“Forrest Gump” left U.S. movie screens a decade ago. But in the Middle East, he’s still bumbling his way to new heights, moving DVD audiences in ways his creators probably never imagined.
In Saudi Arabia, he waded into the middle of an Islamic theological debate dating back centuries--he may have helped resolve it for a few--and in Cairo he inspired some to take to the streets to protest 24 years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.
Butrus Elias, a communications major at Cairo University, won’t say whether he was in the disapproving crowd that gathered in Tahrir Square after Mubarak announced he would run for a fifth term. Elias will admit to being a democracy enthusiast, though, thanks in part to the simple-minded Alabaman played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 film. Elias owns the DVD, which he has watched five times. His favorite scenes are of the surreal handshakes between Gump and an assortment of smiling U.S. presidents who are juxtaposed with evidence of their political dark sides.
“Forrest Gump helped me understand that my country’s leaders are not in accord with reality,” the 23-year-old Elias said recently from the Egyptian capital. “I saw in the movie how a politician would behave dishonestly just to influence the society around him, and I identified with the simple character who could be so easily manipulated by falsehood. It helped me look at my own country and see our leadership through a similar lens.”
Maybe there’s nothing so remarkable about a student in Egypt, where global culture penetrates a relatively open society, finding a muse in a Hollywood creation. But what about the woman some 400 miles away who has a crush on Ben Stiller, an American actor and, as it happens, a Jew? She lives in Damascus, the capital of Syria, a Muslim state governed by a regime that broadcasts anti-Semitic diatribes on state-owned radio and television. In a chat room on www.tarab.com, where she’s known as Cat_2, she has posted eight photos of Stiller and referenced his role as a rabbi in the 2000 comedy “Keeping the Faith,” declaring: “I love him.”
For Cat_2, it’s not political, it’s chemistry, and that’s the case with a lot of Arab Muslims and their favorite films. Still, it’s remarkable, and maybe telling, that, like “Forrest Gump,” “Keeping the Faith” has an admiring following among Arabs with Internet connections. Can someone who loves American movies really hate America?
“By Allah, the film is awesome and most unusual, and anyone who watches it is going to enjoy it immensely,” wrote a fan on www.trables.com, a site named for Tripoli, the Libyan capital. On www.dvd4arab.com, regulars have taken the trouble to type out Arabic translations of the “Keeping the Faith” screenplay, which they swap for translations of other American films such as “American Beauty” and “Sin City.”
In the Arab world, Hollywood rivals the mosque for impact on the popular imagination. Conservative Muslims may stick with tradition and condemn the U.S. film industry as an instrument of American or Jewish hegemony, but the movies have a wider audience in the Middle East than ever before and a fan base that spans the cultural spectrum. Often under the cover of the Internet, Hollywood images are fueling discussions about almost anything, from the prosaic to the political.
The debates don’t necessarily sound like those that might take place in, say, a bar in Los Feliz. The characters played by Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves in “The Devil’s Advocate” had Syrian bloggers arguing over whether the devil could really take the physical form of a New York attorney. In “The Matrix,” an Egyptian essayist writing on the Internet found a lesson underscoring a key Koranic passage about human nature. A few years after the theatrical release of “Titanic,” I spent hours in a Tehran University dorm, where I lived as a graduate student, hotly debating bearded students who were extremely critical of the film. It wasn’t the music of Kenny G and Celine Dion that perturbed them, or even the nude portrait scene. These Iranians argued that Rose, the protagonist, had no right to leave her abusive fiance--"not even,” as one in the group said, “for Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Liberals frequently look to motion pictures to sharpen their arguments about the need for change in the Middle East, and a movie doesn’t have to be contemporary (or even very well known in the West) to serve a purpose. In a column on the progressive website elaph.com, in which he condemned Al Qaeda violence, Mus’ad Hegazi, a prominent Cairo-born writer who lives in Canada, used the plot of an old Charles Bronson vehicle to denounce the brainwashing techniques of terrorist leaders. In “Telefon,” Bronson was a secret agent charged with hunting down a madman who was planning to unleash a team of sleeper assassins on U.S. military bases, their minds having been programmed to kill. “What was imagined in the movie ‘Telefon’ in 1977 has become a nonfiction truth in 2005,” Hegazi wrote, “except that the criminal suicide attacks in recent years in various parts of the world are even more ghastly and terrifying than what [screenplay] writer Walter Wager had conceived.” Muslim clerics should take a lesson from Bronson, Hegazi continued, and snuff out the extremists in their midst “without fear of blame or a tyrant’s attack.”
