London Palestine Film Festival

The Guardian writes on the occasion of the London Palestine Film Festival:

Perhaps Palestinian cinema cannot help but be ironic, when the most widely known cinematic images of Palestine are those that close Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In Exodus, youthful Israeli forces win a decisive battle against the old-world savagery of Britain and Nazi Germany, before turning to fight the encroaching Arabs. In the Spielberg film, Holocaust survivors walk across a plain with Jerusalem in the background: a landscape that, given the location, can only be the Bethlehem wilderness. While Exodus reduces the life of the cities of pre-Israel Palestine to an image of marauding savages, Spielberg erases the local population entirely. These Hollywood histories depend upon their directors’ bullish confidence; Palestinian cinema, in contrast, is characterised by doubt and self-reflection.

This site appears to be the official home of the festival, which is held at SOAS and the Barbican.

London Book Fair and Arab literature

The London Book Fair, which this year shines a spotlight on Arab literature, ends tomorrow. Here are selected links to related stories:

✯ PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED – On religion and censorship for Egypt’s independent publishing houses.

✯ Pigs raid Sharqawi’s publishing house; confiscate books خنازير الداخلية تداهم دار ملامح للنشر وتصادر كتب at 3arabawy – Hossam reports that blogger M. Sharqawi’s publishing house, which puts out among other the graphic novel Metro, was raided.

✯ Authors and critics on arabic literature | Review | Books – Ahmed Alaidy, Roger Allen, Amani Amin, Alaa al-Aswaany, Mourid Barghouti, Sulayman al-Bassam, Feisal al-Darraj, Sabry Hafez, Hala Halim, Denys Johnson-Davies, Hisham Matar, Amjad Nasser, Hanan al-Shaykah, Adania Shibli, Bahaa Taher, Hind Wassef, and Nabil Yassin on the state of Arab literature.

✯ British Council – New Arabic Books – Program to translate Arabic books

✯ Books | Cairo’s greatest literary secret – Profile of Bahaa Taher

✯ Is the Arab world ready for a literary revolution? – Features, Books – The Independent – Essay piece from the Hay Alhambra lit festival

✯ Arab book world challenges | – Amr Moussa promises “decade of education” to encourage literature.

✯ Arcadia and Haus launch Arab imprint | – London publishers launch project to publish Arabic lit in translation.

Getting over fitna

I recently watched the new short film by the Dutch right-wing MP Geert Wilders, Fitna. It’s not like I was expecting anything but racist drivel, but I was particularly underwhelmed by this effort, which essentially consists of quotes of the Quran super-imposed with pictures of veiled women “taking over our streets” and much complaining of how many mosques are being built in Holland. In other words, it’s the usual pretty thin racist crap about how foreigners are coming to our country to steal our jobs and seduce our women, and how they look different, thus breaking the harmonious landscapes of the nation’s streets. For some reason, I was actually expecting something a bit more high-minded. I think Theo van Gogh would have delivered something better, this looks like the ad campaign for something like Vlaams Belang (the racist Flemish party in Belgium, which I am more familiar with having spent much time there — I remember as a kid in the 1980s seeing its predecessor, the Vlaams Blok, putting up stickers with the charming inscription “all Moroccan women are whores” on street lamps.)

I suppose the low artistic and intellectual merit of fitna largely explained why it has been ignored aside from the media’s desperate search for an angry reaction of the kind we had over the Danish cartoons (a reaction driven largely by governments for their own purposes, as in Syria). You could have had a film looking at some of the real problems with Islam as it has been practiced for centuries, or how many Islamists advocate it should be practiced now. The issue of uneven rights for women is a real problem, and just like there is atrocious racism in Western societies against non-whites, there is scandalous discrimination in many Islamic countries against non-Muslims. I don’t care how many hadiths you pull out of your hats to show the prophet ‘s best friend was a Christian or whatever else. The proof is in the practice, and particularly in Arab patriarchal societies, the practice hasn’t exactly been great and the moral leadership, with some notable exceptions, has been even poorer.

The word “fitna” is Arabic for “discord” and is usually the term used to refer to the fight over the succession of the caliphate that led to the split into Shia and Sunni Islam. It’s an odd title for the movie, which never quite explains what it means or why it was chosen, but perhaps an apt one to describe the media-driven hullabaloo over its coverage. Sure, Wilders may get threats from some idiots, and could even get killed. This is profoundly regrettable, as is the fact that Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others are driven into hiding or have to live under constant guard. But beyond this you can’t quite shake the feeling that this story is part of a larger meme of civilizational conflict editors have decided to run with, no matter what the actual reaction on the street is, the quality of the debate, and the desire by the people writing these books and making these movies to get their 15 minutes of fame by being “courageous contrarians.”

