July’s “Images in Film” series, aired on Turner Classic Movies, has been “Race & Hollywood: Arab Images In Film”. Co-hosting with Robert Osborne for this series was Dr. Jack Shaheen, Professor Emeritus of Mass Communication at Southern Illinois University, who also was a consultant on Middle East affairs for CBS News. That ought to tell you something. Wolfman Productions described him as a “committed internationalist and a devoted humanist”. During this series he attempted to expose the bigoted way American films have portrayed Arabs as something other than the wonderful, “just like us”, normal people they are in reality.
My wife and I discovered this series one day when we decided to watch an old Abbot & Costello film, “Abbot & Costello Meet The Mummy” from 1955. We hadn’t seen that classic duo in a long time, and we were looking forward to their silly antics. We couldn’t believe what Dr. Shaheen was saying about this film in his introduction. He was pointing it out as a typical example of how Hollywood showed Arabs in a bad light. This “expert” who has focused his entire career on what he perceives as a negative Arab stereotype in American film has no clue about the harmlessness of this genre of comedy. It isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. It isn’t supposed to be real. It’s totally absurd fantasy. That’s what makes it so funny.
Many other comedy greats have made films similar to Abbot & Costello Meet The Mummy. The Hope and Crosby “road” shows come to mind. Many movies have been set in “foreign” or exotic places, simply for reasons of entertainment. The job of an entertainer is to entertain, not teach or reflect political correctness. In fact many things portrayed in film have no connection to the real world at all, because that would make them less interesting, and less entertaining. When viewers watch something like “Abbot & Costello Meet the Mummy” they don’t care who the “bad guys” are. The Arab characters in the film are nothing more than a back drop for the jokes of Abbot and Costello.
For one movie, they write in Arabs. For another movie, the back drop could be any other ethnic or national group: American Indians, Nazis, the British, Chinese, Japanese, black natives, Polynesian natives, I’ve even seen white “African” natives in Tarzan movies. If we ever make contact with extraterrestrials, must we worry that they could be upset with us for how we have portrayed them in movies? I find it extremely difficult to take Dr. Jack Shaheen’s message seriously. He takes himself too seriously as it is.
Thursday the 28th was the final installment of “Arab Images In Film”, but this time the film didn’t come from Hollywood. The film Dr. Shaheen chose to air was “Rana’s Wedding”, a Palestinian production which he hoped would serve as a good example of how to show Arabs in a positive light, without negative stereotyping. I guess he felt that since Hollywood had failed to do that, he would show us how to do it the right way … the Palestinian way. Basically, his introduction of the film consisted of effusive gushing.
He repeated that we all can relate to the young woman in the story, and how she and her situation universally appeals to audiences everywhere. Out of curiosity, I decided to watch the film, and, as I had anticipated, my reaction to it was quite different from that of Dr. Shaheen. The movie begins with photographs of family and friends representing the idea that even alone in her own bedroom, Rana’s life is not her own, but under the scrutiny of those about her — living and dead.
She is a young woman (18-20?) who we later learn is “underage”. It is never explained whether this is a legal or religious status. She does not appear to be underage by western or American standards. In appearance, she is obviously modern and westernized. She lives in a nice house that gives the impression they are middle to upper class. I suppose that is why Dr. Shaheen feels we all can relate to this young woman. They live in Jerusalem, where we assume she has always lived because she doesn’t want to leave.
Rana’s father is moving to Egypt — for a better job? a better living environment? — we can only guess. And he has told her she either has to go with him to Egypt or get married before he leaves at 4:00 that afternoon. He gives her a list of potential husbands he approves of — men who are well-educated and make a good living. Her boyfriend, whom she wishes to marry, is not on the list.
