Turban Decay deals with images of Arabs in the cinema, as observed by Front Row Central staff writer and actual Arab Jordan Saïd. The column deals with stereotypes and changing perceptions both before and after 9/11.
One of the most important Arab actors in history—and a personal hero of mine—died earlier this month. For decades, Omar Sharif defined Hollywood’s Middle Eastern man. His performances varied from the cunning to the credulous, from the sleazy to the debonair, but he always brought that mysterious, exotic charm that became associated with the better ethnic roles in Old Hollywood. I originally intended to write a eulogy, but The Guardian eulogized circles around anything I could have written. Instead, let’s celebrate Sharif’s life by talking about his work. I thought I’d start with his last high-profile film: Hidalgo, a mediocre movie buoyed by his warm, charismatic presence.
Hidalgo happened when someone at Disney stumbled on the tall tales of professional circus horseman and fabulist Frank Hopkins and decided to make them a Viggo Mortensen vehicle. Hidalgo takes Hopkins (Mortensen), the drunken, self-destructive protagonist, from a spiraling existence working in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to competing in the Arabian desert, in a 3000-mile desert race held by Sheikh al-Riyadh (Sharif). This all sounds wonderful… except Hopkins probably made the whole thing up—even his employment with Buffalo Bill—so one should take anything this film says about Arabs with an ocean of salt.
Ironically, for a movie about a race that never happened, starring a blonde WASP playing a half-indigenous cowboy, featuring a cast of mostly non-Arabs speaking fake Arabic, the film’s dominant theme has to do with taking control of one’s own story. The catalyst for Hopkins’ decision to enter the race comes from his elder, Chief Eagle Horn (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman), reminding him that, working for Buffalo Bill, he lives in a whitewashed, biased revision of history; this race serves as his chance to accomplish something outside of that. That this theme exists in a Disney movie brings this to a nosebleed-inducing level of irony. Disney lives and breathes whitewashed, biased revisions of history!
Our first glimpse of Hidalgo’s Arab cast comes in the form of Aziz (Adam Alexi-Malle), attaché to Sheikh al-Riyadh. Aziz looks like your stereotypical Arab oil sheikh: corpulent; reticent; supercilious; smug; casually sexist. He even whips out a khanjar and threatens to kill anyone who says anything that even sounds like an insult. To further cement Aziz as morally suspect, Hopkins later tortures him for information… You might guess why I don’t like the sight of a cowboy torturing an Arab in a 2004 film.
Through Aziz, al-Riyadh challenges our hero to a race: his own al-Hattal (هَطَّال, also a human name which means “heavy rain”) against Hidalgo. Al-Riyadh challenges Hopkins because he took personal offense to seeing Hopkins and Hidalgo billed as “the world’s greatest endurance horse and rider.” This subtly furthers stereotypes of Muslims as thin-skinned, self-aggrandizing, and rigidly inimical to free speech. (This stereotype, sadly, presages the Muhammad cartoon controversy.)
When we finally meet al-Riyadh, Sharif’s preternatural likability hooks us. One almost overlooks the character’s casual sexism and xenophobia. In private, he dotes on his daughter, Princess Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson)… only to later refer to her as “lowly” and unworthy of attention in front of company. He makes statements implying he views wives as property of husbands (which contradicts Quranic statements on marriage) and brags about making his wives sleep in stable tents on cold nights to make his horse more comfortable.
Al-Riyadh has promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can best al-Hattal in a race. Writer John Fusco must have known this impress-me-and-you-get-my-daughter trope originated in medieval European legends. By showing Muslims clinging to such an outdated idea, he furthers the depiction of Arabs as trapped in the Middle Ages while their whiter cousins have moved on, technologically and morally. It doesn’t help that Jazira doesn’t consent. (It merits mentioning here that Islam forbids any marriage without the consent of both parties. Yes, there exists a horrific child bride problem in the Middle East, but working to eradicate that problem doesn’t go against Islam.)
We later meet Prince bin-al-Reeh (Saïd Taghmaoui), Jazira’s cousin who wants to marry her and make her his fifth wife. By the way, Islam only permits four wives. I have no desire to defend polygyny, but really, it wouldn’t have taken that much research to get that number right. Unfortunately, polygyny as well as cousin-marrying actually do still take place between Arabs in the Middle East… and between white people in the United States. So… that sucks.
Once Hopkins arrives in Arabia (the film makes almost no regional distinctions, and the stated race course makes no geographic sense), he looks with appropriate scorn towards the slave trade… but he buys a young boy anyway. The boy (Franky Mwangi) tries to escape and realizes he has no place to go, so he decides to willingly serve Hopkins. We never even learn the boy’s name! So the film doesn’t even make a committal statement against slavery. The film also depicts every owned slave—all of whom have darker skin than even the free black characters—as inexplicably content with their lot in life (Disney learned nothing from Song of the South) and willing to fight and die for their masters without hesitation. On the other hand, Jazira’s remonstrance against marrying her cousin lies in her fear that he will effectively enslave her. Black slaves everywhere? No big deal. A non-black woman describes her upcoming marriage as possible slavery? This will not stand!!!
The first on-screen depiction of Islam comes in the form of the sheikh’s elderly, insane goat-herder Yusef (Harsh Nayyar), the token comic relief character assigned to Hopkins. In a style reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Magical Negro, Yusef shows up out of thin air to explain the entire race course in between wild-eyed, plangent bouts of gesticulating and begging Allah for mercy. In this way, the film acquaints us with Islam as a silly religion of crazy people in a backwards corner of the world. I love a good comic relief character as much as anyone, but the film implies that Yusef’s comedy lies less in his mannerisms than his culture.
The Arab/Muslim disregard-for-life stereotype figures prominently throughout, and the screenplay subtly associates Islam with mercilessness and fatalism. The Muslims continually taunt Hopkins with the threat of imminent death, by the sun or the sword. Soon after the race begins, a horse gets injured and his rider executes him. A rival warns Hopkins not to rescue the rider but to leave him to die in the desert. Later, Al-Riyadh claims he “has to” behead anyone who sees his unmarried daughter unveiled. I can’t speak to tribal customs, but Islamic texts say no such thing. Even if they did, with al-Riyadh as the most powerful man around, who would stop him from commuting a death sentence?
Halfway through the film, al-Riyadh tries to castrate Hopkins and flog Jazira because the sheikh incorrectly believes Hopkins made sexual advances on Jazira. Hopkins eventually gets out of this by pulling a Scheherazade and distracting al-Riyadh with wild west stories. This seems doubly appropriate: an Arabian Nights reference delivered via a character whose real-life counterpart probably fabricated this entire story.
Hidalgo disguises its depiction of Arabs with a squeaky-clean veneer. The filmmakers took great pains to depict the Lakota Sioux accurately, which I applaud, but they didn’t go to nearly the same trouble with the Arabs, who get considerably more screen-time. Overall, Hidalgo seems like a sister film to The Rocketeer: an opus of schmaltz that puts feel-good emotional payoffs first. No matter how many toes they step on or how many people they misrepresent, Disney’s gotta have their happy ending.
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