Hegazi explained in a telephone interview from his home in Toronto that it wasn’t difficult to decide how to convey his message. “Arabs may hate American foreign policy,” he said, “but they love Charles Bronson.”
Next month, Universal Pictures and Dreamworks will release “Munich,” a thriller from Steven Spielberg about the hunt for Palestinian terrorists who kidnapped and killed members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics. Spielberg, who is Jewish, has a mixed track record among Arabs. His Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” warranted more than a few thumbs down, but DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” was generally well-received, though the animated telling of the story of Moses, an Israelite hero, drew fire from Muslims who detected a Zionist subtext.
“Munich” will be the ultimate Spielberg challenge for Arabs, as it confronts the most contentious subjects in contemporary politics, from terrorism to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabic blogs and ‘zines are buzzing with anticipation and apprehension. Egyptian journalist Dhiya Bakhit, for one, is suspicious, writing online: “Spielberg’s films are extremely popular in the Arab world, especially among the merry youth who imitate everything Western. They don’t even know that Spielberg--who will reenact the attack by a group of Palestinians on an Olympic team during the 1972 Munich Olympics--has a specific personal agenda because of his religious and ideological connection with Israel.”
That “Munich” won’t be in wide release throughout the Middle East won’t crimp its circulation. Even in countries where there is government censorship of film, it’s increasingly lax, because everyone knows that no matter what is cut or banned at the theater or in rental shops, the unexpurgated version will surely reach Arab living rooms anyway, via DVD and the Internet. (In Iran, a non-Arab Muslim country where only government-approved films play in movie houses, the students I debated got their hands on “Titanic” with little effort; there are architects in Tehran who specialize in tasteful rooftop enclosures that conceal satellite dishes while adding elegance to a facade.)
Many governments don’t bother to forbid most American motion pictures. Protesters in Libya, Syria and the Palestinian territories may burn the U.S. flag during street demonstrations, but they catch the latest U.S. films in theaters. All of the Persian Gulf states except Saudi Arabia abound in state-of-the-art movie houses, often in luxurious shopping malls. In fact, Kuwait was the second nation in the world after Austria to introduce technology enabling automatic movie ticket purchases by mobile phone.
There are obvious reasons for cinema’s ever-expanding popularity in the Middle East. For one thing, Arabs enjoy digital escapism as much as Europeans or Asians do. On the other hand, something notably distinguishes Arab viewers: More than most others, they feel personally vested in the dispute between Washington policymakers and left-leaning Hollywood celebrities over U.S. foreign policy, especially in Iraq.
It’s a safe guess that most of the millions of Arabs who watched the 2003 Academy Awards ceremony live on satellite television tuned in for the glitz and gossip. What stuck with many of them, though, was the spectacle of Michael Moore, Chris Cooper and Gael Garcia Bernal condemning the then-recent invasion of Iraq. The Palestinian newspaper Al-Hadaf took a time out from its strident editorials against U.S. foreign policy to praise the show’s activists and, in a way, America, or at least Americans: “Opponents of the war bore emblems to show their opposition to it and their adherence to peace.”
Along with the movies themselves, movie stars might well be recovering for the U.S. some of the esteem among Arabs that politicians over the years have lost. When Angelina Jolie paid a goodwill visit to the Ruwayshid refugee camp in Jordan, she earned rave reviews in the local press, and one of the biggest fans of Tim Robbins’ 2004 off-Broadway play “Embedded,” which spoofs Bush’s Iraq policy and its proponents, was Arab critic Sa’di Yusuf, who wrote it up warmly in a popular online magazine, Rezgar.
In some ways, Hollywood, like Forrest Gump, is an unintentional hero when it comes to the struggle for hearts and minds in the Middle East. America’s film industry may well be a better ambassador of goodwill to Arab audiences by accident than public diplomacy chiefs in Washington have proven to be on purpose.
After World War II, before the creation of the state of Israel, Egyptian nationalists railed against Hollywood as part of their drive to push back Western dominance and cut off the flow of Jews into Palestine.
