Sunday, April 02, 2006

Paradis Now? Paradise Never. Not With….Sally Field. My hosts here expected me to see the movie Paradise Now to include in my talk about Arabs in recent US movies. I did not have a chance to see it before arriving in Seattle. One of my hosts was clearly disappointed as she picked me up from the airport. I suggested to watch it before my talk. That was promptly arranged. I was put in a room, and watched the movie on my laptop. I watched it very carefully, and even waited to the very end to read the credits. I could not help but notice at the end that Sally Field was thanked. Sally Field? What is Sally Field doing in a Film on Palestine? A film that has been widely praised as a contribution to the effort to promote the Palestinian cause in the West (more on that later). But Sally Field was part of one of the worst and most racist and ignorant movies ever made on the Middle East (Not without My Daughter). That was a movie that was shot in Israel, with Israeli experts and consultants (and you know about cultural sensitivity to Arabs and Muslims in Israel), and the natives, especially the veiled women, were portrayed as beasts. And as in typically racist Western movies, there were no subtitles when the natives spoke. And notice that the main character, the Iranian doctor, did not become abusive until he stepped foot on Iranian soil. He was a kind and loving husband on US soil, until he arrived in Iran. The premise is that Fasinjoon or Saffron may cause men to become abusive. Of course, experts on domestic violence will tell you that the premise is flawed, that he most likely was abusive back when he was in the US, but the author of the book on which the movie was based, had to tell a tale in which her story becomes more palatable to Western audiences, and then there is the obvious self-serving purpose. And now this same Sally Field gave her seal of approval to this movie? There must be a reason for that. First, in providing a critical evaluation of a movie, or of any element of popular culture, it is important that we exercise an independent judgment, and not be swayed by popular opinion, here or over there in the Middle East. It is also important that we resist the pressures to succumb to groupthink lest we stifle, wittingly or unwittingly diversity of opinion and critical debates within the community of Arabs/Muslims in the US. I also know that as the community feels, especially after Sep. 11, that it is under siege, and that may lead to lowering the standards of expectations and of decent and sensitive references to Arabs and Muslims in the West. Furthermore, the status of Arabs and Muslims have been so negative and stereotypical, and members of the community are so eager for any semblance of positive portrayal that they want so bad to raise “a star” from within. The community wants to feel pride; this explains partly the chauvinistic and ignorant—if not the laughably hilarious—From Lebanon segment that runs daily on LBC-TV. This explains why somebody like the late Mustafa Aqqad, whose real claim to fame was (the production of) the lousy and sexist Halloween movies, is such a wildly popular figure in the Arab world. And he dared to tell the community that he did those movies to fund his “more artsy projects.” What artsy projects? He never used that money for his “serious movies.” The Message and Lion of the Dessert were funded by Arab governments, and oil money, and not from Aqqad’s private fortune. But the community wants pride, and anybody would do, especially if he/she has Western “seal of commercial approval.” Oh, and the community, and people in the Middle East, believed that he lived in Hollywood. In Hollywood, I am telling you. In that sense, the community was proud of Hani Abu As`ad. There is also another point, the portrayal of Arabs and Muslims has been so bad for so long, that any lessening of the racist and negative portrayal, is seen as progress. But the question I pose is this: if Arabs/Muslims have been portrayed as 1/4th of human beings, should be celebrate when they are portrayed as ½ of human beings? Is that reason to cheer? Or should we aim higher, simple to portrayal of them as full human beings? That is the question. Or is that too much to ask? Getting back to Paradise Now. It is a good movie, as a movie, that is. The story was well-told, and it was interesting to watch. That is in general. I also liked watching a movie with the Palestinian dialect of Arabic. You don’t see that much in Arab popular culture, and rarely even see it the proliferating Arab media. Palestinian dialect is quite distinctive; you are not likely to find Arabs from the mashriq who are able to distinguish aMoroccan dialect from a Tunisian dialect, but Arabs can tell a Palestinian dialect. Phalange militiamen (allies of Hariri Inc and Hizbullah in the last parliamentary election in Lebanon) used to kill kidnapped people during the Lebanese civil war on the basis of dialect sometimes. But when I saw the movie, I also thought. Do we really allow the Palestinians to live their lives in the Arab world? I mean, as we represent them, and as we judge their coverage in popular cultures, do we allow them to be entitled to a full life, or do we insist and expect that they engage in struggle, all day long, seven days a week, and all year? I thought about that as I read on the plane on the way to Seattle the wonderful novel by Palestinian writer, Suheir Daoud, Madinat Ar-Rasas. She spoke about her life, and loves, and disappointments, without