Muhammad Hassan’s last ride

WWE’s Arab-American wrestlers came to Arco Arena to entertain and wound up causing an international incident

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The haunting sound of a gong filled Arco Arena as the lights dropped suddenly. Cheers erupted through the crowd. Ringside at SmackDown!, a live television program of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Muhammad Hassan and Khosrow Daivari quivered in their boots each time the gong resonated, signaling the arrival of their opponent for the evening. Smoke filled the canvas square as the 6-foot-10, 328-pound Undertaker glided toward its center, accompanied by organ music straight out of a Hammer horror film.

The Undertaker basked in thunderous applause. As the lights rose, Daivari hesitantly entered the ring and made every effort to dodge the oncoming assaults of the Undertaker. When Daivari switched tactics and attacked the Undertaker, the effect was similar to a fly battling an elephant. With one signature move, the Undertaker delivered Daivari’s head into the spring-loaded mat, instantly knocking him out.

The official match was over in less than a minute. However, Hassan, who was scheduled to face the Undertaker three weeks later at The Great American Bash, a pay-per-view event, took the opportunity to soften up his opponent. Calling in five men dressed in camouflage fatigues, black long-sleeved shirts, black gloves and black ski masks, Hassan ordered them to attack the Undertaker. Hassan dropped to his knees in prayer, with his arms stretched skyward, while the five men battered his foe. When the Undertaker was overpowered, Hassan gripped him in a submission hold and mimicked a beheading. The five men carried Daivari’s unconscious body out of the arena over their heads.

Neither the wrestlers nor the thousands of Sacramento-area fans in attendance knew that the match they had just witnessed would result in the dismissal of Hassan and Daivari—WWE’s only Arab-American characters. When the Arco Arena match aired on U.S. television on July 7, the same day as the London bombings, the appearance of the five presumably Middle Eastern henchmen blurred the line between entertaining ruffianism and terrorism. In response to international backlash from fans, WWE canceled its only Arab-American characters—making their Sacramento victory their last.

Since their introduction in November 2004, the characters of Hassan and Daivari have played out one of the most controversial story lines in the history of professional wrestling. Through a series of ringside speeches, the two have conveyed vehement disillusionment with America as a result of increasing prejudice and racism since 9/11. Their list of complaints has included increased scrutiny at airports and a mass media that are quick to embrace negative Arab-American stereotypes.

Of course, Hassan and Daivari are fictional characters. Hassan is portrayed by Jordan-born and New York-raised Mark Copani. Khosrow Daivari was born Shawn Daivari in Iran but was raised in Minneapolis. Nonetheless, the actors’ scripted speeches resonate some truth. “When anything goes wrong in this country, it’s the Arabs,” Hassan yelled at a recent WWE match. “When a plane crashes, it’s the Arabs. When a bomb goes off, it’s the Arabs. The blackout two summers ago—it was the Arabs.”

Sam Ershadi, a 23-year-old wrestling fan and the son of two Persian immigrants who reside in Natomas, has felt the prejudice that Hassan references whenever he gets his hands on a microphone. “Once, after 9/11, I was pulled over for speeding. The cops seemed friendly enough. They explained I was pulled over for going a couple miles over the speed limit, and they took my license,” Ershadi related. “After they saw my name, they became very rude. … I was ultimately given a speeding ticket for going 20 mph over the speed limit, not the ‘couple’ they originally indicated.” And, like Hassan and Daivari, Ershadi also has experienced intense inspections at airports.

Ershadi’s attitude toward Hassan and Daivari is not one of anger or discomfort. “I find them to be incredibly humorous. I see them as a parody, in essence,” Ershadi said. “I always appreciate humor and parody, especially when it makes light of a serious or heavy situation.”

