Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Kingdom of Heaven (and of Plunder, Pillage, Bloodshed, and Mayhem): Ridley Scott's Version of the Crusades, or the Limitations of Western Liberalism. What do you expect. I can summarize the movie's (Kingdom of Heaven) message for you: there are good crusaders and bad crusaders, and the viewers are supposed to cheer for, and identify with, the good crusaders. Or, Rumsfeld is bad and Bush is good. You may say that the Arabs were presented humanely, or so bloviated US reviewers in unison. Leaders of Arab-American and Muslim American organizations will praise the movie, no doubt, and so will the King of Morocco (who was thanked at the end of the credit, but torture in his kingdom was not noted in the credit for some reason). I beg to differ. The Arabs in the movie were what Arabs always are in Western popular (and political) culture: a crowd, a mob, or a shapeless blob--as they were in Renoir's The Mosque painting. Only the Western injured and the dead (not to mention the living) are personalized, but not the Arabs. The Arabs (in the movie and in present-day Western popular culture) demonstrate, fight, and die as a mob, or an imporsonalized mass of people. Salah Id-Din was the only one personalized--the king--something that the Western imagination can stomach, although the Arabs never referred to Salah Ad-Din as malik (king). As for the historical accuracy, a mixed baggage, which is much better than other Western movies that tackle historical events and developments. I was quite unhappy, or most unhappy, when the hero of the movie (the hero has to be a Westerner, you understand) took over his estate, and with typical Western "genius" taught those inferior Arabs how to dig for water, as if they had not been doing that for centuries. This is akin to the Western myth of Zionist immigration causing the "desert to bloom" in Palestine. And also Salah Id-Din in particular (and I am critical of his religious dogmatism) was known not only as a warrior (a magnanimous warrior at that, even in Western imagination especially when compared to the merciless brutality of Crusading warriors) but also as somebody who "patronized scholars, encouraged theological studies, built dykes, dug canals, and founded schools and mosques." (Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, London: McMillan, 1958, 6th edition, p. 651). But to show the "civilizational" standards of the Europeans at the time to be superior to the standards of their Arab enemies is quite false but unsurprising. But I shall quote from the account of a reliable Arab Syrian prince, Usamah Bin Munqidh (d. 1188) who was a contemporary of the Crusades and left us a most interesting account that I recommend (Kitab Al-I`tibar--fortunately available in an excellent translation by Philip K. Hitti as, An Arab-Syrian Gengtleman and Warrior in the Period of The Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah Ibn-Munqidh (Kitab Al-I`tibar), (NY: Columbia University Press, 1929) (I have this first edition, in addition to the Arabic edition of course, but I believe that Princeton University Press republished Hitti's excellent translation in recent years). Usamah tells us the following story about Crusaders' science: "The Lord of Al-Munaytirah wrote to my uncle asking him to dispatch a physician to treat certain sick persons among his people. My uncle sent him a Christian [Arab] physician named Thabit. Thabit was absent but ten days when he returned. So we said to him, "How quickly have you healed your patients!" He said: "They brought before me a knight in whose leg an abscess had grown; and a woman afflicted with imbecility. To the knight I applied a small poultice until the abscess opened and became well; and the woman I put on diet and made her humor wet. Then a Frankish physician came to them and said, "This man knows nothing about treating them." He then said to the knight, "Which would you prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?" The latter replied, "living with one leg." The physician said, "Bring me a strong knight and a sharp ax." A knight came with the ax. And I was standing by. Then the physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike with the ax and chop it off at one blow. Accordingly he struck it--while I was looking on--one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow, upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot. He then examined the woman and said, "This is a woman in whose head there is a devil which has possessed her. Shave off her hair." Accordingly they shaved it off and the woman began once more to eat their ordinary diet--garlic and mustard. Her imbecility took a turn for the worse. The physician then said, "The devil has penetrated through her head." He therefore took a razor, made a deep incision on it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the incision until the bone of the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman expired instantly. Thereupon I asked them whether my services were needed any longer, and when they