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I get a lot of grief from my kid sister when I say I don’t like a film, because when I don’t like a film, I don’t like a film. It’s got to be terrible. I mean, full-out, rollicking, blockbuster stereotypes, bad-acting, bad-casting, bad-everything in it. Twilight, for example. Awful. The entire time I kept asking myself “He glitters in the sunlight?” and noticing the lines of badly applied foundation around the characters’ faces. Oh, and cracking up at every single badly delivered line: e.g., “You’re like a drug to me.”

It takes a lot for me to not like a film because, for the most part, I’m willing to leave my assumptions at the door and engage in what Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” Of course, good old Samuel Taylor was describing Shakespeare — how when you go to watch Hamlet you can be moved by this very unnatural style of acting. Who speaks in iambic pentameter? What’s with the funny words and British accents? Why are the lines rhyming? Why are the men dressed as women? This is terrible theater! That’s what you think when you forget that you’re at Shakespearean play. In the same vein, I can pretty much get lost in a movie, no matter how terrible, if it creates the appropriate world — this is probably a symptom of growing up with musicals: if you can get yourself to believe that people sing out their feelings and dance combatively with one another, you can pretty much believe anything. The Mummy, with Brendan Fraser? Terrible film for many reasons, but a fun ride. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Yeah, I loved that. I still pay homage to old Ray Harryhausen epics (stop-action monsters, think the 1980 Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts). But when a movie fails to produce that “world,” I can’t find an excuse to like it.

So, it was with an open mind that I ignored The New Yorker and went to see Prince of Persia.

Expectations: sword-and-sandal epic, awesome scenery, way cool music (think Kingdom of Heaven),  and some seriously beautiful romance. It is Persia, after all — the land of the Nightengale and the Rose, of Shirin and Khosrow. For those of you that don’t know, Iran has some of the most romantic literature in the world.

Alas.

The skinny of the plot: Rebellious adopted son-of-the-king, Dastan (erstwhile ophan) discovers through a series of altogether confusing events that his evil uncle Nizam is plotting to steal his adopted father’s throne using an ancient sect of drug-addicted assassins to acquire a mystical dagger that turns back time. Unbeknownst to Nizam (one of Ben Kingsley’s more disappointing performances, alas), the dagger can only turn back a minute’s worth of time, unless he uses it to pierce the fabled “Sand Glass” beneath the Holy City; also unbeknownst to him, that will cause a Sandocalypse over the whole world and unleash the wrath of the gods, etc.

I’m only slightly exaggerating.

The New Yorker’s (awesome, dead-on, fantastic) review covers this pretty well, I think:

“Prince of Persia” is meant purely as light entertainment, but the way it draws on layers of junk is depressing. It’s based on clichés not only from old paintings but from some of the fruitiest and most swollen nineteen-fifties period spectacles; all this material, after passing through video games, now gets loaded back into a production requiring the wealth of corporate kings. For twenty years, audiences have been noticing the similarity between big action and fantasy movies and video games, but “Prince of Persia” goes beyond similarity; it actually feels like a video game. In order to work the dagger, you press a red jewel on the hilt, which suspiciously resembles a button on a game controller. After a while, backward motion ceases, and life goes forward again. The first time this happens, the effect is rather neat. By the third time, you think that the filmmakers have found a convenient way to avoid the difficulties of constructing a plot that makes emotional sense. Is this the future of screenwriting? The quick reversals that add to the fun of a game make nonsense out of the loyalties and desires of flesh-and-blood characters. At the climax, a good part of the plot is rapidly reversed, and you may find yourself wishing that the filmmakers had wiped out everything after the opening titles.

What’s disturbing to me as an Orientalist is the film’s self-admitted flaws in portrayal. According to the New Yorker, most of the set design is based on 19th century orientalist-school paintings — which is really cool, if you consider the art, but pretty terrible if the movie is going to be the only artistic contact the most people are going to have with anything Persia for the next ten years. Honestly.

We’ve stumbled across the domain of artistic responsibility. The battle-cry of postcolonial studies is generally, “Who has the right?” that question applying, of course, to the act of portrayal. Who has a right to portray another race, another culture, another religion? My answer to that is actually simple — the people who wish to do so responsibly. If you’re going to portray someone, and you’re not one of them, you’d better do some damn good research and err on the side of positive. Kingdom of Heaven, for example, had one hell of a Saladin. I mean, that man was crazy cool in real life, but Ridley Scott sure did an awesome job of making him stellarly cool (I just said that, yes).

But Orientalism is not a source to be raided for movies. Otherwise, you get The Mummy all over again.

