Valentino’s Ghost: Hollywood & TV Imagine Arabs

TALIM The-Sheik-PostersYou have to be dedicated, or perhaps suffering jet lag, to get up to watch Michael Singh's excellent documentary at 08:00 on a Sunday morning.  The time was a function of the setting: this was the annual conference of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, and Valentino's Ghost was making a debut showing.

It's all good fun, at least at the outset.  Rudolf Valentino dashing off to conquer some blond.  Rudy was good for several sequels, that stallion-mounted Sheik of Hollywood imagination.

Singh proceeds from silent film to talkies, so we then have lots of Beau Geste French Foreign Legion desert shots, this time of Bad Arabs being mown down by heroic white Legionnaires, usually in defense of those same damsels that Valentino made swoon a decade or so before.  But it's all oldies, and good fun.

Then we have the more complex portrayal of Arabs in David Lean's classic Lawrence of Arabia.  Hard to fault this almost perfect film, though the focus of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks is mostly on T.E. Lawrence, the great white hope of the hopelessly "little people, silly people" as the British officer calls the disputatious Arabs.

It was still possible in the 1962 film to portray Arabs as noble (think Omar Sharif).  A decade later, after the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, and the images in film and on video are almost entirely negative.  And it's this image which still informs – if one can use such a term – most coverage, both fictional and news, of the Arab world.  From Bullfrog Films, the distributor:

Valentino's Ghost takes viewers on a chronological journey through more than a century of images of Muslims, Arabs and Islam in the U.S. media, from the early 20th-century fantasies of romantic sheiks to today's damaging stereotypes as evil fanatics. Through interviews with Robert Fisk, Niall Ferguson, and John Mearsheimer amongst others, the film shows the way in which the changing image of Arabs and Muslims has mirrored America's political agenda in the Middle East.

But chronology would be boring, and so Singh gives us themes.  "The Arab as Indian" (as in Cowboys & Indians), the Arab as devious cheater, etc.  All the stuff of what any other ethnic or religious group would have long ago succeeded in banning from Hollywood.

Michael Singh has apparently made his film with PBS in mind.  Such an important subject does deserve an audience beyond specialist Middle East studies showings.  He feels that it is urgent:

Even our educated American colleagues appreciate orientation on the subject, partly because our subject has never been shown on television: PBS has broadcast films examining media images of Blacks, Jews and Asians, but not Arabs or Muslims. We contend that this lack of knowledge has contributed to widespread ignorance, stereotyping, fear and hatred of those of Middle Eastern heritage or the Muslim faith, including American citizens, and has also bolstered public support for a long line of fictions about the Middle East.

Last year, in India Abroad, Singh voiced doubts that PBS would go through with his film:

One PBS executive has told me personally that he will do everything he can to prevent the film's broadcast.  He has not even seen the film, but realizes that the politics as discussed in the film, especially about our relationship with Israel, is like nitroglycerin.  I think PBS is afraid of angering audiences who, unlike network audiences, directly donate money that is critical for PBS's survival.

If that is the case, then maybe you too will have to wait until some classroom near you shows it… at 8:00 in the morning.  Not-ready-for-prime-time, the US-Israel relationship and the skewing it does to American views of Arabs?

Gerald Loftus

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