Where was I?? Oh, yes, I was ranting about my screening of Lawrence of Arabia! To re-cap: on Saturday, May 25th, Jordanian Independence Day, I watched all 220 minutes of the 50 year-old blockbuster for the first time. I noticed things I am quite sure I would have overlooked had I watched this long before I came to Jordan. Of course I would have marveled at the breathtaking, cinematic sweep of David Lean’s directorial genius, but I would not have balked at some of his “story board” decisions about how he treated the Arabs in the film. Case in point: as I said in yesterday’s post, in the movie the Arabs govern Damascus for two days before the more adept Europeans step in. In reality, it was almost two years. The French army forced them and Faisal out of Damascus. Why is this a problem? It denigrates what the Arabs actually did, and it reinforces that the Arabs can’t be trusted to run a government. To end the re-cap: yesterday I quoted the Arabic proverb, Al tikrar, biallem il hmar—By repetition even the donkey learns. Over time, all these caricatured Arabs become the reality for the movie observer.
You see, about 270 million people live in the 22 Arab states—and there is more diversity than most think. Over 15 million of the Arabs are Christians. The Arabs I know seek out educational opportunities in the West. None live in a tent. Not one travels via magic carpets. For a century the movie folks have used Arabs as villains; the derogatory stereotypes are aimed at the young and the old. Since moving to Jordan in 2007 I have been sensitive to such portrayals—and I am not saying that an Arab should never be portrayed as the villain—but almost all Hollywood depictions of Arabs are bad ones. These celluloid images perpetuate the adverse portraits.
Let me give you an interesting anecdote about bad stereotypes and how they come across. In 1999, my previous school, Hackley, presented the fun musical, Anything Goes. I didn’t direct this show (but I had directed the show in 1994 at Charlotte Latin School) and was just a theater-goer to this musical. In the original 1930s Anything Goes there was a comic subplot of two Chinese passengers and the portrayals trade on Chinese stereotypes. It was no doubt hilarious in the 1930s but would definitely be seen as racist today. So the Hackley director removed the now-offensive humorous Chinese stereotypes and changed them to be…Arabs. I remember thinking, So it is bad to poke fun at Asians in an Uncle Remus kind of way, but it’s okay to poke fun at Arabs???
I guess what I wish is that we could see ordinary Arabs in films. Remember why the TV show Cosby was hailed as a breakthrough in the 1980s? It had an affluent, ordinary black family! Missing from the history of Hollywood film are images of ordinary Arab men, women and children living ordinary lives. Movies fail to project exchanges between friends, social and family events. One of my favorite epiphanies in all my time in Jordan came in 2008 when I was chatting with my friend Lubna here. We are the exact same age—I am two weeks older exactly. We were chatting about TV shows our families watched in our respective childhoods. I described a drama that my family watched together on Thursday nights. As I described the show, she said, “I think we watched that too.” I said, “Oh, no Lubna, that show is so American. You couldn’t have.” Well, it turns out that while my family watched The Waltons, in the USA, so did Lubna’s family watch the same show in Kuwait! She said she and her family loved it. Then I realized that the attention to family and spirituality that made The Waltons seems so American to me, worked for an Arab Muslim as well! We are not as different as we think sometimes…
So in Hollywood movies, you don’t see Arab youth participating in sporting events; absent are the gracious and devout Arab mothers and fathers caring for each other and their neighbors. Where are the Arab scholars who pioneered mathematics and science? Where are the lovers of Arabic poetry?
Of course, historically, around 1980, at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis, anti-Arab feelings intensified. Most Americans wrongly identified Iran as an Arab country. (Iranians are Persians, by the way, another people altogether!)
Mindlessly adopted and casually adapted, the Arab-as-enemy stereotype narrows our vision and blurs reality. Obviously the world events of the last 20 years have led many Americans to believe all Arabs are terrorists and that Arabs do not value human life as much as we do. I am sure some Americans think every Arab is a clone of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. I am sure many, many news producers say, “We’re not stereotyping—just look at your television set. Those are real Arabs.”
