Check out Part 1 here.
The Sheiks Before the Sheik
The Sheik’s look—an angular, bald visage with a giant black handlebar mustache—originated with a much older wrestler. In the 1930s, Harry Ekizian, an Armenian-Turkish immigrant who had survived slavery and the horrific Armenian genocide, rose to prominence as a wrestler under the name of “Ali Baba.” Ekizian’s prodigious strength led him to tremendous success, from meeting then-President Coolidge to appearing in three films to winning the World Championship at Madison Square Garden in 1936, nearly half a century before the first WrestleMania. Ekizian may have invented the concept of the “gimmick” wrestler. This excellent article depicts Ekizian as a pious, compassionate man who used his strength to make the world a better place, so it seems tragic that he remains remembered now for fathering a stereotype.
Shortly after World War II, a Lebanese-American veteran by the name of Ed Farhat debuted near Chicago as “the Sheik of Araby,” a straight-up invocation of the Arab oil sheik stereotype. This Sheik (now called “The Original Sheik” to disambiguate from his ferric successor) claimed to have made a fortune in Syria.
Farhat fought dirty even by pro-wrestling standards. He’d hide pencils and use them to mutilate the opponent’s face. He’d soak paper in lighter fluid, surreptitiously light it during a match, and throw “fireballs.” As his signature move, Farhat borrowed an excruciating hold from Gory Guerrero known as la de a caballo, which he called the “camel clutch.” He also slapped silly the next guy who would horn in on his Arab wrestler gimmick (The Great Mephisto), which made Khosrow uneasy about becoming the Iron Sheik at first. Nevertheless, the Iron Sheik made the camel clutch his signature and it has become an expected part of every Middle-Eastern wrestler’s repertoire.
The Last Stand of Colonel Mustafa
In the ways that matter, the Iron Sheik’s career ended in May 1987. A cop pulled him over in a routine traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. In the passenger seat sat Sheik’s on-screen nemesis, Hacksaw Jim Duggan. The cop soon discovered that Duggan had marijuana on him and Iron Sheik had cocaine both in his man-purse and his body. McMahon, infuriated at the breach of kayfabe, tanked both of their careers as punishment. He then implemented strict drug testing and heavy penalties for failing the tests.
The Sheik kept on wrestling, though his career would never reach its former zenith. In 1990, the Sheik fell under the management of “General Adnan”: Iraqi wrestler Adnan al-Kaissie. The Sheik rebranded himself as “Colonel Mustafa.” He, General Adnan, and Sergeant Slaughter would form a stable of Iraqi-sympathizing wrestlers who claimed to have the ear Saddam Hussein. (In one of wrestling history’s stranger verisimilitudes, al-Kaissie really did grow up with Saddam Hussein!) Each past their prime by then, in their matching dun-colored Iraqi uniforms, they looked more like generic soldiers than wrestlers.
Their thread would peak in 1991 at SummerSlam, when this Ba’ath-salty cadre faced Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. A glassy-eyed Colonel Mustafa goose-stepped to the ring behind Sergeant Slaughter, a defeated-looking General Adnan trailing. The audience’s half-hearted jeers turned to full-throated applause as a manic Ultimate Warrior sprinted to the stage. The music switched to Hulk Hogan’s corny “Real American” theme as Hogan swaggered to the ring like an invincible white savior.
Hogan’s mainstream standing and unprecedented backstage clout left no doubt as to the outcome. At the sound of the bell, the two white legends (both since outed as bigots hated by everyone, including each other) proceeded to humiliate their opponents in a climax of manufactured patriotism. Sergeant Slaughter, the youngest of his stable at 42, took the brunt.2 When Colonel Mustafa trapped Hulk in the obligatory camel clutch, it looked more “for old time’s sake” than anything. The match ground to a merciful end with Hulk pinning Slaughter as Warrior chased Slaughter’s over-the-hill comrades away with a folding chair. The whole thing comes off like a late-stage Three Stooges film: any excitement feels dampened by the certainty that these three old performers, with their broken bodies and tired eyes, must have really needed the money.
The Sheik returned to the WWF in 1996 to manage the Sultan (Solofa “Rikishi” Fatu, Jr.), a mute Eastern potentate who wore a Mortal Kombat-esque mask and reeked of a weird synthesis of Thief of Bagdad Orientalism and 90s forced mystery. At WrestleMania XIII, the Sultan lost to a young Dwayne Johnson (whose preternatural charisma and enthusiasm already showed), after which the Sheik and the Sultan attempted to rough him up. Dwayne’s father, Rocky Johnson, intervened, chasing off the aged villains.
The Sultan and the Sheik both left the WWF the next year. Iron Sheik, for his part, got fired for drugs for the zillionth time, ending a prolonged descent with a faint thud.
Since then, Iron Sheik has only appeared in events related to wrestling nostalgia. Because the WWE hires its wrestlers as independent contractors (in contracts one-sided enough to make Über jealous), they effectively chewed Sheik up and spat him out.1 His cocaine problem continued long after his career, especially after the 2003 murder of his daughter at the hands of her boyfriend. He has implied that drugs palliated his physical and emotional pain. His wife left him for two years before he finally kicked.
