For those of you who haven’t been following the Alice in Arabia controversy, allow me to take a few moments to enlighten you. About a week ago, ABC Family released news that it had picked up a TV pilot, the premise of which was summarized as follows:
“Alice in Arabia is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”
Bewildered? Shocked? Amused? Confused? Angered? Which emotion speaks to you most after reading this brief , yet sensationalist synopsis of an un-produced and now canceled TV pilot? After I read those few sentences, I was left feeling wary albeit admittedly intrigued by the show’s premise and the script’s writer, Brooke Eikmeier — a former Arabic-speaking U.S. Army cryptologic linguist, who claims to have garnered an interest in the struggles of Middle Eastern women through her time with her Saudi Arabian Arabic teacher.
As a South Asian Muslim American, I was wary of how this show would affect the Muslim American community although my level As a South Asian Muslim American, I was wary of how this show would affect the Muslim American community.of concern was minimal compared to the overwhelming discussions generated by the Alice in Arabia hashtag conversation on Twitter. This conversation quickly escalated and so did the outcries against the show and its premise. From the title’s poorly chosen parallel with Alice in Wonderland to the potential for overwrought stereotyping to the implicit comparison of the “veil” to imprisonment, the critiques and concerns were valid on many levels.
I read and processed and read some more and processed some more, all the while wondering about the sentiments of Alice in Arabia’s writer, Eikmeier, during these ongoing discussions. Ultimately, I realized that I wanted to watch the show for myself to judge Eikmeier’s storytelling and ABC Family’s broadcasting choices before jumping to conclusions about this show’s propensity towards good versus potential for misgivings.
But within a matter of days, I lost any chance I had to formulate future well-balanced opinions on this controversial show. Parts of a July 2013 third draft of the pilot episode’s script were leaked on Buzzfeed, and shortly thereafter ABC Family announced that it had officially pulled Alice in Arabia. Wow, right? Except not so much. And I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed by this sudden action.
I’m constantly amazed by the power of social media, in particular, Twitter, because of its ability to generate diverse discussions on Other than the Twitter uproar…there has been zero conversation on any scale between ABC Family executives, Muslim Americans, and writer Brooke Eikmeier.an international scale. But discussion is exactly what’s been missing from this entire ordeal. Forget on an international scale, other than the Twitter uproar that led to Alice in Arabia’s abrupt cancellation, there has been zero conversation on any scale between ABC Family executives, Muslim Americans, and writer Brooke Eikmeier. Instead of making meaningful discussions a reality in the aftermath of all of the above, ABC Family issued a statement that killed this entire saga in one fell swoop:
“The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned, and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project.”
After the far-reaching Twitter rallies and ensuing OpEd frenzies that subsequently culminated in a damning exposé of a leaked pilot script in response to ABC Family’s vilified series overview, that statement is all we get? Really? Well that, and writer Eikmeier’s side of the story, which has led to further blame slinging from all involved sides. We can spend all day analyzing white privilege versus reverse racism versus colonialist attitudes versus abaya/burqa/niqab semantics, but none of that will advance the dialogue of Muslims in America the way a legitimate discussion about the merits versus faults of this show could have.
Alice in Arabia might have become an outrageously hideous spectacle of Arab stereotyping and anti-Muslim sentiment. Or it might have become a “nuanced” portrayal of an Arab-American girl caught between two starkly different cultures that could have laid the foundation for increased understanding between two worlds that to this day remain mutually exclusive. Now we’ll never know.
Farah Naz Khan is an internal medicine resident at Emory University. After graduating from college in Boston, she returned to her Alabama hometown to attend medical school, and was reunited with the mix of Southern hospitality and South Asian flair that had shaped her childhood. Follow her on Twitter @farah287 or read some of her thoughts at farah287.blogspot.com.