I know, I know—movies are entertainment, not documentaries. We should not expect reporters to inundate the airwaves with the lives of ordinary Arabs. But maybe filmmakers have a moral obligation not to advance the news media’s sins of omission and commission, not to tar an entire group of people on the basis of crimes of a few.
In the last year a producer from the Cairo bureau of the Today show decided to do a piece on our school. The producer had decided too much news from the Middle East was bad and they needed a good story, a happy story from the Middle East. So they came and filmed at KA. When the piece ran on television, the piece had polarizing reactions. My American friends thought it was a great story about our school. But the Arabs here who watched it were aghast at the same stereotypes trotted out (yes, the blinding sand of the desert, the camels, the Bedouins, the mysterious music, the thrill of co-education, the exotic-ness of the students, etc.)
But stereotypes are easy, aren’t they? They may even be comforting! They mean that we don’t have to work too hard to figure someone out…they make complicated understandings unnecessary. Want to make a good joke? Looking for a villain? Instead of writing witty jokes or interesting narrative arcs, we all know what the bumbling sheikh or Arab terrorist looks like. It makes us feel better to see ourselves as superior to someone else. Think of the groups we are no longer “allowed” to feel superior over—but there are those wretched Arabs!
If one did project Arabs or Arab-Americans as regular folk, well, then they might be labeled as “pro-Arab,” and of course pro-Arab must mean anti-Israeli, and you know what even a whiff of that means. And the stereotyped movies make money! Producers exploit the stereotype for profit. Moreover, where is the criticism? Discrimination is a hot topic, but we should challenge all hateful stereotypes—even the caricatures of Arabs and “poor white trash.” [Um, witness the popularity of this Honeybooboo person and her family!] I remember when I heard Elie Wiesel speak—wow, way back in 1995—he said that no human race is superior, no religious faith is inferior; every nation has its share of bad people and good people. The denigration of one people, one religion, is the denigration of all people, all religions.
Oh my…whatta rant! I almost lost sight of Lawrence!
The film’s real-life hero, T. E. Lawrence was a flamboyant British officer whose assaults on the Turkish occupiers, helped pave the way for the Ottoman Empire's downfall. In the process, he came to see himself as a demigod, destined to unite the Arab people and “give” them freedom — an illusion crushed by big-power politics and the Arabs’ own tribal rivalries: a mix that has thwarted dreams for the region ever since, from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism to George W. Bush’s cakewalk for democracy in Iraq.
Lawrence figured in the debate over our own recent tangles with insurgents, in Afghanistan and Iraq. His memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was tapped both by the United States Army’s counterinsurgency strategists and by skeptics, who quoted Lawrence’s warning about wars against rebellions as “messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife” — though the enthusiasts took the pronouncement as a challenge.
In thinking about it for another day, I have come to see that the film is not quite so biased in the second half. Maybe there is a sly derision cast at the westerners, at Lawrence himself. In Part Two we meet Jackson Bentley, based on the real-life media mogul Lowell Thomas who exploited Lawrence’s fame and wrote about his friendship with the charismatic Lawrence. Bentley reveals his intentions to Prince Faisal, the political leader of the Arab Revolt: he is in search of a romantic figure that will persuade the American public to join the war effort in the Middle East. Faisal cynically responds, “Then Lawrence is your man.” For the rest of the movie Lawrence seems more of a hollow man—or am I reading what fellow Jordanians now would say about the man?? Am I able to watch this movie any more as just a cool, great film??? I noticed the gradual soiling, bloodying and rending of the white robes Lawrence had donned earlier in the story and wondered if this is actually a questioning of the white hero?
So here I am at the end of the movie, at the end of my rant, wondering about how I view this film now, after six years in Jordan, on Jordanian Independence Day. I think about an Arab-American named Alex Odeh, who dedicated his life to working against discrimination against Arabs in his native United States. He was shot and killed in 1985, but here are some of his words that still grip us:
Lies are like the dead ashes; when the wind of truth blows,the lies are dispersed like dust…and disappear.