People who make decisions about media — heads of publishing houses, TV producers, Hollywood studio chiefs— believe that most Americans aren’t interested in anything “foreign.”
As a result, for many years, much of what we heard about people in the Middle East were stereotypes of “rag heads,” exotic belly dancers and cowardly “A-rab” soldiers running away when the real fighting began.
Then came the attacks of 9/11, and the only possible benefit: that unheard-of prospect of a first novel about everyday life in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, selling in the millions. Since then an outpouring of novels and memoirs about the Middle East have been published that we might not have seen otherwise.
I don’t mean to say The Kite Runner will stand as a great or exceptional novel. As critics noted, the details are accurate and the story is told earnestly and sometimes grippingly. The author, too, is something of a phenomenon, a promising first novelist whose family was given political asylum in California, where he became an M.D. and was practicing as an internist while writing Kite Runner in English, his second language.
So: Intriguing story, commendable author and trustworthy descriptions of a country that most of us knew little about. What’s the problem?
Well, plenty, according to a 2009 essay I found only recently called Can the West Read? Western Readers, Orientalist Stereotypes, and the Sensational Response to The Kite Runner by an Occidental College student named Sarah Hunt.
Drawing from Orientalism, scholar Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 study of stereotypes about Arab culture, Hunt suggests that The Kite Runner uses simplistic Western ideas to make the Middle East “a cultural backdrop against which to create and celebrate Western identity.”
The plot, she says, reads more like an American coming-of-age novel than a story that might have emerged organically from modern Afghanistan. Americans shouldn’t think that by reading The Kite Runner, they’re “creating a ‘bridge of understanding’ between themselves and Afghan culture.”
I never thought people ran out to read The Kite Runner in a conscious effort to correct American ignorance or become better world citizens. Rather a phenomenal word-of-mouth said The Kite Runner was a terrific novel you couldn’t put down about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country we were currently bombing because of 9/11.
Fine, but remember, says Sarah Hunt: People don’t just read a novel for the story, and then go on to another story, and another. We bring our own biases to the page. We seek confirmation of preconceptions that have been on our minds, perhaps subconsciously, for decades.
In The Kite Runner, Hosseini makes his protagonist, Amir, “less and less ‘foreign’ ” to the Western reader, says Hunt, and more an “extension of the imperial self by using the East, in all its forms, for his own Westernized benefit.”
Don’t you love academic language like that — so literary, so righteous, so nostalgic (you Western imperialists, you bums). So pointy.
But I’m glad that someone like Sarah Hunt is here to keep the critical conversation going. Americans love The Kite Runner because we do learn a great deal — about boys and dads, games and customs, geography and money exchange in Kabul — against the backdrop of huge societal changes in Afghanistan, from Soviet occupation to the entrance of the Taliban.
Of course, that’s the plot. Hunt, like Edward Said, is more concerned about form. If Amir becomes less and less “foreign” and more like Western readers, so then do Amir’s friend Hassan (the victim) , and Assef (the villain) become more “foreign.” Hunt believes each character plays out unseen stereotypes that reassure Western readers of the “inferiority” and “barbaric” nature of Orientalist (in this case Afghan) characters.
Something like that. It’s easy to poke holes in Sarah Hunt’s essay because she, too, is guilty of simplistic reasoning. But it’s equally important to note that Can the West Read? represents a critical conversation that is vital to a free culture. This kind of questioning flows around every piece of art we see, and every work of commercial entertainment in front of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Unlike plainer, shorter reviews that tell us whether a work in question is good or bad, the kind of cultural questioning that Hunt represents stretches and tests the reader — challenges us to notice prejudices that stop us from having the empathy to understand how “foreigners” themselves feel about being exploited over and over again in Western works.
Take for example those toughboy action-junkie spy thrillers. (Seven Days from Sunday, National Security, American Assassin) that make so often characters from the Middle East swarthy evil bad guys with bad teeth. An example would be an otherwise fine novelist like Nelson DeMille turning his knowledgeable-wiseacre detective, John Corey, into a swaggering fathead. In book after book (The Lion, The Panther) Corey single-handedly saves the world from Middle Eastern terrorists who need to be killed for the benefit of humankind. He wins, as Americans must, because after all, We’re #1.
These bad-guy Arab characters come out of comic-book fantasies, so why take them seriously? Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the threatening black-robed giant Arab guy swings his scimitar around so dramatically that Indiana Jones just shrugs and shoots him dead? The audience exploded with laughter when I saw it in a theater. There was no opportune moment for a rational critic like myself to stand up and point out the problems of cheap humor against the We’re #1 backdrop of American big shot storytelling. The audience couldn’t be critical because they know the Western hero is always going to win — he just gets more points when he does it humorously.
And Snopes.com extends the fun by reporting that Harrison Ford in his role as Indiana Jones was suffering from dysentery at the time, so he “persuaded [director Steven] Spielberg to try the scene this much shorter way. (One could say Ford was given “the runs” of the place.)”
Ha ha, those Snopes writers sure got into the spirit of a real “rag head” moment. “Indy” gets away with using his gun instead of a whip because the villain is too stupid to notice that white people are his superiors in every way. Plus Ford and Spielberg didn’t have to feel guilty for filming that scene because Raiders was just a kill-the-desert-rat movie for Americans anyway. Not to mention a let’s- steal-treasures-from-the-primitives theme, but that’s another story.
