Home or the Loquat Tree

Spring 2008 | The Truth About the Fact | By Jordan Elgrably

The loquat tree in front of our house in Echo Park bore acridly sweet and juicy fruit, shaped like tiny hot-air balloons—fruit unlike any other. The flavor of a loquat is challenging to describe; sweet, yes, but there is also something slightly exotic, almost perfume-like about its white or yellow flesh. The rind of a loquat is a sunset orange and inside are three, four or five large brown seeds that taste bitter if you accidentally bite into one. To some people eating a loquat may seem more trouble than it’s worth, because you discard more than half the fruit’s volume; but I gleefully gorged myself on loquats throughout my youth. The tree in our yard bore fruit, it seemed, several times a year.

I was thirteen years old before I realized that I was the son of an immigrant who was the son of an immigrant, and from that point on I never felt at home in Los Angeles.

You rarely see loquats offered at market in the United States. In fact I don’t recall ever buying loquats anywhere until I found them at a Paris fruit stand on the rue Etienne Marcel decades later, surprised at their expensive price tag. For me these small orange-colored fruits were so familiar, so much of a part of my youth, I could not imagine that people were willing to pay more for them than for a pound of strawberries or even kiwis. The first time I bought a half-peck basket of loquats I experienced a strange swelling of pride in my breast; as I headed back to my Paris flat, I felt happy that I would be tasting loquats for the first time since I was an American kid who climbed the loquat tree, the only one among the five members of my household to relish its fruit; I also felt connected through the fruit to the land of my father’s father.

Loquats are a fruit common to North Africa. The loquat tree was my direct link to the geography and climate of my ancestors. Growing up in Echo Park, I never felt like a true American, probably because as a boy my father seemed a mysterious figure, my parents having divorced when I was two (I grew up with my mother and stepfather and my half-sister and brother). I knew that my father was French, but he was also something else, and I would not hear anything about Morocco that I can remember until the summer of my thirteenth year, which I spent living in my father’s house in West Hollywood. That is where I first heard the story of how the Elgrablys migrated from Morocco to France, and my father told me about coming to America.

I was thirteen years old before I realized that I was the son of an immigrant who was the son of an immigrant, and from that point on I never felt at home in Los Angeles. From the age of thirteen until I finally moved to Paris when I was 21, I wondered what I would have been like had my father’s father, Avram Elgrably, never left his hometown and his country, to venture abroad. Moroccan Arabic, or Darija, would be my mother tongue, and I would speak French with an Arab accent, just like many of the North Africans whom I later befriended as an expatriate American in Paris. America would seem like a faraway fantasyland I knew only from watching big-screen movies or reading novels translated into Arabic or French.

It is unlikely that I would have ever visited the United States. Even today, there are not many Moroccans who make Los Angeles their home; the emigration of Moroccans to the United States is but a trickle, because available visas are few and the price tag is high. Had I been born in Morocco, in the small town where Avram grew up, or in the city of his wife Hassiba, it is unlikely I would have ever gotten a visa to come to America. Instead I would have been far more likely to migrate north to France or Spain, or east to the Levant, perhaps to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon or even Turkey or Greece. English would not be my first language but perhaps my third or fourth after Arabic and French or Spanish—if I spoke it at all. Had Avram never left Morocco and I were the son of my father born in Casablanca or the provinces, I would be, perhaps, a traditional Arab Jew: mystical, superstitious, praying often, fluent in biblical Hebrew, but cursing colorfully in Arabic. I would be gruffer, but also more naïve. I would be a blue-collar worker, like several of my Moroccan relatives who still live there today; or I would be a doctor, like the famed Dr. Elgrably of Marrakesh whom every Moroccan mentions whenever they hear my last name and know either Marrakesh or Casablanca, where the good doctor had patients. Or I would be fabulously wealthy, like a few of my merchant cousins; like them, I would have a handsome villa with several Muslim servant women running my household, and a large-screen television capturing satellite channels in Arabic, French, English, Hebrew and Spanish, connecting me to communities of other Moroccans in Europe, the Middle East, the United States and Canada.

English was my father’s third language. His first was French, learned in school and in the streets in the city of Lyon where he was born; Arabic was spoken at home, so it was also his first language, which unlike French he never learned to read and write. His mother Hassiba and father Avram were salt of the earth, illiterate for the most part, though Avram could read the Torah in Hebrew and prayed in Hebrew and Arabic, like almost all Middle Eastern Jews. During the Second World War, when the Elgrablys fled from Paris where they had been living, south to Marseilles and by boat to Morocco, my father learned English from the soldiers, the American GIs. He became their tour guide around the city for the next five years. The same year that Michael Curtiz was directing Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the mythic movie about war-time Casablanca, shooting the casbah on studios back lots in Hollywood, my father was eleven years old and sharing a two-room walk-up flat in a Casablanca slum with his mother and sisters and brothers. Later, when I was a teenager getting to know my father, he scoffed at Casablanca the movie, insisting it was Hollywood hogwash—nothing like the real place, on which he felt himself an authority.

The southern Moroccan fortified town of Taroudant.

The southern Moroccan fortified town of Taroudant.

The ancient walls surrounding the town of Taroudant are a warm and dusty ochre, and the town itself is quite small, easily visited in a day’s wandering. Along its maze of streets and alleyways you find loquat, orange and banana trees, date palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea and jasmine; the town has many fountains and lush courtyards within its walls. In Avram’s youth Taroudant was still largely inhabited by the Amazigh (Berbers) or "free people"—the natives of North Africa—and Jews, while in more recent times other Moroccan Muslims of Arabic tribal descent and foreigners have populated the town. In Avram’s day Taroudant was a distant village between the sea and the mountains, thought of as an Amazigh enclave and “the grandmother of Marrakesh”—a quainter, more traditional version of that southern mecca of mystics, gnawa musicians and traders. My grandfather was both Amazigh and Jewish; the Amazigh side explained in part my blue-green eyes and lighter skin; other Moroccans and their children tended to be darker than me.

My grandfather was born around the turn of the last century. As a youth he would leave Taroudant and travel by mule or mule-drawn cart up and down the mountains to Marrakesh, a distance equivalent to the trip from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, but two days away; he and his brother were young merchants, buying and selling jewelry, precious metals, clothing and artifacts along the caravan route. Once he had saved enough money, Avram left Taroudant for good and migrated several hundred miles north, to the big city, Casablanca. This was while the First World War was raging and the French occupied the country. After the war there was a great need for cheap labor in France as it began to rebuild itself following years of destruction and privations. Avram got his papers in order; in 1919 he migrated north by boat and train to the city of Lyon, France’s second largest after Paris, and a major industrial hub. He left behind his young wife Hassiba and their three children; a few years later he would bring them to Lyon, where my grandmother would bear another ten children over the next fifteen years, including my father Jacques Isaac and his twin brother Elie. Several would die of disease and only nine were still alive in 1945.

In the only photo I have ever seen of my grandfather, he is strong-faced man standing about five feet seven, in a working-class suit and a tarbush, the flat-topped hat similar to a fez. He could be an Arab, a Turk, an Armenian; he looked like any one of a dozen ethnic groups from the region. He had fierceness about him in that old photograph; and at the same time, a domesticity, something familiar and traditional. His eyes seemed dark and he had a bushy mustache as did all men in those days; his hands seemed worn from manual labor. The expression on his face was neither a smile nor a frown; and it was the only hint of his spirit I would ever know, because I never met Avram; German soldiers in Paris killed him in 1942, many years before my birth in Los Angeles.

Everyone is looking for a place in the world that feels right, a place where the heart finds the measure of love, work, family, the tribe and where you embrace your own spirit. Most of us, though, live between worlds; we often find ourselves standing at the threshold between this place and the next, between this self and the next, between this life and the next. We are all, somehow, spiritual or geographical border crossers, whether of political necessity, economic expediency or sheer human will. Either we have lost our home and are looking for a new one, or we have a compelling desire for change, for self-challenge.

I have no doubt that this place in the world we’re seeking begins in the heart. As the exiled Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote in a poem entitled “The Passport”: “The hearts of people are their nationality/Take away my passport.” But then we have to ask, what is the heart, really? Why are its inner workings so mysterious to us?

I would begin to answer this by looking at the life of one of the artists fleeing Hitler’s regime—Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jew who prior to World War II was one of the most renowned authors in the world. Zweig and his wife Lotte took up exile in Brazil and there he finished his last work, a masterful memoir entitled Die Welt von GesternThe World of Yesterday. Shortly after completing these writings, in 1942—unable to live with the brutality of the day—Stefan and Lotte Zweig took their own lives. In The World of Yesterday Zweig wrote, “Before 1914 the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I traveled from Europe to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one.”

Zweig was a loving traveler but he was far from homeless; a cosmopolitan intellectual, he made his home in Vienna but also had many ties to life in Paris, London and New York. Yet in the preface to The World of Yesterday he writes something with which most of us, I think, will disagree. “The homeless man becomes free in a new sense; and only he who has lost all ties need have no arrière-pensées.”

Can it be that some of us, who experience exile, or emigration, will have no second thoughts about the past, will feel “free in a new sense”? When I read Zweig’s lines knowing he chose suicide, I felt the pain of a man trapped between two worlds; unable to recover the past he loved, Zweig couldn’t bear to live in the present. Although he wrote that this state of homelessness, of losing all ties enabled people to have no second thoughts, I wonder if it wasn’t in fact those very second thoughts, his own arrière-pensées that killed him.

Another writer, who chose self-exile from the United States, because he felt he might be killed or find it necessary to kill someone in self-defense—or out of rage—was the African-American, James Baldwin. In 1948, at the age of 24, with $40 in his pocket, Baldwin went to Paris. He would spend many of the ensuing 40 years of his life living in France. When I met him there some years ago, I asked Baldwin if he loved America, despite the obvious internal and external conflicts he experienced. “I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country,” he told me. “You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it.”

The expatriate Czech author, Milan Kundera, spoke to these questions one afternoon in his Paris flat when he and I were talking about exile. “It is very interesting,“ he said, “to see just how rooted we are in the first half of our lives. We are fatally rooted in the first half of life, even if life’s second half is filled with intense and moving experiences.”

I asked Kundera if he longed to go home, despite the fact that France had been so very good to him. “You must choose,” he said. “Either you live looking over your shoulder, there where you are not, in your former country, with your old friends, or you make the effort to profit from the catastrophe, starting over at zero, beginning a new life right where you are. Without hesitation I choose the second solution...One emigration,” he added, “suffices for a lifetime.”

As the story of the loquat tree unfolds it reveals to me that my own story of self-exile and emigration begins with my grandfather, Avram. Had he never come down from the southern Moroccan mountain town of Taroudant and journeyed to Casablanca, early in the 20th century, to find work and a wife, I would not exist; I would not be a native Angeleno. Had my father not fallen in love with American culture as an adolescent, I would not be who I am. And likely had I not grown up in Echo Park and Silver Lake, I never would have known the loquat tree, as it is unfamiliar to many Americans.

If my story starts with Avram, then let me further explain that upon moving to Casablanca in 1916, he met and married Hassiba Amar, a rabbi’s daughter. With a third child on the way—my aunt Marcelle—this stocky young man, who was coffee-colored and strong of heart, left for France. In 1919, when he was 21 years old, he went to work for the venerable pharmaceutical firm Rhône-Poulenc, located in the Lyonnais working class quarter of Saint Fons, where many North Africans lived.

My father, Jacques Isaac Elgrably, was born in Lyon in 1931. He was seven years old when Avram and Hassiba, intent on improving their fortunes further, moved the large Elgrably clan to Paris, buying an apartment in the working-class quarter of the 11th arrondissement, on the Avenue Ledru Rollin. My father was nine when the Germans marched into Paris, parading triumphantly down the Champs-Elysées. He remembers trembling with fear at these men in tanks and on horseback, men marching with rifles; there was something monstrous in the eagle insignia of the Werhmacht soldiers, and the double esses of the Nazi officers goose-stepping across the cobblestones, only a few feet away.

Not long after the Occupation began, Avram commanded Hassiba to take the younger children and return to Lyon, where she was to make sure their eldest children Rachel, Raymond and Marcelle were going to be all right, and then travel back to Morocco, where everyone would surely be safe from the war. Hassiba begged Avram to come too, but he was stubborn; he refused to abandon their modest flat and all their furniture and other belongings; he would stay on and join them later. Avram was still strong and determined; he professed no fear of anyone.

Before the Elgrablys could leave under Hassiba’s wing, the Nazis in tandem with the French Milice or special police, issued i.d. cards to all the Jews of Paris. So Hassiba Elgrably had her new i.d. card stamped Juive, Juden with a Star of David on it. She was, however, a large, dark-skinned woman with a kind of cherubic Moroccan face; like Avram she passed for an Arab or a Turk. The day Avram took her to the Gare de Lyon to catch the train, their band of excitable little kids trailing behind them, my father remembers being afraid he would never see his father again. Hassiba wept in her husband’s arms, which could hardly contain her girth, but he assured her everything would be all right. Soon enough, he promised, he would appear in Casablanca to find her.

By 1941 life for Jews and other undesirables in France had become uncertain and frightening. Hassiba knew, and most of her children were old enough to understand, just how dangerous this journey back to Lyon was going to be. She scolded them to keep quiet—“skthu! skthu!”—and warned that whenever Germans boarded the train, they were to  mind their business and pretend to be playing.

Hassiba Amar Elgrably was stopped by SS officers in Dijon, where they demanded she produce her papers—“Papieren!” My father remembers how she feigned ignorance of the new laws and regulations and spoke in broken French, her Moroccan Arabic accent heavy as she told a lie to save lives: “We live in Morocco, I went to Paris to bury my mother, I didn’t know I needed any special papers.” She kept her i.d. card stamped Juive, Juden hidden in her shoe. Neither my father nor his brothers Robert, Jacob, Elie, David nor his sisters Alice and Esther uttered a word. My father remembers they were all “white as sheets,” which isn’t easy to imagine when you think of brown-skinned Moroccan boys and girls.

Hassiba’s appearance, her Arab accent and her dark children stumped these fear-instilling Nazi officers. They had no idea they were dealing with Sephardic Jews. Because Hassiba and my father and the other kids were mistaken for Arabs, then, they made it to Lyon, went on to Marseille, found a boat that took them to Tangier, and caught a train from there to Casa. Today I feel blessed to be alive, because I know that if those clever Nazis had been such übermenschen, Hassiba and her kids would have been taken off that train in Dijon and eventually sent to a camp to die. I feel not enmity but empathy and kinship with Arabs and Berbers and others; I feel that this obvious case of mistaken ethnic identity saved almost the entire Elgrably family from certain death. I feel not a great deal of difference between Arabs and Jews, and I know just how fragile life is.

In July 1942 the Nazis decided to round up all the Jews in the 11th arrondissement and pack them off to the Vel d’Hiver, a stadium outside Paris. Most of the 5,000 people rounded up that day were later murdered in concentration camps in Poland and Germany. Avram happened to be away from their flat on the Avenue Ledru Rollin, however, and when he returned in the evening, he stopped at his usual café for a drink. This café happened to be right across the street from the Nazi line cordoning off the neighborhood. The bartender, a Frenchman who was his friend, whispered to Avram, “Don’t go home. They’ve come for everyone. They’ve taken all the Jews away.” Avram was frightened but enraged. He stormed outside and stared defiantly at the German soldiers as they marched past. He went back inside the café and drank some more. As family legend has it, he survived somehow for months, living a shadow life, perhaps passing himself off as an Arab, an Axis ally. But he finally came to a bad end. As the story goes, one afternoon a handful of SS came into the café to drink and Avram attacked two of them with his bare fists; the Germans did not shoot him but beat him near to death, then dragged him off. All we know is that Avram Elgrably was buried somewhere in or near Paris, in a mass grave. The details of his demise remain a mystery.

My aunt Marcelle, who had been born in Casablanca in 1920, six months after her father went to work for Rhône-Poulenc, was in love with a French mailman of the Christian faith. When war broke out in 1939, she was living with him in Lyon and they had a child, a baby girl named Nicole (my cousin), in 1941. Several of Marcelle’s neighbors knew she was Jewish but kept their mouths shut. Then Klaus Barbie “the Butcher” took control of Lyon and began a fierce campaign, with the Milice, to flush out the remaining French Jews. Rewards for information about Jews were dangled before the hungry, ration-addled populace. Finally, in 1943, one of Marcelle’s neighbors fingered her for Barbie’s informants. She was a poor, lonely old woman who received the paltry sum of 2,000 old francs—the equivalent of about forty dollars. They came for Marcelle unexpectedly and led her away while her common-law husband was out delivering the mail. Family friends, meanwhile, were caring for her baby Nicole in the countryside. Nicole survived—I met her on my first visit to Paris when I was 20—but her mother, my aunt Marcelle, was gassed in Auschwitz in September 1943. I’ve seen her name and the date on the Nazi list of Jewish victims, published in a book several years ago.

The war and the attempted destruction of the Jews drove a wedge into the Elgrably family. It’s hard to explain how and why this happened, but each member began to live only for him or herself; the Elgrably sisters and brothers did not continue the old way of living near extended family, but became more and more fragmented, and isolated. This occurred only gradually. In 1947 and 1948, there was still a sense of belonging, of closeness to each other and to the Jewish people; my father Jacques and his brothers Jacob, Elie and Raymond went off to Palestine to fight for the independent state of Israel. One day my father was hitchhiking somewhere in the desert, and a truck full of young soldiers stopped for him. They were Polish and German Jews about his own age. Between themselves they spoke Yiddish and called my father a shvartze—a “nigger.” They thought, being an Arab Jew, he was uneducated, yet my father spoke not only French and Arabic, but some English, German and Yiddish. He surprised them when he got angry and said, in German, “How you can talk like that, when we’re all one people? Haven’t we seen enough hatred already?” He cursed at them, calling them yekkes.

After Israel declared its independence, my father left; he went back to France, and a few years later, he became an émigré yet again, landing in San Francisco—one of the first Sephardic Jews to settle in the Bay Area. He met and fell in love with my mother, Leah, the granddaughter of Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to America before the turn of the century. Leah was a student in her last year at San Francisco State; she was soon to start her career as a schoolteacher back in L.A. When my mother brought Jacques home to meet her parents, her mother—who knew nothing about the larger Jewish experience, who didn’t realize that Jews also came from the Middle East and from Africa and Asia—looked at my father and said little, her eyes darting in judgment. Afterwards, she turned to her daughter and demanded to know why Leah was getting herself involved with a shvartze. To this day it is disheartening to me to allow that ethnic and racial prejudice exists in every quarter, but then, many people don’t see that our physical reality is largely an illusion, and that in spiritual terms we are all one. You know, it’s that idea that Walt Whitman expressed so eloquently when he wrote, “I am large: I contain multitudes.”

