GIVEN the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the presence of United States forces in Saudi Arabia, a tinge of trepidation struck me. Historically, Arabs have consistently appeared in American popular culture as billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers. Repetitive and repulsive depictions delegitimize the Arab. How would image-makers capitalize on the Iraqi invasion? Would they differentiate between the ``good'' Arabs, the Saudis and Kuwaitis, and the ``bad'' ones, the Iraqis? Would the Gulf crisis be used to dilute or enhance status quo prejudice?
I never watch the soaps. Never. That is, not until recently, when unexpectedly, I became a devotee of NBC-TV's ``Santa Barbara.''
My fixation began as a result of several teacher workshops related to stereotypes. I asked 293 secondary school teachers from five states - Massachusetts, North Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia and Wisconsin - to write down the names of any humane or heroic screen Arab they had seen. Five cited past portraits of Ali Baba and Sinbad; one mentioned Omar Sharif and ``those Arabs'' in ``The Wind and the Lion.'' The remaining 287 teachers wrote ``none.''
When it comes to shaping perceptions of peoples, television, say the teachers, acts as a command center.
Had anyone seen ``racist portraits'' lately? I asked. One teacher said, ``I think so. There are some ``strange and ugly Arabs'' on ``Santa Barbara.''
I decided to find out exactly what ``Santa Barbara's'' curriculum taught its viewers about Arabs. For three weeks, every Monday through Friday morning, I recorded episodes, which, in part, concern two Arab sheiks at war with each other.
Santa Barbara's plot is simplistic; it focuses on the Sheik, ruler of Kabir, and the Pasha, ruler of the ``two-bit country'' of Khareef. The Pasha is ``threatened with extinction by a thug,'' the Sheik, who is about to invade Khareef. Why? ``To steal'' the Pasha's ``oil,'' naturally.
Both men seek the ``talisman,'' a stone said to possess special powers. Both potentates hold Americans hostage. Eden, the heroine is held captive by the Pasha. Her husband, Cruz, the hero, is imprisoned by the Sheik.
What do viewers see of the mythical kingdoms, Kabir and Khareef? A desert tent, complete with ornate pillows and arabesque furniture, illustrates Khareef. Candles, not light bulbs, provide illumination. ``Barbaric'' Kabir is represented by a prison cell.
In the cell, the ``barbarian'' Sheik, tortures Cruz. Says Eden: ``God only knows what he is doing'' to him. The Sheik, dressed head to foot in black, resembles an overstuffed crow; he orders his assistants to abuse Cruz until he talks.
The Sheik is violent; the Pasha, superstitious. He believes in the power of a stone, ``the talisman.'' According to this Harvard educated ruler, ``the stone'' possesses ``certain mystical powers.'' To get it, he bluntly orders Shaila, one of his wives, to sleep with Cruz.
Why the seduction? The Pasha cannot gain control of the talisman through Cruz; he's too strong. So, he wants Cruz and Shaila to have a child. Cruz's baby would then hold the power; the pasha could control a baby and the ``power'' would be his.
Confusing? Stay tuned. Dressed in flowing robes, the Pasha's ``sacred ways'' include ``a harem.'' None of his wives please him. To him, Arab women are chattel. He believes ``the kind of love'' Eden shares with Cruz, ``is rarely seen'' in Khareef.
What ``kind of love'' do Arab potentates exercise among their women? Well, the Pasha plans to execute wife, Shaila, because she ran off. To set Shaila free would mean ``losing face.''
Pasha prefers Eden, the blond, blue-eyed American. Being with Eden reminds him of ``Josie Ann,'' his wife, the only woman he ever loved. The evil Sheik ``executed'' her, his ``mother and father and two sisters,'' right before the Pasha's ``very eyes.''
PASHA'S ``ways'' with women are worth noting. ``Heroine is not a word used in our country,'' he says. ``To take advice from a woman,'' he adds, ``is equal to a bubble floating on air.'' At Harvard, he had ``several women companions.'' He accepted Harvard's women because he considered them ``intellectual equals,'' ``as men,'' he says, ``as chums.''
``Santa Barbara'' depicts Eden as the Ann Landers of Arabia. She teaches the Pasha to eliminate his ``prejudice'' against women. Eden convinces the potentate to free Shaila, to grant other women freedom and equal rights.
WHAT does ``Santa Barbara's'' Arab curriculum show the viewer? He or she learns that today's Arab lives in a tent or prison. His or her wardrobe consists of flowing robes, baggy pants, and belly dance outfits. The Arab has inept advisors, holds Americans hostage, kills fellow Arabs, idolizes ``mystical'' stones, has a harem, persecutes Arab women, desires Western women, and can only be humane, albeit temporarily, when accompanied by an advisor - a blond American woman.
Eden reminds the Pasha that ``People who watch television are very image conscious.'' She's right, of course. Those watching ``Santa Barbara'' saw some ``strange and ugly Arabs.''
Distorted Arab portraits in ``Santa Barbara'' are all-pervasive - we see them in children's shows, ``Heathcliff,'' and detective thrillers such as ``Mancuso F.B.I.'' The television curriculum omits balanced and humane images.
Instead, the curriculum helps legitimize racism.
As ``Santa Barbara's'' Arabia segments conclude, Shaila says to the departing Americans: ``I'm sorry you've only seen the bad things of our country.''
I, too, am sorry, Shaila. I am saddened because there is a dangerous and cumulative effect when ugly fixed images of groups remain unchallenged. Stereotypes of any and all peoples narrow our vision and blur reality.
TV critic Howard Rosenberg has observed that when it comes to relinquishing stereotypes, the image-maker is like ``Peanuts''' Linus clutching his security blanket. He knows it's wrong but he doesn't want to give it up.
The Gulf crisis may enable viewers to see more realistic portraits, good things about the Arab peoples and their countries. But then, that's another soap, isn't it?