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Scimitars and Sand Dunes - Rethinking the Middle East, Arabs and Islam

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 6, 2009 10:41pm | Post a Comment
With President Obama's recent address at the University of Cairo, there has been a veritable sandstorm of media discussion about the Middle East, the Arab world and the Islamic world; three concepts lazily interchanged in the American mainstream media (including the supposedly smarter public radio). Despite some overlap, the indiscriminate use of the terms, both out of ignorance and deliberately,  minimizes substantial heterogeneity and differences -- to the detriment of our understanding of reality, and as a result contributing to the undermining and hindering of attempts at peace in the region. While I did find the president's speech fairly nuanced, intelligent and inspirational, until substantial actions reflect those attractive words, they offer nothing more than hope.



"Neighbour to the Moon," the legendary Christian Lebanese singer, فيروز.

Today Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners remain some of the last people in the west for whom racism is not only extremely common but also widely accepted, even governmentally endorsed. Merely advocating equality and human rights for Arabs and Muslims is often met with charges of racism and embracing hatred, probably the only people likely to ellicit that response besides Germans. Given this reality, centuries of negative stereotypes and repeated military and political actions that reflect undeniable double standards, it's no wonder that many view the frequent proclamations that "Islam is a beautiful religion" and hands extended in friendship with widespread suspicion at best.



The Arab world
Arabs trace their ancestry back to the Semitic tribes of the Arabian peninsula and the Syrian desert. Like many immigrant populations, Arabs are often viewed as so indelibly tied to their ancestral homeland that they are seen as perpetual foreigners; their allegiances are often questioned entirely on the basis of their ancestry. Today, not surprsingly, many Arabs make their homes around the world beyond the Middle East. The widespread hostility they are treated with is obvious not only in hate crimes, but larger political action, after both the Oklahoma City bombing and the Anthrax scare prompted calls to military response against someone, anyone in the middle east. Let's just drop some bombs over there and be done with it.


The "Arabian Elvis"... عبدالحليم إسماعيل شبانة

Arab in the non-genetic sense
Furthering the confusion is the use of Arab to describe anyone who speaks Arabic (similar to the way Amish call non-Amish Americans "English" or American-based Spanish Language TV stations are referred to as "Mexican."). Although many Berbers, Lebanese and Palestinians have some Arabic ancestry, it makes up a small portion of their genetics, even though they often self-identify as Arabs based on culture and language.

Syrian-born, half-Lebanese, Druze musical genius فريد الأطرش

Arab n. Bad guys in the Middle East
Just as the definition of the Middle East seems to expand in an effort to encompass the Muslim world, the term Arab grows too, as with the Darfur War, which is usually characterized as a genocide perpetrated by Arabs, despite the fact that the attackers are themselves black Africans. Arab is, therefore, understood to mean "bad guy" and they're one of the few people in the world who're never allowed to be portrayed as victims. Even when occupied, oppressed and living as second class citizens under apartheid, there's an understanding that they had it coming, being Arabs. Another example is the media and American culture's disproportionate attention toward Buddhist Tibet and almost complete silence regarding its neighbor to the north, mostly Muslim East Turkestan, despite their parallel situations.


The Islamic world

The Islamic World is usually mischaracterized as being roughly synonymous with the Middle East. Although most Arabs practice Islam, there are large numbers of Christians and Druze. But, in the minds of most, Arabs and Muslims are synonyms. When I caught a local news story about the secular-Marxist Palestinian organization, the PFLP (founded by an atheist from a Christian background), the newscaster referred to them as "radical Islamists," apparently incapable of thinking that the motivation for self governance could be motivated by anything other than fanatical devotion to God.


Islam outside the Middle East
Even more notably, the countries with the largest populations of Muslims are almost all located outside the traditional middle east. In descending order of population size they are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Morocco and Algeria... none of which are in the Arabian peninsula. Of the biggest Islamic populations, only Egypt and Algeria are Arabic to a substantial degree.