My father was an émigré, and he remained a man between worlds; a Jew, yes, but being from North Africa he wasn’t quite accepted by most American Jews; his darker features prevented that. Nor did he feel completely at ease among Arabs, though he could speak with many of them. Where was his true place, where might he find his heart?

Jacques Elgrably became an American citizen in 1974, the year I finished high school and started college. But I grew up with the schism of being both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, the son of Eastern European and North African emigrants. I, too, grew up between worlds. It wasn’t enough for me to be American, native to a country where nearly everyone tries to reinvent themselves. Something made me distrust life in Los Angeles, and impelled me to go abroad. I was in my early twenties when I emigrated to France. In a way I wanted to retrace my father’s experience. I eventually wound up in Morocco and Spain, looking for shards of the past. Shortly after establishing residency in Paris, meanwhile, I became a French citizen—this was my right as my father had been born in France and per the requirements had completed his military service. So my father emigrated and became an “American”; and I emigrated and became “French.”

I now had two passports. But I had had the luxury of choice—my exile was self-imposed, the exile, perhaps, of many who have yet to find the nationality of their hearts.

Here I was, then, many years later, still living between worlds. I wanted to find my place. Was I American, really, or French? Was I Ashkenazi or Sephardic? Was I more African or European because my grandfather Avram had been an African, a man from Taroudant in the south of Morocco, where it’s difficult to say who is this or that, Arab, Berber, African, or Jew? Maybe the Tunisian Jewish writer, Albert Memmi, was closest to the truth about me when he wrote in his novel, The Pillar of Salt, he felt he was “an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

I immigrated back to Los Angeles after fifteen years of wandering, of crossing many borders in the world. Strangely, it wasn’t till I settled down in L.A. again that I discovered that Jews once called themselves Ivrim, an Aramaic word first used by Avram. The word ivri rhymes with poetry, means Hebrew, but it also means border crosser or literally “he who crosses to the other side.” I realized then, clearly and passionately, that my people lived in most of the countries of the world—that Jews were and have almost always been “multicultural” and indeed “multiethnic.” And because Avram was a border crosser and founder of the first of the three large monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—perhaps most people in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas have inherited this border-crossing, boundary-challenging condition, whether or not they act on it.

Indeed, when so many of us are picking up and going elsewhere, when the émigré experience isn’t only the domain of Jews and Gypsies but of most peoples in the world; when we are constantly negotiating between the longings of our minds, our hearts and our spirits, aren’t we are all, somehow, people without boundaries? Or, at least, people trying to transcend the kinds of boundaries that impress upon us emotional and spiritual limitations?

When I look back at the experience of exile and emigration I inherited from Avram and Jacques Elgrably, and from my mother’s side of the family (people who had to escape the pogroms and who came through Ellis Island), I think of how we are, all of us, looking for freedom and love, and sometimes we find it necessary or desirable to flee, to escape. In exile we look for comfort and safety, for a place where we won’t always stand out as the Other. Yet we must admit that this very state of movement, of emigration, separates us from the rootedness of those are not Other, who think they belong where they are. This causes me to wonder if identity can really be a matter of place alone. If you happen to be a border crosser, if your heart is your nationality, you may not have a land-based identity; if you’re an émigré, you will have to embrace a new state, a new place, with no guarantee of finding your heart there.

This condition of exiles and émigrés, of Jews and Gypsies and everyone who is between worlds, between the mind and the heart, swimming between body and spirit, between here and there, is at once ancient and postmodern; and this creates a context for intercultural, interethnic, interspiritual entente the likes of which we have never had before. This “new age” in which fixed identity has become outmoded, in which many of us have become hybrids of this and that; have become indeed multiple, affords a beautiful opportunity for each and every one of us to transcend all borders, to defy all boundaries, to cross every bridge and embrace the people on the other side. Because everyone is looking for a place in the world that feels right, a place where the heart finds the measure of love, and work, and family, and the tribe; a place where you embrace your own spirit and you know that we’re all one.

When you’re feeling caught between worlds, when your heart is heavy with ambivalence, it is good to remember that, as James Baldwin once said, “Your people are all people.”

Home remains for me an elusive dream, a place determined by the mysterious longings of my heart, the nature of my friendships, the proximity of family and the evolving state of my own creative work. It is striking to me that the loquat tree in Arabic is called “askadinya” which, literally translated, means “the best of all worlds.” Perhaps my early memories of growing up in Echo Park, sitting in the loquat tree while I gorged myself on its exotic fruit, point to the beginning of my desire to discover the meaning of home—the place where you experience the best of all worlds.

Jordan Elgrably is editing a novel entitled The Book of Love and Exile. His interview with James Baldwin appeared in The Paris Review and his interview with Milan Kundera appeared in Salmagundi.

Vintage Steven Soderbergh—the Cineaste at 30

Introspective and intellectual in the European sense of the word, here is one filmmaker who easily crosses back and forth from independent film to studio blockbuster.

19 Jan., 1993 | San José Metro | Jordan Elgrably

In and out of analysis for years, Steven Soderbergh has a gloominess about him that somehow manages to be cheerful. For those who admired his first film, sex, lies, and videotape, this kind of introspection is unlikely to be surprising. During a recent interview in downtown L.A., where he was busy shooting The Quiet Room for Showtime, Soderbergh took a little time to discuss his new film and reminisce on the past.

Director Steve Soderbergh

Director Steve Soderbergh

Though he's only 30 now, the Louisiana native possesses the seriousness of an older man. It makes you wonder. Usually by the time a director has made his first three films both his critics and audience figure they can see where he's headed; that is, whether he's going to make pretty much the same film over and over again, perfecting it till he gets it right (and retaining much of his original audience in the process), or changing genre and narrative conceit each time out, in such a way as to lose his audience with each new picture.

After sex, lies it would appear that Soderbergh, on the surface at any rate, purposefully moved away from his original territory of tangled relationships in an intimate format. This was bold both artistically and commercially, particularly when you see that the film, made for only $1.2 million, went on to gross more than 100 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts, not to mention grabbing the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. With Kafka, scripted by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh shot mostly in black and white in Prague—very foreign territory after working at home in Baton Rouge with an ensemble cast and a script based on his own experiences.

Lisa Eichhorn, Jeroen Krabbé in King of the Hill.

Lisa Eichhorn, Jeroen Krabbé in King of the Hill.

Now, with King of the Hill, Soderbergh takes new risks much the way Francis Coppola did early on. Set during the Depression in St. Louis and based on the memoirs of A.E. Hotchner, a writer best known for his biography of Hemingway, King is about as far from the territory of the sex wars as could be, tracing as it does a summer in the life of Aaron Kurlander, a 12-year-old boy hampered by hunger and the dissolution of his family. Soderbergh's early production notes for King indicate that, "in the tradition of Mark Twain, the young hero uses the audacity and cunning of a child for the grown-up task of survival." He adds now, "I wanted this to have some of the feeling of François Truffaut, some of the feeling of Vittorio de Sica. I just didn't want it to be sentimental."

Whether or not King is meant to be Soderbergh's The Four Hundred Blows or The Bicycle Thief, it works as an off-kilter period piece. The Kurlanders live in a transient hotel inhabited by strange characters à la Barton Fink. Poverty forces the family to ship Aaron's kid brother off to stay with distant relatives, while his mother enters a nearby sanitarium to recuperate from a bout of tuberculosis. When Aaron's father, an out of work salesman, accepts a job in a neighboring state, Aaron is left to spend much of the summer fending for himself.

Kurlander père is played by Jeroen Krabbé, the versatile and usually compelling Dutch actor who also had a part in Kafka. Aaron's mother is played by Lisa Eichhorn; like Krabbé she does more than an adequate job, but since this movie is really not about the adults, they most often remain background figures, while the children and adolescents seem to inhabit a world of their own imagining (in this light Spalding Gray's turn as the morose Mr. Mungo, a once-wealthy eccentric down on his luck, puts one in mind of a Lewis Carroll landscape). The boy serving as Soderbergh's alter ego is Jesse Bradford, who was in fact the very first kid to read for the part during a three-week casting which scoured the United States. Bradford was always Soderbergh's first choice, he says, in part because he is able to express a range of emotions that include ambiguity. This was important to Soderbergh because he wanted King to be "emotionally satisfying, and yet not <em>neccesarily</em> have a happy ending." [emphasis Soderbergh's]

Jeremy Irons as Kafka

Jeremy Irons as Kafka

"I couldn't have made King unless I'd done Kafka first," Soderbergh muses, "and I really did want to do something radically different from my first film." Frustrated by attempts to write a new narrative around relationships in the '90s, Soderbergh completely abandoned the half-dozen screenplays he wrote previous to sex, lies (which he penned in less than two weeks during the winter of '87) and went forward with projects that make it difficult to predict the arch of his career. King, however, takes great pains to transport the viewer to Depression reality. With cinematographer Elliot Davis, Soderbergh studied the paintings of Edward Hopper, "mostly because of the palette and colors," he says, yet he avoided looking at other films of the period, with the exception of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath.

For someone born in 1963, Soderbergh seems unusually comfortable with the past, whether he's working in the 1920s of Kafka, the '30s of King or in the early '50s of The Quiet Room, a half-hour episode for Showtime's Fallen Angels mini-series. Of King, which takes place in 1933, Soderbergh says he culled most of his information from Hotchner's book rather than read Southern literature of the era. Also, he asserts, "I had a real sense for that time, because my father grew up then and has written books on the music from that period. I love the aesthetic, I love the clothes and the buildings; there's a different way of behaving that's much more...repressed."

It is a word that comes up often in conversation with Soderbergh, and one would hazard to guess he derives some strength from his inability to recognize his own ecstatic experiences. "I have real trouble living in the present," he confesses. "I'm either constantly revisiting the past or conjuring the future, and I have a real problem saying 'right now I feel this.' Part of my problem is I tend to martyr myself out of having a good time, and so it's only in retrospect that I've realized I ought to have enjoyed a lot of things that have happened to me," he adds.

Andie McDowell, James Spader in sex, lies & videotape

Andie McDowell, James Spader in sex, lies & videotape

In fact, it is when you get him to speak of his repressed feelings that Soderbergh perhaps best understands his own work. "If you look at the movies I've made, they often have to do with people who are sort of emotionally cut off from their immediate reactions to situations. <em>sex, lies</em> was completely about a guy who's obsessed with the past, who feels he cannot move forward until he closes this chapter to his life, but is very cut off from how he feels, or even why he feels cut off. Kafka is about a person who is completely confused about everything, and King of the Hill is about a kid who doesn't feel connected to his parents...

"Talking to my father, I discovered I was a taciturn sort of youth, distant and uncomfortable with what was going on around me. That's why I felt I knew [Aaron]. I think I was always the kind of boy that was either out of the house, visiting somebody else's house, or in my room a lot. I never brought anybody to my house. So very early on I'd established a sort of world I had constructed for myself."

Soderbergh is one of a very few American originals who have come to light in recent years, but unlike Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee or Hal Hartley, his choices appear ambiguous. If sex, lies reflected the emotional numbness and skewed sexuality of the decade in which it was made, Kafka was anything but a return to autobiographical filmmaking, finding its center more in the allegory of Kafka's alienation than the director's personal ennui. In Van Sant you recognize marginal America in the withdrawal symptoms of Drugstore Cowboy and the grunge culture of My Own Private Idaho; in all of Spike Lee's work there is the black man's outrage at an unjust, hostile white society; and in Hal Hartley's Truth or Simple Men, there is the end of innocence in suburban America. But where do we find Soderbergh's emotional core?

Speaking of his dysfunctionality, the director admits that even today, after all his achievements, including his life with wife Betsy Brantley and their 3-year-old daughter Sarah (the Soderberghs live on a 40-acre farm in Somerset, Virginia, 3,000 miles from Hollywood), it's still hard for him to have a good time, to live life in the moment. When in analysis, he says, "I wonder: how do I get rid of the feeling that everything inevitably turns to shit? Is there anyway to combat that? Why do I feel this way?"

One of six brothers and sisters, Soderbergh's parents were lapsed Catholics, and though he never received any religious instruction, it's clear a Judeo-Christian sense of guilt is very much part of his upbringing. Soderbergh's journal entries while making sex, lies give some indication of his feelings about sexual betrayal and sexual repression. He writes, "I hate directing sex scenes, I decided. It makes me uncomfortable to ask people to do such intimate things. I feel like turning away." During our interview he admitted he is "the most interior of the people in my family. When you write, that sort of forces you to be [introverted]. I live a lot of my life in my head, which can often cause problems for people around me, because they don't know what's going on."

Asked what are the most important, even urgent issues in his life, Soderbergh broods for a moment, then glances solemnly at his interlocutor. "I don't feel like I've created anything right now that I truly think is 'great art'. I would like to do that but I don't feel like it's going to happen next year. But I would like to accomplish something."

Soderbergh's next project, a studio film he's developing with Sydney Pollock for Universal Pictures, is a comedy no less, about the formation of the National Football League. Set in 1926 and written by two guys who work for Sports Illustrated, it promises to be as unpredictable as anything else he's done, yet Soderbergh remembers his auspicious beginnings, making independent film on a shoestring, and it seems to be the way back to the kind of personal film his original admirers long for.

"An idea occurred to me just a few weeks ago, much in the way sex, lies occurred to me. I've been making notes for it and I'm going to sit down and write it this summer. It's actually going to be a hybrid of 'sex, lies' and the kind of more allegorical storytelling, as you say, of 'Kakfa.' I'm really excited about it. As I envision it now it's about duality, about how one reconciles very conflicting impulses, and I've figured out a way to do that which isn't literal. I think I can make it cheaply, and it will definitely be an independent film."

Center Shines Its Art Through Clouds of War

Directors hope performances will help Americans better understand viewpoints of the Middle East

September 26, 2002  |  Los Angeles Times  | Mary Rourke

In a bright yellow rehearsal room at a new arts center in Century City, a troupe of eight actors and dancers practices a play about a mythic Persian hero named Arash. The decor suggests eclectic tastes. An African sculpture and an Indian porcelain elephant are tucked into the corners. Chinese and Moroccan lanterns light the evening.

The part of the world these objects represent may seem remote to some Westerners, but not to the artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who will present their work here. For them, the eastern Mediterranean is the heart of the world.

Shida Pegahi, director of this new Pacific Arts Center, opened it this summer as a school for children and adults. From the beginning, she wanted to attract not only students but also working artists and performers, and she offered to make the space available to the Levantine Cultural Center, a group of arts activists she helped found.

Since it began two years ago, the Levantine Center has been a state of mind more than an actual place. It has sponsored performances held in various spaces around the city, featuring artists from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Starting this month, the Pacific Arts and Levantine Cultural centers will share a home address.

"When you don't have a lot of funds, you have to pool resources," says Pegahi, who was born in Iran, educated in England and has been teaching ballet and modern dance in Los Angeles for 18 years. "More than ever in America," she says, "people want to know what the Middle East and the Levantine area are all about. This city is very open to new ideas."

The term "Levant" was first applied to Syria and Lebanon in the '20s when the French governed them. Lever, to rise, suggests the East, where the sun comes up. A looser definition came to include all the countries on the eastern Mediterranean shore, from Greece through Turkey and Lebanon to Israel into Egypt.

Now, even as the Levantine Center sets down roots, it is again broadening the definition of the territory. Its board of directors includes Los Angeles residents with family ties in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Iran and Egypt.<

Pegahi got involved with the Levantine Center when she met Jordan Elgrably, a Los Angeles native whose father was raised in Morocco. Elgrably has traveled the world as a freelance journalist. "Jordan had an idea for a cultural center, and he had a name in mind," Pegahi says. "We both wanted to see a gathering place where people from the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean cultures could meet."

The center's fall lineup, which can be found at www.levantinecenter.org, lists plenty of opportunities. A Turkish author, Syrian dervishes, and an evening of Jewish music from Turkey, Greece and Jerusalem are among the planned events. A number of them are promoted by the Levantine Center but funded and hosted by major arts institutions, including the Getty Center, Skirball Cultural Center and the Armand Hammer Museum. Others are joint efforts with the Richard Riordan Public Library and Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice.<

Frederick Dewey, Beyond Baroque's artistic director, met Elgrably when he stopped in to the Venice bookstore more than a year ago. They discovered they think alike. "If there is one thing we can say about this time in American history," Dewey says, "it is that narrow-mindedness is a very dangerous position. The Levantine initiative combats that position. They create ways to promote dialogue between groups that might not otherwise have a voice. They focus on culture, not politics, which so often falls into irresolvable conflict."

The wide cultural diversity the Levantine Center's monthly calendar represents helps to explain its vision. "We want to build up a crossroads sensibility in Los Angeles," says Elgrably, who is director of the center. As an Arab Jew of mixed ancestry who was raised in Echo Park, he considers himself a good example of the ethnic diversity the center represents.

"Levantine is a metaphor for an immigrant and American identity," he says. "It is to be Turkish and Armenian and American, for example. Or, Arab and Christian with an Israeli passport and a U.S. green card."

It has taken two years of working nights from home offices, building an international board of directors and hosting music, literature and dance events in borrowed or rented spaces, to reach this point.

"I saw disparate arts and cultural groups around Los Angeles with no official address," says Elgrably, whose home office in West Hollywood is decorated with textiles from Yemen, an Egyptian mirror and an Iranian carpet. "From the beginning, my proposal was to look at the similarities between these cultures and at the same time put each of them into a larger cultural context."

Many of the countries the center includes have been at war for generations. That, says Elgrably, is all the more reason to bring them together in Los Angeles. "We won't let war keep us apart because we will insist that the arts become part of the conversation," he says. "We'll talk about politics and other issues through the arts."

Some of the events he is proudest of so far include an evening of Arab female poets from around the world, held at Beyond Baroque last fall, and an evening with Amiel Alcalay in July. Alcalay is a poet and essayist with family roots in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, who lives in Massachusetts. He developed the idea of a Levantine culture that Elgrably uses as his guide. "For me," Alcalay said during his visit to Los Angeles this summer, "Levantine has come to represent more than geography. It is a melting pot and a particularly rich mix because of the many cultures it represents."

The Persian play in rehearsals at the center tells the story of Arash, a shepherd chosen to shoot the arrow that will mark one border of the Persian empire. Famous archers have declined the challenge for fear their arrows might fall short. Arash accepts the challenge and sends his arrow farther than anyone dreamed it could go. In an unusual twist, Arash is played by a woman in this version

If the idea for a cultural center that promotes education through the arts sounds right, the funding has been limited. The Levantine Center relies on grants, the board of directors and the $60 annual dues from its 400 or so members for its main financial support. Members receive free tickets to all the events the center sponsors, including a monthly book group. "Half the members are Americans who are curious about that part of the world; the rest have heritage there," Elgrably says.