I must have got asked about twenty-million times (actual figure) if I was going to live in a pyramid in Egypt — by Americans, of course. If it wasn’t a pyramid, it was a tent — and clearly, I would hitch a ride to work on a camel.

Back when 300 was just exposing its CGI muscles to the world, Iranians  boycotted  the film as slanderous (big surprise there: it was pretty awful and should have been boycotted on its sheer awfulness). But what will they say about this, I wonder?

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In the wake of the whole “Jihad Jane” controversy that seems to have taken the web by storm, I find it particularly interesting that a movie has emerged in the past month about a man who is mistaken for a terrorist. While I can name at least one person who didn’t appreciate the film’s merits, I think that there’s a little more to be said (a week later) about this Bollywood marvel.

Bear in mind that I am not agreeing with the glowing reviews (like this one) that Bolly-enthusiasts have given it. My Name is Khan is a flawed film from the outset with American audiences, I think, if just for the touchy subject matter — the plight of American Muslims and the discrimination they have suffered post-9/11 — or perhaps the medium. To quote Katie on this one: “Heaps of choral surges accompanying tacky panning views.”

I’m still divided.

Maybe it’s my distinct sense of camp inherited from my father (who has a developed love for the slapstick of Looney Tunes), but I fond at least the first half of the film compelling; if the goal of art (any art!) is to develop sympathy between the artist and the audience, mission accomplished. Rizvan Khan (“Khan…khan, with a ‘kh,’ from the epiglottis.”) was lovable and relatable as a man with Asperger’s syndrome can be; I personally think that the first half was moderately akin to an Indian Forrest Gump, and just as heartwarming. It takes a cold, cold heart indeed to watch a man with a mental disability overcoming the prejudices of everyday life (nothing Muslim at this point) and not feel like he should get the beautiful Indian single mom in the end.

I’m also going to skip the camp and slot it into the Forrest Gump unlikeliness category: for instance, there is the whole flood-in-Georgia sequence where every Indian Muslim that Rizvan knows shows up, chest-high in water, to save the tiny “Church of the Rock” in Wilhelmina, Georgia. Hm. Knocking that up as similar to Forrest meeting three separate presidents and winning the Medal of Honor.

That said…

My Name is Khan is also an incredibly dangerous film, and the camp masks that. Shown to American audiences, it might function as a mirror, pointing to our own sins in the wake of 9/11 and discriminating against a perceived Muslim “enemy,” when in reality we might have been learning to understand and distinguish what is Islam and what is Islamism. And the truth of the film is that I can’t deny the race riots I read about in the papers; in particular, I remember a group of non-Muslim Hispanics in South Florida being attacked on the street because they closely resembled Arabs. Sikhs, famous for their long beards and turbans (though not affiliated with Islam) also experienced widespread discrimination. These ugly things happened, and there is no denying them.

But Name takes a lot of liberties with the American public, which (I think) it gives a little too much credit.

1. Arabic. Before I started studying Arabic, I had absolutely one-hundred percent no idea what Arabic sounded like. No idea. Without tooting my own horn too much, I am an educated, relatively well-read, well-traveled, cultured individual; if you had spoken Arabic to me back then and told me to guess, I might have looked at the individual and guessed wildly at an number of languages. But when Rizvan attends a memorial service for the victims of 9/11 and begins to pray during a group moment of silence by reciting Surat al-Fatiha (basically, the Muslim Lord’s Prayer), candle in hand, only to have the crowd disperse, visibly disgusted by the presence a Muslim who is muttering Arabic….that’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure that would never happen, if just because ninety percent of the American public wouldn’t be able to recognize that it was a) Arabic, b) Muslim, and c) anything but a prayer in that context.

The name's Khan. Genghis Khan.

2. The Name. To me, (and again, I’m pulling the above-average American card), the name Khan doesn’t sound all that Muslim to me. And I’ve studied, known, befriended, loved, etc. etc. Muslims. Muhammad sounds Muslim. Mustafa sounds Muslim. So does Ahmed, Khalil, and Sherif. But Khan? That sounds like something out of a Star Trek movie. That sounds like a Mongol emperor that ruled half the world: a name like Khan and you expect it to be preceded by Genghis. To assume that Americans would assume that Khan is a Muslim name gives them a little too much credit for their knowledge of Indian Muslims. They would probably make a joke about “The Wrath of Khan” and Klingons before anything.