The Middle East
The Middle East itself is a hazily defined region in Asia with no universally-agreed upon boundaries but always including Arabia, Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia... but sometimes including parts of Eastern Europe, Anatolia, North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. It seems to grow the more people become aware of the dominance of Islam outside of regions traditionally thought of as the Middle East. Nonetheless, it's often discussed like it's its own continent, with static borders and completely exclusive from the rest of Asia. Yes, Jesus and Mohammed were Asian in that sense. Put that in your shisha and smoke it.



The Middle East exists in the collective Western consciousness as a vast, homogenous region full of harems full of belly dancers presided over by oil barons, insane suicide bombers, sneaky (but inept) sheiks and genies. Everyone (except Israelis) is both Arabic and Muslim. Of course, in reality, Middle Easterners practice just as many faiths as anyone else. Most Assyrians, Bilen, Georgians, Armenians and a large percentage of Lebanese are, in fact, Christian. (Yes, I know few people consider Georgia and Armenia to be in the Middle East, but there are large numbers of Armenians and Geogians living in countries that are.)

Non-Muslim/non-Jewish Middle Easterners


                    Druze                                                    Zoroastrians Samaritans

It's also worth pointing out that not only did Christianity, Islam and Judaism come out of the Middle East, so did Druze, Zoroastrianism, Bahá'í, Samaritanism, Yazdânism and Sikhism (if your personal definition of the Middle East includes Punjab).

Non-Arabic/non-Jewish Indigenous Middle Easterners


       Afar woman                        Assyrian boy                                                   Azeri boys


                                        Beja                                                         Chaoui women              Hederab woman



                                 Berber Woman                                               Nara woman                 Nubian woman


    Pamiri woman                     Pashtun mother and child                                        Persian girls



                Rashaida couple                                   Saho Woman                               Talysh girls


   Tigre Woman                             Tigrinya                                                               Tuareg homies


         Turkish women                                               Turkmen musicians

What's even less known is that there are large numbers of non-Arabic/non-Jewish people indigenous to the Middle East, each with their own traditions, music and culture including both the examples above and non-pictured people like the Abkhaz, Bakhtiaris, Baloch, Bilen, Danagla, Dom, Gilakis, Haratin, Hausa, Ja'Alin, Kabyle, Kurds, Laks, Lurs, Mazandaranis, Mozabites, Shaigiya, Teoubou and Zazas (to name a few).

Young Afghans

Hollywood and the media's perpetuation of the faceless Middle East
With most of our impressions of the middle east coming from the media and Hollywood, it's not surprising how ignorant most westerners are about the Middle East. When Afghans (neither Arabic nor Middle Eastern by standard definitions) laughed at the idea of an Arabs like Osama bin Laden effortlessly blending into their population unnoticed, most American scratched their heads in confusion. How can they tell themselves apart? Of course, as part of the campaign to make our military opponents faceless, images of Afghans are extremely rare in the media. If we assume that all Middle Easterners are the same, we can just punish whichever ones we can get at most easily instead of pursuing the actual perps. When the World Trade Center came down due to the Afghan Taliban and al qaeda, the natural response was to shock and awe the Iraqi people, despite the fact that there were no Iraqis involved. It's the same kind of thinking that led people to deaths of Balbir Singh Sodhi, Adel Karas (neither of whom were even Muslims) and other brown skinned people in the days following the attack on 9/11.