Jawad Ali, who was born in Pakistan and now teaches English composition at Irvine Valley College, joined the Levantine Center board to help bring attention to playwrights and novelists from western Asia. "We can be a forum for discussing issues through the arts," he says. "It is imperative that we in this country get better informed about that part of the world."

A photo exhibit on the Levantine Web site this month is the sort of discussion starter that Ali calls "emancipatory." The exhibit, "A 9/11 Gallery," looks at the terror attacks of last September from a wide range of perspectives. One image shows an art gallery where a Muslim man wearing ethnic dress sits inside a fenced cage. It is titled "Cultural Isolation."

Ali says that to air ethnic and political tensions through the arts is part of the work of the Levantine Center. "If we humanize the people involved and show that we're not just talking about stick figures, we can help bring about peace," he says. "We all can get along."

After the attack on the World Trade Center, Ali's friends advised him to change his name. "That's not right," he says. "We need to feel free to talk about what concerns us."

Diverse Press Clippings, Abbreviated

Poet/critic Julia Stein, in her 2009 review of Wrestling With Zion edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, expressed her wish that Arab Jewish progressives like Sami Shalom Chetrit and Jordan Elgrably had been included among the anthology's contributors. "Elgrably has worked with Arabs, Armenians, and Persians et al to create a Levantine Center that promotes many Middle Eastern cultures. Such centers are crucial to helping the American Jewish community redefine itself as well as to help make peace in the Middle East."

Center Shines Its Art Through Clouds of War; Directors hope performances will help Americans better understand viewpoints of the Middle East

Mary Rourke, writing in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 22, 2002,

Los Angeles; Using the Arts to Celebrate L.A.'s Cultures; Diversity: Wide-ranging annual open house draws an estimated 75,000 to 150 sites across the county

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 7, 2001, reporters Stephanie Chavez and Jose Cardenas, noted, "In one poignant moment at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood, Jordan Elgrably, who helped establish a new Middle Eastern cultural center in Los Angeles, stood before about 200 people to introduce a Persian dance troupe and a Sufi music ensemble. 'When you think of the Middle East today, you think of . . .' he paused, then continued: 'You think of terrorists, the Taliban maybe, people in bunkers.' The audience fell silent. 'But today,' he said, 'we are here to think of the Middle East as a cradle of cultures. These performers show the wealth of Mideast culture in Southern California.'"

Los Angeles; Jews of Diverse Views Rally for Israeli Solidarity; Demonstration: Groups from a cross-section of the community turn out, 5,000 strong, in effort to regain the public relations offensive.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on July 23, 2001, Larry B. Stammer interviewed some counter demonstrators: "We want the Jewish community to see another message — that Arabs and Jews are not enemies and that we have been misled by the peace process," said one of the counter demonstrators, Jordan Elgrably, of Open Tent, a U.S.-based interfaith coalition that advocates peace in the Middle East.

Stopped Talks: Intifada II has put a halt to local efforts of Arab-Jewish dialogue

Writing in the Jewish Journal on June 29, 2001, Tom Tugend described the many Arab/Muslim and Jewish dialogue efforts occurring in greater Los Angeles. "A recent effort off the beaten track is the Open Tent Middle East Coalition, which sponsors joint Arab-Jewish cultural events and discussions. It was founded by Jordan Elgrably, a Sephardi community activist who faults the Jewish community for lack of self-criticism and failure to acknowledge Arab grievances. Elgrably, sounding a not-uncommon note of frustration, likens the job of dialogue facilitator to that of King Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was condemned to forever roll a heavy stone uphill, only to see it tumble down again as soon as it reached the peak.

Requiem for a Dream? Will organizations promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence buckle under Mideast pressure?

Writing in the Jewish Journal on May 18, 2001, reporter Michael Aushenker noted: "There’s definitely been a breakdown of communication" between Arabs and Jews, reported Jordan Elgrably, who, with Munir Shaikh, co-directs Open Tent, a local Arab-Jewish cultural coalition. For a decade now, the part-Moroccan, part-Jewish Elgrably has been on the forefront of working to remedy stilted relations between members of what he has tagged as "a dysfunctional family." In fact, Open Tent will hold its latest forum at UCLA this weekend (see information on page 46), when progressive Jewish and Palestinian speakers will engage on panels discussing issues affecting both communities.

Elgrably believes that the need for forums such as Open Tent and the recent JUNITY conference in Chicago is more crucial than ever. As he sees it, the deterioration of ties between Arabs and Jews will continue as long as both sides avoid doing the real social interaction required — especially mainstream American Jews, who, he said, continue to view Israel as an underdog rather than an oppressor. From his experience, most Palestinians have made peace with the idea of a Jewish state. "They’re not thinking 'we’re going to destroy Israel one day,'" Elgrably said. "They just want to have their homeland and move on."

Center Shines Its Art Through Clouds of War

Directors hope performances will help Americans better understand viewpoints of the Middle East

September 26, 2002 | Los Angeles Times | Mary Rourke

In a bright yellow rehearsal room at a new arts center in Century City, a troupe of eight actors and dancers practices a play about a mythic Persian hero named Arash. The decor suggests eclectic tastes. An African sculpture and an Indian porcelain elephant are tucked into the corners. Chinese and Moroccan lanterns light the evening.

The part of the world these objects represent may seem remote to some Westerners, but not to the artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who will present their work here. For them, the eastern Mediterranean is the heart of the world.

Shida Pegahi, director of this new Pacific Arts Center, opened it this summer as a school for children and adults. From the beginning, she wanted to attract not only students but also working artists and performers, and she offered to make the space available to the Levantine Cultural Center, a group of arts activists she helped found.

Since it began two years ago, the Levantine Center has been a state of mind more than an actual place. It has sponsored performances held in various spaces around the city, featuring artists from the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Starting this month, the Pacific Arts and Levantine Cultural centers will share a home address.

"When you don't have a lot of funds, you have to pool resources," says Pegahi, who was born in Iran, educated in England and has been teaching ballet and modern dance in Los Angeles for 18 years. "More than ever in America," she says, "people want to know what the Middle East and the Levantine area are all about. This city is very open to new ideas."

The term "Levant" was first applied to Syria and Lebanon in the '20s when the French governed them. Lever, to rise, suggests the East, where the sun comes up. A looser definition came to include all the countries on the eastern Mediterranean shore, from Greece through Turkey and Lebanon to Israel into Egypt.

Now, even as the Levantine Center sets down roots, it is again broadening the definition of the territory. Its board of directors includes Los Angeles residents with family ties in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Iran and Egypt.

Pegahi got involved with the Levantine Center when she met Jordan Elgrably, a Los Angeles native whose father was raised in Morocco. Elgrably has traveled the world as a freelance journalist. "Jordan had an idea for a cultural center, and he had a name in mind," Pegahi says. "We both wanted to see a gathering place where people from the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean cultures could meet."

The center's fall lineup, which can be found at www.levantinecenter.org, lists plenty of opportunities. A Turkish author, Syrian dervishes, and an evening of Jewish music from Turkey, Greece and Jerusalem are among the planned events. A number of them are promoted by the Levantine Center but funded and hosted by major arts institutions, including the Getty Center, Skirball Cultural Center and the Armand Hammer Museum. Others are joint efforts with the Richard Riordan Public Library and Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice.

Frederick Dewey, Beyond Baroque's artistic director, met Elgrably when he stopped in to the Venice bookstore more than a year ago. They discovered they think alike. "If there is one thing we can say about this time in American history," Dewey says, "it is that narrow-mindedness is a very dangerous position. The Levantine initiative combats that position. They create ways to promote dialogue between groups that might not otherwise have a voice. They focus on culture, not politics, which so often falls into irresolvable conflict."

The wide cultural diversity the Levantine Center's monthly calendar represents helps to explain its vision. "We want to build up a crossroads sensibility in Los Angeles," says Elgrably, who is director of the center. As an Arab Jew of mixed ancestry who was raised in Echo Park, he considers himself a good example of the ethnic diversity the center represents.

"Levantine is a metaphor for an immigrant and American identity," he says. "It is to be Turkish and Armenian and American, for example. Or, Arab and Christian with an Israeli passport and a U.S. green card."

It has taken two years of working nights from home offices, building an international board of directors and hosting music, literature and dance events in borrowed or rented spaces, to reach this point.

"I saw disparate arts and cultural groups around Los Angeles with no official address," says Elgrably, whose home office in West Hollywood is decorated with textiles from Yemen, an Egyptian mirror and an Iranian carpet. "From the beginning, my proposal was to look at the similarities between these cultures and at the same time put each of them into a larger cultural context."

Many of the countries the center includes have been at war for generations. That, says Elgrably, is all the more reason to bring them together in Los Angeles. "We won't let war keep us apart because we will insist that the arts become part of the conversation," he says. "We'll talk about politics and other issues through the arts."

Some of the events he is proudest of so far include an evening of Arab female poets from around the world, held at Beyond Baroque last fall, and an evening with Amiel Alcalay in July. Alcalay is a poet and essayist with family roots in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, who lives in Massachusetts. He developed the idea of a Levantine culture that Elgrably uses as his guide. "For me," Alcalay said during his visit to Los Angeles this summer, "Levantine has come to represent more than geography. It is a melting pot and a particularly rich mix because of the many cultures it represents."

The Persian play in rehearsals at the center tells the story of Arash, a shepherd chosen to shoot the arrow that will mark one border of the Persian empire. Famous archers have declined the challenge for fear their arrows might fall short. Arash accepts the challenge and sends his arrow farther than anyone dreamed it could go. In an unusual twist, Arash is played by a woman in this version.

If the idea for a cultural center that promotes education through the arts sounds right, the funding has been limited. The Levantine Center relies on grants, the board of directors and the $60 annual dues from its 400 or so members for its main financial support. Members receive free tickets to all the events the center sponsors, including a monthly book group. "Half the members are Americans who are curious about that part of the world; the rest have heritage there," Elgrably says.

Jawad Ali, who was born in Pakistan and now teaches English composition at Irvine Valley College, joined the Levantine Center board to help bring attention to playwrights and novelists from western Asia. "We can be a forum for discussing issues through the arts," he says. "It is imperative that we in this country get better informed about that part of the world."

A photo exhibit on the Levantine Web site this month is the sort of discussion starter that Ali calls "emancipatory." The exhibit, "A 9/11 Gallery," looks at the terror attacks of last September from a wide range of perspectives. One image shows an art gallery where a Muslim man wearing ethnic dress sits inside a fenced cage. It is titled "Cultural Isolation."

Ali says that to air ethnic and political tensions through the arts is part of the work of the Levantine Center. "If we humanize the people involved and show that we're not just talking about stick figures, we can help bring about peace," he says. "We all can get along."

After the attack on the World Trade Center, Ali's friends advised him to change his name. "That's not right," he says. "We need to feel free to talk about what concerns us."

Open Tent Offers Breath of Culture

Sept-Oct 2002  |  Washington Report  | Pat & Samir Twair

On a sultry July evening, Open Tent LA offered a new cultural experience to Angelenos of Middle Eastern origins when it hosted a reading of Egyptian master playwright Tewfiq al-Hakim’s “The Tree Dweller.” The event was all the more memorable for being in the newly opened Pacific Arts Center of Shida Pegahi.

The audience sat in director’s chairs facing a mirrored wall, so that they saw their reflections as well as the readers—all dressed in black—front and back.

Open Tent LA founder Jordan Elgrably coordinated the reading salon with Jawad Ali, a doctoral student in English literature at the University of California at Irvine. They selected Denys Johnson-Davies’ translation of the “Tree Dweller” for the universality of its theme.

“The play was written in 1962,” Ali commented, “and because Tewfiq was the most successful Egyptian playwright, he could write about the ills of society and wasn’t confined to churning out state propaganda.”

When asked why they decided on the reading of an Egyptian play, Ali explained, “The lack of a gathering place for writers and artists to foster a sense of literary community is pronounced among foreign students and expatriates who come from cultures where the arts are a necessary fabric of everyday life. Growing up in Karachi,” he recalled, “I remember the ubiquity of emotion-soaked songs that wailed from street corners, and at night there were ghazals and mushaiaras (poetry readings) on TV; all this while everything else in Pakistan seemed to be falling apart, what with dictators and military regimes.”

While the characters in “The Tree Dweller” are mired in their idiosyncrasies and prejudices, they don’t make long moralistic speeches about the ills of society, and struggle to do the right thing even though they aren’t always successful.

The reading was well-received, and Open Tent LA is discussing the possibility of staging a more elaborate production of the play that would emphasize its allegorical aspects.

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance journalists based in Los Angeles.

On Rita, Israel, Iran, and Identity Politics

three countries find themselves at the crossroads of music and politics

3 Nov., 2013 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably

You could be forgiven for suggesting that my comments to NPR journalist Avishay Artsy in his recent report on Israeli-Iranian singer Rita Jahanforuz—who sang at Royce Hall on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012—took the discussion in a political direction (listen here). "It's a political act for Rita to be speaking in her native tongue, after all Farsi is her native tongue, her first language," I told Artsy. "In fact it's a political act if you're an Israeli Jew and you choose to speak Arabic in public, because the Arab culture is seen as the enemy culture. And now Iran is the enemy."

Rita Jahanforuz at Royce Hall, Nov. 1, 2012 (Photo: Jordan Elgrably)

Rita Jahanforuz at Royce Hall, Nov. 1, 2012 (Photo: Jordan Elgrably)

Of course, it would help to know the background regarding Middle Eastern Jewish migration to Israel, and how over decades, Jews from both Arab countries and Iran were taught that those were the enemy cultures, and therefore to speak Arabic or Persian was not a good thing—you had to be an Israeli, speak Hebrew, and eschew where you came from. Pledge allegiance to Israel, do your military service, be a good citizen of the state. And if you were an Israeli Jew, you were taught that Israel was the only country in the world that was really safe for Jews, and that if it weren't for Israel, who knows what would happen to the Jews? Just look at the Holocaust.

Here's the thing: The media began talking about Rita in June with a major profile on the wallstreetjournal.com site, positioning her in terms of being both Israeli and Iranian. This was in the context of all the war rhetoric coming out of Tel Aviv and Washington. ("Iran and Israel Can Agree on This: Rita Jahanforuz Totally Rocks, Jewish Star Remakes Persian Oldies in Tel Aviv and Her Fans in Tehran Can't Get Enough." ) The WSJ story was one of the few positive mainstream media reports we've seen on the Middle East. It seemed to suggest that Rita's latest album "My Joys," sung in Persian, was evidence of cultural diplomacy.

Could an Israeli-Iranian pop star help to cool down the war-mongers?

I'm not a politico. If anything, you might consider me a cultural diplomat. I speak the language of identity. I don't advocate for one identity over another; nor do I suggest that it's important to possess one core identity, i.e. be American, or Arab or Jewish, or Israeli. On the contrary, I believe in Levantinism—or what anthropologists refer to as "cultural commuting." That is, we are all multiple.

Rita isn't just a singer. She's a symbol. She's also a product.

By the way, interesting fact: at her concert in LA on Thursday night, although the tour was marketed as being all about her new Iranian album "My Joys," she sang only four out of 15 songs in Persian. In other words, for most of her time on stage, Rita was an Israeli pop star. Was that perhaps political—to show support and solidarity for Israel, more than for Iran?

I think so.

Another, minor fact: the day after her concert, I got two phone calls from the Israeli consulate, wanting to meet with me. Coincidence?

You tell me.


Muckraking Filmmaker Oliver Stone Interviewed with Gritty Novelist Barry Gifford

The Dream Factory: Oliver Stone and Barry Gifford Converse on the Production of Art in a Mass Market Culture

1995 | Matador  [Madrid] | Interview By Jordan Elgrably

IN A WORLD THAT IS NOW ONE HYPERTROPHIED MARKETPLACE, the products of art—high or low—increasingly owe their success or failure to the mechanics of good distribution and promotion. In this mass market context, "global economics" is another phrase for corporate politics, hence a New World Order that spawns treaties such as NAFTA and GATT, hence we have dominant cultures exporting their product regardless of quality. To quote Hollywood's earnest knight, president of the Motion Picture Association of America Jack Valenti, U.S. films "are America's most wanted export and the envy of all other nations." His statement, one notices, says nothing about quality, but implies that if the product sells, it must be good.

Vast corporations, usually of the multinational variety, are in control of the marketplace, not just in defense, energy, transportation and computers, for instance, but in the production of films, music, books and other cultural wares. Frequently a corporation that has a controlling interest in one of the aforementioned industries also owns television stations and newspapers. So what happens is that these monoliths of industry, business and media, which exist in concert across borders and continents, are often exempt or nearly exempt from most government regulation. International capitalism, the "free market," has not only endangered democracy and removed the teeth from socialism, but it has begun to play havoc with our cultural sovereignty, with what makes each culture unique.

Few would argue with essayist Pico Iyer when he insists that, "More and more of the globe looks like America, but an America that is itself looking more and more like the rest of the world." In its pursuit of the middle-class dream of acquisition, comfort and convenience, much of the western world is indeed coming to resemble the U.S.A.; and yes, the United States, having welcomed millions of immigrants, is a vague reflection of world cultures which appears to function in a democratic fashion. But appearances, as the Emperor's subjects will tell you, are deceiving. The fact is that the American media and the market economy have been instrumental in the selling of mass market culture around the world, and the principal beneficiaries of this trend have been the economic elites, not local communities. CNN now reaches nearly 150 countries. U.S. chains such as MacDonald's, Pizza Hut and 7-Eleven are found in the most remote regions of the planet, and MTV––a channel which is almost pure entertainment product, with less than 15% airtime devoted to real news, information and non-commercial programming––is watched in some 75 countries by more than 50 million young people.

The discriminating consumer of mass market product undoubtedly suffers from chronic cultural indigestion, what with all the available product out there. Yet if you consider yourself cultivated you probably refuse to even think of yourself of as a "consumer" at all––while you're constantly bombarded by the best and worst of popular culture, the more intrepid among you always seems to be seeking out the singular artist, the one-of-a-kind vision which confirms your own non-conformist dreams and desires.

Oliver Stone with Barry Gifford.

Oliver Stone with Barry Gifford.

OLIVER STONE AND BARRY GIFFORD MAY BE TWO SUCH ARTISTS, because while their films and books do not always appeal to mainstream tastes, they do seem to have struck a chord in a wide range of moviegoers and readers. As a writer, director and producer Stone has learned how to skillfully manipulate the system to get his films made and distributed; he's become expert at getting the media to talk about his movies and getting the public to go see them. This takes nothing away from their artistic merit, it merely demonstrates that today's savvy artist bears little resemblance to yesterday's auteur, who had yet to master the marketplace.

