Two Muslim characters on the show Elite

The Arabic language has been confronted with a myriad of problems. On the one hand, speakers of the language often complain about how convoluted its rules are, how formal and stiff foos7a (otherwise known as Modern Standard Arabic) is, and how the language itself isn't of much use in a global world — or so they think. On the other hand, the language itself has become synonymous with terrorism in a world charged by Islamophobic narratives and attitudes. So much so that one actor recently uttered the phrase "Allahu Akbar" after snagging a Golden Globe to challenge these perceptions. 

And then somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, you will find a group of orientalist-heavy individuals who fetishize the Arabic language. To them, the language simply looks or sounds exotic without even trying, even when the words they're exposed to are as vulgar as plastic gems glued onto a wedding dress. It seems Netflix is catering to the latter with its inclusion of Arabic in many of its original series. 

As good-intentioned as Netflix is trying to be, the streaming giant hasn't been successful in depicting Arabic and Arabs in a proper manner. It seems Netflix tends to forget that genuine and authentic Arabic speakers exist in the world. Many shows produced, co-produced, or streamed exclusively on the platform in various languages, particularly Spanish and English, include characters that speak Arabic ... but aren't Arabic speakers in real-life. Thus, their speech comes off as a bit robotic, to say the least. 

A competent Arabic writer, speaker, and reader is someone Netflix seems to be missing from its staff. There are over 420 million Arabic speakers in over 22 countries around the world, yet Netflix can't seem to find them and cast at least a couple on their shows? 

We've seen robotic Arabic flood Netflix Originals including the Spanish shows Elite, Locked Up (Vis-A-Vis), and Victim Number 8 (La Víctima Número 8). We've also seen this version of Arabic pop up in the English-language original Messiah

In the show Locked Up, several Arabic-speaking characters appear, some supposedly Egyptian, others Syrian. But they all speak the very same variety of Arabic ... and it's a very basic and beginner level Arabic, too. Somehow, the language used makes it impossible to humanize the characters for speaking their mother tongue and makes it incredibly difficult for Arabs to even relate to them. Funnily enough, the characters on these shows speak a very similar Arabic variety, which is confusing because that is not the reality of the language. Simply put, not all Arabic speakers sound the same as different varieties are shaped by geographical, social, and other factors. Not even citizens of the same country sound similar. You're free to take Britain as a Western example of language variations from city to city. 

Across these shows, these factors are disregarded. Instead, the MSA version of Arabic appears. But none of us actually relate to foos7a, so why use it in series? Is it because the creators think an intermediate version of MSA would unite all Arabs? Or is it because they don't know any better? It seems as though all these actors have been programmed by the same orientalist Arabic trainer. 

The very same phenomenon appears in the Spanish show Elite, which also failed to give its Muslim characters a humanizing Arabic voice. Nobody in the Arabic-speaking world actually utilizes MSA in everyday dialogue, but somehow the characters on these Netflix shows do. And we will never understand why. 

We've seen this whitewashing of Arab and Arabic-speaking characters countless of times in Hollywood films. There is, without a doubt, more inclusion of said characters on Netflix shows. But that doesn't mean enough is being done. Including a character of Arab origins (like Mina El Hammani on Elite) or one that speaks Arabic (like Zulema on Locked Up) is not enough to make us feel like we're finally being represented. When the depiction is as flawed as it's been, it actually makes us NOT want to be represented. 

More research into Arabic as a language and Arab as a culture is necessary before the inclusion of these characters starts to make sense. Whenever we are depicted in shows or films, we are bundled up into a homogeneous group of Muslims who suffer from oppression or terrorist ideologies ... or both. 

Hiring an Arab who speaks Arabic fluently and who has spent time in the Arab world is a good starting point. Taking that person's opinion into play is the second-best thing that could happen. 

Authentic representation won't be achieved unless Arab characters are invested in as much as other characters are invested in. This is not to say the sole focus should be on the Arab-ness or Muslim-ness of the characters, but to be able to shift gears away from that type of representation, understanding Arabs is essential. And no one understands Arabs more than an Arab themselves. 

Creators could simply start with something as dull as getting the language right. Just hire an actor who actually speaks Arabic; it's not so hard to find someone who can do that competently. After all, there are millions of us, you just have to make proper representation a priority to see it materialize.