Observe the changing tides of politics and beliefs in the lens of cinema
August 15, 2019 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Born in 1952, Abou Joudé grew up at a time when Lebanon overflowed with cinemas. He says there were over 50 cinemas in Beirut alone. Joudé would attend the movies three to four times a week, watching everything from Aladdin to Kubrick. He loved the splashy, thrilling posters, depicting electrifying romps and grandiose fantasies, but over time he noticed that certain images would repeat again and again. “I discovered that those films, or the posters of those films about Arabs, continued the imagined picture of what was thought about Arabs in the 18th and 19th centuries,” he says. “The desert, the tent, the belly-dancing, the haram, the sultan, the king. Stereotyped images continued through the posters.” The Middle East as Old Hollywood Saw It (Atlas Obscura)
The fantasy they presented was powerful and dangerous, says Omar Thawabeh, the communications officer at Dar el-Nimer, a Beirut arts center that recently hosted an exhibition of Abou Joudé’s posters. “Image as a tool or as a weapon is probably underrated in how powerful it is. I think what the rest of the world thinks of us is majorly based on images,” he explains. “Although we might take some of these posters with a pinch of salt and say, ‘Well, it’s just a film,’ when this becomes one film after another and generations after generations, and the images, the representation doesn’t change, it becomes more problematic.”
The movie posters promote the image of Arabs as “savages, they’re backwards, they live in tents and they ride camels,” Thawabeh says. The implication, he explains, was that while Arab nations were uncivilized, Western countries were advanced: a belief that could justify the invasion and colonization of the Arab world. “We [Westerners] are civilized and we’re powerful, we have armies and developed weapons and we can conquer them, we can use them. So it starts off with dumbing down the Arab world, then it turns into this invitation to abuse the resources of the Arab world and create these power dynamics.”

The posters show how popular culture reflected the politics of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Abou Joudé says that prior to World War II most films shown in Beirut came from Egypt or Europe, but post-war, American films took over the market as American power and hegemony grew.

The American films initially showed a fascination and exotification of the Arab World replete with tents, belly dancers, deserts, and rich sultans. But after the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Joudé says images of Arabs began to shift, and he noticed that instead of being portrayed as heroes, they became terrorists. “The [Arab] characters became very evil or sick after the 1967 war,” he says. “It began at that time and has grown since then, especially after 2011 honestly.”
Atlas Obscura has some gorgeous copies of the posters, and photos of Abboudi Abou Joudé in his shop in Beirut, which has progressed since Farrah Berrou tracked down the shop in 2016 for Bambi Soapbox, because it now has a website (Google auto-translate), which appears to focus on books instead of posters. But there are also plenty of posters, if you wanted to browse remotely. If you want to see the Lebanese (and other Arab) film posters, jump to page 9 and go from there, but there are also western posters with English text mixed in.
posted by filthy light thief (5 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Egyptian cinema also used some of the same conventions as did the Hollywood films—Mona Deeley wrote in 2011.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:48 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was borne year after him in 1953, and about 30 miles south of Beirut, so I remember a similar atmosphere in Israel when I was a child, and surely until the ‘67 war.
But hell, while the stereotyping of Arabs in movies had not changed much, everything else had. All that is left is nostalgia, memories of times that disappeared and won’t come back.
posted by growabrain at 1:01 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

For old Hollywood, the primary reasons for making movies set in the Mid-East or, really, almost anywhere between Spain and China as long as it was above their idea of Africa was for the kind of exoticism of setting, the opportunity to use their star actors without the excess make-up they used for portraying darker races and along with that the chance to tell fantasy stories revolving around great riches, vast deserts, and most especially harems.

Harems were the key selling point to suggest "every man's fantasy" of having any and every woman they choose and yet also making it a forbidden area, a place of transgression to visit, that gives the hero opportunity to violate, even though the hero, of course, is true to only one woman, usually some beautiful and impetuous daughter of royalty. These kinds of stories have ties to the spectacle of the biblical pictures, like those Cecil B DeMille made famous, where sex and violence could be used to sell piety, but also could be used for "foreign legion" films to suggest a war against an barbaric but somewhat civilized foe that didn't need a major US war to justify telling.

Arabs were often used in ways somewhat analogous to how Hollywood treated Native Americans in how they fought "heroes", vanishing into the desert like a force of nature, brutal and cruel, but with more advanced weapons and command structures, while also occasionally being sympathetic or even the heroes themselves, the latter being not uncommon through the fifties for some types of fantasy/history/bible stories that went beyond the more limited opportunities for Native Americans until the late fifties, with some early attempts in the precode era as well. The few times Hollywood set movies in places like India, the tone would be roughly the same as if the movies were set in the Mid-East, just add elephants and make the bad guys thuggees instead.

But the importance of Arabs not being darker skinned made the sexual exoticism acceptable in ways that were more difficult otherwise. Valentino became famous as a male sex object in his movies, including The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, but that wasn't too far from the Spanish bullfighter or Russian soldier he played in Blood and Sand and The Eagle. Hollywood didn't differentiate in foreign lovers all that much other than in costume, accessories, and accent (even on title cards). It was only in the sixties, as the article mentions, that things really changed more dramatically and history is allowed to catch up to the fantasy, bringing Arabs into the "real world of modernity" as villains. The sexual allure almost entirely vanished to be replaced with fanaticism of mutable varieties.

Egyptian cinema also used some of the same conventions as did the Hollywood films

From what I've seen, which isn't a ton, sorta, but not really in the same way at all. Which just follows anytime a group tells a story about their lives as opposed to outsiders relating superficially similar events. It reads a lot different even when the basic outlines might show some commonality. But it is true that Egyptian cinema, like most of the world's movie industries, picked up a lot from Hollywood in how they told their stories, but they also found inspiration from India and Europe as well, which is more unusual.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I should mention that Edward Said talks about this in much greater and better detail than I can in his writings, particularly in his book Orientalism which ranges far beyond Hollywood.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:02 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

The desert, the tent, the belly-dancing, the haram, the sultan, the king.

Harem. Haram means forbidden in Arabic. Harem is the one with the women.
posted by scalefree at 2:15 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

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