Now the Sheik makes what little money he can by making public appearances where he unleashes a torrent of breathless invective at whoever comes to mind. He has become a perennial guest for Howard Stern, where he invariably wears his WrestleMania XIII getup and his distinctive ghutra. Between desperate gasps he spews bigoted, broken-English rants of dubious coherence at everyone he’s ever worked with. I can’t discern whether Sheik knows his role consists of getting laughed at. Fake or real, Sheik’s venomous, homophobic, racist rants make me wonder about his state of mind (and respiratory health). I’d go so far as to question Stern’s motives in having Iron Sheik as his most prominent Middle Eastern and Muslim guest, what with the way Stern went full-on anti-Arab/Muslim after 9/11.
I find this even more upsetting than the WWE’s racism: drugs and injuries and predatory contracts turned this once-legendary athlete into a glorified coin-operated action figure commanding everyone in sight to go fuck themselves. While Sheik did a lot of this to himself, the world of pro-wrestling resuscitated his demons at every turn.
Non-Arab Marc Copani played Muhammad Hassan from 2004 to 2005, an Arab heel who used Iron Sheik’s camel clutch. He and his manager, Shawn Daivari (a Persian-American), would bemoan anti-Arab racism as they straddled the line between fighting and exemplifying stereotypes. The crowd would start booing as soon as Hassan’s ring theme played (which sounds like a call to prayer), adding to the audience’s bias against all things Islamic and Arab.
Hassan became known for his feud with the Undertaker, which culminated in a 2005 episode of SmackDown. Hassan had conspired to “sacrifice” Daivari by forcing him to fight the Undertaker, knowing the Undertaker vastly outclasses Daivari and might even kayfabe-kill him. So as usual, WWE writers talked out of both sides of their mouths: point out that racism exists… then associate Muslims with human sacrifice and betrayal of their own friends. (In case I actually have to say this, Islam categorically forbids and condemns human sacrifice. I also imagine that if Muhammad had a subscription to the WWE Network, Islam would forbid letting the Undertaker beat on your friends.)
Ignoring Daivari’s plangent begging, Undertaker body-slammed him and then Tombstoned him. Right then, a cadre of men in ski-masks and desert camo came running out, and the plot became clear: Hassan had orchestrated a terrorist attack on Undertaker. A “terrorist” garroted Undertaker while Hassan’s call-to-prayer theme played in the background. The crowd started their “U.S.A.” chanting in symbolic rejection of this worked terrorism. Hassan camel-clutched Undertaker as the terrorists hauled Daivari away in some outlandish funeral procession that looks nothing like anything Islamic. For all the lip service WWE had their token Middle Eastern characters pay to social inequity, this segment made them into Islamist straw-men.
After the 2005 London bombings, the WWE buckled under pressure from UPN and fired the pair. Daivari later returned to the WWE to manage The Great Khali (an Indian wrestler who never quite got over). Copani lost interest in wrestling and went into education, teaching about the same social issues his WWE character tried to address!
Arabs in Wrestling Today
Despite under-representation on TV, there exist a number of Arab wrestlers here and abroad. Gheeda Chamasaddine has become an admirable real-life sexism-fighting trailblazer in Dubai (although I wish she hadn’t felt the need to downplay her heritage with the ring name “Joelle Hunter”). Hakem Wakuur wrestles in Germany and wishes to join WWE. Fahd Rakman has wrestled for the WWE in developmental programs, but the WWE eventually let him go. Syrian-Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn has made excellent progress in the WWE since joining in 2013—as a face, no less! But aside from “Zayn” written in Arabic on the sacrum of his tights, the WWE never acknowledges Zayn’s ancestry on screen. Time will tell whether he becomes the one to turn around depictions of Arabs in pro-wrestling.
I loathe watching sports, but racism aside, I enjoy professional wrestling. Ironically, its worked nature makes it perhaps the most democratic form of entertainment media. As a sort of coadunation of athletic competition and scripted drama, art imitates life in wrestling with an immediacy that its parent forms lack. In short, wrestling promotions have to give the audiences what they want to survive. Out-of-touch or nepotistic booking could tear an entire promotion asunder. But this also means that racism in wrestling mirrors racism in its audience. In that sense, there exists a clear but difficult path to better pro-wrestling: become a better audience. But in a country that just made the ultimate wrestling heel into the leader of the free world,3 I don’t have high hopes.
1 A number of wrestling personalities—such as Jim Cornette—blame the lack of a union for the problems facing retired professional wrestlers. To the extent of my pro-wrestling knowledge, I believe a pro-wrestling union would help nearly all of the sport’s problems, including the racism. Cornette believes that only Hulk Hogan had enough clout to unionize wrestling. The one time Jesse Ventura floated the idea of unionization, Hogan narked on Ventura and almost got him fired. This added Ventura to the long list of wrestlers who legitimately hate Hulk.
2 The announcers spent the duration stating that he deserved it all for betraying America, presaging the chilling reactions we’ve seen to Chelsea Manning and Bowe Bergdahl.
3 Bookers everywhere would love to have use of a plot device as arbitrary and rage-inducing as the electoral college.Liked This? Share It!