3. Evil White People. I understand the message. I do. I really, really do. But this movie exhibited the most God-awful, crazy, douchebag examples as happening every day. Every. Day. From Rizvan’s sister-in-law getting her hijab yanked off (that’s really awful), to the little kid getting beaten to death (awful to the power of ten), to the constant angry, sometimes tearful shouts of nativist jingoism: “Get out of my country” and “You people should never….” etc. etc. All instances of this kind of racism were perpetuated by caucasian whites. Not a single instance of a positive reaction.

I don’t mean that I expected white people to react well to 9/11; but some of us went out and bought a Qur’an. Some of us read up on Islam and tried to understand and distinguish between who a Muslim is, and who is a terrorist. Some of us learned Arabic and studied history and are applying to graduate programs in comparative Arabic-English literature. In short, I don’t like being lumped into the category of “Muslim-hater,” which is what this movie did. It said that all non-Muslims turned discriminatory against Muslims — even children.

But wait! What about Mama Jenny, the ever-so-lovable-African-American-woman-with-her-son-Funny-Haired-Joe, the one that takes in Rizvan and makes him wear a dress?

Hm. Aside from the perhaps not-deliberate lampooning of black Southern culture (I kept thinking that Mama Jenny seemed a little too cartoonish to keep me at ease), ultimately, she is a minority as well. The underlying message of the division of presidents — one that reacts with detainment, torture, and violence (Bush) and one that, after hearing Khan wants to see him, walks back to the podium to welcome him (Obama) is that minorities better understand Muslims than whites do. Even the film students are Indian, not white.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a lot to atone for, but there were some of us that did good.

4. Evil White People Among Us. The film might have highlighted American ignorance by pointing out that reactions were posited against those that looked Muslim or Arab, and might also have given light to the conflicted situation of those who suffered no discrimination because they lacked a “racialized” appearance. This might have put the narrative into a greater timeline of the (ongoing) struggle against racism in America. Or what about the conflict of newly converted American Muslims who look just like the boy next door, only they pray five times a day? Why is there no discussion of them? But instead, all the Muslims in the movie were foreign-born, foreign raised. Where were the American Muslims? There are a lot of them! Where were the American Muslims in the “downtown mosque” that Rizvan visits? To me, the movie seems to conflate Muslim identity as something racial; that to be Muslim, you must be a foreigner first.

*                        ***                        *

This film addresses an important topic, but the issues at stake are far more complicated than it is willing to portray. For instance, what is the point of having Rizvan meet the President? Naturally, it keeps the plot moving – and I understand the inherent value behind “keeping your word” – but ultimately, what is the outcome? Merely the awkward moment when Rizvan pulls out a picture of Sam and says, “He was not a terrorist, either.” But having met the President, having told him he is not a terrorist, having shown him the picture of his adopted son/best friend…what is President Obama supposed to have done at that point?

Nothing. The two walk off into the horizon as heroes, having proven their point.

That’s it?!

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the ending is probably the worst element of the movie, because it gives a triumphant ending to an ideology, rather than action. Suddenly, the recurring echo of Rizvan’s “We will overcome” as a theme seems a little too eerie, and makes me wonder who the “we” is. Too many elements collide too easily:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is dangerous – at least in the land of Egypt. It conforms a stereotype and rather than making amends, posits the superiority of the immigrant Muslim experience, rather than a real reconciliation. It makes me uneasy.

But maybe as I think about it more, I’ll come round. As for now, I’ve got to shoot off to class and teach a crowd of 15 about the animals.

Salaamat, peeps.

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Longest post ever. I assure you, it’s good.

Ever since writing about the Antwerp headscarf ban (mentioned in The Economist some time ago by the wise Charlemagne), I’ve been turning over the ethics of freedom of choice and couple of the more controversial topics concerning Islam. It’s high time that I wrote about them.

Here begins a mini-series of posts. I have no doubt in my mind that what I’m going to say here will very likely make some people angry, but I want you to rest assured: I’m quite open on these subjects, and I’m simply trying to understand how they can be resolved as a function of both principles — both democracy and Islam. I want to be clear: they are not opposing forces. Ideally (and both in their ideal forms), they merge rather nicely. However, to reiterate my dear friend Fadhila’s observation, “Islam is perfect, not Muslims.” The same applies to the American brand of democratic idealism, to Christianity, and any ideology that might be worth naming: those self-same imperfections in the gap are really what make things difficult for all parties.

And so, rather than these being my observations of Islam, these are really my personal observations of Muslims, and a few of the meditations that those interactions.

“You have your religion, and I have mine”

I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic.