talking much about struggle. And I was happy for that. Of course, occupation and the Palestinian issue was in the background. How could it not be? How could be buried. It can’t. But we should allow the Palestinian to express themselves by themselves, and not impose expectations on them. This is exactly why Algerian struggler, Jamilah Buhayrad, withdrew from the spotlight, and did not want to talk to the Arab press for much of her life. She just could not handle the pressures. Did Mahmud Darwish once not tell an Arab audience to spare him their love, or something to that effect? Similarly, I applied that test to the movie, and the Palestinians, who are overtly and intensely political, as a people, also live their lives: they live, they laugh, they drink, they make love, they fall in love, they eat, they dance, they fight, they act silly, they act serious, and they listen to music, and they can watch movies do. Oh, and they also engage in struggle, many forms of struggle. I saw that as the main character (Said?) in the movie was seen to be awkward in love, not being comfortable with the woman that he liked, as if the “struggle” has prevented Palestinians from knowing how to love and be loved. And toward the end of the movie, two children were flying a kite, and the kite itself was a Palestinian flag. I mean, Palestinian life is politicized by virtue of the reality of occupation and oppression, but come on. But there are serious problems with the movie: the movie clearly was intended for Western audiences and sensibilities, and was driven by them and designed around them. And I must confess that when a movie penetrate the walls of Western barriers of acceptability of “an other,” I always wonder and brace myself. I mean, the seal of approval from Golden Globe and “the academy” must not only mean something, but must also be due to something in the movie that captured their attention and approval. This is not the best Arabic movie made, ever, and yet something in it appealed to Western reviewers, and I see why, now. I dare say that Israeli civilians in the movie are more civilian than Palestinian civilians in the movie. Even Israeli soldiers were portrayed quite humanely. This has been a staple of Western portrayal of Arabs and Israelis, that no matter what, and no matter whether they are armed or not, Israeli soldiers are more human and more civilian than unarmed Palestinian civilians. Even the last scene, Israeli occupation soldiers were seen in the buss smiling widely, and a male and a female were talking; you had to identify with them, and you had to sympathize with them, and you had to curse the killers, who dared to disturb their lives, but don’t you dare curse those who disturb, on a daily basis, the lives of Palestinian civilians. And you had to see that scene where Sa`id could not ride on the bus because there was an Israeli child. Israelis have children, Palestinians don’t. Palestinians give birth to terrorist babies, you know. This explains why Israel has no qualms about indiscriminate bombardments of refugee camps. But the major flaw and problem with the movie is the premise itself (of the plot): the false premise about how individuals get “recruited” to undertake “missions”. In the movie, there was this sneaky and suspicious fanatic Muslim character who recruited Sa`id, just like that, at a short notice. Leaders of organizations do not press members to engage in attacks, it is the other way round. In other words, members lobby and press leaders to send them on missions. This is true in secular and in religious organizations. In Munich, Palestinian fighters who were outraged at Israeli bombing rampages against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in February of 1972, pressed and pleaded with Abu Iyad to plan an attack of revenge (more on revenge later) against Israel. It was in this context that Munich was improvised. In the last several years, when suicide missions spread in direct response to massive Israeli killing of Palestinians, sometimes men and women would knock on the doors of several organizations before they are sent on missions. One woman had to beg several organization leaders before one agreed to sponsor her. That is how this happens. The Israeli propaganda account is that they are pressured to go, or that Saddam’s past payment to families were the motives. Of course, Israeli military propagandists also thoroughly look into the background of the individuals who undertook such missions (Lebanese and Palestinians no matter whether they are religious or communist) in order to find something about their personal life stories to deny the political motive). Even during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon (which continues in Shib`a Farms, Kfar Shuba hills, and the seven villages), Israeli occupation propagandists would also outrageously claim that the people who engaged in suicide attacks were motivated by personal reasons, that this woman once kissed a neighbor when she was 15, and that she was fearing “shame,” to the rest of the tale distilled form The Arab Mind. The movie does the same thing: we had to learn about how his father was killed as “collaborator” and that a personal motive was at play here. First, every struggle for independence entails punishment of collaborators, whether you like it or not. The French resistance did plenty of that—and many innocent people were killed in the interim, as did Algerian struggle against French colonization, and in South African struggle against