As she leaves her home on foot and walks down the narrow streets of Jerusalem, she stops briefly to see a friend, who’s front door is decorated with two, old, large crosses. I wondered if that meant they were Christians or if it was just an old door. Once inside, we learn that a relative of her friend was injured by a bomb and had no medical insurance. The movie doesn’t linger. It just moves on. A little later, we see Rana sitting on a bench in front of a Christian school or church, and again I wondered what, if any, was the religious connection. As it turned out, there was none. I think the director was trying to show Palestinian religious “diversity”.
Ubiquitous Israeli soldiers are shown as menacing, reactive thugs, and at one point a group of them suddenly train their weapons on Rana, thinking her cell phone is a weapon she was brandishing. The film dramatized the Palestinian view that the Jews are oppressive in their occupation of the Palestinian city. It underscored disruption of travel due to military checkpoints. Strictly speaking, from the standpoint of stereotypical images, I didn’t see one image of a Jew that was positive.
One scene spoke volumes to me. As Rana was walking along a road to get to her boyfriend’s theater (He is the director there.) her progress is momentarily stopped due to a large group of boys (maybe ten years old or so) who were throwing rocks at armed Israeli soldiers, taking cover on the opposite side of the road. Traffic was stopped. The soldiers had their rifles pointed directly at the boys but seemed hesitant to use their weapons. You could hear sporadic gun fire, but it wasn’t clear who was firing. One boy threw a molotov cocktail at the soldiers. As another boy was picking up a rock, he got shot in the leg. Almost immediately, an adult picked him up and carried him away.
There was a lull in the fighting and a bus started to drive across that section of the embattled road. Rana took her opportunity and ran along side the bus, using it as cover. As she did, she hurriedly picked up a stone and tossed it over the bus, in the direction of the Israeli guards. It was only a gesture, but it revealed what side of the bigger social conflict she identified with. But again, the movie did not dwell on that. It moved on. The audience is made to feel that Rana is basically apolitical and more concerned with her own, personal issues. I suspect this is how Dr. Shaheen sees most Americans, and why he thinks they can relate to this movie.
At this point in the movie I realized a statement was being made about the oppressive Israeli regime — so oppressive that even the children were fighting. That really bothered me. I wondered what those kids were doing there. Shouldn’t they be in school? And if not, then why were they allowed to be unsupervised, throwing rocks at soldiers with loaded guns? What kind of culture is that? Adults were obviously there, as evidenced by the fact that the wounded boy was immediately carried away. The question I have is why would rational adults, who care for the safety of children, stand by and allow those boys to throw rocks at armed guards?
This gang of boys continued pelting the Israeli soldiers without any adult stopping them. That demonstrates a tacit agreement on the part of Palestinian adults to let their children do that kind of thing. And that disgusts me. The scene was designed to show how mean and heartless the Israelis are, but to me it showed how brutish Palestinians are to tolerate and even encourage such behavior. They teach their children to hate. They teach their children to act out in violence. They are not innocent victims.
The story continues as Rana goes to Remallah to talk to her boyfriend about getting married. He agrees and they attempt to make all the preparations. Much time is given to the difficulties of road travel. The Israelis slow traffic at check points, forcing Rana, her beloved and his friend who has an old VW bug, to drive the back roads. We see the ugliest areas, the devastated places that are visually designed in the movie to make you sympathetic to their struggle in difficult surroundings. I was reminded of the developed Israeli settlements that were handed over to the Palestinians, who upon taking possession, promptly destroyed the buildings and improvements. The truth is that the area they live in is devastated because they have devastated it.
At one point, the street was blocked by a crowd of people. The two men went ahead and told Rana to stay in the car and wait. Driven half crazy by the waiting, she got out of the car and walked toward the crowd. Just then, we see that it is a funeral and the crowd begins walking toward her, carrying what appears to be a dead man (He is not in a casket.) As the mourners pass her, their faces don’t appear to be sad at all, but angry. Rana looks intimidated as they pass. In this crowd, the women are wearing headscarfs.