Palestinian Children

Sometimes it's even more overtly politically motivated, as with arguments that suggest that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people and that the word didn't even appear until the 1948 invasion. This despite the fact that the Greeks wrote of Palaistinê (Παλαιστίνη) several millenia ago... and demands for an independent Palestine issued by the Syrian-Palestinian congress in 1921. All of this negative stereotyping, even when conciously recognized and rejected, can end up poisoning our subconscious. Test yourself here to test your own biases toward Arabs, Muslims and other people. And if you want to watch some Hollywood depictions of Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims, check out any of the following:

The Sheik (1921), A Son of the Sahara (1924), A Song of Love (1923), The Son of the Sheik (1926), A Café in Cairo (1924), The Desert Bride (1928), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Arab Conspiracy (1976),  Black Sunday (1977), Raid on Entebbe (1977), Midnight Express (1978), The Black Stallion (1979), Back to the Future (1985), Iron Eagle (1986), Death Before Dishonor (1987), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), Dadah is Death (1988), Navy SEALs (1990), Not Without My Daughter (1990), The Delta Force (1991), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), Return to Paradise (1998), Rules of Engagement (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001).

 

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Mummy Dearest

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 15, 2009 06:06pm | Post a Comment


Mummy films
are unique among classic monster movies in that they're neither primarily based upon myths or literature. Only Isaac Henderson's 1902 play, The Mummy and the Hummingbird and Bram Stoker's 1903 novel, Jewel of the Seven Stars, have inspired cinematic adaptations (the latter spawning four to date) with its subject of an archaeologist attempting to revive a mummy. There were a few examples of the mummy in literature, as with Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy," Théophile Gautier's The Romance of a Mummy, Ambrose Pratt's The Living Mummy, Louisa May Alcott's "Lost in a Pyramid or, The Mummy’s Curse" and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lot No. 249" and "The Ring of Thoth" all deal with mummies, albeit not always in a horror setting, and have never even loosely been adapted into film.

The rise of mummy films seem to be directly related to a then-widespread interest in archaeology and, more specifically, an enduring western vogue for Orientalism and fascination with the Near East.  Several major discoveries in the field of Egyptology occurred in the 20th century and helped renew and increase interest in one the the planet's oldest, most complex and enduring civilizations. Yet fascination with Egyptian mummies, with their tantalizing ties to the ancient past, never really translated into a healthy monster subgenre, only sporadically rising to the level of more continually popular monsters like vampires and ghosts.



In 1912, the famous bust of Nefertiti was rediscovered and rekindled broad interest in ancient Egypt. Filmmakers of that decade responded by producing more mummy films than any subsequent decade till the current, although they usually depicted people pretending to be mummies or the theft of them rather than reanimated monsters. In 1922, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered. Completely hidden for ages, it was and is the most complete, un-plundered Egyptian tomb ever found to date. Following its discovery, the tabloids spread a rumor that a curse of death was placed on whomever entered the tomb and this, along with Stoker's plot involving re-animation of mummies, seems to have influenced practically all mummy movies that followed.
 
    

   

As opposed to Dracula amongst vampires, Frankenstein's monster amongst golems, or the Wolf Man amongst werewolves, no one mummy has ever managed to rise to dominance amongst their kind, a fact which I view as critical in its remaining a second string monster. In the 1930s, Imhotep was the first big mummy, played by Boris Karloff and then revived in the 1990s in loose remake and its sequels. In the 1940s, Universal's Kharis was the main mummy. King Rutentuten (aka Rootentootin) appeared in two Three Stooges films. Yet all these mummies are virtually interchangeable. Despite the well known mummies of the Guanches (of the Canary Islands), the Incas, the Tibetans and the Chachapoyas, filmmakers again and again depicted lumbering, unstoppable Egyptian mummies, except, notably, in Mexico, which got into the mummy movie game. Popoca starred as the Aztec mummy in a whole slew of films and even pitted a werewolf mummy against Tin Tan.

 

In addition to no single mummy achieving widespread name recognition due to inter-mummy competition, they also all suffer from the absence of engaging personalities and conversational abilities. By comparison, Frankenstein's monster practically seems like Oscar Wilde. Even a ghoul might express its love of brains, but the Mummy, on the other hand, usually broods in silence, single-mindedly obsessing over his long dead girlfriend.
 