I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, I believe in a Trinitarian God and I believe that God, though God (and not needing to do things) has done a number of vastly un-Godly things: like Himself His only Begotten Son so as to provide an appropriate sacrifice for the sins of Mankind and for Himself. Like resting on the Seventh Day (NB: I think that it’s easier to say that God did all of that (because He could if He wanted!) then say that God can’t have rested or incarnated Himself or become Three-in-One and One-in-Three, because, let’s call a spade a spade here: He can. We might not understand it, but He can. He can dig a bottomless well and stand at the bottom. He can even find the end of infinity. He’s God; stop asking questions).

That’s my act of faith, and I think that the act of having faith is actually that: it’s quite unreasonable. It’s laying aside logic and putting your money on something you have absolutely no proof over. I try to stay away from theological arguments because, truth be told, I’m not going to convince anyone, no matter how logically I put it to them.

Muslim offenders

With that in mind, I recently tweeted about the up-and-coming biopic on Muhammad, pointing out that I was rather doubtful that it would draw anything but criticism from any and all Islamic parties. Read about Barry Osborne’s potential flick it here on BikyaMasr.

To understand exactly how serious the upcoming controversy, I refer you to the Wikipedia article on a similar (much beloved, very respectful) movie, Al-Risala (“The Message”), produced to critical and public acclaim in 1976:

On March 9, 1977, a group led by Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, seized several buildings and took 134 hostages in Washington, D.C.[2] The takeover led to the fatal shootings of a journalist and a police officer, and the non-fatal shooting of Marion Barry, who would become mayor of Washington, D.C. two years later. One of their demands was to prevent the release of the film. One of the hostage-takers specifically said, according to an on-site reporter, that “he wanted a guarantee from the whole world it will never be shown or they would execute some of the hostages…”

Dude: seriously?

The Message sported a score by Maurice Jarre (think: Doctor Zhivago) and avoided all depictions of Muhammad, his wives and his sons-in-law. The closest it ever comes to even remotely portraying him (or any of them) are a few shadows — maybe a staff or a sword (Ali’s double-pronged Zulfiqar). It’s much-beloved even today by Egyptians especially, and is seen by many as walking a nice middle path between “Western” art and halal portrayal. Probably because the director (Moustapha Akkad) was a practicing Muslim. Cool.

Let’s get back to that.

Apparently, German director Roland Emmerich was debating a Ka’aba explosion scene in his rather mediocre-sounding 2012, the much criticized film about the “potential” Mayan end of the world. Here’s what really got me:

Emmerich, who fathered such films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Stargate, told scifiwire.com that he wanted to create a scene where he would blow up Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, but decided against it for fear of having a fatwa issued against him.

His decision to preserve the sanctity of Mecca was a wise decision. It would not have added to the film in terms of plot or content and probably would have been received as the West flexing its empirical muscles over the Arab world, whether justifiably so or not. However, one has to question Emmerich’s understanding of culture and religion as he reluctantly withdrew the proposed Mecca-exploding scene, adding that, “we have to all, in the western world, think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have … a fatwa, and that sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is.”

I don’t understand this. At all. Why not the Ka’aba?

I can understand Akkad producing a film that was very careful about his representation of Islam’s greatest (and Seal) of the Prophets; he is, after all, a Muslim. But for a non-Muslim director to wince because he is afraid of a fatwa…?!

Books offend people. Movies offend people. The whole idea behind freedom of speech is that you have that license to do so. What I object to is not necessarily that Emmerich didn’t blow up the Ka’aba in his most recent film (which, if he did, I would have considered in bad taste anyway), but rather his reasons for backing down: he was afraid.

It’s not even like 2012 was even a movie about blowing up the Ka’aba. It was about the end of the world, and to Emmerich as a filmmaker, the end of the world involves blowing things up. It’s not the Ka’aba itself, and if you want to talk holy sites, the Vatican gets blown up in 2012. It’s a plot device. It’s a screen shot for shock effect! It’s almost incidental! For crying out loud, it’s not like it’s a whole movie about blowing up a holy site (anyone hear of Angels and Demons?).

To quote the Gateway Pundit’s interview of Catholic League president Bill Donohue, “When we got word recently that the movie ‘2012’ depicts the Vatican being blown up, along with the famous statue from Rio, Christ the Redeemer, we were unmoved. Why? Because this occurs during the end of the world in a massive destruction. This kind of sensationalism, we reasoned, is standard fare for director Roland Emmerich: he is the guru of the ‘blow ‘em up’ genre of movies.”

But it’s fear that keeps us from this. Fear that we might have to go in hiding because some nutty Irani ayatollah has issued a fatwa on us, calling on every good Muslim to execute us, and everyone who has translated our works to meet the same fate. I’m actually kind of disgusted at the potential of any religion to do that (and my own has no clean hands, I’m aware).