Shirley Temple was then more popular at the Egyptian box office than any Arabic-speaking starlet, and a coalition of clerics and local filmmakers agitated to get her rosy cheeks, along with any other actors from the U.S., off Egyptian screens. “Every piaster paid for American films goes straight to the Jews,” read one newspaper opinion piece by an Egyptian actor who lobbied for stiff tariffs on film imports and the nationalization of Egypt’s film industry. A leading cleric in another newspaper wrote: “We even would not be exaggerating if we say that such criminal ideas [as violence and sexual deviance] are deliberately directed to us, and that those who supply this type of film intend to harm us.”
The Muslim Brotherhood movement--a grandparent to Al Qaeda and elder sibling to Palestine’s Hamas--called for an Egypt at least as severe as Saudi Arabia when it came to entertainment. The local fascist party had joined forces to advocate a Middle East free of foreign images. In 1946, militants threw a hand grenade into a foreign-owned movie house in Cairo and a year later bombed MGM’s Metro theater there. Movie posters of Danny Kaye and Mickey Rooney were papered over with anti-Zionist propaganda.
Hollywood got the message: MGM and 20th Century Fox, owners of movie houses in Egypt, agreed to let pro-Palestinian activists raise money in their theaters for the first Arab-Israeli war. Hollywood, under attack for its supposed collusion with the U.S. government and Jewish interests, had responded by placating local passions.
These days, the same Muslim Brotherhood movement that once incited against Hollywood in Egypt, and that today supports suicide bombings in Iraq and Israel, not only condones moviegoing for Muslims but publishes some of the hardest-hitting entertainment coverage of American cinema in the Middle East.
It was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an elder Brotherhood leader based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, who ruled that movies are “permissible as long as they do not present what is contrary to Islamic teachings.”
From Qaradawi’s perspective, “Basic Instinct” would be off limits but not, say, “The Lion King,” considering that he declared in the 2002 edition of his book “Al-Halal wal Haram fil Islam” (“The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam”) that a script “must be free of sin and immorality” and that films that “excite sexual desire or greed, glorify crime, or propagate deviant ideas, false beliefs, and the like are haram [Islamically unlawful], and it is not permissible for the Muslim to watch or to encourage them.”
Despite all of those qualifications, conservatives attacked Qaradawi, with activists from the hard-line Saudi-backed Salafi movement complaining that his edict would encourage “the common folk to persist upon their ignorance, time-wasting and indulgence in vanities and novelties, which are but instruments of the Accursed One.”
That hasn’t stopped scores of Islamist movie buffs from contributing impassioned reviews of American films--including those that probably don’t meet the edict’s standards--on Qaradawi’s high-traffic site, www.IslamOnline.net.
The entertainment coverage on the site ranges from tabloid-style gossip to earnest inquiries into the broader meaning of a film to hard-nosed analyses of Hollywood politics. Ridley Scott’s recent epic about the crusades, “Kingdom of Heaven,” was praised by Sa’id Abu Ma’la, the Roger Ebert of Palestine, for what he saw as its balanced portrayal of Muslims and Christians at war. Ma’la considered the movie a potential watershed event for Hollywood, marking a departure, in his view, from years of Arab and Muslim stereotyping in films about the Middle East.
He divined a broader message from “Kingdom of Heaven,” which he hinted that Muslims should take to heart: “The work’s message, in the opinion of its producer, lies in a subtle invitation to dialogue, and to put aside conflicts at a time when everyone should coexist for the sake of the common good and world peace. [The film does this] by way of its focus on the human dimensions in the lives of both sides in the historic conflict.”
For most Arab Muslims, who have never been to the U.S., the words carried huge weight. The Muslim Brotherhood has long been the standard-bearer of right-wing religious politics and anti-Westernism in the Sunni Arab world. So when a publication endorsed by a Brotherhood leader heralds “a subtle invitation to dialogue,” it has the potential to thaw hardened attitudes about the American people. Judging from the fact that Ma’la’s essay has been quoted and linked to in countless Arabic-language blogs on Islamist politics, it’s reasonable to conclude that people are paying attention to him.
