Thursday, December 01, 2005

Portraying the Arab World

Ghida's copy of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits had been sitting on my bedside table for nearly a month before I finally read it. She had picked it up the night we went to Laila Lalami's reading down at Elliot Bay and had promptly gone home and read the whole thing. It was definitely small enough to do so. I wasn't sure, though, that it was on the top of my reading list. The short bit I'd heard at the reading didn't jump out at me much, and now that I think about it, I suppose I was wary of reading yet another book set in the Middle East that just didn't really ring true.

Not that there was any reason why Laila's book should be problematic, really, but I guess I just wasn't sufficiently turned on. I did, though, get around to reading it the other night and found it surprisingly enjoyable. Surprisingly, I say, because most of the books set in the Middle East I have read have a sort of foreignness about them that make even me--who lived in the Arab World for a pretty long time--feel as if the narrative is occurring on an idealized, "story" planet that just doesn't exist.

Lalami's book, though, certainly didn't give me that sense. I sometimes felt like her writing was a bit too economical, but what I think is unique about the book is that the subject matter is treated in a modern, matter of fact, way. The characters aren't romanticized, and the book, thankfully, stays away from the typical descriptive detours that all too often fill up many of the novels I've read that are set in the Middle East.

There's something to be said for modernity. I'm not sure that's the right word, exactly, but I believe it's vital that people in the West also see more diverse portrayals of the Arab World--not just the old fart guys sitting on the sidewalk smoking their argilehs and somber, hijab-clad women hanging out with the kids. Most places I've been to in the Middle East have a vibrant and youthful artistic culture and lots of cool stuff going on. Then there's the large proportion of the population in many of these countries whose values are next to indistinguishable from your average middle-class American. Well, aside from the fact that they're generally much more politically astute. . .

I love that Lalami includes the guy who hangs out drinking his beer while watching football (oh my god, he's Muslim?!) and his daughter Noura with her rock music and tight little t-shirts. Then there's Lahcen, whose homosexuality is a subject the author chooses to include and also better portray his humanness. There are a number of little examples like this that go a long way to showing a different side of life way over there in the Middle East.

The film "Paradise Now," which Samer and I saw last week and really enjoyed, also does a pretty good job at showing life in the Arab World as a little bit different than what most of us here in the U.S. expect. The two main characters, who are would-be suicide bombers, definitely don't fit the standard stereotype. They're just regular guys--not particularly religious, and certainly not fanatics. The film also does a nice job of showing the day-to-day insidiousness of the Israeli occupation and how it affects regular Palestinians just going about their business.

What it doesn't do, though, is make the West Bank seem a little less foreign. Don't get me wrong--I really liked the movie and don't want to detract from it at all. However, I found myself thinking after we left and were later discussing it that the world portrayed in the film, with its simplified subtitles and stark images, just isn't something most people here can relate to. Sure, it's very easy to empathize with the characters, but I wonder if that's enough. Enough, in that, how do we get the rest of the world to care about what's really going on in the Middle East?

This is a question that often preoccupies me. In the films I've been working on, I've been portraying Americans with a special connection to the Arab World as well as more Westernized, urban Jordanians. That's what feels right to me right now, and I think it's because I like that they speak the same language of those Americans I want my films to reach. They conceptualize their thoughts in a similar manner and are easier for most Americans to relate to. I realize that this approach also has a number of dilemmas, but somehow I'm hoping that the people I focus on are able to send a message that those static images we typically see on t.v. cannot.


At 5:34 AM, Blogger Natasha said...

Dear Amanda,
Thank you for reviewing Laila's book. I have been following her blog for a while

I should put my hnds on her novel... Thanks!


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