There was a disconnect between Rana and these mourners. Rana was anticipating a new life, but they showed no sympathy, no tenderness. Just smoldering anger. There was something eerie about that. It’s not what I would call “normal”, here in the west. We are taught that there’s a time for everything. Each occasion has its own appropriate values. I think of Ecclesiastes, which says there is a time for everything. And though anger is a valid part of the mourning process, burying the dead is a time for encouragement and tenderness for the living, an occasion to look towards hope and healing.
Another challenge for Rana and her husband-to-be is getting the paperwork done in time, which involved waiting in long lines to see government bureaucrats. There were separate lines for men and women, and both were very long, like the opening day of a blockbuster. The two men took care of the paper work, giving Rana time to get her hair done in a western-style salon. A friend of hers provided the western-style wedding dress. Then, they had to “find” the Registrar. Apparently, he didn’t have an office. Once they located the registrar, it was his job to convince Rana’s father that her boyfriend would make an acceptable husband.
After they found the Registrar, they had to find Rana’s father, who was at a friend’s house. While Rana stayed outside the house, inside the Registrar, her father and her boyfriend argued loudly about the pros and cons of the situation. So she ran away, because she was now afraid. The wedding is off. Her friend consoles her. She meets her boyfriend and they talk things out and the wedding is on again. To me, this was the only part of the film I could relate to: two young people in love, wanting to start a new life together.
Time is of the essence. There is just enough time for them to get to the house and have the wedding before Rana’s father has to leave. The groom solemnly goes to “gather the men”. At the house, Rana is in a room with the women. They are singing together. They all are wearing western clothing and would look at home in Europe or America. There are no headscarves. She talks to her grandmother, who asks if this sudden wedding means she has been foolish. No transgression is specifically mentioned, although everyone knows what they are talking about. Rana reassures her grandmother that everything is OK.
Meanwhile, the men are together in another room. It’s getting late and the father wants to leave, so he can get to the airport in time. The Registrar hasn’t arrived yet. Word comes that he is stuck at a roadblock. In a last-ditch effort, they drive to the roadblock and find the Registrar. The only place they can perform the ceremony is in a car. Inside the car, the Registrar comments that this isn’t the usual Islamic practice — that normally, the bride is in another room. So, finally the audience is specifically told that Islam is the religion of these characters. And by their willingness to be flexible we can assume they are “liberal” or “moderate” Muslims. They have gone to great lengths not to be identified as religious fundamentalists.
The “ceremony” consists of the Registrar asking the names of Rana’s father and the groom, which he writes in a registry. Rana’s name isn’t mentioned. Then the Registrar has the two men shake hands and swear their agreement to the terms. The groom has made a wedding payment of one dinar and the father has provided a dowry of 10,000 dinars. The Registrar then pronounces the couple married. Rana’s part was just listening to what the men said.
Finally, the father can go to the airport and the new married couple begins to dance (without touching) on the sidewalk, surrounded by their small group of well-wishers. They do not kiss, but they are happy. The movie ends as the camera slowly backs away and the words of a poem are seen on the screen. The poem is a political protest memorializing the state of siege that Palestinians see themselves enduring under the Israelis.
This movie was supposed to demonstrate positive images of Arabs. What it did was demonstrate negative images of Jews. When I think of Palestinians, I think of people dancing and celebrating in the streets when they got word that the Twin Towers were demolished, on that fateful day of 9/11/01. That isn’t a stereotype. They were real people, happy about the deaths of thousands of human beings. I didn’t create that image. Palestinians created that image themselves.
If Palestinians had any integrity at all, they would appreciate that Israeli Jews have allowed them to live in Israel, while their fellow Arabs in Jordan refused to give them a homeland. When the United Nations set aside Israel for a Jewish homeland, the original plan called for a Palestinian homeland to be located in what then was called Trans-Jordan. But their fellow Arab Muslims would have none of it, leaving the Palestinians with no place of their own. Israeli Jews are not the bad guys here. Jordanian Arabs are.
It’s Arabs who need to examine their own negative images of Jews and Americans. The Arab image in American media isn’t nearly as distorted as their image of us.