, but it’s no surprise when Mehal Krayem attempts to. It’s appropriate in fact, given how intensely she lives and breathes her PhD work. A teacher, presenter and writer, Mehal is very much the go-to guru on Arabs and Muslims in pop culture, though she has honed an area of specialty in Australia.
‘More specifically, I look at the representation of Arabs and Muslims in Australian crime drama (film and television). This basically extends to a discussion of Australian popular culture a little more broadly.’
When she gets chatting about her sociology research – through which she also dabbles in media studies – the passion is easy to spot (though in the interests of full disclosure, she’s someone I consider a good friend, so I know something of her personality).
Mehal also has a great sense of humour about the life of an academic. When I ask her what led her to this area of research, she talks about her introduction to ‘the poverty-inducing world of academia’ via her honours supervisor.
Western media has been ridiculously absent of Muslims in any ‘normal’ context for the past century – we’re the terrorists, caricatured desert tribe, or a taxi driver. There’s also a noticeable lack of even ‘incidental’ characters who are Muslim.
But this is changing, slowly. Mehal says there’s now ‘a growing field or subfield’ of research in this area. In Australia in particular, it’s an emergent area of study, but Mehal jokes that it’s because until recently, there was nothing to analyse.
‘Seeing a Muslim on television (other than the news) was so rare but lately it’s happening more and more and that’s really exciting… for me.
‘I think Muslims are really the flavour of the decade.’
However, where there is representation, it still seems to be alarmingly unbalanced. Mehal says she’s surprised by how ‘even the most seemingly unbiased depictions of Muslims or Arabs are inherently biased’. It’s a problem she also attributes to a lack of involvement from Muslims and Arabs.
‘Even where they are consulted or involved in some way the people calling the shots are not Muslim or Arab and thus, no matter how understanding they are, there’s always something vital they miss,’ she says.
‘It just highlights the absolute necessity for Muslims/Arabs to go into these fields and climb the professional ladder.’
Mehal’s focus (for now) is on Australia, but she taps into global research, particularly studies from the US, UK and Canada.
‘I think it’d be really interesting to compare Canada and Australia but that would be another thesis entirely and in my opinion if you survive one PhD you shouldn’t try again because you mightn’t be so lucky second time around. It’s like Russian roulette.’
Mehal spent a year looking at how young Muslims negotiate and perform their Islamic identities post 9/11, and through this, she realised that one way this ‘performative’ aspect occurs was through media.
‘At the time it was primarily being explored through the genre of comedy. There was this explosion of Muslim comedians and some of them were beginning to crack the “mainstream” so it was a totally edgy field and I was really curious about what was going on there. So I dedicated a chapter in my honors thesis to finding out.’
Not surprisingly, a passionate endeavour opens up an entire universe – and opening the door to a particular area of study raised more questions than answers.
‘I realised my curiosity wasn’t going to be satisfied in a measly 8,000 words. I couldn’t see another option really but to torture myself with another four to seven years of research.’
Moreover, according to Mehal, PhDs ‘begin somewhere and end up somewhere else’.
‘On my quest to research humour I ended up consumed by the lovely world of film and television and eventually had to decide which direction I wanted to take so I abandoned that and launched myself into the world of crime drama and honestly it’s been a great decision.’
With a vast story to tell, Mehal acknowledges some challenges (apart from ‘actually writing such a massive piece of work in a coherent way’).
‘I’d say one of the greatest challenges was interviewing people in the film and television industry who honestly couldn’t see a problem with the either “exotic” or “barbaric” representation of Muslims. It was also frustrating to see that the financial bottom line and ratings were more important than the long-term effects on an entire community. I’m such an idealist.’
As for what the idealist has planned once this crazy pop culture roller coaster has reached its end, she says she’s consistently drawn to NGO work.
‘I suppose I’d like to use my powers for good even if that means I spend my life struggling to pay rent.’
Mehal would also like to continue teaching (it keeps her ‘grounded’), and the world of fiction also beckons.
‘It’s one thing to critique everyone else’s work, but it’s quite another to put something out there that actually does all the things you accuse other people of not doing or vice versa.’
However, all of this may be competing with her time at the beach, ‘in the middle of the day – while everyone else is working – reading slightly sophisticated chick lit, sipping on ice tea and eating my weight in red velvet cupcakes’.
There are also the small matters of a pasta-making course, perfecting her Arabic and learning French.
If I know Mehal well at all, I’m pretty sure she’ll find a pop culture twist to it all.
Learn more: Muslims in Pop Culture