 

The monster rally subgenre began with Frankenstein's monster's meeting with the Wolfman in 1943 in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The mummy, criticized by some for being little more than Frankenstein's monster in bandages, would seem like an obvious choice of combatant. That almost happened with 1944's House of Frankenstein. There, the scientist's monster was joined by Dracula, Wolf Man and even a hunchback frighteningly named Daniel. Early drafts of the film had included the Mummy (as well as the Invisible Man and the little-known Mad Ghoul) but the monster didn't make the cut. The following year, in House of Dracula, the Mummy wasn't even considered and it became clear that the Mummy was perceived by most as a B-list monster who would remain absent from exclusive monster rallies like Van Helsing, only showing up in more democratic affairs like Groovie Goolies, Carry on Screaming, Monster Squad, Mad Monster Party, El Castillo de los Monstruos, The Halloween That Almost Wasn't, and Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters.


Perhaps no other example illustrates the Mummy's comparative unpopularity than General Mills' monster-themed cereals. When introduced in 1971, it was Count Chocula and Franken Berry that came first. They were joined by Boo Berry in '73 and Fruit Brute in '74. It wasn't until 1987 that Fruity Yummy Mummy was born, only to be discontinued in 1993.

  

The mummy was a natural in the silent era, since he never had much to say anyway. The first known mummy picture was 1909's La Momie du roi. The 1910s, as previously noted, were a heyday of mummy films, including Romance of the Mummy (1911), The Mummy (1911), The Mummy (1912), The Vengeance of Egypt (1912), The Mummy and the Cowpuncher (1912), The Mummy (1914), When the Mummy Cried for Help (1915), The Avenging Hand (1915), The Mummy and the Hummingbird (1915), The Live Mummy (1915), The Missing Mummy (1916), Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918) and Mercy, The Mummy Mumbled (1918).
 
The 1920s witnessed a dramatic decrease in mummy movies, with only one example, the comedy The Mummy (1923), produced in the decade.


The 1930s began with Boris Karloff's famous portrayal in 1932’s The Mummy. It was the first Universal horror film not based on an earlier source, although it owed both to Dracula (with an ankh substituting for a crucifix) and Frankenstein (also starring Boris Karloff as a re-animated monster) which may've worked against it. Unlike those two predecessors, it spawned no sequels. The other two mummy films in the '30s were the animated Tom and Jerry (but not the cat and mouse) film, The Magic Mummy (1933) and the Three Stooges' We Want Our Mummy (1939).


With the 1940s, the mummy was again the star of Universal films, albeit relegated to B-movies. This time the mummy was Kharis and a few, somewhat feeble attempts at creating some mythology came with the introduction of tana leaves, which like Popeye's spinach, give Kharis his strength. Kharis largely popularized the portrayal of mummies as a stiff, slow, relentless and almost unstoppable ghoul and zombie-like monsters. In the Mummy’s Hand (1940) he was played by western star Tom Tyler. In the follow-ups, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Kharis was played by Lon Chaney Jr, more famous for playing the Wolf Man. The mummy comedy subgenre endured with the British quota quickie, A Night of Magic (1944) and another Three Stooges mummy film, Mummy’s Dummies (1948).
 



 

After two Three Stooges movies with mummies, it was obligatory for Abbot & Costello to do one, which they did with Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) -- they'd already met Dracula, Frankenstein, Jeckyll & Hyde, Captain Kidd, "the Ghosts" and even Boris Karloff. Strangely, the American mummy then almost completely disappeared from the screen. In Mexico, however, the Aztec Mummy made several appearances beginning with La Momia Azteca (1957) and continuing with La Maldicion de la Momia Azteca (1957) and La Momia Azteca vs el Robot Humano (1957). Another Mexican mummy appeared in the Tin Tan vehicle, La Casa del Terror (1959). In the UK, Hammer takes over with Christopher Lee as Kharis in The Mummy (1959), following up with a couple more. Pharoah’s Curse (1957) depicted a blood-sucking mummy, doing little to dispel the notion of the mummy being a derivative monster.



