04 October 2007

The Kingdom: A shift in Hollywood dehumanizing Arabs

The Kingdom, an action film about Middle East terrorism starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner as FBI agents, is pulling off something incredible: it opened last weekend as the No. 2 box-office smash in the U.S., and it’s getting positive buzz in the Arab world, too.

Not long ago, it seems, just about every Arab in a film was a terrorist. The Kingdom has terrorists, but its characterizations of Arabs and Americans are multidimensional. Arabs are also good guys, like the Saudi military officer who helps the Yanks go after the bad guys, and some of the Americans are bad guys too.The Kingdom is the latest in a series of big-budget movies depicting the Middle East that reflect how Hollywood may be finally ditching the racist stereotypes of Arabs that dominated the film industry for decades. Another notable one that springs to mind is David O. Russell’s 1999 film, Three Kings. The story line casts the first Bush administration in a negative light by showing how it encouraged and then abandoned Iraqis rebelling against Saddam Hussein. The characters include good as well as bad Iraqis and Americans. In a couple of brilliant exchanges, American grunts tossing ethnic slurs at Iraqis are depicted as idiots rather than cool tough guys.

Steve Gaghan’s Syriana and Steven Spielberg’s Munich are more recent films that raised the standard. I found Syriana’s story line about Arab potentates and American oil barons too improbable in many places. But the film does an amazing job of capturing the texture of Middle East intrigue, and artfully avoids turning either Arabs or Americans into cliches. Likewise Munich, a film that portrays Palestinians as human beings grappling with a complicated political conflict rather than as blood-thirsty monsters.

For a good read on the old Hollywood, you have to pick up Jack Shaheen’s superb, important book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. He analyzes more than 900 films in which Arabs are the villains, saying that he is determined to “expose an injustice: cinema’s systematic, pervasive, and unapologetic degradation and dehumanization of a people.”Strong stuff, but Shaheen provides ample evidence. The book’s appendix includes a section called “Epithets Directed at the Film Arab,” a list of 194 slurs he came across in films including this sampling: barbarian, butchers, camel farts, camel jockeys, cockroach, devil worshipers, filthy swine, little pig with a moustache, mick-a-muck of Morocco, Mideast maggot, raghead, scum bucket, son-of-a-flea-bitten-camel, stinky fellow, towel head, turbaned twit, walking bedsheets, your-worthlessness. These are among the ones printable on a family website.

In reviewing cultural slurs rooted in European orientalism and reinforced by a half century of recent Middle East conflict, Shaheen identifies five types of Arab stereotype: villains (political enemies, fanatics, murderers, rapists, terrorists), sheikhs (lechers, stooges, hedonists) maidens (harem dwellers, bellydancers), Egyptians (Jew haters, souk swindlers) and Palestinians (duh, terrorists).

Shaheen has nothing against Arabs being bad guys like people from any other group in films, but argues that Arabs are almost always the bad guys. “Pay special attention to those Arabs you do not see on movie screens,” he writes in the 2001 book. “Missing from the vast majority of scenarios are images of ordinary Arab men, women and children, living ordinary lives.” To those who argue that negative film images of Arabs simply reflect what is happening in the news, Shaheen is dismissive. “We should not expect reporters to inundate the airwaves with the lives of ordinary Arabs,” he says. “But filmmakers have a moral obligation to not to advance the news media’s sins of omission and commission, not to tar an entire group of people on the basis of the crimes and alleged crimes of a few.” Interestingly, Shaheen points out that in the credits of a good number of anti-Arab action films the producers thank the U.S. Defense Department for its cooperation.Shaheen points out that negative characterizations exist in numerous box office hits by big-name directors and actors. A handful of his worst films:

–Back to the Future (1985): Michael J. Fox is seen “duping and decimating” Libyan terrorists seeking a nuclear bomb.

–Bonfire of the Vanities (1990): Alan King plays an executive just back from Saudi Arabia describing to dinner companions his crash landing on a plane “full of Arabs with these animals. Goats, sheep, chickens… you know they urinate, defecate… They think that’s how to stop a plane… They’ve never been on a plane before.”

–The Delta Force (1986): Chuck Norris wipes out 50 Arabs foiling a hijacking in Beirut by Jew-hating Palestinians.

–Ishtar (1986): Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman spar with a corrupt emir in a script filled with continuous, gratuitous swipes at Arab culture and Islam.

–Network (1976): As the tragicomic hero news anchor, Peter Finch shouts, “The Arabs have screwed us! …the Arabs are simply buying us! There’s only one thing that can stop them–you, you! …I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more! I don’t want banks selling my country to the Arabs!”

–Rules of Engagement (2000): Samuel L. Jackson plays a U.S. Marine colonel who orders his men guarding the U.S. embassy to open fire on Yemeni civilians (83 dead bodies result) with the command, “Waste the Mother——s!”

–True Lies (1994): Special agent Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the trail of despicable Palestinians who detonate a nuclear device in the Florida Keys.

–Things are Tough All Over (1982): Funny men Cheech and Chong “portray rich, repulsive, ridiculous and ribald Arab Muslim brothers–one weds a camel.”

–Black Sunday (1977): Israeli army major played by Robert Shaw wipes out Palestinian-German terrorist Marthe Keller before her gang can massacre 80,000 Americans at the Super Bowl.

–Ground Zero (1994): Ah, Black Sunday’s for wimps. Kick-boxing champ Don Wilson plays an army sergeant who helps foil invading Arab mad men from the “Party of Allah” who seek to kill 375 million people in a nuclear attack.-(t.o.lebanon)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.