Some readers, to be sure, disapprove of the torrent of movie write-ups--and they sound a lot like the Americans who have had it up to here with the tabloids. On www.IslamOnline.net, a woman named Jumana Hawa wrote in from Cairo to complain: “I have felt that I am on the Web site, ‘Hollywood on the Internet,’ rather than ‘Islam on the Internet,’ ” citing “the intense detailing and unjustified long-windedness in talking about [Hollywood] stars.”
For that matter, quite a few Hollywood spectacles earn bad reviews from the region’s critics. Arab entertainment writers always seem to be on the lookout for evidence of White House collusion with Hollywood and the possibility of any conscious effort by filmmakers to manipulate Arab Muslims through movies. Islamist reporter Abdel-Rahim Ali at IslamOnline.net took the trouble to dig up congressional testimony last year about the Bush administration’s “public diplomacy” campaigns in the Middle East and translate key excerpts into Arabic. He quoted Patricia de Stacy Harrison, then-acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, in Arabic as saying: “Television and video productions are still powerful tools to deliver the message of the U.S. State Department to viewers all over the world,” and summarized the Bush administration’s plans to target Arab audiences through the media.
That may not sound nefarious to American ears, but it fuels Arab suspicions about a hidden agenda in Hollywood films, whether the White House had any hand in producing them or not. This conspiratorial mentality is manifest even in some Arab write-ups of “Kingdom of Heaven,” despite the film’s perceived pro-Muslim tilt. A journalist in Lebanon, for example, alleged that the movie “corresponds with the present rapid efforts in America and Europe to foment ‘democracy’ in our region . . . Since Sept. 11, the closening between Hollywood and the designs of the American administration have become clear.”
Still, the Brotherhood’s active engagement with the box office is a net gain in the Middle East for all Americans. For every review in which an Islamist expresses suspicion of America, there are more that brim with admiration, either for the cinematic technique or the film’s inspiring message, or both.
Osama al-Faqqash, an essayist who lives in Alexandria, Egypt, finds a metaphor for the genius of the Western mind in “The Matrix.” A photograph of bad guy Agent Smith, who can morph and assume the form of any human, illustrates Faqqash’s piece: “The driving force in Western civilization lies in its astonishing ability to adapt, to correct its mistakes, and to renew itself.”
Faqqash, who uses the avant-garde storytelling of David Lynch in “Twin Peaks” and other productions to explain deconstructionism to his readers, writes glowingly of the West’s “specialty” at “adaptation and reform . . . making the critical mind one of the pillars of Western modernity.”
The analysis may sound academic, but it goes to the heart of a long-simmering debate in the Muslim world over cultural and religious reform. The idea of reinterpreting holy texts, rather than uncritically following traditional Orthodox interpretations of those texts dating back centuries, is the linchpin of the struggle between Islamist liberals and conservatives today--with profound implications for such matters as when to wage a campaign of violence and how to relate to other religions.
For a vivid illustration of the age-old phrase “forbidden fruit is always sweeter,” look to movie lovers in Saudi Arabia, where satellite television is illegal and cinema is sin. The kingdom’s ban on movie houses stems from a hard and fast rule that all graven images should be smashed, one of the tenets of Wahhabi Islamism, the country’s official doctrine. This principle gives clerical elites veto power over all domestic television programming and over any attempt to tell a non-Islamic story in public--at least in theory.
It is increasingly theoretical. The newspaper Al-Watan recently ran a column by Nadin al-Budayr, a young woman weary of the dearth of entertainment in the kingdom. “Every night after working hours,” she wrote, “I get together with my girlfriends and we ask, as usual, where do we go tonight? . . . Where are the exhibition halls and theaters? Where is the movie industry? Unfortunately, it is all rejected by a certain group of people . . . a group with narrow-minded ideas that still hasn’t grasped the meaning of dramatic art, and still can’t come up with any way to describe it except to use the word ‘infidel.’ ”
Nine in 10 Saudi households have installed digital receiving dishes on their roofs, and pirated copies of theater releases show up on DVD in the kingdom, as they do most everywhere else, within days, if not hours, of their red-carpet premieres in the U.S. Illegal factories inside the kingdom are estimated to be producing up to 24.5 million DVDs and video discs annually for domestic consumption in a market of fewer than 4 million households. With all of those movies in circulation, you might wonder what sort of cultural values emerge among Saudi youth who grow up on diets of Islamic teachings and Hollywood images.