Peace and blessings be upon him! (But he’s not my prophet)

Offense is good, it forces us to question, to defend what we believe in. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary, but what the 2012 and Salman Rushdie controversies point out to me is a discomfort with the idea of free speech. Muslims around the world are crying out against the arrest of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world (around the world!) to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, as a violation of democratic freedom of speech.

I’m not saying that Awlaki speaks for Islam. No one speaks for Islam. But listen up, pal: Muslim, Christian, black, white, or purple, you can’t go around encouraging people to take up the sword; you can be against the war all you want, but you can’t tell people to kill other people in a public forum. That’s called assault. That’s called aggravation. Rights have limits, and even in the Land of the Free itself, you can’t say (even kidding) that you plan to murder the President, or that there’s a bomb on a plane — even if you’re just kidding. It’s illegal — and for good reason. Your right to speak freely ends where the other peoples’ begins.

This whole rant was really set off by someone telling me to call Muhammad the Prophet Muhammad. Her reasons for telling me so were simple enough: we should have respect for him. But to that, I answer: He is not my prophet. I never thought he was a prophet, my own religion expressly forbids regarding him as a prophet. I’m not a Muslim; I’m a Roman Catholic. I like incense, I like hymns, I like kneeling to take communion. Which, I believe — beyond reason — is the actual whole Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Who is God. I believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Only Son, the Holy Spirit that unites them all in one giant Trinitarian mystery that I don’t even attempt to pick apart, but still have faith is somehow (quite incomprehensibly) true. I’m not trying to change anyone’s opinion here, that’s just what I believe.

What I don’t like is the should. We should refer to Muhammad as “The Prophet.”

No. I don’t believe he was. Asking me to do so amounts to stepping over my side of the line.

I’ve been stopped from calling Jesus Christ the Son of God by Muslims, I’ve been told that referring to Mary as the Blessed Mother of God is offensive to some people; I’ve gotten into arguments over how stupid I am for believing in the Trinity. Priests in Egypt are not allowed to proselytize, Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity, churches forbidden to ring out the Angelus three times a day. The government drags its feet about allowing Copts and Catholics to construct churches, and everywhere in Middle Egypt, there is outcry about an “in your face attitude” that uppity Christians have about when they do get to build or repair a church. And then riots ensue, and people freak about having Christians in the community. “There goes the neighborhood.”

I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying I’m offended. I don’t go around asking people to refer to Jesus as the Son of God, or Mary as the Blessed Mother. I just want the same courtesy of neutral titles extended to me. I’m not saying that that’s the “official Islamic stance.” In fact, the entire time, I’ve grown more apologetic; I’ve been the one to avoid talking about it. I explain it away because I’ve spent the better part of four years studying it, reading about it, going to mosques, and learning Arabic. You know what, though? It doesn’t work that way. Someone telling me to shush every time I say “when the Son of God was born” to explain the significance of Christmas or mention that Jesus was crucified, DIED, and resurrected on Easter Sunday…their blasphemy is my belief. My being told to shut up is really starting to offend me. I’m not going to shut up about it.

Let’s make this personal for a moment. Let’s say I should refer to him as The Prophet. Out of respect. I should perhaps say after his name “Peace and blessings be upon him!” (respect, right?). I should perhaps avoid reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and avoid being seen with it, because it offends people. I should read the Qur’an, I should maybe avoid being in rooms alone with women. I also shouldn’t drink, eat pork, or pray without ritual ablutions.

Oh, and by the way, I probably should convert to Islam, just while I’m at it.

No: I don’t think so.

I’m not asking you to eat pork; I’m asking not to be judged for eating it myself. You don’t like wine? Don’t drink it. Islam is predicated on the fact that no one (no one) can know the true deen a person possesses. Perhaps what I do is enough; perhaps you are not held to the same standard, being who you are. Perhaps I am wrong and you are right. Either way, I don’t think that popular practice or even sharia (which sharia?) should prescribe how I live my own religious life, though.

I really, really, really dig most Muslims I know. I love quite a few of them quite dearly (here’s to you, Fadhila, Halima, and all the Penacobas!), but I’m not going to call him the Prophet Muhammad on principle. I’ve read the Qur’an — even attempted the Arabic — I love listening to it. I think the Burda is gorgeous, and I find great value in learning from Islam: it enriches my own perception of Christianity as a historical religion. I respect the historical man, and I would like to point out Holy Mother Church’s praises:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, S. 841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Can’t we get a little for giving a little?

Peace and blessings be upon him, the Prophet of Islam!

But he’s not my prophet.

*                         *                             *

لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ (Q 109:6)

“To you, your religion; to me, my own.”

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