I think a lot of movie themes have had an anti-corporate, anti-big business flavor. The problem is that the enemy is hidden. The subtlety of international megacorporations who control your lives is so persuasive and seductive and it’s such a truth that it’s almost like attacking your mother or your father. And that’s a cultural no-no. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you.
— Oliver Stone

Apart from having mastered the film business, as opposed to film art, Stone has taken to heart Flaubert's insistence that the artist is the disease of society. Ever willing to spit in the face of authority, to defy convention and reject idées reçues, Stone's strength is that he knows the weight of words and the shock value of images; a wizard of the art of filmic manipulation, he consistently challenges official mythology for the sake of hard-hitting, fast-paced drama. He is a cineaste who talks frankly about "the relativity of truth," and he understands what Rolling Stone columnist Jon Katz pointed out when he wrote that today, "young viewers and readers find conventional [media] of no particular use in their daily lives––because they've been educated by MTV and rap music and raised on traditions of outspokenness and hyperbole."

David Lynch's 1990 film costarred Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern.

David Lynch's 1990 film costarred Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern.


Stone uses hyperbole and exaggeration to dazzling effect, and in this he and Barry Gifford have something in common. Gifford, who labored quietly behind the scenes for years as a poet, then novelist, first gained notoriety in 1990, when David Lynch made a movie from his novel Wild at Heart and won a Palme d'Or at Cannes. Since then, Gifford has published a series of novels that grew out of Wild at Heart (among them Sailor's Holiday, Night People and Arise and Walk) which have been translated into several languages and garnered him something of a cult following, especially in Europe where his books tend to outsell their American editions.

During his years of relative anonymity, Barry Gifford also labored as editor of the Black Lizard imprint of noir fiction, a series that included such pulp giants as David Goodis and Jim Thompson, among others. In rescuing authors who were in some cases long dead and out-of-print, Gifford learned a thing or two about the vagaries of the publishing world, and while the experience may have had little effect on how and what he writes, it undoubtedly provided an education in mass market economics.

Despite the fact that their work isn't usually easy to digest, Oliver Stone and Barry Gifford enjoy a healthy share of their respective youth markets. They also attract older, more sophisticated consumers and have in the bargain received a great deal of criticism from traditional or conservative corners, Stone for challenging the official history of President Kennedy's assasination in JFK, and for attacking the objectivity as well as the scruples of the media in Natural Born Killers; and Gifford for using ultra-violent imagery in his novels to provide a satirical look at the American South.

JFK was a controversial film about a conspiracy.

JFK was a controversial film about a conspiracy.

And, when we take a closer look, we find that the two have even more in common: Born in New York City in September 1946, to a Jewish father and French Catholic mother, Oliver Stone early on proved himself a staunch individualist. Drunk on literature, he dropped out of his first year at Yale and went abroad. He tried to write a first novel at 19 while living in Mexico, then joined the merchant marines. Upon his return to New York––bored with the possibilities of civilian life––Stone joined the U.S. Army and went to Vietnam, an experience he recorded in Platoon. After his stint in the war, he studied film at New York University Film School and thereafter began his slow ascent to the summit of the American film industry, along the way winning three Academy Awards and numerous Oscar nominations. Stone is currently developing several new films for Ixtlan, the production company he founded in 1989 shortly before making The Doors.

Born in Chicago in October 1946, to a Jewish father and Irish Catholic mother, Barry Gifford grew up on a steady diet of film noir and pulp fiction. Fresh out of high school, he won a baseball scholarship to the University of Missouri, but inspired by the stories of Jack London and Jack Kerouac, the 18-year-old Gifford dropped out of college after that first year and went to London, where he began to write poetry, compose rock music and play guitar in a band. He then signed up with the merchant marines and toured the world, including a stint in the Far East. Eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gifford labored as a music journalist and a truck driver to support his young family. More recently, his novel Night People won Italy's prestigious Premio Brancati, and Harcourt Brace is publishing his new novel, Baby Catface in the fall. Gifford has written a screenplay based on Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, for Francis Coppola; adapted his own novel Perdita Durango to the screen for Bigas Luna; and penned a libretto, "Madrugada," for composer Toru Takemitsu, which will be put on at the Opera de Lyon in 1997.

GIFFORD FLEW DOWN FROM HIS HOME IN BERKELEY to converse with Stone in Los Angeles. The meeting took place in the office of Stone's production company, Ixtlan, which occupies the sixth floor of a building that overlooks the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica. The week of their encounter, much of California was struck by a freak storm front that blanketed the state with torrential rain. Flash floods left thousands homeless and caused several deaths, prompting President Clinton to declare California a disaster area. In Los Angeles' nearby San Bernardino mountains, local residents were calling this "the 500-year storm," so drastically was the topography scarred by nature.

An early photo of Barry Gifford.

An early photo of Barry Gifford.

As it happened, Gifford arrived on the last flight into Burbank Airport before the control tower shut down that morning's flights. "I feel like Hugh Conway in Lost Horizon,' he said, referring to the Frank Capra film in which actor Ronald Coleman plays a British adventurer flying down through clouds and fog to land in the mystic land of Shangrila. Indeed, the ordeal of actually getting to Stone's office in one piece was further complicated by a long, plodding drive through flooded streets and lashing rain that reduced one's depth of field.

Azita Zendel, Stone's trusted assistant, lead us into the director's office and returned with steaming cappuccino and mineral water for all. After a few casual introductions—Stone and Gifford had never met until today—the afternoon began with a discussion of their respective fathers and family history. Although we had come armed with the warning that Stone likes to take people out of their comfort zone, the conversation remained calm and cordial throughout.

Gifford writes about his racketeer father.

Gifford writes about his racketeer father.

BARRY GIFFORD My father was a Chicago racketeer. He came from a family of non-religious Jews who emigrated from Bucovina (which was then part of the Austrian Empire and is now in northern Romania) to Vienna at the turn of the century, and from there to the United States. They weren't accepted or liked by other Jews, in fact they were described as shtarken, Yiddish for strong or tough. My dad was always mixed up with Irish and Italian gangsters. He took on different names, more for the purposes of dodging the law and being involved in nefarious activities rather than trying to hide the fact that he was a Jew. My father wasn't religious, he never went to synagogue, he died when I was 12 years old. My mother's family emigrated from Ireland to England and Anglicized their name from Cohan to Colby because of the obvious prejudice against the Irish. Of my father's various names, the one my mother preferred was Gifford. My full name is Barry Colby Gifford. Barry means "spear carrier" in Celtic.

OLIVER STONE I've never gotten to the bottom of my father's history. I think he was probably of Northern German or Latvian origin [the name was originally Stein]. My father was never religious, he was always strongly atheist—almost but not quite. He didn't like the rituals, the traditions, the superstitions. My mother was a Catholic in rebellion against her Catholicism, my father was in rebellion against Judaism, so what did I become? I became a Protestant a result of all this. They sent me to Sunday school and I basically downloaded on a very American kind of compromise.

GIFFORD Your father must have experienced anti-Semitism and wanted to get away from that.</p>

[D]issent comes at a heavy price in this culture. For a culture that celebrates the rebel, I find that most of it is lip service. Conformity rules; it reigns pretty much everywhere in the world. I think it’s always hard to cut out on your own and do something different from the tribe.
— Oliver Stone

STONE Yes, that's partly what fueled him, because he would say to me, "Don't stand out—don't bring attention to yourself...He warned me about a lot of things that happened in my life. Unfortunately, like most sons, I didn't learn my lessons from my father, I had to learn them for myself, from my own mistakes.<

ELGRABLY And yet you've built a career out of standing out in the crowd.

STONE Yes, but dissent comes at a heavy price in this culture. For a culture that celebrates the rebel, I find that most of it is lip service. Conformity rules; it reigns pretty much everywhere in the world. I think it's always hard to cut out on your own and do something different from the tribe.

ELGRABLY Isn't there some irony in the fact that while you started out as the out-spoken new kid in town, the rebel, the anti-Establishment filmmaker, you're now a giant in the Hollywood system?

STONE If what you say is true, it's a position that's been carved out of acid and rock, believe me. A giant is somebody who, generally speaking in this business, is a box-office giant. Although some of my films have done well, I can hardly be called one of the top five or ten giants, no. I've done well in spite of the subject matter, I feel. I'm always on the edge, because with each film I have to re-earn my way. Each time out I'm trying to make a new movie and each time I have to struggle to get the financing, if it seems that the subject matter is difficult or controversial. They don't say to me "go and make the movie because you're controversial," no.

ELGRABLY Both of you have provoked the media over your use of violent imagery; the question is, what can fiction or film say about violence that reality isn't already saying?

GIFFORD It can be an echo or portrayal of reality, although what I try to do is go a step further in showing the absurdity of reality, which is another way of talking about satire. There are critics and readers who seize upon the violence as sensationalism, but they either don't get it or they choose not to see the other side. They also don't like the class of people I'm writing about, usually white trash and poor blacks and Latinos in the South. The [elitist] New Yorker audience doesn't want to read about that. Yes, there's a lot of random violence, but there often is random violence out there. I've seen it, you've seen it, but this doesn't mean I'm not appalled by it, and I'm not inured to it, either. Do the people I write about not have much of a voice in literature? They don't have any voice in literature. Yes, there are novels by blacks and Latinos and whites who grew up disenfranchised and underprivileged; I'm not pretending to speak for them. But readers aren't accustomed to reading about this class of people, not in this context, not where they're shown in a humane fashion.

STONE You asked what fiction can do that reality can't. Natural Born Killers (NBK) is very much about the '80s and '90s, to me, about the sense of mass hysteria and hypnosis of the media. When we started, it was going to be a surreal piece. Then you had the Menendez brothers, the Bobbitt case, Tonya Harding and O.J. Simpson, so now it's become a satire. When I was a kid, the Bobbitt case would have been in the National Enquirer [a high-circulation tabloid]. A woman cutting off a man's penis is a sordid, jokey story, but it became a national hit, like a mini-series, in the sense that it became a money-maker for the networks...What a movie can do, or what a piece of fiction can do, is posit that madness, describe it and codify it so that we're able to look back and think about it. I was accused of exaggerating in NBK, in exaggeration resides satire, and in satire are the shards of truth. Natural Born Killers, Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, these are all stories that are saying look at this insanity, look at this absurdity.

GIFFORD I think one of the greatest pieces of satire I ever saw was when Mel Brooks had Moses coming down the Sinai [in History of the World, Part I], and he was carrying three tablets, and Moses starts speaking and he says, "I brought you these Fifteen Command—" and he drops one of the tablets and it shatters into dust. He looks at it and he says, "—I brought you these Ten Commandments." Whether the satire is coming from Jonathan Swift, who suggested that the poor eat their children in order to survive, or Mel Brooks making fun of Moses, there's truth in it. Whenever an artist shows a little audacity, he's not going to be universally loved. David Lynch knows he's not going to be universally loved, but he has his vision and you have to respect it. The same is true for your films. And, as you say, sometimes there is some prescience involved. When I wrote Night People I had this lesbian couple of serial killers, Big Betty and Cutie Early, and then when the book came out a year later, Aileen Wuornos was in the news as the first female serial killer. Critics and interviewers wondered if I had based my characters on the Wuornos case, but when I was writing I was not aware there were any female serial killers.

ELGRABLY Like Oliver, you also face down accusations of relying on exaggeration and sensationalism to make your point.

GIFFORD There's a scene in Arise and Walk in which an ex-convict named Spit Spackle remembers an incident from his childhood, when he comes into his home and finds his mother nursing the baby, and the baby's fallen asleep in this poverty-stricken tenement. And a rat has come along and gnawed off the nipple of the sleeping mother. A reader said to me, "How could you write such a horrible thing? That sounds too sensationalist to me." Yet this story was told to me by a painter who'd heard the story from his grandmother. It happened to her in New York many years ago. I've been accused of making things up to horrify people on purpose. What can I say?

STONE I think you were perfectly valid in restating that story. It happened, and even if it did not happen, I think it's defensible.

GIFFORD When I write about these terrible events and flawed characters, their histories are very carefully explained, in terms of their genetic and environmental background. What pissed people off in Night People, for instance, is that I show the sweetness and tenderness of these women toward one another and yet they're out there committing murder. They're obviously quite mad, but they do have an internal life. For whatever reason, these women feel so locked out of the norm, of the perceived reality, that they have to recreate their own family life. It's really Us against Them. You see it in people walking around in the street all the time: it's me against the world. And so it's not difficult to see why such characters react with extreme violence, because they've been mistreated, or misled, or just born into their circumstances, born bad––however you choose to view it scientifically. If you don't believe somebody's born bad because of their genetic heritage, and you're not a believer in social biology, then you put everything down to environmental situations.

STONE The kids in NBK are white trash who find their only sense of empowerment in killing. Their mothers and fathers are really pieces of work. Exaggerated or not, it's more or less true for a lot of kids in this country who come up in a very negative environment, where the inner cities are fucked and a lot of ethnic tribes are growing up in a hostile, negative environment that is only going to create psychopathic behavior...Once you've killed your mother or your father, in whatever spiritual dimension you exist, you know you're on the road to hell. Even if you have all the justification in the world to kill your parents, you're doomed in some spiritual way.

ELGRABLY One gathers that the film medium, for you, serves not only to demonstrate but to titillate, even provoke your audiences?

STONE I think it seeks to elevate the consciousness, sometimes through shock, but not always. Sometimes through irony and humor and wit.

ELGRABLY Is it conceivable that an artist could go "too far"?

STONE No. I think that "too far" is an aesthetic choice. Too far in the sense that he hits too many bass notes, or emotionally disturbs the audience, these are an aesthetic choices. "Too far" is a matter of your own conscience, too. But you never know. Jackson Pollack in his day certainly turned off the mainstream. Many people at that time referred to his work as "vomit." And now his paintings have another aesthetic meaning. In fact I'm very wary about the usefulness of criticism and judgment.

ELGRABLY The photographer Sally Mann has been viciously attacked by conservative critics for her portraits of her nude children, which they described as child pornography, while she intended them as documentary art.

STONE This is an age-old problem. Is [Hieronymus] Bosch a creature of the devil, or is he painting a metaphor of the world?

ELGRABLY It is amazing that in spite of all the incredibly violent images and weird stories we've seen in recent years, people continue to be shocked and dismayed at all.

STONE Natural Born Killers is a good case in point. It goes to show that at least shock is available. That means we have passed a barrier or boundary of some kind...

GIFFORD People are always attracted by the weird and the violent, and sometimes they want to know that there's a flaw in the design. It's not enough that Michael Jackson makes music that millions of people love to listen to; the fact that he may be a pervert is much more interesting to them.

ELGRABLY Western society seems to be convulsing with a permanent confusion over values. As artists are you aware of the internal value system in your own work? Oliver, you've begun to explore Buddhism, for instance, in your life and your films.

STONE I think that spiritualism in movies is a luxury—most people have a life of struggle and conflict and they go to movies for reasons other than to look for an alternative cultural system..."In Heaven and Earth" we tried to posit the idea that a woman could go through life and forgive her enemies, find forgiveness in herself and reach a higher level of enlightenment through Buddhism. The picture was unsuccessful. The underlying message of the movie was extremely resented. It was distorted by the media into my somehow being anti-American, because I preferred the Vietnamese character and the American husband commits suicide...

We are a very secular, information and result-oriented society. There's very little faith in the right side of the brain type of thinking, or mysticism or what they call spirituality...Films, I feel, should be like the great Hindu and Buddhist ideographs I saw on the temple walls of Southeast Asia. Massive paintings and murals telling common tales, you know, tales of danger, fear, death, heroes, elephants, love, the birth of children and new kings, new dreams. Kings always have dreams in these ideographs. It's an interesting dream life. They worship dreams. Holiness in ritual, in art, in entertainment. I tried in my own way, with Platoon, Doors, Born on the 4th of July and JFK to tap into this national American conscience of the '50s, '60s and '70s...

I sometimes think that America—unlike the Sioux or the Buddhist societies I've seen—is really torn apart by opinion makers, and by too much doubt. A theocracy of doubt and skepticism divide us in a quarrelsome Athenian society where individual artistic achievements are suspect as attempts to enrich ourselves, or as political propaganda. If film is going to exist as spiritual revival for the country or the tribe, then it must include dissent and controversy, because film must challenge the thinking and fashion of the time. Film should try to peel back the lies.

GIFFORD I think what I'm doing is what I've always been doing—listening and observing and writing down what I hear and see. Decades before I ever published anything, when I used to write stories and poems, a high school friend—this guy's a carpet salesman in San Diego now—said to me, "I've always thought of you as a historian." And another friend who lives in Philadelphia, many years later, said, "you're just writing history." There must be some truth in it.

Starting in 1988, I began writing out the Southern side of my life. I never had before. I believe that you really are pretty much formed by the time you're 12 or 13 years old. Now a lot of what I write about in these books is the fundamentalism of the Deep South. [Gifford spent much of his early life living and traveling through the southern states of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.] As a child I was fascinated by the theatricality, the arrogance of the Catholic Church. They said this is it, we've got it here, you've got to get [salvation] here. Then you had the Bible-thumping Baptists. I'm horrified by this use of religion. I think everything disastrous that's happened in the history of the world has been in the name of one God or another. You think the Catholic church is benevolent? The hell with the Catholic church—they're business people. When they close down churches in poor parishes all over the United States, because they're not bringing in enough money, because the white people have moved out of the neighborhood, and yet there are people there who've been going to the same church for 30, 40 years—they don't give a damn about those people. It's happening in San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, all over the country.

Churches are businesses. They do what they do as long as it's in their interest. Fellini made his films about it. That's nothing new. More recently there's been this reversion to fundamentalism. People are getting more and more desperate. I'm not, by the way, denying the existence of God. I'm just talking about any institutionalized religion—any institutions, period. I was never into joining. I'm not a joiner, I'm not part of any group. There's no generation around me—and that's another difficult thing in terms of marketing. Where would Jack Kerouac be without Allen Ginsberg and his continual promotion of the Beat Generation over the last forty years? I mean, there's strength in numbers, in the group. Back when Lawrence Lee and I were doing the research for "Jack's Book" [a biography of Kerouac], there were writers we interviewed who did not want to be associated with the Beat Generation. They didn't want to be associated with the word "Beat", they wanted to be taken on their own terms. But now, for some of them, it's become their only claim to fame. They cling to it with the scraping of their fingernails, they do everything but tattoo the word "Beat" on their foreheads.

[Stone leaves the room for a few minutes to take a phone call from actor Arnold Schwarzenegger regarding "The Planet of the Apes," a picture Stone is producing. He later smiles at the mention of Schwarzenegger's name and says, "That was Arnold calling."]

