Monday, January 16, 2012

Movies in the Muslim World

So, reading through a seven-year-old political column by one of my favorite sci-fi authors today, I came across this passage:

"Seeing Kingdom of Heaven this week, I was sharply reminded of the fact that Islam has produced great leaders who accomplished great things. The portrayal of Saladin in that movie coincided very closely with the historical record. And if this movie were actually to be shown in the Muslim world, Saladin's words in the script could be read as a political instruction manual for political Islam today." (Emphasis mine)

Kingdom of Heaven was actually shown in the Muslim world. And it was wildly popular.

I know this because a) I watched this movie in the Muslim world, and b) my Muslim Syrian Arabic teacher was a huge fan, and made us read dialogues for class about a bunch of friends who go to see the movie and talk about it afterwards.

One of the many assumptions about the Muslim world that goes too-little-challenged in our national dialogue is that the entire region is like Saudi Arabia. It's not. Saudi Arabia is the exception. In nearly every other Muslim country, social pressure is the only thing standing between you and movies, alcohol, strip clubs, and un-scarved women.

Or maybe, instead of using Saudi Arabia as a stand-in for the whole region, we've simply transplanted our conception of Eastern Europe onto the new Enemy.

But for the record - almost every kind of Western media is available in most Muslim countries. There is some censorship, of course, but it's mostly symbolic. Throughout the Syrian revolution, I could access the BBC, CNN and other news sites reporting daily on the Syrian security forces' atrocities. But Ha'aretz? (An Israeli newspaper). Not so much.

Far bigger obstacles to the free flow of information in the region are illiteracy, poor foreign language education, and low rates of book translation into Arabic. The UN's 2002 Arab Human Development report famously found that the entire Arab world tranlsated fewer books in the past 1,000 years than Spain translates in a single year
I was once shocked to find Patrick S. Seale's classic critique of the Syrian regime, Asad, in an open-to-the-public cultural center in Damascus.

Of course, it was in English.

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