replied in the negative I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I knew not before." I always get a kick out of the last sentence when I read this. On the Justice system of the Crusades, Usamah tells this story: "I once went in the company of Al-Amir Mu`in Ad-Din (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!) to Jerusalem. We stopped at Nablus. There a blind man, a Moslem, who was still young and was well dressed, presented himself before al-Amir carrying fruits for him and asked permission to be admitted into his service in Damascus. The Amir consented. I inquired about this man and was informed that his mother had been married to a Frank who she had killed. Her son used to practice ruses against the Frankish pilgrims and cooperate with his mother in assassinating them. They finally brought charges against him and tried his case according to the Frankish way of procedure. They installed a huge cask and filled it with water. Across it they set a board of wood. They then bound the arms of the man charged with the act, tied a rope around his shoulders and dropped him into the cask, their idea being that in case he was innocent, he would sink in the water and they would then lift him up with the rope so that he might not die in the water; and in case he was guilty, he would not sink in the water. This man did his best to sink when they dropped him into the water, but he could not do it. So he had to submit to their sentence against him--may Allah's curse be upon them! They pierced his eyeballs with red-hot awls." Usamah, by the way, talks about Muslim women fighting against the Crusades but Scott would have none of that, of course, and Muslim women always have to be hidden in Western (mis)representation. Scott (or his movie) mentioned in passing the indiscriminate killing of Muslims in Jerusalem when it was first captured by Crusaders but did not mention how the remaining surviving Jews in the city hid in the old Synagogue, and they too were massacred--women and children among them. Why dig old wounds, I guess--or so calculated Scott. When the crusaders entered the city of Jerusalem, they (in Hitti's words--and he was a Christian by the way) "perpetrated an indiscriminate massacre involving all ages and both sexes." (p. 639 of Hitti's History...) One account talked about "Heaps of heads and hands and feet were to be seen throughout the streets and squares of the city" (Raimundus de Agiles, Historia Francorum qui ceperunt Jerusalem", cited in Hitti). The Arab chronicler Ibn Al-Athir estimated that some 70,000 were slaughtered in Al-Aqsa mosque alone (a Western chronicler put the figure at 65,000). And when people (mis)represent the Crusades in present Western time, they seem to extrapolate the present onto the past, and put it as Christian versus Muslim when some Arab Christians fought with the Muslim armies, and the Crusaders also massacred Christians. "The campaign was actually begun south of the Danube. It was here that the crusaders were guilty of terrible atrocities against the poor Orthodox peoples whose chief crime was that they had succumbed to the Ottomans." (Aziz S Atiya, The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages, (London, Methuen, 1938, p. 443). Also, when Salah Id-Din took over Jersualem not all the Christians were asked to leave the city, as the movie implied. In fact, "Orthodox Christians petitioned to remain the city; Saladin agreed, exempting them from the ransom and requiring them to pay only a poll tax, allowing them to take over the Holy Sepulcher and to purchase the property of the Christians who had been driven out. Five hundred Armenians were released simply because they were Armenian." (James Reston, Jr., Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, (NY Doubleday, 2001, p. 83). For those who can not read Arabic and who wish to understand how Arabs viewed the Crusades, I recommend Amin Maalouf, Crusades Through Arab Eyes and Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades. The movie also supported the fight of the Crusaders inside the city when it was attacked by Salah Ad-Din's army because the Muslims outside were not born in Jerusalem by then. Yet, the same "West" considers the Jewish claim over Palestine to be superior to that of Palestinians who were born there. And the movie, as a piece of drama, is quite lousy and not interesting. There is a silly Harry-met-Sally type love story inserted inside for extra effect. I even expected Tony Danza to appear in some role during the movie. And while I love Arabic music (not all of it of course), I cannot stand Western Orientalist rendition of what Arabic music is supposed to be. The Arabic song during the credit was most silly in lyrics and music: to hear an Arab chanting about "the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of love" was an odd blending of New Age and medieval religious dogma. The Syrian actor Ghassan Mas`ud was great, I thought, while the Western hero of the movie had the charisma of...Tom Hanks. And Bernard Lewis thinks that Arabs are still obsessed with the Crusades?