Apartheid, they were “necklaced” as you may remember. But then again, Palestinian struggle for independence is subjected to the most exacting and most unrealistic standards of scrutiny. It is expectedto be a struggle that adheres to the most “humane” and most “peaceful” standards there are, while Israeli occupation and oppression is subjected to no standards whatever. The Israelis can do what they wish, and US Congress and media will provide pretexts and justifications. Was that not what they did after Jenin? I sat in this country while watching people arguing in polite company and on TV that the Jenin was NOT a massacre because a mere 54 Palestinians were killed. Such are the non-standards applied to Israeli killing. In the case of the Palestinians, all forms of their struggle, including peaceful forms, are subjected to such minute scrutiny that there was an uproar once because Israeli propagandists, and their parrots in the US, objected to a line in a poem by Mahmud Darwish—how dare he? The Western pearls of wisdom in the movie were delivered by well-known French (or is she Belgium?) actress, Lubna Az-Zabbal, who appears in French movies. But that was significant, very significant. She was supposed to be the person who represented “rationality” and “civility” while the Palestinians were the “emotional” and “the agitated.” And her pearls of wisdom were rather silly. She delivered those “insights” as if the Palestinian people had not contemplated such thoughts before, or more importantly, as if the Palestinians had not exercised such options before. Well, o visiting French actress to Palestine, the Palestinian people did, AND STILL DO, engage in a variety of struggles against occupation, and most of them are NOT violent, although that is not focused on—not in US media and culture, and not in this movie that pleased many US reviewers. Palestinian struggle for independence was largely, if not exclusively, non-violent from 1948 until the 1960s, and Israel—contrary to the preachment of the visiting French actress—did not need an “excuse” to attack and kill Palestinians, her pearls of wisdom notwithstanding. Even in Benny Morris’ account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he talks about Israeli killing of thousands of Palestinians who peacefully used to try to visit their lands from 1948 until the 1960s. As if the world took note of the plight of Palestinians during the time. In reality, the world did not notice Palestinian struggle until the Palestinian took up the option of armed struggle. That is a fact. Prior to that, Golda Meir could say that there is “no such thing as the Palestinian people” and not be challenged.” And even today, most of Palestinian struggle constitutes non-violent means and methods. But that does not get into the media. It has to be buried. Because even Palestinian chants and songs are “terrorist.” How many of you actually read the Road Map (to Peace?)? You have to read it, and that is why, among other reasons, why it is important to oppose it. The Road Map would ban not only violent struggle but non-violent struggle of the Palestinian people would also be banned under that “plan” the perpetuation of Israeli occupation and hegemony. And why did the film portray suicide bombings in such Islamic religious light? Dying to Win was just published, and it shows that most suicide bombings were not by Muslims, and that non-religious people did most of the suicide bombings in recent decades. And notice that in the West, Islamic religiousity (and fundamentalism) is seen as more silly and more "fundamentalist" than Christian or Jewish fundamentalism and religiousity. And why is the Islamic paradise sillier than Jewish or Christian paradise? I notice from years of teaching Islam in the west, that it is easier, much easier, for non-Muslims in the US to mock elements of Islam than it is to mock elements of Judaism and Christianity. I mean, have you actually read the Old Testament (or the New)? On this point, I remain firm. You either mock all religions, or you are a bigot. And the “enlightened” Westerner in the movie (made to be half-Palestinian to give her credibility) expressed outrage that the motive of Palestinians may be revenge. Revenge? Who engages in revenge in 2006 (except US, Israel, and others of course). But Western revenge is not seen as revenge; only Easter revenge is portrayed as “revenge” to underline its backward and atavisitic nature. Was Munich (the movie) not based on a book called Vengeance? Was the war on Afghanistan not a war of revenge par excellence? And the debate on the war on Iraq was really a debate over whether the war was “legitimate revenge” versus “excessive revenge.” Israel itself refers to its own wars and regular bombing campaigns as “retaliation”, another polite word for revenge, of course. But the Palestinians, again, subjected to scrutiny and standards not applied on any other struggle in the world, are not supposed to engage in revenge. And do you notice that Palestinian struggle is the only struggle that is supposed to pursue options and courses of actions—or inaction—determined by its enemies? By its own enemies? This is like asking the victims of Apartheid to ask for recipes of action, or inaction, from the white minority regime in South Africa. This movie does not deviate from that. But a Palestinian director was seen chatting with Hollywood celebrities; the nation should be proud, and the community has to abandon its own standards and sensibilities, at least until the show is over.