Hassan and Daivari are only the latest heels—the characters fans love to hate—designed to capitalize on the country’s political climate to garner an exponential amount of publicity, mixed with outrage. Professional wrestling has always survived on grandiose acrobatic attacks, combined with melodramatic stories that play into the social and cultural fears and pleasures of its audience. When soldiers were returning home from fighting Nazi storm troopers after World War II, professional wrestling offered up a goose-stepping German wrestler by the name of Fritz Von Erich, who quickly drew the hatred and anger of a generation of wrestling fans. When Ayatollah Khomeini held Americans hostage, the Iron Sheik became a popular wrestling villain. He would enter the ring waving a flag featuring the Ayatollah and singing the praises of Iran.

Pro-wrestling enterprises bank on a certain catharsis inherent in watching figureheads of our national enemies win and lose matches in the ring—a political agenda played out in a fantasy land complete with body slams and reverse suplexes. WWE has created a world of entertainment where the rules of common decency, let alone the Geneva Conventions, do not exist.

Of course, an Arab-American in a wrestling ring hunched over an opponent miming a beheading is not going to fly by the radars of today’s socially conscious media watchdogs. Within a month of the arrival of Hassan and Daivari on the WWE stage, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) called upon U.S. citizens to help put a stop to the characters. The ADC Web site urged citizens to write to WWE and demand the alteration of Hassan and Daivari’s story line. “Neither are Arab-American,” the site read. “When Daivari launches into tirades, viewers are led to believe he is speaking Arabic, but he is actually speaking Farsi.” The ADC cited WWE’s “responsibility not to undermine the seriousness of public concerns about the worsening problem of racism and prejudice towards Arabs, Muslims, South Asians, and those perceived to be.”

During a recent phone interview, Laila al-Qatami, communications director for the ADC, expressed a general concern over the WWE’s emphasis on Hassan and Daivari’s ethnicity. “Their antagonistic behavior prevents the audience from feeling for these people,” al-Qatami said, adding that such unsympathetic portrayals lead to a negative perspective toward all Arab-Americans, not just these two characters.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the WWE is less concerned with cultural sensitivity. “The first priority of WWE is to entertain,” said Gary Davis, WWE’s vice president of corporate communications, in a phone interview. “However, if we can bring complex characters to the screen to be discussed and to provoke people into talking, then we do.”

“[Hassan] is not a terrorist, and neither were the masked men who entered the ring that night,” Davis asserted, before acknowledging that, regardless of the identity of the men, the timing of the episode was very unfortunate. After receiving hundreds of letters concerning this event, the decision was made to end the story line of Hassan and Daivari, and, effectively, the Arab-American presence in professional wrestling.

During The Great American Bash, which aired on July 24, Hassan was brutally defeated and given the “Last Ride,” the Undertaker’s signature move, which entails being thrown out of the ring through the ropes. An announcement followed that Hassan had suffered injuries too serious to ever return to the ring.

“Kicking Hassan off of WWE is just overreacting,” said Carmichael resident Danny Ang, labeling Hassan and Daivari as “characters just using the gimmick to get cheap heat.” Ang and his brother David have been wrestling fans for 13 years, more than half of their lives.

“What was great about Hassan and Daivari was that they were always right about what they said,” David added. “They never even remotely resembled terrorists until [the match at Arco]. They were just supposed to be Arab-Americans that felt like they were treated unfairly, which definitely happened.”

There’s no denying that Hassan and Daivari’s scripted soapbox was calculated to capitalize on the baser impulses of American politics. Especially in professional wrestling, where actions are stronger than words, the portrayal of a volatile radical is a more potent influence on ethnic image than a press release on the WWE corporate Web site. Nonetheless, WWE seems to have succeeded—in spite of itself—in creating complex Arab-American characters who expressed the growing pressure of racism against people of Middle Eastern descent, only to silence them when things got uncomfortable. In the end, the only result of the short careers of Hassan and Daivari was a temporary publicity boost for both the ADC and WWE.

Then again, it’s a classic mistake to believe the dramas of WWE are real or to take them too seriously. After reading the complaints from the ADC, Ershadi sat quietly watching a replay of a recent Hassan speech on TV. When it ended, he simply shrugged. “This stuff—it’s just wrestling.”