For one answer, talk to Abdullah al-Ayyaf, a civil engineer in his late 20s who divides his evening hours between watching movies and writing about them on www.Cinemac.net, which he co-founded with several friends. From his home in Saudi Arabia’s remote eastern province, he also spearheads a campaign to pressure the government to lift the public screenings ban.
“We have become more than just spectators,” Ayyaf said in a phone interview. “We are distinguished chroniclers of the movie industry.” Fans include one of the hottest pop stars in Morocco, Rajaa Belmalih, who told a Saudi women’s magazine earlier this year that she often browses Cinemac.net.
Among the hundreds of essays posted to the site is an extensive analysis of “The Matrix,” in which reality as we know it is nothing but a computer program controlled by power-hungry automatons. The film’s premise has potent theological implications and also resonates with anyone who lives under the iron rule of autocrats. The unnamed Saudi reviewer picked up on both of these subtexts.
After parsing every scene and plot point, the essay winds down with a section titled Religious Message: “The film sends a powerful, forceful message to us heedless humans, who live as slaves to our animal cravings and whims. . . . Let us remember the great Koranic verse, ‘They [humankind] are like cattle--nay, even worse astray than that.’ ”
Then the writer offers something more subversive in the Saudi context--a not-so-subtle dig at autocracy and corruption: “A person without reason is worse off than a beast. He takes away the rights of the weak and the poor, the child and the lowly. He oppresses, he grows overbearing, he brutalizes, [and] he spreads corruption on earth. . . . But I will not digress any further--unless you want me to--because my purpose is only to explain the film, and not to discuss philosophical issues.”
Similarly, “Forrest Gump” stumbled into a debate over the proper relationship, and whether there should be a two-way flow of ideas, between Islam and the other monotheistic faiths. Here is how one of Cinemac.net’s leading (though unnamed) voices, in an essay about the movie, uses Gump to resolve it:
“Destiny and fate are among the greatest matters of belief that we have as Muslims. . . . He who believes in destiny will live a longer life and improve himself. . . . And if you would like to demonstrate the importance of this concept to someone else . . . you need look no further than the cinematic work that gathers together for you some 50 anecdotes that splendidly illustrate this powerful principle--and that is ‘Forrest Gump.’ Some may ask, ‘But should we be taking lessons in our religious faith from the West, and from infidels in general? . . . I say, Yes. . . .’ ”
American movies can reinforce Islamic values, Ayyaf explained, and the website also uses Islamic values to promote an exploration of American ideas. “In Saudi Arabia we still use religion, or Islamic culture, as a filter through which we process any new idea,” he said. “But we are also devoted to the brilliance of cinema in and of itself.”
From a strictly business standpoint, Hollywood has little vested interest in the Middle East. The fan base there is imperceptible in terms of dollars and cents. “That part of the world is an insignificant part of Hollywood’s income,” says Bill Murray, former vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. and now a consultant on intellectual property issues. Murray estimates that 40% to 50% of potential audience income from the Middle East is lost to piracy, and that what’s left accounts for less than 2% of Hollywood’s global revenue.
So while the Middle East as a subject may continue to intrigue American producers, the Middle East as an audience probably won’t. On the other hand, it can’t hurt to reach out to Arab audiences.
Just the perception that Spielberg had been in touch with an Arab satellite television network to talk about “Munich” was enough to earn the movie a warm reception in the Middle Eastern press. The prominent Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported that “the producer has communicated information about the film to three groups out of the entire world we live in: the Saudi Al Arabiya [television] network, the American New York Times, and Ma’ariv newspaper in Israel. All of this . . . indicates the big image and great significance that the film will unleash.”
The Egyptian newspaper was mistaken. “We had sent out our initial announcement at the start of production to a long list of media,” says Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy. “It just happened, mainly by chance because of the Internet, that those were the first three to pick it up.” Had Spielberg given an interview to the Saudi network directly, the Arab response might have been even warmer.
It stands to reason that the Arabs most eager to push the envelope on a dialogue with Hollywood would be the region’s own budding filmmakers. In fact, Abdullah Ayyaf, Saudi Arabia’s turbaned fighter for cinematic freedom, and his friends are in the final production stages of a documentary on Saudi movie buffs, their lives and their tribulations. Now there’s a distribution agreement for you: DreamWorks presents a Steven Spielberg/Abdullah Ayyaf production.