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In my 2009 book Surrender I wrote at some length about the contrast between the Hollywood of the 1940s, which released movies like Mrs. Miniver –considered by Churchill “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions” – and the post-9/11 filmmakers who, in pictures like Redacted, Syriana, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, and Stop-Loss, have waxed cynical about America and systematically whitewashed Islam, painting Muslims as the innocent victims of Western bigotry, capitalism, and imperialistic bullying. A recent item at Breitbart provided two new titles to add to this hall of shame – though, as America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq winds down, they’re not about the war over there but about the war at home – namely, America’s supposed war on Muslims. The Citizen is about a Middle Eastern man who proudly obtains his U.S. citizenship on September 10, 2001, only to find his new countrymen turning on him in the wake of 9/11; a similar story is told in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair (an Indian filmmaker based in New York) and starring Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, and Liev Schreiber. Nair’s film opened this year’s Venice Film Festival, where, according to Breitbart’s Christian Toto, it “drew gasps from the audience for its portrayal of anti-Muslim behavior aimed [by Americans] at the film’s protagonist (British actor Riz Ahmed).”
Never mind that the only remarkable thing about “anti-Muslim behavior” in the U.S. since 9/11 is how little of it there has been; never mind that year after year, the number of anti-Muslim acts in both the U.S. and Europe is dwarfed by the number of anti-Semitic incidents (many of them, needless to say, committed by Muslims): one of the Big Lies at the heart of the ideology informing movies like these is that non-Muslim Americans have treated their Muslim neighbors so monstrously since 9/11 that it’s thoroughly understandable if some of the latter turn to terrorism.
Toto didn’t mention Zeina Durra’s 2010 film The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, but judging by the video clips available online and the tons of press materials I’ve read in the last few days, it represents yet another example of this apparently burgeoning subgenre. It’s a largely autobiographical portrait of the everylife of a chic, moneyed young conceptual artist in who lives in Manhattan, as Durra did until recently, and who, like Durra, is an Arab, born in Western Europe to a Bosnian-Palestinian mother and a father from the Levant. Durra has said she wanted to tell the story of a young Arab woman who “is not estranged from the Middle East nor an outsider in Paris or New York….The idea that Arabs or Muslims brought up in the West find themselves constantly torn between their roots and their ‘Western’ lives, has always annoyed me since I have never related to that conflict.” Durra was also eager to portray the life of an Arab in New York after 9/11, an event that, she says, “heightened this sense of living in a state of dread fearing for one’s safety in the hands of being mistaken for someone else or just taken in because you don’t agree with American policy.” Uh, right. Durra’s alter ego, Asya, lives in a trendy Chinatown loft and, when she’s not creating art, spends her life in limos, fancy restaurants, nightclubs, etc. But she’s still intensely aware of the evil at the heart of her adopted country: when her Saudi ex-lover disappears, she suspects he’s been renditioned by the CIA; when America’s surrogate, Israel, starts bombing Beirut, she panics for her brother, who lives there. Although even the New Yorker, which is usually reliably PC, criticized Durra’s “shallow” and “schematic…sociology” and her context-free presentation of the Beirut bombing, the movie was, unsurprisingly, a big hit at Sundance.
Nair’s picture isn’t in general release yet, but an e-book of the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, also entitled The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a few clicks away. Short-listed for the Booker and translated into a couple of dozen languages, Hamid’s novel appears to be at least as autobiographical as Durra’s movie: at its center is a brilliant young Pakistani man named Changez who, like Hamid, was born in Lahore, studied at Princeton, then worked for a consulting firm in New York. (Hamid’s ties to America are actually more extensive than his character’s: he spent much of his childhood in California, where his father was a doctoral student at Stanford.) The novel is a récit, in which Changez, now living back in Lahore, tells the story of his stateside life over dinner to an American stranger. His narrative consists largely of sneering and griping about the U.S. For example, he complains that it’s harder for a Pakistani to get into Princeton than an American: “A thousand of your compatriots were enrolled, five hundred times as many, even though your country’s population was only twice that of mine.” Yes, his American classmates were smart, but they were “devoid of refinement,” and when abroad they acted as if they were the planet’s “ruling class.” He makes his admission to Princeton sound like a Faustian bargain: in return for “complete financial aid,” he and other gifted foreign students “were expected to contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining.”
From the beginning, Changez was conflicted about joining American society, but suppressed his doubts. Then came 9/11, when his “initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased…that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” The flags flying in Manhattan afterwards sickened him: “They all seemed to proclaim: We are America— not New York, which, in my opinion, means something quite different— the mightiest civilization the world has ever known; you have slighted us; beware our wrath.” He “trembled with fury” at the invasion of Afghanistan. When someone told him about the janissaries – Christians captured and pressed into military service by the Ottomans – he realized he was “a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine.” He realized, too, that America “had to be stopped.” By book’s end Changez admits to leading anti-American activities; he leaves ambiguous the question of whether he’s a terrorist.
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