Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2005, pages 44, 52

Special Report

ABC-TV’s Hit Series, “Lost,” Features Sayid, a Sensitive, Appealing Iraqi

By Pat McDonnell Twair

Naveen Andrews portrays Sayid in “Lost.” (Courtesy ABC).

EVERYONE LOVES a mystery and ABC’s new hit drama “Lost”—which ends with a cliff-hanger each week—has everyone guessing. Perhaps the biggest mystery is why Hollywood writers, who traditionally cast Arabs as villains, have created a sensitive Arab, Sayid, as one of its lead characters .

Even more surprising, Sayid isn’t a suave Saudi or a romantic Lebanese. He is an Iraqi—and a likable Iraqi, at that.

“Lost” is a unique series that combines reality TV’s “Survivor” challenges with the dilemmas every fictional castaway has faced since Daniel Defoe’s classic, Robinson Crusoe.

The storyline is about 47 survivors of a downed passenger plane en route to the U.S. from Australia. When it hit extreme turbulence, radio communications were lost and the jetliner crashed 1,000 miles off course. Hence, search missions fail to locate the passengers’ and crew’s whereabouts.

Viewers are so intrigued with the survivors’ dilemma that “Lost” is rated Wednesday night’s most watched drama. Each week’s episode provides more revelations on the pasts of the survivors—and they are as disparate a group as might be found on any international jetliner manifest. It is the character development of each survivor that makes “Lost” so intriguing to viewers.

In flashbacks, we learn about each survivor—and with 47, they constitute the largest cast of any TV drama in many years. The lead actor is Dr. Jack (Matthew Fox), who recently had a showdown with his alcoholic surgeon father. His romantic interest is Kate (Evangeline Lilly), who was caught by bounty hunters in Australia and was being returned to the U.S. by a federal officer who died in the crash.

There is a young Korean couple, Jim and Sun Kim, who pretend not to speak English; an African-American father, Michael (Harold Perinneau), who had picked up his 10-year-old son Walt (Malcolm David Kelley) in Australia following the death of the boy’s mother; Charlie (Dominic Monaghan of “Lord of the Rings”), a fading rock star with a drug habit; and Sawyer (John Holloway), a loner with a big attitude who doesn’t trust anyone, especially Sayid. In an opening episode, Sawyer refers to Sayid as “Al Jazeera” and starts a fight with him.

In the first episode, as survivors adjust to finding themselves on a remote Pacific island, Sayid (Naveen Andrews of “The English Patient”) offers to try to repair the airliner’s radio.

Hurley (Jorge Garcia), an overweight passenger, tries to start a conversation with Sayid, asking how he gained knowledge in radio communications.

Sayid replies, “I was in military communications during the Gulf war.”

Noting that he had a friend in the Gulf war, Hurley asks what branch of the military Sayid was in—“the Army, Marines...?”

“The Republican Guard,” Sayid answers.

Despite this shocker, which might turn American viewers’ sympathies against this character, Sayid’s common sense and basic decency earn the respect of most of the survivors. As one senior citizen, Mr. Locke (Terry O’Quinn), who has the look of a veteran military man, comments: “Sayid is a better hunter/tracker than I am.”

On another occasion, the camera focuses on Locke as he plays backgammon and explains, “This is the oldest game in the world and was played in Mesopotamia.”

Does Locke know more about Sayid than he is telling?

In one early episode, flashbacks reveal Sayid’s role in the Republican Guard. A young woman, Nadia, who is imprisoned as a sympathizer of the Kurds, is recognized by Sayid as a girl from his neighborhood. When she is about to be dispatched to a firing squad, he helps her escape. He shoots his commanding officer, then puts Nadia onto a truck. All he has left is her photo and the message she wrote to him on the back: “You’ll find me in the next life if not this one.”

When asked what prompted him to create a sensitive Iraqi character, Damon Lindelof, co-creator/executive producer of “Lost,” explained:

“We thought it would be compelling to make American audiences bond with an Arab character by virtue of not writing him as an Arab but as a human.”

Lindelof confided that in the script-writing process, it was challenging to present Sayid in a way that would shatter American misperceptions of a Muslim Arab male.

“It was always our intent to make Sayid heroic, intelligent and romantic,” Lindelof said. “The fact that he’s also Iraqi was never meant to define him, it was simply a way of making audiences potentially question their own ethnic/religious stereotypes as they (hopefully) fall in love with Sayid as much as we did.”

Asked his opinion of Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs, Arab-American TV and film critic Jack Shaheen replied: “There are gobs of TV shows that stereotype Arabs in a negative light. Gobs and gobs of them.”

Shaheen cited “JAG” as one of the worst, with dozens of shows portraying Arabs as villains. “The West Wing” came in second, with “Threat Matrix” and the “Agency” close behind.

Shaheen praised “Seventh Heaven” for individual segments that portray Muslims in a positive light, and Lifetime Channel’s “Strong Medicine” for doing the same.

If Sayid continues to perform so heroically, perhaps “Lost” will top Shaheen’s list of shows that cast Arabs and Muslims in a favorable light. 

Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.