I remember being scared to death the first time I walked into a bookstore and I realized that I was staring at the same book, stacked in a huge pile from the top down to the floor. In the past, where you might have had a hundred different titles on the wire rack, now you find ten or fifteen, so you don’t have as much choice. Lack of choice and availability changes the stakes for a writer.
— Barry Gifford

ELGRABLY If at present nearly everything boils down to distribution and marketing, how does this affect the filmmaker or the writer's story, and the quality of the work?

STONE I think it's really hurt it. I think packaging is a 20th-century phenomenon. Because television has reached new megalevels of competition, a negativity has set in where you don't necessarily have to be good, but you do have to destroy your opponent. You destroy the idea of your opponent. There's more negativism in the press that I've ever seen in my lifetime. Also, since I graduated NYU in 1971, film costs have gone up enormously, and the marketing costs of films have gone up even more. Now they're spending huge amounts to market each film and it's killing the budgets, the profitability of movies, making the risks harder to take. I've heard the same thing on a lesser degree with books. I know that publishers complain that they're being eaten up by [volume] book chains, by conglomerates that are buying them because they can't get their books out into the bookstores. And because so many bookstores are owned by these huge chains, the smaller houses can't get the shelf space.

GIFFORD I remember being scared to death for the first time when I walked into a bookstore and I realized that I was staring at the same book, stacked in a huge pile from the top down to the floor. In the past, where you might have had a hundred different titles on the wire rack, now you find ten or fifteen, so you don't have as much choice. Lack of choice and availability changes the stakes for a writer. Same thing with the movies—you go to a multiplex, seven out of ten screens are taken by Arnold [Schwarzenegger and other Hollywood studio fare]. I remember David Lynch telling me that when he wanted to re-release Eraserhead in this country, the so-called art theatre circuit was reduced to 45 screens in 17 cities [this in a nation with nearly 25,000 screens]. When I first moved to Berkeley, I remember being shocked because you could go to fifteen different theatres to see independent films, foreign films, art films. Now there's only one venue, and that's just barely surviving.

STONE Marketing has responded to an attention span that's been, let's say, diminished because of the tremendous availability of new product. At the same time, television seems to have cut into attention spans, and so has computerization and cybernetics—they've speeded up the process of selection and somehow they've enhanced the negativity and lack of reception toward things that don't immediately fit into pigeon holes. It must be harder for you, Barry, because the stuff you write is off-beat.<

ELGRABLY Pico Iyer commented on this recently when he wrote, "I worry about the relentless acceleration of the world, the dramatic shortening of our attention spans, and the temptation, under a bombardment of images, to value information before knowledge, and knowledge before wisdom." But isn't it the media's business to condense, simplify and sell information as entertainment, rather than convey knowledge or wisdom?

GIFFORD When "Wild at Heart" came out, critics commented that the film was totally unrealistic, they described the violence as cartoonish, but they didn't catch the satire in it. What they wanted to promote was the controversy between me and Lynch. They asked me if I resented what David had done to my novel, and I said no: he made his movie, I have my book. And they hated that. In the novel most of the violence takes place off-stage, while in the movie David put a lot of it on-stage. He took all the backstory and enacted it. The criticism at the time was that he had sensationalized the material. Was it gratuitous? It wasn't for him. He was the filmmaker. I said then that if I were going to make the film, I would have had Nicholas Ray direct it and it would've been made in 1958, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. But the media wanted to write about conflicts between David and I, not the fact that I had a great time [laughs]. I saw his Wild at Heart as a big, dark musical comedy.

STONE When the media does not like a film, there are no ends to which they would not go to discredit the film. They're very good at dishing it out, but they rarely report the actual content of what you say. I've been quoted a lot, as you know, but 80% of the time it's a misquote or out of context. After "JFK" people asked me if I had had any trouble from the C.I.A., but the greatest pressure came from the media. They attacked that movie before it was even made; a copy of the screenplay was stolen from these offices and disseminated to journalists [who were vehemently opposed to any conspiracy theory of President Kennedy's assassination]. The fact is that we have very little relationship to government in our daily life. Our real relationship is to media, because we get most of perceived reality, or received information, from media. I've always tried to affix the problem not so much with government but with the media. The greatest concentration of power is in the media, far more than in the judiciary, the executive branch or the legislature. And I'm not the first to say this—Nixon actually said it when he was run out of office in 1973.

[Stone is developing a feature about Richard Nixon; in his book The Powers That Be, historian David Halberstam, talking about the corporate media, made the claim that he Los Angeles Times in fact "created" Nixon by making him a political player.]

These [media] corporations, in my opinion, distort the reality of the world around us.

ELGRABLY Noam Chomsky would argue that the media manufactures our consensual agreement of reality, but he wouldn't entirely let government off the hook.

GIFFORD People are hard-put to believe the government line about anything anymore. I think they want to believe in a conspiracy theory, because it's more intriguing, it's Us against Them again.

ELGRABLY The late muckraker I.F. Stone always insisted that, "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

GIFFORD You know, I grew up in a sort of cynical way, because as a kid I was around racketeers and I would hear about how so-and-so is on somebody's payroll, political figures, sports figures, and how everything was down to the fix. My dad ran a book out of the basement of his place, but he never bet on a horse in his life. He said, "I'll never bet on anything that can't talk." This is a very cynical way for a kid to approach life, thinking about everything in terms of the fix, whether it's a political assassination or a horse race.

ELGRABLY Why don't we see more films like "Citizen Kane" today, films which take on the great government and corporate myths?

STONE I think a lot of movie themes have had an anti-corporate, anti-big business flavor. The problem is that the enemy is hidden. The subtlety of international megacorporations who control your lives is so persuasive and seductive and it's such a truth that it's almost like attacking your mother or your father. And that's a cultural no-no. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you, the hand that gives you money, gives you a job, security and food and provides you with a defense establishment, and basically provides you with cradle-to-grave security. That's the idea being promoted by beneficial capitalism, which is not small-business capitalism but big-business capitalism. Corporations have their hands in our pockets so deeply that they hardly pay taxes anymore. In this country [real] corporate taxes have dropped from about 25% to 7%.

Most of the money moves around the world now. It's not American money. There's a positive side to that, in that we don't have nationalism anymore, although we have a stupid brand of nationism, and fundamentalism, which Barry writes about. I'm telling you something very contradictory here. My feelings are that supra-nationalism is McDonald's, yet McDonald's is not American, McDonald's is everywhere. The money just moves from bank to bank. It's just a wire transfer. That's why we don't readily attack it, because it's part of our system, it's in you. You're bitten by the virus; how can you attack what you are?

GIFFORD Frank Capra made several films that were, on the surface at any rate, critical of big business, but I think that while he was expressing a dislike of greed, of manipulation, what he was really doing was reinforcing the American system. I'm not sure there is anything wrong with free enterprise itself, it's greed that's a problem. There's always somebody who wants to take 15 cookies and leave you one.

ELGRABLY Isn't "New World Order" merely a euphemism for "corporate dictatorship"?

STONE [long pause]...Ah, I would prefer the phrase "corporate control," or "corporate supra-nationalism." Competition is still a factor.

ELGRABLY How can cinema represent struggles for social justice and economic equality?

STONE Through imagination. Films can deal in...class warfare and struggle, but it would have to be done with a leap of the imagination to engage an audience. The adage is always true that people will not go to the movies to be educated.

ELGRABLY The second part of the quote from Pico Iyer goes on to say, "I worry about the intrusions of the media in all our lives, whether as subject or object...[and] about the increasing loneliness in America, where family and community are sometimes replaced by technology."

GIFFORD He has a right to be worried. Nothing's going to stop this technology from advancing, except the end of the world, which is advancing faster than the technology. The environmental situation is so dire that it's a race.

ELGRABLY [to Stone] Do you ever worry that film might be in danger of becoming too much about the technology it uses?

STONE Absolutely. I think that filmmakers have a lot of weaponry [at their disposal], and they sometimes don't concentrate enough on life experience. They have ignored that because the money is in shock and sensationalism. You can always make the imagery, but the hardest thing to do is to create an internal dialogue, an internal tension. That's the key to good screenwriting. I think screenwriting is a wonderful art form that has been neglected. There is a snobbism that comes from playwrights and from novelists, from both sides, and in between is the lotus of the 20th-century art form: it's the screenwriter.

GIFFORD I think screenwriting is an element of film art, or rather a component of it. I wrote the screenplay for Perdita Durango, and Bigas Luna [who is going to direct it in the United States and has done his own revisions] just sent me a letter. He says, "I hope you realize I'm trying to make a good movie based on or inspired by your book, rather than simply translate the book onto the screen. This is necessarily so since I find some things quite difficult for me. They go well in your context, but somehow they have to become mine. Don't forget, you were born in Chicago and know the ins and outs of the underworld. I was born next to the Mediterranean, a little sea for little children, and I took first communion in the Romanic Monastery of Gedrables in Barcelona. But 'Perdita Durango' will be tough and sexy, haunting and unforgettable. Avanza coño."

ELGRABLY Approximately 80% of the movies seen in Europe are American-made, and 80% of those are made in Hollywood and are developed, directed, produced and marketed by a younger generation of studio people that has been called "the television generation." We wonder, does the work of the great directors of the past—Welles, Visconti, Hawks, Ford, Pabst, Fellini, Lubitsch, Wilder, Godard et al—have much influence on this generation?

GIFFORD The younger directors are people who have, for the most part, taken a look at what's gone before. You mention Fellini. I was in Rome the day he died. I arrived on the Day of the Dead. And Fellini of course couldn't get money to make movies the last ten years of his life, or longer. It was very difficult for him. The studio that he in fact made, Cinecittà, is pretty much reduced to nothing. Fellini was certainly not favored by producers and the money people, yet when he died the national television station ran his movies for the next three days, continuously, and at the bottom of the screen it said, "Il maestro."

STONE I believe the answer to that question is yes. Film schools are booming. I know that those directors' work is being looked at. I also know that attention spans are tighter and more television-oriented, smaller-screen oriented, so there's probably a marriage between the old tradition and the new, which you see on MTV. My work represents that to some degree—I'm very aware of traditional filmmaking and I'm also very aware of MTV.

[In an interview in National Perspectives Quarterly, following the hoopla surrounding JFK, Stone explained that JFK was "one of the fastest movies made. It is like splinters to the brain. We had 2,500 cuts, maybe 2,200 set-ups. We were assaulting the senses in a kind of new-wave technique. We wanted to get to the [un]conscious.

"...As a filmmaker, I do believe in what might be called 'Dionysian politics.' I believe in unleashing the pure wash of emotion across the mind to let you see the inner myth, the spirit of the thing. Then, when the cold light of reason hits you as you walk out of the theatre, the sense of truth will remain lodged beyond reason in the depths of your being, or it will be killed by the superego of the critics." Stone used this same technique in the making of Natural Born Killers.]

GIFFORD ...For me, as a filmgoer, Natural Born Killers was pretty overwhelming. At the same time, I understood that you were also trying to show how the technology is really not giving you time to catch up with events. I thought what happened in the second half of the film, in the prison, was absorbing, and Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of the warden was terrific. There was so much truth in that because it really happened in this country a few years ago, when rioting prisoners had cut off prisoners' penises and hung them on a clothesline. What you didn't show was even more horrifying than what ended up in the movie.

ELGRABLY In her book The Reenchantment of Art, Suzi Gablick argues that we live in an era in which we all have a renewed responsibility for the survival of the planet, but that "the addictive nature of consumer society separates us from an awareness of ourselves as visionary beings." Must the artist today have a "responsible" vision to communicate?<

GIFFORD The novelist? The artist? The artist's only responsibility is to his own vision. If he wants to proselytize, let him proselytize. All I think about is the story, and what happens in the story. How it makes people feel and think and see or do is another matter.

STONE Responsibility is a word I shrink from, because it implies an outer directive, although think we all do feel a sense of social responsibility. I think the artist's vision should always seek to struggle, to expand and to conflict...As a filmmaker, I have always responded as a dreamer, not as a doer. I don't build houses, I don't make the waters run, pump electricity, explore the universe. I don't doctor to people...all I really do is dream.

[Stone's production company, Ixtlan, is named after Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan. In that book, Castaneda learns that it is the journey that matters, not actually getting to Ixtlan, which the Yaqui Indian don Juan uses as a metaphor for an unreachable locus of wisdom. Don Juan also wanted the anthropologist to learn how "to see" the world, as opposed to merely "looking" at it.]

GIFFORD Remember what Ezra Pound said, which was "make it new." He wrote a book called Make It New. And that's all that really matters here. I think that Quentin Tarantino, to talk about the flavor of the month, is a very bright guy and an interesting filmmaker, whether he makes Reservoir Dogs based on a Chinese film, or writes True Romance based on, I don't know, Wild at Heart and Badlands, or if he makes Pulp Fiction based on a dozen different things. He has a knack for turning it into something different. In that regard I applaud him. The trouble is that when you do something well and catch people's imagination, they overpraise you, and that's problematic because you know they're later going to turn around and sock you in the jaw. André Gide suggested that a writer should lose 50% of his audience with each new book, because you know that you'll pick up that 50% that you lost, and often they're readers who never really understood your work in the first place. They were there out of fashion or for one reason or another. That's true of me, it'll be true of Quentin Tarantino, it certainly is true of David Lynch and Oliver Stone

ELGRABLY What does the future look like from here?

STONE That's an internal, organic question that you have to deal with yourself, a very personal relationship you have with your faith, your love, your heart, your creativity, your penis [smiles]. We all die, we all have our moment, our energy. Some people could say it's a decomposing universe and others would say it's a recomposing universe...I suppose I sound pessimistic, but I'm not in my heart. I'm a filmmaker. I am optimistic, but I'm taking dramatic license to be optimistic. I do feel that the media can be used for good purpose in the 21st century, that a golden age could be upon us, a higher consciousness through computers and communication. In a sort of Buckminster Fuller paradigm, people would be smarter because they have to be, in order to make the earth system work...although we are subject to the whims of the marketplace.

GIFFORD ...I don't think about the marketplace while I'm writing. Vampire books may be selling well this year but I'm not going to write a vampire book just because they're selling; I write what I want and hope there are enough people interested in both the writing and what I have to say that they buy a few copies so I can keep some food on the table.

ELGRABLY Then you don't go out of your way to exploit the media for the purposes of selling your work?

GIFFORD If you're Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, you withdraw entirely and maybe you become even more famous because of your reclusiveness. In my case, because my novels receive almost no advertising in this country, I go out on book tours, I do signings and readings and I talk to students on college campuses...I think the artist is walking a fine line, however, because the work should always speak for itself. I'm going to be dead in a little while, and whoever's left to read the books or talk about them or write about them, they're going to come to their own conclusions, and that's the best way. I think that there are a lot of very skilled performers who are writers, a lot of people who really sell their work very successfully, and others that don't—which doesn't say that one is a better writer than the other. It's a tricky business.<

Freedom to Walk

From Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad's Street of the Booksellers

2012 | Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here | By Jordan Elgrably

Sahara [Photo: George Steinmetz]

Sahara [Photo: George Steinmetz]

The freedom to walk, to move, to get up and go anywhere you desire, has always seemed a natural right and privilege to me. It is something that most of us take for granted—we’re not concerned about roadblocks or checkpoints, random i.d. checks or razzias such as the cops in Europe routinely subjected non-European immigrants to when I lived there in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nor do we, in America, worry about walking our city streets for fear of a bomb going off at a sidewalk café. Walking is freedom and a form of meditation with several variations—city, desert, mountains, beach.

My first taste for walking came when I was small child. I got up in the middle of the night, snuck past my mother’s bedroom, and went for a stroll on the Hollywood Freeway. I was four years old. Some Good Samaritan, as family members called him, spotted me wandering along the freeway at three in the morning and took me to the nearest police station. Some think it an early indication of my nomadic genes, and it was the first of my youthful attempts to run away in order to see more of the world. The psychologically-prone might declare it an intuitive response to my parents’ recent divorce—a way to release my anger and disappointment that I wouldn’t have both my mother and father around to take care of me everyday. Walking as a form of protest?

Later, as a pre-pubescent kid, I discovered the mountain trails near Lake Arrowhead and the scraggly hills of Malibu and Topanga, where I went to summer camps, and one of my favorite wilderness walks was through the arid climes of Joshua Tree. At the time, I did not realize that other kids in countries rife with conflict and war—Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, South Africa to name but a few—were often unable to walk where they pleased, either from fear of being stopped by hostile forces or the very real possibility of stepping on a landmine or cluster bomblet.

One of the first books I came across while a freshman in college that inflamed my imagination was Three Journeys, An Automythology, by Paul Zweig, in which he describes driving and walking through North Africa’s Sahara, an other-worldly landscape of Berbers, Touareg nomads, mountains, plateaux and desert oases or oueds. “The landscape is becoming mountainous,” Zweig wrote, “but mountains unlike any I ever saw: black carved slopes, like enormous reliefs chiseled and thrown down over a vast space. The harmony of colors and shapes is unearthly.”

Zweig’s narrative was a form of poetry and left me with the distinct sensation that there were still places in the world that remained virtually untouched. “Two hundred miles without a trace of life: no palm trees, no scrub, no people…in the Sahara, nature still possesses an archaic prehuman ugliness: rusty dunes, beds of dried blinding mud, rocky waste heaps strewn for miles…”

It was also something of an introduction to southern Morocco, the region of my paternal grandfather, who was a Berber Jew from the small town of Taroudant, which some called “the grandmother of Marrakech.”

The Sahara would become a figment in my literary imagination, the primal place to walk, to be lost, to be away from the world, and later—while living a writer’s life in Paris—I often envisioned myself on a Saharan journey. Paul Zweig’s time there left an indelible imprint. “The Sahara drove itself against me physically and demanded a physical response. But, as it turned out, I had not come there to be ‘in the world’ at all. The enormous whispering I had listened to had been something else entirely. It had caused stabs of insomnia, dwarfing my uneventful ‘literary’ life…

“Instead, in the Sahara, sleeping in a tent, walking at night over a sea of rock, under a cream of stars, huger than anything I had ever known or imagined, the images which came to my mind were images of enclosure; as if I could not grasp this immensity and this simplicity, except as a way, not of being outside, ‘in the world,’ but of being inside something far different from the world. It was like being inside a soul…”

My Moroccan family had moved to France before World War II, where my father was born. I went to live in Paris in my junior year of college, and soon began filing stories as a freelance journalist. After growing up the prosaic streets of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the city’s historic monuments and buildings, cobblestone streets, bridges over the Seine, open-air markets, cafés, bouquineries and intimate quarters like the Marais, the Bastille and Pigalle were absolutely enchanting. On many occasions, both day and night, I would traverse the entire city on foot, and often during these walks, I ran into memorable characters.

