JUNE 2019

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Thief of Baghdad: Arabs in World Cinema

When Hollywood recently lined Rami Malek up as the next Bond villain, following his Oscar win, the Lebanese-Iraqi satirist Karl Sharro ironically saluted the event on Twitter, noting that “this is the film industry’s highest ‘honor’ for an actor of Middle Eastern origin: cast[ing] them as a Bond villain.” But though the Islamophobia that swept America and its dream factory in the wake of 9/11 exacerbated aesthetic prejudices and narrative preconceptions, as an exhibition at Beirut’s Dar el-Nimer shows, the image of Arabs in world cinema was never exactly favorable.

The exhibition, Thief of Baghdad: Arabs in World Cinema, contextualized the history of Arabs as depicted on film posters from all over the world, offering a remarkable survey of the iconographic bias that has characterized their portrayal. The posters showcased were drawn fully from the impressive vaults of the curator, Abboudi Abou Jaoudé, who is the holder of one of the largest collections of film posters in the Arab world. While the posters come from different countries, among them, Denmark, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Germany, and Turkey, the same visual clichés and orientalizing gestures recur throughout. That the image of Arabs and their “exotic” world that emerges from the exhibition is so streamlined, regardless of where and when the given films were produced, is rather telling. At a time when marketing campaigns heavily relied on paper and analog devices, movie posters, sometimes even more than the films themselves, had to aesthetically anticipate audiences’ expectations at once. No wonder archetypes and stereotypes feature so heavily.

The narrative and visual tropes that appear over and over again can be clustered into the following groups: eroticism, violence, and magic. (The exhibition is loosely structured around three related themes—love/lust, adventure, and fantasy). Lacking any nuance, the fictional Middle East recreated on these posters is one where political intrigues are resolved undiplomatically with guns, where camels are the preferred mode of transportation, and where chaos reigns supreme. The posters for the British production Embassy (1972), starring Richard Roundtree, are emblematic in this regard. Its French edition, Baraka à Beyrouth(1972), features an English-looking cop looming on the right side of the poster, while in the background, a chaotic, local police force is trying to suppress a riot. Order, the poster’s semiotics quite bluntly suggest, can only be restored through the savior-like intervention of foreign forces.

Along with ambushes and blood, the Middle East in these posters is also filled with sin. Women, when not veiled, are scantily dressed, lasciviously beckoning the Western spectator into an imaginary harem of oriental pleasures. The BDSM-tinged poster of Babes in Baghdad(1952), featuring a woman in chains with a blue bra and skirt, couldn’t be less subtle: “The shapes that shook a Harem Empire! … All its spectacle now in EXOTIC COLOR,” reads its tagline. In fact, when people are not busy shooting at each other, they are surrounded by women whose sole purpose seems to be that of passively pleasing their male counterpart. The only alternative to violence and sex is constituted by flying carpets and muscly genies, as fantastical as the former two categories are wishful.

The posters for the three different versions of The Thief of Baghdad, dating respectively from 1924, 1940, and 1978, show the persistence of the iconographic platitudes associated with the “Arab World.” Though over half a century runs between the Raoul Walsh-directed 1924 version and the 1978 indian production by Ravikant Nagaich, the same motifs can be found on both posters. Baghdad’s skyline is dotted by domes suspiciously similar to those of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, carpets or horses fly by, and the ensemble is tinged with bright colors like green and pink, which add little in the way of naturalism. Truly hallucinatory heights are reached in the Italian poster for the 1956 French movie The Lebanese Mission, starring Juliette Gréco, featuring camels parading over a desert landscape, despite the fact that in Lebanon there are neither camels nor deserts. (The Levantine country is actually famous for its snowy slopes and greenery.)

Lebanon and its capital feature prominently in the exhibition, presented as orientalist transfigurations of an imaginary Middle East where spies, belly dancers, and violent conspiracies converge in a heady, albeit fictional, cocktail. Beirut is also the location where the exhibition’s curator began collecting many of the posters on display at Dar El-Nimer. In the early ’70s a young Abboudi Abou Jaoudé started raiding the many movie theaters open at the time, amassing posters, film lobby cards, and even movie tickets. Following the nationalization of Egyptian cinema in 1966, by presidential decree, several private producers, distributors, and directors relocated to Beirut turning the Lebanese capital into the second major cinematographic pole after Cairo. This is also why so many foreign productions—mainly spy and action B-movies—were shot in Beirut from the mid ’60s until the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1975. Very much like the tales lifted from AThousand and One Nights (1945) (whose film adaption poster was also featured here), the stories set in this “Paris of the Middle East” have very little to do with reality. Beirut is reduced to its landmarks and mythical traits, but its streets and inhabitants are just the backdrop to Western fantasies of the Orient. The latter are in fact the veritable protagonists of Thief of Baghdad: Arabs in World Cinema—projections of a world that is simultaneously fetishized and demonized.

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JUNE 2019

All Issues