The 1960s weren't terribly kind to the monster movie genre in the US, although Europe, Japan and Latin America made many. La Momia Azteca was re-cut and edited together with new footage and released in the US as Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1963). In Mexico, Luchadoras contra la Momia (1964) pitted the mummy against female wrestlers. In the UK, Hammer produced The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1965) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). In America, the little-seen Mummy and the Curse of the Jackal (1967) finally pitted a mummy against another monster (a were-jackal) in Las Vegas.

 
By the 1970s, most mummies rested in peace, coming out of their tombs in a TV movie here (The Demon and the Mummy - 1976), a Santo appearance there (Santo en la Venganza de la Momia - 1971) and Las Momias de Guanajuato - 1972) and the occasional Spanish Eurohorror movie (1973's La Venganza de la Momia and El secreto de la momia egipcia). Somewhat surprisingly, Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) was the first mummy film to adapt Brams Stoker’s mummy novel into a film. It was also noteworthy for having one of the first female mummies in film and one played without bandages by Valerie Leon.





The 1980s followed with more of the same. The Awakening (1980) again adapted Stoker's novel. The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (1980) was another TV movie. Dawn of the Mummy (1981) was a low budget, Zombie-inspired film. La momia nacional (1981) was Spain's obligatory offering. O Segredo da Múmia (1982) was Brazil's first mummy picture. Time Walker (1982) was unique in its portrayal of an alien mummy. The Tomb (1986) was one of Fred Olen Ray's early directorial efforts.
 


In the 1990s, the mummy failed to be revived until the end of the decade. First, Tony Curtis filled in for a recently-departed Tony Perkins in The Mummy Lives (1993). Under Wraps (1997) was a made-for-TV children's film. The Mummy aka Eternal aka Trance (1998) was probably the first mummy film about an unintentional mummy, one mummified by natural occurences, with a protagonist who was mummified in a peat bog. Cult Australian director Russell Mulcahy made Tale of the Mummy (1999). The mummy genre only really came back to life with the Brendan Fraser adventure/comedy/fantasy franchise, beginning with The Mummy (1999), which returned Imhotep, albeit with re-imagined origins, and the mummy film.



The 2000s have truly re-animated the mummy genre in a variety of forms. There've been many low budget, direct-to-video titles and even a handful of softcore skin flicks.
 
Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (2000)
Lust in the Mummy’s Tomb (2000)
The Mummy Returns (2001)
Belphégor - Le fantôme du Louvre (2001)
Ng goh haak gwai dik siu nin (2002)
Mummy's Kiss (2002)
Mummy Raider (2002)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Attack of the Virgin Mummies (2003)
The Mummy: Evil Unleashed (2003)
7 Mummies (2005)
The Fallen Ones (2005)
The Kung Fu Mummy (2005)
The Mummy's Kiss: Second Dynasty (2006)
Terror in the Pharaoh's Tomb (2007)
Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy (2007)
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
My Mummy (2008)
 

In addition to the man mummy films, there have been several mummy characters in cartoons over the years, including Hakushin in InuYasha, Mumm-Ra in Thundercats, the cast of Mummies Alive! and Tutenstein in Scooby-Doo in Where's My Mummy?

 
Computer Games saw a minor revival in mummy interest beginning in the late '90s with Mummy-Tomb of the Pharaoh (1997), Choose Your Own Nightmare: Curse of the Mummy (1999), Mummy Mystery Starring Mercer Mayer's Little Monster Private Eye (2001) and Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy (2006).


The video game industry has also benefit financially from re-awakened interest in mummies with The Mummy (2001), The Mummy Returns (2001), The Mummy (2002), Mummy Maze (2003), Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy (2003) and Mummy-Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008).
 

In music, the mummy has failed to inspire anywhere close to as much devotion as other classic monsters but there have been rare examples. The Verdicts did "The Mummy's Ball," The Distortions had "The Mummy" and Bob McFadden memorably performed "Mummy." There was the band The Mummies, and last October Babl Bijits were mummified for a Halloween performance here at Amoeba.











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