Who were the Sabians?

Published in Litro

That is the question posed to Wadjda’s eponymous girl protagonist by a Qur’anic quizmaster on a Playstation game called “The Qur’an Made Easy”. Audiences, like Wadjda, will be flummoxed, although classically schooled viewers may make the mistake earlier orientalists made in conflating the ancient Sabians of Arabia with the ancient Sabines of Italy.

It’s an interesting conflation. Poussin immortalised the Sabines in his painting, The Rape of the Sabine Women. In a curious way, Wadjda, the world’s first Saudi Arabian film, recalls in its tone and composition that renaissance masterpiece: they are both historic artistic documents of the brutalising effect of the laws of the ancients on the lives of women.

Wadjda is a film about the social violence such ancient laws still mete out, including polygamy (Wadjda’s mother battles the prospect of becoming a co-wife) and the enforced enclosure that stems from gender-segregation, the cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s social architecture (even within their home, Wadjda and her mother dine apart from the patriarch and the menfolk).

Wadjda is a feisty schoolgirl with dreams of a bicycle of her own. To afford one, she flouts the rules to sell homemade jewellery at school. Then the young rebel changes her tune, literally: swapping illegal heavy metal for more sacred orations when, hearing of the generous prize money, she decides to compete in a Qur’an recitation contest. Like many of her compatriots, she realises she can make more money exploiting religious scripture than evading religious stricture. She invests in The Qur’an Made Easy as a learning aide (and finds herself wondering who the Sabians were).

As she eventually learns, the Sabians were a tiny sect of esoteric followers of John the Baptist. The comic esoterism and obscure contemporary irrelevance of this detail is part of Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour’s gentle critique of the uses of Islam in the kingdom, so gentle it is barely noticeable. Rather than moralising, she has artfully wrapped her critique in crowd-pleasing comedy, exposing the immaturity of a martyr’s motives when Wadjda wishes for 72 bicycles in heaven, or probing the precarious honour invested in a girl’s virginity, when Wadjda falls off a bicycle and starts to bleed from her knee as her mother melodramatically prays it’s nothing more grievous.

Wadjda manages to capture something of the sexual curiosity of coming of age in a country where one’s schoolteachers teach that “a woman’s laugh is her nakedness.” Two inseparable schoolfriends are disciplined for drawing football tattoos on each other, their lesbianism hinted at – at least the fear of it – in the school’s subsequent proscription of flowers, love-notes, friendship bracelets. On the cusp of adolescence – part-way through the film she must start donning the full-length abaya – Wadjda is luridly fascinated by male-female relationships, asking her mother whether she still loves her husband, or playfully mocking the rumoured relationship between her hard-nosed headmistress and a certain illicit lover.

Children, with their innate sense of justice, are particularly attuned to such hypocrisies, to which jaded adults have become accustomed. Wadjda struggles with this inconsistency. On the one had she sees an external kingdom where women are veiled, identical, self-expression limited to footwear – Wadjda roams in sneakers and in shopping malls one hears the pointed heels of otherwise abaya-attired women. On the other hand, there is the internal reality of the home or the school, where the headmistress leers over her desk in a blouse with the top-button undone, where Wadjda’s glamorous mother, played by the unofficial Miss Saudi Arabia, Reem Abdullah, sings (with her ‘naked’ voice) to her heart’s content, looking indistinguishable from any Western women Wadjda sees on television.

In one poignantly funny scene in a shopping mall toilet, Wadjda’s mother gets out of her abaya to try on a red dress. The juxtaposition of her alluring couture and her sanitary surroundings sums up the absurd double-reality with which Saudi women must contend. Wadja is a child’s-eye view of Saudi Arabia, which both excuses its simplistic vision and heightens the power of its critique – a critique made all the more impressive for the fact it was shot entirely legally in Saudi Arabia, financed by a Prince of the House of Saud, to boot.

Aside from the film’s quality, that fact – that it is the first and only Saudi film – assures its place in cinematic history. But it is in a fascinating dialogue with it, too. The sucrose Hollywood-ending follows 90 minutes of that quietly moral gaze now so distinctively Iranian. There are clear traces of Offside, Jafar Panahi’s story of female football fans, and The Apple, Samira Makhmalbaf’s tale of two girls who escape their parents’ cellar. To say nothing of the unmistakeable nod to Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves, also about its protagonist’s search for a bicycle.

In de Sica’s quasi-Marxist vision, the bicycle Antonio Ricci needs to work represents his economic freedom. In keeping with the tradition, Wadjda’s bicycle is just as laden with significance. It is the elusive avatar of a girl’s social freedom, the scarcest resource in resource-rich Saudi Arabia.

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Is Sacha Baron-Cohen obsessed by Islam? And why?

Published in The Huffington Post, June 2012

Admiral General Aladeen is the dictator of the fictitious North African nation of Wadiya. Is he a Muslim too? Many Muslims are inclined to say so in a debate that continues to rage online, weeks after the film’s release. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacha Baron Cohen’s work reeks of the “regurgitation of a century old anti-Muslim depictions” or, as one Muslim blogger puts it, “Arab-faced minstrelsy”. Kabobfest even accuses him of“Muslim-bashing”.

