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.


The Investigation by Peter Weiss – review

Published in Edfringereview

The eponymous investigation of Peter Weiss’s “documentary drama” (“with dance”, adds the press release) is a Frankfurt war crimes trial. But what does a “documentary drama” entail? How does such a creature differ from an historical drama? Is it an attempt to stage history or use history as a stage? For sure, the latter would have made for a better play, but this was deliberately and defiantly the former. There is a school assembly feel as witnesses bear testimony to the horrors of the camps, reeling off statistics as if reading from a history textbook: 3.3 million dead in the gas chambers, 500 000 dead in the ghettos, 700 calories a day in Buchenwald. But I suppose that was the point. I neither noted down nor knew in advance those facts: they stuck in the mind. Oddly it was the most banal of them which distilled the most evil (I winced at the mention of potato peel soup) – perhaps I finally know what Hannah Arendt meant by the ‘banality of evil’.

But if Peter Weiss is a history teacher, he is one with all the narrative flair of a Simon Schama or David Starkey (to say nothing of the camp gusto). Using drama to convey knowledge is a difficult task but the script frames the facts and details in convincing stories – a Jewish doctor who is forced to collaborate, or the psychological effect on survivors as they try to re-integrate into post-war German society. Moreover, there needn’t be a drama-history dichotomy; like all good drama, good history casts light on moral issues from all perspectives. The collaborators’ qualms and the redeeming guilt of Nazi criminals provide a perspective all too absent from popular history and fiction, which do no justice to the moral complexity of a situation where, say, Josef Mengele affectionately has sandpits built for children who wear jumpers knitted by his wife, even as he prepares to murder them.

But most originally, the incorporation of physical theatre brings to life the horrors, brings to life the death. Original, because the choreography consisted not merely of the morbid miming of the acts described, but also more nuanced narratives told through dance: the performers’ movements slow down and descend to the floor representing, perhaps, the decline of civilisation; children play clapping games while a skipping rope turns to a hangman’s noose – a potent and poignant evocation of Germany’s lost innocence, as well as a welcome influence of the symbolist theatre of the likes of Maurice Maeterlinck (or indeed late Chekhov).

Influences loom large in this play, but so deftly are they incorporated and so lightly are they worn that one might easily miss them. The Investigation is engaged in a highly-literate conversation with past representations of the Holocaust; a girl wears a dashing red coat as she is led to the slaughter, reminiscent of the famous girl-in-the-red-coat from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List; a pitch-perfect piano score evokes the minor-key piano music that has become a quintessential feature of Holocaust films from Europa Europa to, of course, The Pianist; and the closing (and only) song in which all cast members join in recalls unmistakeably the eerie solemnity of Tomorrow Belongs To Me from the musical Cabaret.

But this conversation with the past goes much further. Didacticism has gone out of fashion (and this, make no mistake, was didactic – right down to the chalkboards at the back on which cast members occasionally noted down harrowing details). But there is a long tradition of plays whose primary purpose was to convey knowledge, such as medieval mystery and miracle plays or the passion plays, characteristically marked by antisemitism. Is this a Jewish rejoinder? There are hundreds of “revivals” in Edinburgh: revivals of plays. This flaunts a whole lot more chutzpah: a revival of a genre.