Documetary Breaks Down Middle Eastern Stereotypes

On Nov. 17, Jean Marie Offenbacher presented her film Tea on the Axis of Evil, a portrayal of Syrian society. The film intended to bridge a growing disconnect between Americans and Middle Easterners in a post-9/11 climate of increased tensions between the two regions.

Offenbacher spent several months traveling throughout Syria with her camera to interview people. She hoped to break the stereotype of terrorist-inspired images portrayed by US media under the Bush administration.

Following the film, a panel of three USF professors, along with Offenbacher, answered questions and critiques.

Professor of Feminist Islamic Ethics, Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah, said it is challenging to produce a film about another culture without reinforcing preexisting frameworks. In this case, those frameworks are based on Orientalism – the Western attempt to construct the “truth” about the Middle East.

Dr. Hidayatullah said, “a film such as this illustrates that people’s preconceived notions of Syria as being ‘exotic’, ‘ancient’ and ‘barbaric’ are misled.” If people understand the film to show that Syrians are “just like us,” they fail to challenge the overall framework that leads to the stereotyping of “good” vs. “evil.”

Professor Annick Wibben, who teaches politics and international studies, said “Our pre-existing frameworks limit our options for responding to an event.”
With a strong focus on social responsibility, Wibeen added that  “so many of us [at USF] focus on helping others.” However, she said people must keep in mind the ethical dilemmas associated with changing the world.

Politics Professor Stephen Zunes, who is also the program director for Middle Eastern Studies, said Offenbacher captured the essence of Syrian society, which he remembers fondly from his many travels.  He questioned the filmmaker’s decision not to include political content. In his view, political and historical context is crucial to challenging the stereotypes that both Professor Wibben and Professor Hidayatullah addressed.
Responding to the panel discussion, Offenbacher concluded, “We have an obligation as Americans to see the parts of the world we are affecting.” She hopes the film can foster a connection, if not greater understanding between U.S. and Syrian citizens.
The film is available in the International Studies office.

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