They might have a point. All of Cohen’s most successful comic creations are steeped in Islamic insinuations. While his faith is never explicitly stated, Aladeen – a parody of an Islamic name – hailsfrom the Islamic world, just like his Kazakh forerunner, Borat Sagdiyev. Real-life Muslims spawned both characters, the one by ex-Libyan despot Colonel Gaddafi and the other by the Turkish journalist Mahir Çağrı, who even sued Cohen for exploiting his identity. Although Ali G is British, he bears an Islamic name and is a send-up of a hiphop culture visibly embraced by Britain’s Muslim youth. Harry Thompson, the producer responsible for Ali G’s early outings on The 11 O’ Clock Show, has confessed the character was designed to “have a whiff of Islam about him”. When even Cohen’s sole obviously non-Muslim character, Bruno, infamously delves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s difficult to deny Cohen’s habit of returning to Arabo-Islamic themes.

A comic’s choice of a particular community as his or her subject is a classic beat, from Woody Allen’s Jews to Goodness Gracious Me‘s Asians. But they all have in common membership of the communities they poke fun at. Such comedy is supposedly the insider’s prerogative and preserve. Sacha Baron Cohen, as an outsider to Islam, is upsetting Muslims. As a Muslim comedian, Dean Obeidallah, put it on CNN: “this is essentially the same as white performers in blackface portraying black people in buffoonish negative stereotypes for the enjoyment of white America.”

But is this really an outsider’s sneer-and-smear? Baron Cohen’s work differs from the racist fare Obeidallah cites in that it is not obviously served up for the delectation of diehard Islamophobes in the way a minstrel show deliberately angled for the racist guffaw. True, The Dictator is a direct mockery of an Arab in that Aladeen is modelled on a pretty infamous one (Colonel Gaddafi), with a storyline supposedly based on a novel, Zabibah and the King, by another pretty infamous Arab, Saddam Hussein.

But Cohen is merely doing what his fellow comedian – Charles Dickens – did: magnifying the grotesque, wherever he finds it. There is no suggestion of an essential grotesqueness about Arabs and Muslims. Aladeen even insists he isn’t an Arab. Ironically, it is the critics of Sacha Baron Cohen who are blackening the reputations of those they seek to defend; when the overwhelming majority of Arab and Muslim countries banned Borat and The Dictator, they were playing to the racist notion that these grotesques were representative.

Moreover, Baron Cohen’s racial humour is a more complex affair. For example, when talking with a compatriot on a flight, Aladeen speaks aloud in his native tongue, evoking suspicion in his fellow passengers who fear a terrorist hijacking. But the language is actually in large part Hebrew and Yiddish; Baron Cohen manages both to mock Arabophobia as well as the conspiracy theories, rife in the Arab world, that 9/11 was perpetrated by Jews. He pulled off a similar feat in Borat, where he plays an anti-semite, who, as film critic J. Hoberman astutely observes, is simultaneously “a crypto-Jewish outsider”. Baron Cohen’s comedy “is designed to offend Arab and Jew alike”.

The yoking together of Jew and Arab is a clue to what might really be at work here: not Islamophobia, rather a more interesting phenomenon, a long tradition of Arab-Jewish cultural symbiosis, in particular the Arab world providing the pallet for Jewish artists’ and intellectuals’ preoccupations. It’s a Jewish tradition that includes the poet Heinrich Heine as well as the historian Ignaz Goldziher.

Scholars like Goldziher were steeped in Muslim history and were pioneers in popularising it in the West. From the Crusades to the Convivencia, when Muslims and Jews were on the same side, Muslim history and culture became, as Martin Kramer says, “allegories for the predicaments of Jewry”: the Muslims were crypto-Jews, just like – in Hoberman’s contention – Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.

In Heine’s work, too, Muslims are marshalled in a proxy polemic against Christian Europe. Cohen studied history at Cambridge and constantly returns to the theme of anti-semitism, so he will – like any student of the Holocaust – know the Heine quote perennially cited with reference to Nazi book burnings, that “where they burn books, they will in the end burn humans”. He is also likely to know, as few do, that the quote is from a play called Almansor and laments the burning of the Qur’an by the Islamophobic inquisitors of medieval Spain.

So it was that Muslims became an integral part of what the renowned critic Geoffrey Hartmancalled “the Jewish imagination”. This identification with Islam looms most visibly on in the form of those few surviving synagogues built in the Muslim manner, like the Budapest Synagogue or thisone on Cincinnati’s Plum Street. Sacha Baron Cohen retains a little of this flavour: Islam is a part of his native imagination just like Judaism. Perhaps he isn’t an outsider after all?

This is an old tradition that antecedes the Middle East conflict that has tarnished the tradition’s legacy. Muslims and Jews both should be glad the tradition might live on in Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy, for it alone provides the greatest hope for any rapprochement in the rift between the two communities. And not, as Bruno believed, hummus.