One time in Montparnasse, I stumbled across the great playwright Eugene Ionesco as he quarreled with his wife in front of their apartment building; she demanded the octogenarian take a taxi, but the creator of “The Lesson” and “The Rhinoceros” insisted on walking to their destination. On another occasion, a little further to the south, I found myself facing the tall, gaunt figure of Samuel Beckett, the playwright from Ireland who had adopted France as his second homeland. The author of “Waiting for Godot” didn’t slacken his pace, however, when we nearly ran into each other, but continued ahead, though I mumbled, “Bonjour, monsieur.” As he walked on, I remembered the famous stabbing incident, when a pimp had knifed Beckett almost fifty years earlier in those very streets. After he had healed and the police insisted on pressing charges, Beckett met his attacker briefly while in custody. When Beckett asked him why he did it, the man answered, “Je ne sais pas, monsieur.” Some believe it was this incident that fed Beckett’s nihilist and absurdist imagination.

Later, living in the Andalusian town of Granada, up in the old Arab quarter, the Albaysin, I become an ardent lover of the Alhambra gardens. Each morning I would look out the window of my cármen—an old Moorish home facing the Alhambra across the hill, known as the Cármen Aben-Humaya—and prepare my thoughts for the day. After several hours writing and a simple lunch of bread, manchego cheese, and tempranillo or Rioja wine, I would stroll down the old Albaysin streets and across to the next hill, entering the Alhambra gardens through a secret back gate. I walked and lollygagged for hours each day in these lush Moorish gardens, with their Islamic calligraphy, ornate topiaries and bountiful fountains. Inside the palace, I especially enjoyed lingering beneath the mudejar ceilings and studying the intricate geometric carvings.

Everywhere I walked, in Paris and Granada, I carried a book with me. I would often stop to read in a café, ordering an espresso and occasionally taking notes when inspired by thoughts of a character or a new story idea. Despite the fact that terrorist bombings had occurred many times in Paris and other major European cities, I never felt endangered. Like others around me, I presumed that the police would pursue the culprits as international criminals. We did not experience the same climate of fear that overtook America after 9/11; we did not lose our right to privacy under new Draconian surveillance laws like those enacted under the USA Patriot Act.

Thinking back on those years of personal and creative freedom, I offer a baraka, a blessing or prayer, for the Iraqis of Baghdad who have yet to discover their own freedom in a new era of sovereign democracy. These days, whenever my hectic schedule allows me to lollygag in a café in Los Angeles, I envision a time of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East—I imagine a region in which, like Europe, there will be open borders, so that nothing will stop us from traveling from Haifa to Damascus or Kirkuk. Call me a dreamer, but someday, too, the artists and intellectuals of Baghdad will once again be able to enjoy the cafés and bookshops of Mutannabi Street without fear, and they will share with us the freedom to walk wherever their hearts desire.

Is Hollywood Afraid of Palestinians?

It's time for a conversation in the film industry about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

20 September, 2013 | Alternet | By Jordan Elgrably

Every now and then a little sunshine breaks through, and Palestinians enjoy the light. Thanks to occasional complex portrayals in film, television and documentary reporting, they become real people with a cause we can all relate to, seeking justice and freedom.

 "Hollywood: No Palestinians Allowed" (By Latuff)

 "Hollywood: No Palestinians Allowed" (By Latuff)

That was true of the Palestinian characters in Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), who weren't cardboard villains, but human beings. It was even more apparent the same year in Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, which was the first Palestinian film to land an Oscar nomination and win a Golden Globe. In Paradise Now, we empathized with West Bank youth and understood what could drive them to consider becoming human bombs. In 2009, Cherien Dabis brought the Palestinian struggle to America with her film Amreeka, about a single mother from Ramallah, who gets her teenage son out so he'll have a future.

Earlier this year, the documentary 5 Broken Cameras—another Palestinian film up for an Oscar—won the sympathy of Michael Moore, Dustin Hoffman and others. Emad Burnat's personal story of documenting the struggle against the building of the wall snaking through West Bank land was a David vs. Goliath tale—it tells the story of Bil'in and that Palestinian village's non-violent resistance against Israel's mighty military and cruel dividing wall.

Yet one suspects that it is still risky in Hollywood to express your sympathy for the Palestinian people. In a 2011 interview, Steven Spielberg told me in response to Munich (which boasted a progressive script by playwright Tony Kushner) he felt pushback from industry colleagues. He also explained that he had attempted to do a joint Israeli-Palestinian youth peace project, with a commitment from Sony Studios to send 400 cameras to the Holy Land, but "they shut it down."

In 2012, when I approached producer Harvey Weinstein to congratulate him for supporting Julian Schnabel's film Miral, which depicts the 1948 Arab-Israeli war from the Palestinian perspective, he virtually ran the other way.

Ben Affleck in "Argo"; an Arab terrorist in "Iron Man"

Ben Affleck in "Argo"; an Arab terrorist in "Iron Man"

Why is talking about the Palestinian struggle still like opening a can of worms? What are people in Hollywood really afraid of? American presidents from Carter to Clinton to Obama have raised the peace process in our national consciousness. Authors including Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein have published volumes that show the Palestinians to be the underdogs in the narrative.

Working in the field of cultural diplomacy, I meet many actors, writers, directors and producers. A number of the Arab/Muslim Americans who work in the entertainment industry have personally expressed to me their dismay at the paucity of three-dimensional character roles. Just look at the Arabs in Iron Man, who are textbook terrorists, living in caves no less. Remember the Iranians in Argo? Out of dozens on screen, only one—a maid—was depicted as a human being. The others who spoke Persian throughout the film were not subtitled till near the end of the story, when one of the Americans at the airport began speaking Persian. Then suddenly everyone was subtitled. The result of not understanding the Iranian hostage-takers or Iranians in the street was that they were ciphers, and therefore, monsters.

Arabs/Muslims who work in the entertainment industry say they don't dare discuss their political views with their colleagues. Palestinian Americans are even more likely to remain in the closet. To talk about their roots, and perhaps the fact that their parents or grandparents were expelled from their homes in 1948 by Jewish soldiers, would be too risky. Behind the camera, Arabs/Muslims and Jews work together all the time in the industry, but rarely can they be heard discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arabs don't want to be accused of being "anti-Semitic" for criticizing Israel's policies and practices. The fact that they are themselves Semites is often lost on their Jewish colleagues.

So in Hollywood, everybody gets along, and we all love each other. We just don't talk about anything that could offend or incite a meaningful political discussion. Yet such public conversation is just what's needed at a time when President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are pushing hard for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Jordan Elgrably is the director of the Levantine Cultural Center

Photographer Graciela Iturbide: Myth and Matriarchy in Mexico

Through the people and culture of Mexico I find myself, and at the same time I leave a sort of testament of what I’ve seen. But all this is very personal; what interests me in photography is the point of view or poesy of man, and yet I wouldn’t say my work is mainly ethnological.

By Jordan Elgrably*

Graciela Iturbide is a small woman with a dreamy disposition and soft, searching eyes that seem to reflect the photographer’s natural desire to see and record things unknown. Over the past three decades, she has become Mexico’s monumental image-maker, her black & white documentary portraits rising to the level of art, showing Mexico in all its diversity.

Graciela Iturbide

Graciela Iturbide


A student and disciple of the Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo, she came to photography after marriage at nineteen and two children. Iturbide enrolled at Mexico City’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos when she was twenty-six, then settled on photography upon realizing that “the kinds of movies I would’ve wanted to make wouldn’t have been possible within the confines of commercial Mexican cinema.” Her first exposition came seven years later. She remembers that when she first struck out on her own, she had the support of her family, despite being a busy mother. “I began working as a photographer when my children were already six or seven years old,” Iturbide reminisced recently. “I had the support of their father, and often my kids would accompany me on my shoots.”

Though she began taking pictures as a child, Iturbide had no idea where her persistent fascination with Mexican culture would lead her. Deeply inspired by the photography of Josef Koudelka, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado and her mentor, Manual Alvarez Bravo, Iturbide’s photographs of indigenous Mexican cultures have become de rigueur throughout Europe and the United States, and led to invitations to shoot for A Day in the Life of America in 1986, and both A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union and A Day in the Life of Spain in 1987 (published in three volumes by Collins, London). Her owning defining book, published in 1998, is Images of the Spirit, which captures the heart and soul of Mexico with photographs that transcribe a culture in transition.

Internationally recognized for her work on the Zapotec people of Juchitán, Graciela Iturbide has taken, among other awards, both the W. Eugene Smith prize for photography and a Guggenheim Fellowship, honors which enabled her to continue her study of Juchitán during a period in Mexican history when economic crisis crippled creative production and narrowed opportunity in the print media.

Julie Margaret Cameron suggested that photography could, like painting, qualify as art because it aims for the beautiful. Iturbide’s images of Juchitán, however, are not overworked; there are no technical tricks or heavy-handed aesthetic manipulation of her subjects. “My intention, certainly, is to create something which is aesthetic,” she said during a conversation we had together in Paris (where she had just won the Grand Jury Prize in the 5th annual Mois de la Photo), “but many things are implicit in the work that I do. For me photography is writing, it is history; it can be aesthetic, it can be many things though it does not have to be art.”

True, whether or not photography is art is no longer a useful question because we do live in such a self-conscious era; much of what we think we know derives from what we see on still and moving film rather than our own experience. Whereas the ancient Greeks believed that things without a name had no soul, today we consider that what hasn’t been recorded on film cannot be said to exist; in the news media there is no news without images, and artists rely as much on photographic images for their work as traditional plastic materials. “The need to bring things spatially and humanly ‘nearer’,” Walter Benjamin wrote as far back as the ‘30s, “is almost an obsession today.” In photography this would be the obsession of the “humanist school” to which Iturbide, along with Cartier-Bresson, Koudelka and Salgado, belongs. It is about seeing the decisive moment.

“Through the people and culture of Mexico I find myself,” said Iturbide, “and at the same time I leave a sort of testament of what I’ve seen. But all this is very personal; what interests me in photography is the point of view or poesy of man, and yet I wouldn’t say my work is mainly ethnological.” Thus, Iturbide considers photography as self-expression, or subjective visual writing; she perceives her pictures as a mirror of herself.

“I think you can see Graciela Iturbide in all of my photographs,” she remarked. “I feel that photography is a regard within a regard—between the gaze of the photographer and the gaze of the subject the image becomes a reflection of the person taking the picture.”

Complicity between photographer and subject, she feels, is implicit. Yet don’t photographs hide more than they reveal?

“Yes, certainly, but I think that that which is hidden in the picture is a revelation of what is hidden in the photographer.” By way of further elucidation, Iturbide recalled that, “One of the reasons I became a photographer was to get to know my country and its diverse cultures. I had a very easygoing relationship with the women of Juchitán.”

Yet there is little similarity between the person of Graciela Iturbide, a native of Mexico City of distant Spanish descent, and the intense Zapotec faces encountered in her Juchitán photographs. For Iturbide, as for us, a journey to Juchitán is a journey to another world, albeit one which the photographer has made her own. She has been returning there regularly since 1980.

“When I find myself facing the Juchitán culture which is so different from mine, obviously, I question myself: who am I? why am I a photographer? When in front of the people who are my subjects I wonder: is photography aggressive? in what way can I learn from these people?” Her pictures are a voyage of discovery both of herself and the area in Mexico most removed from Hispanic culture, a visual ethnography of one of the country’s 56 indigenous Indian populations and a society where myth and matriarchal customs continue to resist outside pressures to change

Found at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Juchitán is a town of more than 100,000 inhabitants, off the Trans-Isthmian Highway between Coatzacoalcos and Salina Cruz, terminal cities between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As a stronghold of Zapotec culture it has attracted such eminent visitors as Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Cartier-Bresson and Sergei Eisenstein, who shot part of “Viva Mexico” there. While Mexico may be the only Latin American country where Indian cultures are looked upon with such zealous national pride (indeed, Mexicans of Spanish descent sometimes use Indian names rather than Spanish ones, and Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the last of the Aztec emperors—not Cortés—are national heroes), the Zapotecs of Juchitán, according to Iturbide, represent “an apartheid from the rest of Mexico.”

“Juchitán women run the economy, and they know how to manage their finances. Men, whether they are farm hands or factory workers, hand their earnings over to the women so that they can distribute money in the home. If a man wants to buy cigarettes or go out and get drunk, he gets money from the woman of the household. Women decide everything in Juchitán. Even physically,” Iturbide mused with a smile, “the Juchitán men are often smaller and skinnier than their women, who are taller and wider than they are.”

¡Viva la mujer juchiteca!

The Juchiteca woman is strong. As Mexican writer Andres Henestrosa has written, “Juchitecas have no inhibition, there is nothing they can’t say nor anything they can’t do. The Juchiteca has no shame; in Zapotec there are no bad words.”

For Graciela Iturbide, these women, while perhaps not exemplars of feminism, opened a window onto just how strong the indigenous Mexican woman can be. “The Zapotec culture of Juchitán interested me a great deal, in addition to having a tradition of liberated women and, of course, I’ve always admired them. I didn’t see them as models,” she explained. “It was simply that there was complicity between the photographer and the subject. Without that complicity one isn’t interested in taking pictures; often the Juchitecas wanted me to take their pictures and they posed.”

Iturbide’s view of Juchitán as a matriarchy comes after repeated visits in which she has lived with the town’s women, documenting their dominance in the marketplace—where none but homosexual men are normally allowed—and taking part in many local celebrations. “These fiestas are frequent and fervent. The women dance and recite to each other the erotic songs and poems of Juchitán; the men drink and only observe for a wedding, for a political reunion, for a quince años—a birthday celebration.”

The traditional marriage rites continue to maintain their pre-Hispanic character, and involve nocturnal dances such as the Dance of the Tiger, the Frog, the Monkey and the Alligator. Iturbide observed two types of Zapotec betrothal, one in which the bride is requested formally and the other when she is abducted. In both cases, she pointed out, “Women drink a great deal, sing, cry, and celebrate the loss of [the bride’s] virginity, dancing with bottles of wine in their hands.” As Iturbide quotes from one marriage song, “‘Raise your skirt now/so we can see how you awakened/there will be a wedding if you are a virgin/if you aren’t, let’s go home.’”

Animals are an important part of Zapotec culture, as witnessed in many of Iturbide’s photographs. Referring to themselves as Vinigulasa—“the people of the clouds”—Zapotec legend has it that man descended from the heavens in the shape of birds of incredible beauty. Another beloved symbol and source of poetical inspiration is the iguana, a common sight in the heavily-jungled Tehuantepec isthmus. “Let’s go and sit on the terrace,” say the people of Juchitán, “and like the iguana swallow the night and eat flowers.”

There is also the ancient Zapotec custom of finding a unborn child’s nahual, or alter ego, which consists of assigning he or she with an animal representation. “When a woman is pregnant and about to give birth,” Iturbide explained, “people come to her home and draw animals in the dirt, which they continually erase. The animal drawing left in the dirt at the time of the infant’s birth will be his nahual.”

Originally documented in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the practice of finding the nahual persists even today, despite the disapprobation of the Catholic church. Noted Frazer in 1922, “When the child grew old enough, he procured the animal that represented him and took care of it, as it was believed that his health and existence were bound up with that of the animal’s...the weal and woe of the man depend on the fate of the nahual.” Graciela Iturbide linked the tradition of the nahual with “the Legend of the Black Dog, which must accompany one in death to the banks of the river, so that one may fair well in the other life.”

As elsewhere in Latin America, death is a highly touted event.

“In Juchitán,” she affirmed, “funeral rites are celebrated with loud, melancholy music, and traditionally the women weep and wail in the streets. Deaths are announced in the marketplace since Juchitán does not have its own newspaper, and when during a burial there has been a lot of weeping, people say it was a good death because everyone wept so. It’s a time when women faint, when people sing and cry and get drunk, all very colorful and theatrical.”

“Another lasting tradition,” Iturbide recalled, “is that of the ‘Powerful Hands’, in which the branches or roots of a tree shaped like hands are considered to have religious value; when found they are carved and placed in their altars for worship.”

While Iturbide is of Spanish ancestry, she finds many facets of herself in Juchitán women, and professes, “I’m troubled by the Spanish conquest; being at once Spanish and yet removed from those roots I am critical of them. The Conquest bothers me because I feel that it destroyed much of what was a very rich culture.”

When the Conquistadores reached the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, they condemned the Zapotecs for being idol worshippers, for besides their devotion to animals they had a tradition of thirteen gods who went by both masculine and feminine names. Today, though their hermaphrodite gods have been replaced by Catholicism, Zapotec myth and legend contrast sharply with the rituals of the Catholic church, and in Juchitán this strange mixture of religious beliefs and practices, Iturbide pointed out, “has produced a syncretism which even the people themselves do not really understand.” She cites as an example the Fiesta de las Velas (candles), a thanksgiving celebration dating from pre-Hispanic times in which Juchitános go to harvest fruit trees and then bring the fruit to the church to make sacerdotal offerings. “There are even patron saints of the trees,” Iturbide shrugged, “but everything here, as elsewhere in Mexico, is fused, con-fused, as it’s very difficult to find any cultural traditions which have remained pure from outside influences.”

Writing of the Mexican peasantry, Octavio Paz would corroborate Iturbide’s findings: “They are…the authors of a strange and fascinating creation, Mexican Catholicism, that imaginative synthesis of 16th-century Christianity and the pre-Columbian ritualistic religions.”

In viewing Graciela Iturbide’s images of the Juchitános as instant history, one wants to ask: are they self-conscious? Do they venture much beyond the Isthmus of Tehuantepec?

“I found that some of these people had traveled abroad, to Europe and the United States,” Iturbide said, “but they are so proud of their culture that they travel in traditional dress, and often go bare-footed.”

While it is a microcosm of the national mestizo culture, the area of life in Juchitán which perhaps strays most from Mexican norms is sexuality, for here young men lose their virginity with older women or men, and homosexuality is quite open and even accepted with alacrity. “The Juchitános,” Iturbide related, “are a free people, and in this freedom you find a very sensual, very erotic and very political character—politicized in what concerns their sexual freedoms.”

¡Viva Juchitán libre! ¡Viva el ayuntamiento popular!

As deeply rooted in traditions of myth and matriarchy as it is, Juchitán society hasn’t been ignored by the federal government or caciques, the local political bosses. To struggle against outside interference the Zapotecs of Juchitán and elsewhere in the isthmus have formed a coalition, comprised of workers, farm hands and students, known as COCEI (Coalición Obrero, Campesina y Estudiantíl del Istmo). Juchitán women, of course, figure prominently among COCEI’s most staunch supporters and leaders, and the interests of their coalition regularly defy government policies. “They have risked their lives in the process,” noted Iturbide. “They have experienced repression and seen members of their families become desaparecidos—the so-called ‘disappeared’—an all too familiar fate of those who oppose authoritarian governments.

“Nowhere else in Mexico do you find the expression of women as open and forceful as in Juchitán, and in the Zapotec culture. Elsewhere women are more often in the home, do not make economic or political decisions, don’t get involved the way men do. Outside of Zapotec culture the Mexican woman is resigned to her lesser role.”

