Seated at a table topped by several Shriner hats, yellowing magazine ads for Fatima cigarettes and a stack of bodice-rippers with titles such as “In the Sheikh’s Marriage Bed,” Jonathan Friedlander has a confession.
“I was really seduced by it,” he says of the paraphernalia, part of a trove of souvenirs he’s accumulated everywhere from Minnesota antiques shops to a Sav-On near his Van Nuys home.
Friedlander says he should have known better than to indulge himself so. On the other hand, the cache he’s kept adding to for years, mostly out of curiosity, has become a serious scholarly collection -- perhaps the largest of its kind. His goal has been to “put in one place something called Middle Eastern Americana,” from consumer wares to photos of ersatz “Oriental” architecture to “sin” products such as cigarettes and alcohol.
But Friedlander, 55, whose Hawaiian shirt, complicated eyeglasses and slangy speech give him a youthful air, is not just an obsessed pack rat. He’s assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, and part of his collection went on display this week at the university’s Powell Library. The exhibition’s title, appropriately, is “Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique.”
Several hundred items will be on view until Dec. 16. The complete collection, by contrast, comprises more than 1,500 pieces: 1930s comics and pulp fiction such as “Spicy Adventures” and “Desert Madness”; ads for Ben Hur Flour; bottles of Pyramid Beer; video games such as “The Prince of Persia”; sheet music for songs including “The Sheik of Araby” and “Persian Moon.” Exotic topless women undulate on the covers of Arabic music CDs. Fierce warriors scowl from the covers of DVDs. (Most of the collection is available for view on a database at the exhibition, which includes listening stations and film clips.)
Despite his attraction to these artifacts, Friedlander maintains there’s something pernicious at work in them. The images, which seem increasingly cartoonish the more you look, portray the Middle East as an irrational, oversexed, violent land given to despotism and mysticism. The women tend to move in harems and wear very little; the men seem not to go very far without their scimitars.
“It becomes ahistorical -- anything goes,” Friedlander says of the mishmash of myth, reality and disparate historical periods portrayed. “And you erase people’s cultures this way: It all becomes ‘the East,’ ‘the Orient.’ ”
With such sentiments, Friedlander is walking in the footsteps of Edward Said, the late Palestinian American scholar whose 1978 book, “Orientalism,” examines the way the West long saw and heard the Near East -- and how the resulting stereotypes and cliches accompanied and justified conquests by the British and French empires.
“It’s a living tradition,” Friedlander, a native of Israel who grew up in New York City, says of Orientalist distortion. “It’s the next mummy movie, it’s Vegas, it’s the pageantry of the Indio Date Festival. People smoke Camel cigarettes, they live in those homes, they drink those beers. It’s in us. It’s alive.”
Friedlander’s stash, which he plans to donate to UCLA in increments, is not the only event at the university this season that has grown out of Said’s work. The Charles E. Young Research Library will host an exhibition devoted to “The Arabian Nights” in October, and a conference on Oct. 21 and 22 -- “ ‘Arabian Nights’ in Historical Context: From Galland to Burton” -- will look at how the tales of Ali Baba, Sinbad and Aladdin helped create the West’s sense of the exotic East.
The publication of “Orientalism” was another watershed: The book encouraged skepticism about many of the scholars and historians then writing on the Middle East, and it helped launch the discipline of “post-colonial studies,” which changed university departments of history, politics and literature.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Iraq and many Westerners’ ensuing curiosity about Islam and the Near East gave new pertinence to Said’s work (he died of leukemia in 2003, at age 67), even though detractors criticized it as trendy, politically correct or over-generalized.
Friedlander, of course, counts himself an admirer. His goal, he says, is to bring the book’s argument up to the present and to show how the United States has created a consumerist Orientalism that has in some ways replaced the scholarly Orientalism of Britain and France.
“Smoking Camel cigarettes -- I gave it up in 1975 -- I always understood the power of that iconography,” he says. Indeed, he’s found that ads for cigarettes were some of the first to use Oriental imagery, even when the products were made with tobacco from the American South.
He sees the humor in such juxtapositions, but he also wonders about their effect on people with little knowledge of either Islam or the region where it was born.
“Like kids who are learning about the Middle East through an onslaught of images. Once it becomes films, album jackets and mainstream, it has a life of its own. I’m also amazed by the sadism, the violence against women” in many of these books, comic strips and movies. “It’s usually Arabs or pharaohs torturing white women in bikinis.”
The imagery has evolved as it’s been refracted through such concerns as the Cold War, fear of an “Arab menace” and the rise of terrorism. But the foundation for them, Friedlander says, was laid down by the “Arabian Nights,” which first became available in Europe in a French translation 300 years ago.
UCLA professor Saree Makdisi -- one of the organizers of the “Arabian Nights” conference and a nephew of Said -- agrees. Eventually, he says, those tales that originated in the Middle East in the 9th and 10th centuries helped give English speakers, especially, their first sense of the exotic “other.”
“You can recognize toward the end of the 18th century, there’s suddenly, almost for the first time, a very clear sense of what it is to be English, as opposed to all these other things,” Makdisi says.
He says the process continues, as in the argument that the fighting in Iraq is a struggle of civilization against barbarism. “It’s almost as if the West is reassuring itself that it’s still there, that it still stands for reason and civilization.”
Whether in stories, magazine ads or presidential speeches, says Makdisi, the objectification of the Arab world is “not just what we’re saying about other people. It’s what we’re saying about ourselves.”
Friedlander says many of his Arab and Muslim friends share his amusement at his Orientalist Americana (though they’re dead-sensitive about attacks on Islam).
Like him, they’re willing to grant pop culture some room to be vulgar.
“There’s a point at which it becomes you, it becomes America,” he says, but “sometimes you have to let go.”
Where: Powell Library, UCLA
Ends: Dec. 16
Info: (310) 825-1938 or www.college.ucla.edu/orientalism/