I suspect that, mostly, we don’t really care about these movies, cartoons and books. I’d rather reserve my energy to defend the likes of Salman Rushdie, an author of considerable talent whose Satanic Verses had real artistic merit, or focus on the real problems with the way police handle urban Arab immigrant youths in Western Europe, than spend my time playing “clash of civilisations” over silly cartoons in provincial Danish newspapers or the crappy home movie of a Dutch politician with silly hair. This stuff is fitna for the sake of fitna, or really, fitna without a cause.

Lalami: Beyond the Veil

Beyond the Veil:

When the French government invaded Algeria, in 1830, it started a vast campaign of military “pacification,” which was quickly followed by the imposition of French laws deemed necessary for the civilizing mission to succeed. Women were crucial to that enterprise. In articles, stories and novels of the day, Algerian women were universally depicted as oppressed, and so in order for civilization truly to penetrate Algeria, the argument went, the women had to cast off their veils. General Bugeaud, who was charged with administering the territory in the 1840s, declared, “The Arabs elude us because they conceal their women from our gaze.” Algerian men, meanwhile, were perceived to be sexual predators who could not control their urges unless their womenfolk were draped in veils. Colonization would solve this by bringing the light of European civilization to Arab males, who, after a few generations of French rule, would learn to control their urges. The governor-general of Algeria remarked in 1898 that “the Arab man’s, the native Jew’s and the Arab woman’s physiology, as well as tolerance for pederasty, and typically oriental ways of procreating and relating to one another are so different from the European man’s that it is necessary to take appropriate measures.” As late as 1958, French wives of military officers, desperate to stop support for the FLN, which spearheaded the war of liberation against France, staged a symbolic “unveiling” of Algerian women at a pro-France rally in the capital of Algiers.

Decades later, millions of French citizens with ancestral roots in North Africa are being told much the same thing: in order to be French, they must “integrate” by giving up that which makes them different–Islam. The religion, however, is not regarded as a set of beliefs that adherents can adjust to suit the demands of their everyday lives but rather as an innate and unbridgeable attribute. It is easy to see how racism can take hold in such a context. During the foulard controversies, it did not appear to matter that 95 percent of French Muslims do not attend mosque, that more than 80 percent of Muslim women in France do not wear the headscarf or even that the number of schoolgirls in headscarves has never been more than a few hundred. The racist notion of innate differences between French citizens of North African origin and those of European origin defined the debate. For instance, the Lévy sisters were sometimes referred to in the press as Alma and Lila Lévy-Omari, thus making their ancestral link to North Africa (on their mother’s side) clearer to the reader.

Do read more of Leila Lalami’s excellent review of The Politics of the Veil, but the point highlighted above as always struck me as extremely important. Unfortunately, French authorities — notably Nicolas Sarkozy when he was minister of the interior — have chosen to empower religious fundamentalists and depict them as representative of the Muslim community at large.

Links for 11/11/07

For a lazy Sunday:

Christopher Hitchens, hammer of Islamism, rationalist supernova, has just had a “back, sack and crack wax”. Here he is in December’s Vanity Fair, pudgy hands clasped in unlikely prayer pose, while a cadre of beauticians yank swatches of what seems to be shag-pile from the nethermost Pelt of the Hitch. Antiwar types might relish his agonised depilation diary — “like being tortured for information that you do not possess, with intervals for a (incidentally very costly) sandpaper handjob” — and wonder if it might afford him some deeper insight into activities inside Guantanamo.

Yet, strangely, in submitting to this ritual for a feature on self-improvement to celebrate his recently acquired US citizenship (he also traded fag-stained British hat-pegs for twinkly Hollywood gnashers) Hitchens has stepped into a rare place where Islam and Western consumerism concurs. For both agree that body hair, in its lush, natural form, is gross and repellent, a problem that must be eradicated at all costs.

Arab actors and Hollywood

The LAT has a great piece by Ashraf Khalil on Arab actors in Hollywood dealing with prejudice and typecasting — More work, one role for Arab actors:

“What kind of a name is that?” the voice coach asked at the end of the lesson. The name on the check he’d been handed by his student didn’t match the young actor’s European-sounding stage name.

The actor hesitated. He was fairly new in town and leery of any missteps. “Umm, my grandfather was Middle Eastern,” he said.

The actor said the room temperature seemed to drop. The teacher took him aside and spoke urgently. “Look,” the teacher said, “I see big things for you, but if you tell people this, you will not work in this town.” Recently, the actor landed a prominent role in a big-studio film. But he still feels compelled to keep his heritage under wraps. Only his closest friends know his ethnicity; he tells others that his parents are Italian, French, anything but the truth.