“Juchitán,” Graciela Iturbide said with the sparkle of a dream in her eye, “is a country of people who cannot accept submission. So, in a way the story of Juchitán is also the history of losers who refuse to be losers.”

From Juchitán to Santa Monica

Following her Juchitán series, Iturbide photographed other Mexican communities, included in her book Images of the Spirit. All the while, she remained a resident of Coyoacan, near the Mexican capital, and watched as the country reeled from the indigenous Chiapas uprising of 1994 and the subsequent political shift when in 2000, Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) triumphed over the Revolutionary Insitutional Party (PRI) after 70 years in power.

Did Iturbide feel a seismic social change resulting from the Chiapas? Does Mexico feel like a changed landscape? “The Chiapas movement is one I admire a great deal and I’m in solidarity with it,” Iturbide said. “Unfortunately, however, Mexico really hasn’t changed, and we seeing more and more political snafus.”

Iturbide has continued to see her work celebrated internationally, with major one-woman shows in San Francisco (the Museum of Modern Art’s “External Encounters, Internal Imaginings: The Photographs of Graciela Iturbide”), as well as in Arles, France; Tokyo, Japan; and Buenos Aires, Argentina—not to mention inclusion in many group shows around the world. Her latest work includes portraits of mothers, In the Mother’s Eyes (Ediciones Stemmle: 2001); nature photography of birds, published as a book, Pájaros (Twin Palms Publishers: 2002); and her work on both Mexico and India, India-Mexico (DGE Ediciones: 2002).

Graciela Iturbide’s beautiful still life photo series, on the plants in Mexico’s Jardín Botánico de Oaxaca, was on view during May 2005 at Santa Monica’s Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station.

* Original publication, El Paseante, Madrid, 1990; update, Los Angeles 2005

A New Novel Captures Life in Los Angeles and Beirut

This Angelic Land, a novel by Aris Janigian, West of West Books, 2012

21 Nov., 2012 | Levantine Review | Reviewed By Jordan Elgrably

Do you remember the early ‘90s in Los Angeles? Between the riots, the Northridge earthquake, OJ Simpson and the Malibu mudslides, it became an apocalyptic landscape, at once horrific, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Not unlike Beirut during its civil war, 1975-1990.

A novel by Aris Janigian.

A novel by Aris Janigian.

This Angelic Land is a novel set in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King riots—the largest, most destructive civil uprising in American history. Adam Derderian, the central protagonist, is a 27-year-old Lebanese Armenian bar owner. The narrative shifts back and forth from his perspective to that of his brother, a New York-based artist five years his senior. The backdrop is their youth during the Lebanese civil war in Beirut—the longest civil war in modern history.

The novel frames the riots "as a historically conditioned collision of dispossessed tribes on a patch of contested ground," thus conjuring an intriguing comparison between Los Angeles and Beirut, two cities not often juxtaposed, though perhaps they should be in view of the fact that Beirut for the longest time was a cosmopolitan, multicultural, Levantine environment, home to seventeen different religious communities and countless ethnic neighborhoods. (Thanks to the machinations of two L.A. councilmen, Dennis Zine and Eric Garcetti, today Los Angeles and Beirut are sister cities.)

Rodney King died this year, drowning in his swimming pool under circumstances that remain murky, yet the beginning of his story (and ours) these twenty years later comes into stark relief: "In black and white, the monochrome color of the plainest of dreams, several police, batons cocked, surrounded a man prone on the ground with his head vaguely raised. Then the man rose, and a policeman struck him, and the man went down, and then rose again and the policeman struck him again, and again...Suddenly, the man, like some cornered and wounded buffalo, lunged, and at the vile sight of his unlikely power they lunged back, his buffalo-sized body absorbing blow after baton blow."

Fortunately for the reader, Aris Janigian writes with the muscular prose of an old-school fiction junkie, and so between the action and the characters' reflections, this novel is a page-turner. Raised before the advent of our screen culture (throughly dominated today by smart phones and texting), Janigian is a longtime L.A. resident and former humanities professor at SCI-Arc whose two previous novels are Bloodvine and Riverbig. He also co-authored Something for Nothing, a book on digital design, with April Greiman.

Janigian packs the description of riots in L.A. and life in Beirut with pithy observations and gritty realism. He also offers up two particularly memorable characters in "the Kurd" and "the Wizard," the latter a gay aging college professor and reclusive intellectual who befriends Adam during one of the darkest periods of his young life. The Kurd, meanwhile, is sui generis, offering some of the most curmudgeonly moments in the story. Though he is a Muslim from northern Iraq, the Kurd comes off as a wry critic of Islam:

Novelist Aris Janigian (Photo: Lisa Persky)

Novelist Aris Janigian (Photo: Lisa Persky)

"I tell you, this country and its hypocrisy is reminding me more and more of Islam," said the Kurd. "Where everything is paved over with religion and morality you will find in the tiniest cracks the most extreme hypocrisy and decadence. Look at these shahs and princes and whatever, these wicked little Muslim god-trembling playboys from Dubai and The Emirates and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all these disgusting oil slicks; they buy girls from around the world and do to them things the American Cup of Joe can't even imagine. I tell you, America is turning this way, too."

Lest one suspect the author of a little bit of Islamophobia, he has the Kurd voice criticism of the other People of the Book as well:

"Look at the Jews, a people who never looked to anyone for a shekel, the way they have become crybabies. Every third millionaire is a Jew and half the nations on earth are shoving billions to cover their loss and he acts like some poor orphan still stuck in the ghetto, whining and pounding fists and jumping up and down, making the world believe that behind every corner a giant waits to stomp him to death when in fact there is nothing more than a neurotic little midget..."

If the Kurd appears now and then for some comic relief, the Wizard seems to embody the author's attempt to engage in psychological introspection about his characters, and perhaps himself.

Make no mistake, This Angelic Land (the title is taken from a poem by William Blake) is an all-American novel, yet it bares its Middle Eastern soul. Its characters may have left Beirut during the civil war to emigrate to America, but their roots are firmly planted in the Levant. "Back in New York," the brother of his protagonist (Janigian's alter ego?), reflects, "the friends I'd collected, a kind of second family, understood what I was feeling all too well: a Palestinian poet, a Persian museum curator, an Iraqi composer, a Syrian stand-up comedian, and others, all of us exiles from historically rich cultures that were in tatters. We would meet three nights a week for kebobs, and hummus, and taboule, pounding our fists in outrage at the latest caricature of the Middle East. Every week we watched the cradle of civilization wheeled into the psych-ward. They showed our wars, internal strife, corrupt leaders and terrorists and jihadists and self-immolating pilgrims, but they never once let it be known that our birthplace was also the birthplace of agriculture, writing, and the fucking wheel!"

What makes this novel unique, finally, is the way in which it almost organically spins east and west together, interweaving Middle Eastern and American characters and identities as if they are inextricably part of one another's past, present, future. Says the Kurd:

"I loved to watch this Star Trek when I first came to America: Kirk and Scotty and Zulu and Chkov and Orooroo and McCoy, zipping to galaxies in the blink of an eye, light speed warp speed, I don't know what speed, reading minds and healing with a wand, but with their simple humanity shining bright.

"For me, the starship Enterprise was like a giant lantern these brave men and women carried through the darkest of dark ignorance galaxies. The essence of America, what the future was supposed to bring, but with each step forward in technology our simply humanity has taken ten steps back..."

Ultimately This Angelic Land is about the tragedies of the macrocosm contrasted with a personal tragedy in the microcosm that was at least as likely to have occurred in Beirut as in Los Angeles. Readers are left wishing they could encounter Janigian's cast of characters in his protagonist's bar and continue the conversation.

Underdogs, Ahmadinejad Vie for Supremacy in New Sports Doc

The Iran Job challenges our expectations about a hated nation

31 May, 2012 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably

Kevin Sheppard, a flashy point guard who once played for Jacksonville University, makes his living playing overseas in countries such as Brazil, Spain, Venezuela, China and Israel. He gets an unexpected job offer—a year-long contract to head up A.S. Shiraz, a new team competing in Iran's Super League. Thus begins his journey from a life of relative comfort and security into an uncertain new reality, playing professional basketball in Iran.

iran-job-bb-team.jpg

Hollywood has produced dozens of sports films about heroic underdogs fighting the odds (among them The Longest Yard, Bull Durham, Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, Moneyball), but few are as compelling and evocative as Till Schauder's low-budget indie. This 93-minute documentary follows its unlikely hero—an American basketball player from tiny St. Croix in the Virgin Islands—into the maw of Islamic doom, only to turn our expectations upside down and our emotions inside out. In The Iran Job, shot almost entirely on location in Shiraz and Tehran, the women are strong and outspoken, men are team players who push themselves to the limits, and almost everyone loves Americans—except perhaps the morality police and Ahmadinejad. The film is a winner.

Since the days of George W. Bush, the nation of Iran has found itself on the Axis of Evil list that includes North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But American skepticism of Iran goes back to when Ayatollah Khomeini and a regime of clerics stole the student revolution out from college-age protesters in 1980, taking American diplomats hostage in Tehran under Jimmy Carter.

At first glance Iran isn't going to elicit our empathy. The filmmakers shoot several murals that raise our fears, "Down With America" and "We Will Make America Suffer a Severe Defeat" among them. Kevin Sheppard knows Iran is reputed to support Hezbollah terrorists and is suspected of developing a nuclear weapons program. His fiancée Leah thinks along the same lines, fearing the worst. And right around this period, Ahmadinejad calls for the destruction of Israel, America's ally in the Middle East.

Kevin Sheppard, team captain: surrounded by his Iranian players and Zoran the Serb

Kevin Sheppard, team captain: surrounded by his Iranian players and Zoran the Serb

Still, we are easily drawn into the film by Sheppard's gregarious sense of humor, and his willingness to face a new challenge. Taking the mostly-rookie A.S. Shiraz team to the next level won't be easy. The only other foreign player is a giant from Serbia, Zoran, who will be Sheppard's roommate. At first, the Iranian players seem to lack the courtside aggression we've come to expect from American teams. In his role as the new captain and a natural leader as the most experienced player on the team, Sheppard faces his share of frustration and disappointment. And if he doesn't take A.S. Shiraz to the finals, he's out of a job.

Shiraz's local sports celeb tours the sites with friends...

Shiraz's local sports celeb tours the sites with friends...

During his off-hours, Sheppard proves to be a devoted tourist, making friends easily wherever he goes, visiting the sites as Shiraz's new American celebrity sports figure. Most notable in The Iran Job are the three Iranian women, Elaheh, Hilda and Laleh, who become Sheppard's greatest fans. They are all in their 20s (as are most of the people in this film) and have plenty of opinions. Kareem Roustom provides the film's original music and scores many scenes with Iranian pop and hip hop that helps to bridge the cultural barrier, with some great beats performed by ZedBazi (check them out on iTunes). In fact, the whole vibe of the film is hip-hop edgy.

The filmmakers do a fine job of capturing Shiraz's beauty and its teeming city life with some deft camera work.

Till Schauder, a dual national German-American, directs and produces The Iran Job, with his Iranian American wife, Sara Nodjoumi, who previously worked on the documentary series I Call Myself Persian: Iranians in America. In the press notes, he explains, "I first became interested in the topic of American basketball players in Iran upon reading that some of the players faced severe fines from the U.S. State Department for allegedly breaking the embargo against Iran...I was inspired by these athletes, who arguably do more for dialogue between Iran and the West than any politician on either side." Reminded of Nixon-era ping-pong diplomacy with China, Schauder began following Kevin Sheppard to Iran, even without a budget in place (some of the completion funds for The Iran Job came later, from a Kickstarter campaign).

The director filmed Sheppard and the A.S. Shiraz team (most notable are Mehdi, Ali, Kami and Zoran) over several visits, "until on my last trip—in the run-up to Iran's 2009 election—I was informed that I had made it onto a ‘black list' (for reasons still not clear to us), and was put in detention in a kind of ‘hotel-prison' inside the glitzy new Tehran airport." The last half-hour of the film is the most rousing, as Iranians are going to the polls, and then pouring into the streets to protest what they asserted were falsified election results that maintained Ahmadinejad in power. Thus the A.S. Shiraz team and their destiny is looped into the fate of the Iranian people who in what became known as the Green Movement (a precursor to the Arab Spring) are calling for democracy, despite the despotic Islamic regime under which they endure.

Says Schauder, "Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines—and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran's hardliners—lies one of the most fascinating nations, as sensuous as it can be challenging, with a life-loving people."

And that's the point. The Iran Job is much less about governments than it is about people—both Iranians and Americans, who when we share our stories and our passions (basketball, music, religious freedom) cannot be fooled into killing each other.

The Iran Job had its world premiere in the LA Film Festival on June 15/16 and will open in limited U.S. release in September 2012. There is a special screening scheduled in the 5th Annual Noor Film Festival for Aug. 5, 2012.

We Are Not the Enemy

An Arab Jew argues for bridging East and West with peace and justice for all

13 February, 2012 | Al Jazeera | Jordan Elgrably

If I were in a position to deliver a message to the people of the Middle East, including Israelis, I would proudly declare myself an Arab Jew and remind everyone that Jews have been an integral part of the Middle East mosaic for millennia. We are not the enemy, and often we speak the same languages—Arabic, Farsi, Turkish etc. Our ancestors have lived in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and even Afghanistan for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.

Palestinians living under Israeli rule have the same desire to recover their human and civil rights as others protesting against oppression across the region [GALLO/GETTY]

Palestinians living under Israeli rule have the same desire to recover their human and civil rights as others protesting against oppression across the region [GALLO/GETTY]

Today most Jews of Arab/Muslim lands live outside the region, or in Israel where we have experienced a history of discrimination from European-origin Jews who believe that their cultures are superior to ours.

I would tell the people of the Middle East that not all Jews support the occupation policies of Israel’s military and government; and I would insist that the historic expulsions of Palestinians from their homes, businesses and properties in 1948 and 1967 were illegal, inhumane and did not occur with our knowledge or blessing.

Yitzhak Rabin and other Israelis have admitted in Hebrew-language documents that there was a deliberate policy of expulsion or ethnic cleansing of Arabs from their homes. And the military policies of the state of Israel since 1967, combined with the extensive building of settlements, have undermined so-called peace processes where good faith efforts are required of all participating parties.

The peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, not to mention Bahrain and Yemen, are indeed in a historic period. They are rising up against autocracy and repression, against oppression by the state, calling for new freedoms.

Palestinians under Israeli rule in the West Bank have the same desire to live freely, to escape the oppression of occupation and recover their human and civil rights. They have a right to enjoy their independence.

The original UN Partition Plan of 1947 proposed a state for Palestinians and a state for Jews. This is the time when all Arabs and all Arab Jews who support peace, justice and democracy should speak out and say 'enough' to state oppression. Stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, end the siege of Gaza, apologise to the Palestinian people for the historic wrongs Israel inflicted during the 1948 Nakbah and let us enter a new era of peace as equals who take responsibility for our actions.

Israelis and Palestinians and all reasonable people around the world have understood that there is no military solution to the conflict. Violence will never solve anything.

As a country, Israel should be integrated into the mosaic of the Middle East. It is time to end the conflict that began with the belief that Arabs and Jews are historic enemies. This was never true, yet decades of brainwashing have many Jews believing that Arabs and Muslims hate Israel because we are Jews.

Instead, we should realise that Arabs/Muslims are like people everywhere, who want the same human rights that Americans enjoy. Those rights must extend to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and to Israel's Arab citizens.

If Israel wants to preach peace, it should walk the walk—apologise for its wartime mistakes and missteps, compensate its victims and reform its military and occupation policies, as well as laws in Israel that discriminate against non-Jews.

In other words, let us help Israel get on the same page as Americans who could never live under the kind of oppression Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

vintage-typewriter-alhambra1.png

Where Do We Stand? Arabs/Muslims on the Eve of 9/11's 10th Anniversary

Shall we celebrate our progress or commiserate as public enemy number one?

2 Aug., 2011 | Levantine Review | By Jordan Elgrably

As we near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there is both troubling and positive news for Arabs/Muslims living in western countries. The question is, how much progress have we made in our quest for equality and freedom from racial and religious profiling?

Flowers on the island near Oslo: for shooting victims of accused anti-Muslim shooter Anders Behring Breivik

Flowers on the island near Oslo: for shooting victims of accused anti-Muslim shooter Anders Behring Breivik

We have on the negative side of the spectrum the anti-Muslim motivations behind the grisly Norway massacre; Peter King's Muslim hearings on Capitol Hill; and a recent survey by U.S. academics that indicates Americans are more afraid of Muslims these days, after the death of Bin Laden, than they were in the years after the attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York.

On the positive side of the spectrum, it can be hip to be Arab/Muslim. Former attorney-cum-stand up comedian Dean Obeidallah, a secular Muslim, now not only tours the country with his various comedy shows, he's become a popular columnist with CNN online, opining on politics in Washington with his brand of subtle satire.

Attorney-cum-comedian Dean Obeidallah

Attorney-cum-comedian Dean Obeidallah

Obeidallah and partner Negin Farsad are about to embark on a new comedy experience and documentary project, "The Muslims Are Coming"—a free comedy tour that will travel through the Deep South and the Midwest. Why free? "Because the goal of this tour," Obeidallah says, "is to truly meet people who are not already on our side...we are going to areas in the country...where there are few, if any, Muslims and where polls show Islamophobia is at its worst." (See TheMuslimsAreComing.com.)

Poster for Rashid Ghazi's football documentary,

Poster for Rashid Ghazi's football documentary,

In September, meanwhile, director/producer Rashid Ghazi is releasing his documentary, Fordson in theatres. Winner of a special jury prize at the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival, Fordson profiles a Dearborn, Michigan high school's primarily Arab/Muslim football team. The film zeroes in on four talented players as they gear up for their big senior year rivalry game during the last ten days of Ramadan; the story begins on September 11, 2009 and concludes at the end of Ramadan ten days later. Ghazi's doc will screen in a dozen metropolitan regions across the U.S., including Orange County and Covina, California, premiering on September 9.

In November, the TLC cable network launches a new reality TV show that will explore the daily lives of five Muslim families in Dearborn. "All-American Muslim" according to TLC general manager Amy Winter, will provide an intimate look at their customs and celebrations, "as well as the misconceptions, conflicts and differences they face outside-and within-their own community." Muslims on American reality TV? We're a far cry from the controversial stereotypes that caused "24" showrunner Howard Gordon considerable grief, before he began dialoguing with Muslim activist Dalia Mogahed, and diversified the show's Muslim characters (now off the air, "24" endured from 2001 to 2010).

"All American Muslim," a new reality series, debuts on TLC.