But what about those American viewers? Why would an American audience raised on the concept of free speech and enjoying more choices than just about anybody in the world, give up its discriminating voice for easy laughs at other peoples’ expense?
For the answer let’s turn to the Showtime television series Homeland and the very amusing stunt pulled by Middle Eastern street artists a week or so ago. They were hired to spray paint “authentic Arab graffiti” on the walls of the show’s sets which had been built in Berlin, for Season 5.
But these artists had something else in mind, and I don’t know which is more hilarious –
1) that the graffiti didn’t say things like “God is great,” as the artists were told to write, but rather “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is a watermelon” (i.e., a “sham,” a “fake”) — and nobody on the Homeland staff noticed.
2) that the show’s co-creator tried to sound hip and cavalier about it by announcing to the press: “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air … but we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”
Ha ha, sounds like something they’d say on Snopes.com except this guy at Showtime went on TV and put it in a press release. He wanted to be witty and cool so he could dodge the real question, which is: You don’t have one person working on Homeland who speaks Arabic?
And other questions that follow: You don’t have one fact-checker for scenes set in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria? You don’t care that CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is an agent trained in Arabic who botches words she should pronounce perfectly, or when the converted POW Brody prays with his shoes on (“a big blooper”), or when “a bustling metropolitan city” like Beirut is reduced to “dilapidated neighborhoods…(with) armed militias in jeeps terroriz(ing residents) and Hezbollah commanders leaving their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk”?
Well, the producers don’t have to answer questions like that because they believe the audience doesn’t care. Homeland is a star vehicle for Claire Danes, goddamnit, so it doesn’t matter if Carrie’s blond hair flies everywhere as she runs around those filthy Middle East streets, or that she miraculously sneaks into a heavily guarded prison to find the one inmate who blurts out the show’s pivotal secret, or that the swarthy deodorant-needing Arab guards race in, missing Carrie’s miraculous escape by seconds.
That kind of slipshod action stuff doesn’t matter, because this is TV, where audiences check their critical standards at the door. I know I do. Do you ever care, for example, that surgeons on ER/Grey’sAnatomy/ChicagoHope/CodeBlack keep using a #10 scalpel blade when the obviously better #12 is sitting right there? No, we want enough fake medical talk to get us into the scandal, the sex and the violence that make hospital shows so great.
I did love what a sardonic Tel Aviv critic said about Homeland being based on a successful Israeli TV series. The story in both versions is essentially the same, he said, but with this difference: In Israel, the show is about terrorists and the Mosad, while in the United States, it’s about terrorists and Claire Danes.
I thought that was so funny and so true that it shed new light on the reason a TV audience may silence its own critical voice. Give us romance, humor, action and stars we love, and we’ll tune in, period. (I so love Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary that it doesn’t matter how badly the show dumbs-down every political reality known to heaven. This Secretary of State does the dishes at home, for heaven sake, and she kisses that cutie pie husband Tim Daly over the soapsuds before flying off to stop nuclear war. What more can you ask from TV?)
Maybe that’s the reason CIA experts say about Homeland, ”It’s a good show, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community.” Duh. They mean it’s a good show for TV — it’s got intrigue, back-seat sex and torture. Throw in a homemade suicide bomb for the POW to wear at a reception with the Vice President and it doesn’t have to be authentic.
That may be why viewers turn a deaf ear to blistering revelations such as a Washington Post review that Homeland is “the most bigoted show on television, “churn(ing) out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliche.” (That’s true but listen, it’s more important to know if Carrie is pregnant or what?)
The larger problem is that American institutions take Homeland so seriously they’ve awarded dozens of coveted prizes – Emmys! Golden Globes! SAGs, Directors/Producers/Writers Guild awards, even an AFI, Edgar, Television Critics and Peabody (whaaaat?) — for being high-minded, intellectually stimulating and instructive.
That’s what makes the street artists’ “Homeland is a joke” graffiti so delicious. They showed what can happen in a culture where free speech may seem less and less valued until — bingo — something truly subversive hits a nerve.
And thanks to a statement issued by the lead graffiti saboteur, the Egyptian artist Heba Amin, the message proved just how serious people from the Middle East take English-language TV.
“The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture,” says Amin. “This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream ‘knowledge’ in the US and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets. Five seasons later, the plot has come a long way, but the thinly veiled propaganda is no less blatant.”
Heba Amin is a person who’s felt outraged and frustrated for a long time that American television not only gets away with shameful inaccuracies but contributes in dangerous way to volatile relations with countries already angry with the U.S.
But the fact that her crew’s graffiti endured censorship (if only somebody had known) proves this lesson: You can drive a big-budget, overproduced, propaganda-loaded and flat-out bigoted blockbuster down the throats of capitalist viewers and get away with it for a while. But somewhere, dissent is going to come out — not the truth but a truth. And it’s going to be heard because the people who make decisions underestimate the people watching.
True, Homeland will probably go on with higher ratings and the usual awards, but from now on, the fun for viewers will be watching the kinks and the mistakes and the slapdash marks of a true “watermelon” production.
Meanwhile, I’m glad I work with books rather than other media. It’s in books that readers and writers meet according to centuries-old literary standards that are embedded in our psyches. Does that sound high-falutin? Doesn’t matter. The critical conversation goes on every moment of every day, whether we’re ready to hear it or not.