“I’m really proud of who I am, but I’m constantly having to lie about it,” said the actor, who didn’t want to reveal his name for fear that he would be relegated to playing terrorists, the new Arab acting ghetto.


But until that engagement becomes a full-fledged conversation, the enduring dilemma for Arab actors is whether to play terrorist roles. It’s often the only work available to them, but it can leave them feeling guilty or conflicted.

Tony Shalhoub, the Emmy-winning star of “Monk” who’s of Lebanese descent, recalled his first television gig playing a terrorist on a 1986 episode of “The Equalizer.” “I did it once, and once was enough,” he said.

Writer-director Hesham Issawi, an Egyptian, said the increase in the quantity of Arab roles hadn’t been matched by an increase in quality. “The roles are bigger, the scenes are bigger, the money is better. But it’s still a terrorist role.” He cited two exceptions: the terrorist recruiter character in “Syriana,” played by Egyptian Amr Waked, and Metwally’s part in “Munich.” Both were smart, nuanced militant roles, he said. “There’s a little more depth. There’s more to the characters, and they’re not stupid,” Issawi said.

Kanater says he doesn’t object to playing the bad guy. “I can play a villain. I played Caligula onstage.” What he resents is a steady diet of shallow, poorly written bad-guy roles. “You go for some Arab role and they say, ‘Can you do it again with a heavier accent?’ ” Kanater said.

Yasmine Hanani, a young Iraqi American actress, has played roles in “Over There” and “Sleeper Cell.” Her character in “Sleeper Cell” beheaded an FBI agent. “The thing about playing terrorists is they exist too. It’s real, even if it’s only half the story,” she said. “If I don’t do it, someone who knows less about my language and culture will.”

That terrorist dilemma has even been turned into comedy. The pilot episode of “The Watch List,” a Middle Eastern American show vying for a spot on Comedy Central, features a skit in which young Arab actors learn how to play terrorists. The students practice holding an assault rifle, begging “24’s” Jack Bauer for their lives and, finally, falling down dead. In the end, the teacher, played by Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani, earnestly urges his students to learn how to play these roles “so that Latino actors won’t get them.”

The undisputed champion of the Arab terrorist role is Sayed Badreya. The burly, bearded Egyptian-born actor has played an array of menacing characters in a 20-year Hollywood career. He’ll appear with Robert Downey Jr. in next year’s “Iron Man” as an Arab arms dealer who kidnaps the hero. In 2003, he and Issawi made a short film called “T for Terrorist” in which an Arab actor, frustrated with endless terrorist roles, takes over a movie set at gunpoint.

Badreya recalls when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1986. “I couldn’t work. I was too handsome,” he laughs. “So I put on some weight and grew a beard, and suddenly I was working every day and playing the angry Arab.”

The classic treatment of Arabs in Hollywood remains, of course, Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs.

Rosen on Iraq’s refugees

Boston Review – No Going Back:

The American occupation has been more disastrous than the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad in the 13th century. Iraq’s human capital has fled, its intellectuals and professionals, the educated, the moneyed classes, the political elite. They will not return. And the government is nonexistent at best. After finally succumbing to Iraqi pressure, the Americans submitted to elections but deliberately emasculated the central government and the office of the prime minister. Now Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki is the scapegoat for American failure in Iraq, and there are calls to remove him or overthrow him. But talk of a coup to replace Maliki fails to understand that he is irrelevant. Gone are the days when Baghdad was the only major city in Iraq, and whoever controlled Baghdad controlled the country. The continued focus on the theater in the Green Zone ignores the reality that events there have never determined what happens outside of it. Iraq is a collection of city states such as Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, Ramadi, Erbil, and others, each controlled by various warlords with their own militias. And the villages are entirely unprotected. Maliki will be the last prime minister of Iraq. When he is run out there will be no new elections, since they can’t be run safely and fairly anymore, and the pretense of an Iraqi state will be over.

Daniel Pipes’ racist campaign marks a victory

Daniel Pipes’ fascist-style campaign against an Arabic-language school in Brooklyn and its principal is succeeding:

The Evening Bulletin – Stop The NYC Madrassa:
When Dhabah (“Debbie”) Almontaser resigned on Aug. 10 as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, her action culminated a remarkable grass-roots campaign in which concerned citizens successfully criticized the New York City establishment. But the fight continues. The next step is to get the academy itself canceled.

Remember, his main objection is that “the more basic problems implicit in an Arabic-language school: the tendency to Islamist and Arabist content and proselytizing.”

Perhaps someone can start a campaign against the Lycée Français in New York, where French-language education will have a tendency to pro-France content and will encourage cheese-eating and surrender-monkeying.