"All American Muslim," a new reality series, debuts on TLC.


Also on the positive side, more Americans are watching Al Jazeera or reading/watching Al Jazeera English online than ever before, which indicates clearly that Arab/Muslim viewpoints are becoming more widespread than in the years prior to September 11, 2001. However, while the Doha-based news company just cut a deal with New York's Regional News Network and has become available in New York through local cable, AJ is still looking for an opportunity to broadcast in Southern California.

I would argue that the Arab/Muslim community has evolved significantly in the years since 9/11. There are now over a dozen Arab cultural centers around the country—not just the Arab American Museum in Dearborn (home to the nation's largest Arab community)—but in Boston, New York, Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Moreover, the advocacy efforts of the Arab American Institute, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council have made all three of those organizations much more prominent on Capitol Hill. Likewise, Trita Parsi's Iranian advocacy group, the National Iranian American Council or NIAC, has grown exponentially—certainly the events of the 2009 "Green Movement" in Iran had a hand in such growth.

On the cultural front, the events of the Arab Spring led Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival to feature several Arab movies this June. Middle Eastern screenwriters and directors have become a staple of the Sundance screenwriters lab each year, not to mention the consistent programming of the San Francisco Bay Area's Arab Film Festival. Of course, since the summer of 2001, the Levantine Cultural Center has been active in Southern California, offering hundreds of film, literary and performing arts programs that help shed light on the Middle East and North Africa, and our communities in diaspora.

Are we, then, taking three steps forward and one backward? Have the signposts of our progress as a diverse, educated community in the United States, been countered by the extreme actions of a few, and the bigotry of many?

The events of 9/11 horrified me as much as anyone, and I have been further dismayed by our wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as someone who perennially sees the glass as half-full, I believe that we are better off today than we were on September 10, 2001.

What do you think? Where do we stand, as Arab Americans, as Muslim Americans—as Americans period? Post your comments below

The Dictator's Son: A Familiar Figure Brought to Life by Dominic Cooper

International cast recreates the opulent years of a decadent regime

28 July, 2011 | Levantine Review | Reviewed by Jordan Elgrably

Click image to watch trailer.

Click image to watch trailer.

The international independent feature The Devil's Double comes off as a sort of glossy Middle Eastern gangster epic, replete with blazing guns and psychotic outbursts. The film offers a highly stylized yet emotional experience of the years when Saddam Hussein's evil empire was characterized by the long Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and the dastardly exploits of his spoiled and dangerous son Uday. It is without doubt one of the first feature films to deal with doppleganger identity themes set in the Middle East. Both Uday and Saddam have their look-alikes in this narrative, but the story focuses on the supposed real-life exploits of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi army lieutenant who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Uday and becomes his fiday (body double or "bullet catcher").

The Devil's Double opens with grainy documentary footage of the war between Iraq and Iran. New Zealand director Lee Tamahori—whose magnum opus is considered to be the 1994 feature Once Were Warriors—seems to want to instill some cinema verité before he dazzles the viewer with the opulence of late 1980s and early ‘90s Baghdad and the excesses of Iraq's ruling elite. The historical footage lends the subject the gravitas it requires, for otherwise what you have is a long narrative of utter depravity—why, after all, should we care about Uday Hussein, or relive some of his notorious horrors, from kidnapping teenage girls on the streets of Baghdad to gutting a surly general at a drunken party?

Sometime in the latter ‘80s, Latif is snatched from the scene of battle by two of Uday's closest henchman, who without explanation deliver him to a large palace. There yet another lackey named Munem (Raad Rawi) politely explains that he now belongs to Uday Hussein and he will never be able to go home again—he cannot even call his family (the single attempt he makes to steal away to see them is met with swift punishment). He will then undergo a number of operations and adjustments in order to fool as many Iraqis as possible. One thing that never changes about Latif is his muted personality; he's in there somewhere, but who is he, really?

Uday and his double, Latif

Uday and his double, Latif

British actor Dominic Cooper aquits himself well in his first lead performance as both Uday and Latif. In fact he's something of a revelation—if you don't mind transposing a European into the role of an Iraqi. The other non-Arab cast member of note is Gallic star Ludivine Sagnier, whom we last saw in the French gangster flick Mesrine and who plays Sarrab, the notorious concubine to Uday and forbidden love interest to Latif. But much of this interesting cast is made up of Middle Eastern character actors from Turkey, Morocco, Bahrain, Iran and even Iraq. Almost all of the film takes place in English, with Arabic used in some TV and radio broadcasts and signage. Speaking with a slight Arabic accent, Cooper manages to play Uday and Latif with enough shades of difference for you to believe you're watching two different people. As Uday he is frenetic when not utterly despotic; but as Latif he seems centered, as if some hidden force is holding him together in the middle of this madness.

The danger of another film about the Middle East made by someone from a western culture is that Arabs could be made to look backward, bloodthirsty or as if we are all religious fanatics. In The Devil's Double, though, Iraqis are mostly a strong, resilient people who somehow find ways to bear up under Saddam's self-destructive regime. Lest you think you're watching a biopic, however, Tamahori has insisted that his version of events does not attempt to adhere to the known facts, so it is not based on any of the three books Latif Yahia published about his experiences (the first being I Was Saddam's Son in 1997). Yahia did work as a consultant on location in Malta, and as a result the film brims with authentic detail, including a Baghdad outdoor market that becomes the scene of an assassination attempt on the life of Saddam's number-one son.

Explaining his interest in taking on this directing project, Tamahori told a Wall Street Journal reporter, "I've always been perversely fascinated by the rotten sons of dictators. Now you have Gaddafi and his ragtag brood in Libya. They always seem to breed these contemptuous children. They have unlimited funds and they can literally get away with murder."<

As I watched The Devil's Double I asked myself what this film could potentially teach us about history, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, or the ways in which Orientalism continues to problematize Arabs in the west—from Islamophobia to the vilification of Arabs in Hollywood. Ultimately it is an entertainment that offers a portrait of an Arab autocracy that has become all too familiar, from Syria to Libya.

"Incendies" Searches for a Past in a Country Wracked by Civil War

Denis Villeneuve's latest west-meets-east film about war and identity bridges North Americans and the Arab world.

21 April, 2011 | AlterNet | By Jordan Elgrably

Rarely has a story about modern war and civil strife so powerfully traversed generations and continents as the Canadian-Arab feature Incendies.

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's "Incendies"

Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad's "Incendies"

Montreal-based director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s three-and-a-half-hour play opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters this weekend after clinching an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film earlier this year. The film took home eight Geni awards in Canada, including Best Actress for Lubna Azabal. Incendies features a little-known Canadian and Arab cast, yet tells a gut-wrenching tale that takes no prisoners.

“Incendies” refers to the fires of war that can consume a country, a family, and indeed an entire generation. While Mouawad emigrated to Canada as a child from war-torn Lebanon (where civil strife stretched from 1975-1990), he set his play in an unnamed Arab country. The film was shot in north Jordan and used many amateurs, including Iraqi refugees, yet for those familiar with Lebanon’s internecine conflicts between Muslims, Christians and Palestinian refugees—as well as Israeli invaders and Syrian interventionists—the scenes in Incendies strike close to home.

One of only two international Arab actresses familiar to western audiences (the other being Palestinian-French star Hiam Abbass), Belgian-Moroccan Lubna Azabal plays the central character of Nawal, a freedom-fighting and ultimately long-suffering woman who becomes a lover, a prisoner, a mother and an émigré.

Previously, Azabal left a powerful impression in Hany Abu-Assad’s <em>Paradise Now</em>, in which she starred as a peace-loving, contrarian sister to a would-be suicide bomber. In the Israeli indie pic Strangers, she shone as Rana, a Paris-based Palestinian mother who unexpectedly falls in love with an Israeli during a visit to Berlin. Azabal has also co-starred, albeit less memorably, in Bodies of Lies and Exiles.

In Incendies, Azabal gives remarkable performances as both a young and middle-aged woman. An early axiom in the film is jarring and provides just the right note of foreshadowing: “Childhood is like a knife stuck at your throat.”

When notary Lebel (Rémy Girard) sits down with Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) to read them their mother Nawal’s will, the twins are stunned to receive a pair of envelopes—one for the father they thought was dead and another for a brother they didn’t know existed.

In this enigmatic inheritance, Jeanne sees the key to Nawal’s retreat into unexplained silence during the final weeks of her life. The college-age daughter, who does not speak more than a few elementary words of Arabic, decides she must travel to the Middle East to dig into a family history of which she knows virtually nothing.

Incendies is as much about finding one’s past as it is about a country wracked by civil war. An Oedipal tale with surprising twists, we see Jeanne and Simon Marwan, the daughter and the son, retrace the same route traversed by their mother decades before.

Early in the film, devastated by the death of her Palestinian lover, Nawal flees her town and family for the big city, where she begins a new life as a college student. She contributes to the city’s muckracking newspaper, published by her roommate’s father, who insists that, “ideas will survive only if we are here to defend them." When things heat up in the streets between Muslims and Christians, citizens and foreigners, she finds herself, willy-nilly, an activist for her country’s sovereignty. Ominously, Israeli fighter jets fly over as hell breaks loose.

In Incendies one observes the residue of colonialism and how it bleeds into sectarian strife, Christians against Muslims, citizens against refugees. The structure at times reminds one of films like Memento or The Usual Suspects, particularly in scenes where the mother transitions to the daughter decades later and vice versa, often seamlessly, as if the daughter and the mother are the same person.

Denis Villeneuve, a soft-spoken filmmaker in his early ‘40s, explained during an interview that the film is a metaphor for the fact that children have to rid themselves of their parents’ anger. The character of Simon Marwan—the angry young man who has no desire to dig into his mother’s Arab past—could be the director’s alter ego. Said Villeneuve, “What is a Canadian who knows about snow doing making a film about war?”

But Villeneuve was transfixed when he first saw playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s 3.5-hour long Incendies in 2004. After several years and many rewrites of his adaptation, he says Mouawad saw the film four times and embraced it. Nawal’s long-suffering character was based on a historical figure, a woman named Souad Beshara, who attempted to murder a major Christian militia leader and spent 10 years in a southern Lebanon prison.

Incendies is an Arab story yet only one of myriad possible stories that Americans can discover about the Levant where it takes place. The film was shot in just 25 days on a modest budget yet it has the feel of a vast and sweeping epic. The storytelling is dense, the characters brooding and unforgettable. Villenueve has made a deeply personal and poetic film that stands as a testament to the will to survive and protect one’s family from the horrors of war.

"Miral": Why Julian Schnabel's Palestine Makes Some Pro-Israel Factions See Red

Unraveling the pathos behind the anger at Schnabel's latest film.

23 March, 2011  |  Al Jazeera  |  By Jordan Elgrably

 Director Julian Schnabel's 'Miral' has brought the Israel-Palestine conflict into the mainstream [GALLO/GETTY]

 Director Julian Schnabel's 'Miral' has brought the Israel-Palestine conflict into the mainstream [GALLO/GETTY]

Miral, currently in theaters, portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an entirely Palestinian perspective. It’s nothing earth-shattering (a brief filmography at the end of this article offers other films that do this far more effectively) except that it was made by a Jewish filmmaker. Several Jewish organizations and the Israeli government have seen fit to protest the film. They say it doesn’t tell both sides of the story. But that is precisely the point. When director Julian Schnabel—previously lauded for his lavish features Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—decided to make this film, based on the book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, his intention was to tell the story Rula tells in Miral.

Schnabel is an Academy-Award nominated director, and his film has brought “the conflict” into the mainstream. The fact that he happens to be Jewish while representing the Palestinian perspective inflames some in the Jewish community, who consider his film an act of betrayal.

Jordan Elgrably with actor Javier Bardem.

Jordan Elgrably with actor Javier Bardem.

I saw the film earlier this week in a special screening hosted by Javier Bardem, who starred in Before Night Falls and wanted to support Schnabel’s “brave film.” The director was there with his daughter Stella, who appears in the film, and with his new wife—Rula Jebreal. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Jewish community thinks when a Jew marries a Palestinian.

More to the point, why are some Jews afraid of Jews who embrace narratives other than those officially sanctioned in the Jewish and Israeli community? Why do such narratives when told by Jews—including books by Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, and Israeli revisionist historians such as Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé and Tom Segev—cause such ire? I’m one of these contrarian Jews. Why do I strive to see things not only from the Jewish perspective but the Arab one? Because my father’s family lived for centuries in an Arab country, Morocco, and because long ago I recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about nothing else if not conflicting narratives.

Jews see 1948 as the year of Israel’s establishment and a glorious liberation from persecution with the benefit of an independent state for Jews who had no place to live in the Diaspora, or who wanted to join Zionists in their “return” to the Holy Land after nearly 2,000 years of Roman exile (see Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People for an alternative history that suggests the Romans never exiled Jews in 70 AD).

Palestinians experienced 1948 as the year of their defeat, a national catastrophe or Nakba. After centuries of dominance under the Ottoman Empire and then British occupation, Palestinians wanted their own freedom. In fact, the national Palestinian identity movement (as Rashid Khalidi explains in his book Palestinian Identity) was nearly the same age as the Zionist movement. Contrast that fact with the myths propagated for years by David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and other early Zionists, who made a point of telling us that “there is no Palestinian people” and that Israel was “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

The Arab world began to wake from domination as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling in a renaissance movement known as al-Nahda. People in Palestine were active in their desire for independence from outside control and occupation. Little wonder that the 1947 U.N. Partition Agreement was almost universally rejected by the Arab world. Why would Palestinians want to lose half of Palestine after living for centuries under foreign rule—particularly when Jewish land ownership at the time was just a fraction of what the U.N. was awarding to the Jews (See <em>The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939</em>, by Kenneth W. Stein)? Why would Palestinian Arabs embrace Zionist Jews who were primarily European in origin and who trumpeted their culture as decidedly superior to Arab culture?

Filmography  of films on Palestinians/Palestine

Roadmap to Apartheid, Eron Davidson, Ana Nogeira
Chronicle of a Disappearance, director Elia Suleiman
Life in Occupied Palestine, director Anna Baltzer
Occupation 101 - Voices of the Silenced Majority, directors Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish
Paradise Now, director Hany Abu-Assad
The Time That Remains, director Elia Suleiman
Tragedy in the Holy Land: The Second Uprising, director Denis Mueller

Middle East Filmmakers Compete for Oscar Gold

Iraq strives mightily but only Algeria makes it to the final five

23 Feb., 2011 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably

Ahmed in Mohammed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon

Ahmed in Mohammed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon

This year several Middle Eastern countries submitted feature films to compete for nominations in the category of Best Foreign Film Oscar, among them Algeria, Turkey, Iraq and Israel (a country that rarely misses a chance to compete in the annual Oscar lottery). Egypt had skin in the game with Daoud Abdel Sayed's Messages From the Sea, and there were films from Greece, Azerbaijan and Iran (Mehdi Naderi's Farewell Baghdad). Only one film has a chance on Sunday.

Recently I caught a special screening of the Iraqi entry, Mohammed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon. A feature shot mostly in the northern Kurdish provinces and starring a cast of non-actors, the film was developed in the Sundance Film Lab, so in a sense the filmmaker and his country derived support from the United States.

But watching Son of Babylon I could not help but feel sadness at just how much the U.S. has taken from Iraq. We have contributed to the nation's ruin, every bit as much as did Saddam Hussein, if not more.

Set in 2003, the film begins on a desolate empty plain, as a hijabi grandmother and her pre-pubescent grandson wander along a quiet highway. Despite their apparent poverty Ahmed is a naturally sunny kid, gregarious to a fault like most kids, and he loves his "dada" (Kurdish for grandmamma). Umm-Ibrahim, however, has not seen her son, Ahmed's father, in several years; she will walk to the end of the earth to find him if she has to. A gentle Arab truck driver is importuned to give them a lift as far as Baghdad where they can catch a bus to Nasriya. Several years before, Umm-Ibrahim received a letter that Ibrahim, who had been forced into military service in 1991 during the first Gulf War, was locked up in a Nasriya prison. It is never explained why she did not travel there earlier to see him.

Ahmed has never seen his father that he can remember, but can't wait to get to Nasriya.

I won't reveal the rest of the story, except to say that as a symbol "the son" of Babylon in pre-pubescent Ahmed seems fitting. He's young, he'll have to start over entirely by the end of the film and his country is in chaos. However, one Iraqi American I spoke to who had seen a special advance screening of the film, and who had left Iraq himself to emigrate to the U.S. when he was about Ahmed's age, expressed disappointment with the film. He said it was just too bleak, the story seemed insufficient to the subject matter and it would not really give Americans the right picture of Iraq.

Paris-based Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb

Paris-based Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb

I disagree, for Son of Babylon is a film that is narrated entirely from Iraqi perspectives. Whatever quarrel you may have with its structure or its characters, or the dénouement, for American viewers this film is a must-see if for no other reason than to have that light turned on, to experience an "aha!" moment. We've never seen Iraq exclusively from an Iraqi viewpoint, and we need to. We should see five, ten, twenty films out of Iraq, and out of Afghanistan and Iran, for that matter, and films made by Palestinians and Syrians, and every other Middle Eastern country underrepresented in this global marketplace.

Turkey's entry, Bal, or Honey, reminded me of a minor Andrei Tarkovsky étude; it had moments of beauty, but never brilliance. Set in the Turkish countryside and directed by Semih Kaplanoglu, it too is about a boy, and a father who goes missing. But the filmmaker is in love with the camera and nature, far more than his characters. As a result the film becomes dreary and sad, without quite tugging at our heartstrings. Bal may be too enigmatic and too Turkish to transcend the limitations of cultural borders.

Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law is a much larger canvas, and will remind Academy voters of America's postcolonial experience in Vietnam; in some ways it is a Hollywood shoo-in, because the film is more a shoot 'em up than an arcane political thriller—more Eastwood than Costa-Gavras. Set in the post WWII world of French-occupied Algeria and France, we follow the distinct journeys of three Algerian brothers during the protracted struggle in which the French violently try to hang on to their colony, and the Algerians struggle for their independence. Partisan intrigue includes French spying for the Algerians, Algerians hurting their own people to help the French and many innocent victims caught in the middle.

Bouchareb is a filmmaker who favors the underdog, but does not paint his anti-heroes in two-dimensional tones. Whether you like them or not, as characters, all three of the brothers—the good, the bad and indeed, the war-scarred ugly—inspire empathy. (They also prompt some skepticism when it comes to the casting choices, because actors Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila look anything but related.) Having beaten all its Middle Eastern competitors for the nomination, Outside the Law would normally stand a chance among the five foreign films nominated, out of more than 50 submitted, but considering the enormous popularity of Spanish star Javier Bardem, it's unlikely Bouchareb's film will beat Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful for the gold.*

* Both films lost in the end to Susanne Bier's In a Better World.