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Who The Hell Is Jihad Jones?

June 13, 2008

Yussef El Guindi's new play about a Middle-Eastern actor trying to make his way in Hollywood without being constantly cast as an Allah-praising, virgin-deflowering plane hijacker or suicide bomber has one of the catchiest titles I've heard on stage in recent years. Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes presciently ties in with the blockbuster new Indiana Jones movie currently playing in cinemas across the country -- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- while at the same time refuting the link to Hollywood by deliberately eschewing any connection to the Harrison Ford franchise in terms of plot, characters and dialogue.

The irony is tidy, but it also unfortunately backfires: I found myself getting impatient with the play's repetitive central argument (Middle Eastern actor faces off against Hollywood Machine) and longing to find out more about this Jihad Jones character and the adventures he has with the Kalashnikov Babes.

The racial-stereotyping issue the play seeks to expose is a serious one. From Disney's animated feature Aladdin to the Fox television series 24, unseemly portraits of Arab characters have become increasingly common in U.S. popular culture over the past two decades. In the current political climate, Arab evildoers frequently replace Cold War Russian spies and Nazi soldiers in World War II as the villains in many a TV and film epic. This trend has doubtless affected public perceptions of the Arab World in a negative way.

But back to Guindi's play, which is currently receiving its premiere under the auspices of San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions. Sadly -- and somewhat ironically -- for Guindi, the latest Indiana Jones flick doesn't even focus on Arabs as evil-doers. The bad guys this time around are Cold War Russians, led by a severe-bobbed Cate Blanchett executing one of the worst performances of her career.

Still, I'll continue to dream about the play that Guindi didn't write -- the one about Jihad Jones. I wonder what kind of character Guindi's Jones would be? A thug? A savior? A raffish anti-hero who keeps us guessing? I wonder if I'll ever find out. In the meantime, my essay about the play that Guindi did write appears in next week's SF Weekly starting Wednesday.

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