Wadiya Calling: Sacha Baron Cohen and the Geographical Imagination of the Middle East

by Robert A. Saunders on February 24th, 2012

Sacha Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks. The summer will see the premier of his latest film The Dictator, with a screenplay loosely based on Saddam Hussein’s novel Zabibah and the King and featuring our favorite British comic as an outrageous character that is equal parts Muammar Qaddafi and Borat Sagdiyev. However, this time around, Baron Cohen has decided that taking on a real country with his ethnic lampooning and geopolitical parody is a bit too daunting. So instead, he opted to follow in the footsteps of countless British satirists before him and instead just made one up: the Republic of Wadiya. This Middle Eastern neverland, which takes its name from wadi or “dry riverbed,” looks a lot like Westerners imagine the Middle East to look like, and Baron Cohen’s character, Admiral General Aladeen, presents a geopolitical chimera that is all-too-familiar to a generation raised on pop culture images of desert-spun dictators.
This week Baron Cohen launched his Internet media advertising campaign for the film by attacking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for preventing him from attending the Oscars as Aladeen. In the clip, the Admiral-General protests, "On behalf of the nation of Wadiya, I am outraged at being banned from the Oscars by the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Zionists." Mocking dictators past and present, he continues, "While I applaud the Academy for taking away my right to free speech, I warn you that if you do not lift your sanctions and give me my tickets back by 12 p.m. on Sunday, you will face unimaginable consequences." Reminiscent of his 2005 online rebuke to Kazakhstan for removing his web site from Kazakhstani servers, his YouTube video plays on Western stereotypes of foreigners, in this case, Arabs, not least by addressing the U.S. as the “Great Satan of America” and ending his press conference with “Death to West! Death to America! And good luck Billy Crystals!” Undoubtedly, this is just the beginning of what will be a months-long period of unrelenting self promotion by Baron Cohen, with the American perceptions of the Middle East getting increasingly darker along the way.
As a concept, the Middle East owes its genesis to American naval admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who coined the term in an 1892 treatise on geopolitics. A seeming nomenclatural improvement on the “Near East,” which at the time was in a state of flux due to the rapid shrinking of the Ottoman Empire, the “Middle East” has long suffered from its geographic ambiguity, a fact which arguably contributes to its representation in the West. The most-accepted definition of the Middle East includes the Arab states of North Africa and Southwest Asia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. Other, less comprehensive definitions, delete the countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) from the mix, while more encompassing definitions include post-Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the South Asian Muslims states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Tellingly, as one scholar once affirmed “No one knows where the Middle East is,” yet everyone knows—or thinks they know—something about it.
From a cultural perspective, the defining traits of the Middle East are “Arabness” and Islam, effectively eschewing the ethno-linguistic importance of Persians, Turks, Kurds, Berbers, and Israeli Jews, as well as the role of indigenous faiths such as Orthodox Christianity, Maronite Catholicism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’i. Representations of physical geography are almost always confined to deserts, oases, or treeless urban sprawl. The image of the turban-clad Bedouin/bandit forms the pervading gestalt, despite rapid urbanization and modernization of the Middle East since the 1950s. When women are presented, the burqa—as a marker of repression rather than liberation, modesty, or religious preference—is preeminent. As a number of film theorists including Jack Shaheen, author of The TV Arab (1984) and Reel Bad Arabs (2001), have demonstrated, these representations—typically rooted in nineteenth-century Orientalist stereotypes forged in the European interaction with the Arab world through imperialism—proved highly stable during the twentieth century as cinema and television assumed the dominant roles among mass media. Consequently, a resonant geographical imagination of the Middle East was established, characterized by timelessness, conflict, and mystery; yet for the vast majority of people, this geopolitical figment existed purely as affect with no knowledge base whatsoever. During the 1970s, political crises (skyjackings, Yom Kippur War, OPEC embargo, Lebanese Civil War, etc.) in the Middle East triggered increasing news coverage of the region; however, in keeping with the cliché of the violent Arab, reporting from the region engaged in tropes made familiar through popular culture.
In 1979, two events—the Iranian Revolution and the Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca—overlaid an Islamist patina to coverage of the region. Almost overnight, American popular representations of Islam transitioned from caricature based on “fatalism,” “backwardness,” and “decline” to one steeped in “fanaticism,” “ferment,” and “violence.” A far cry from the indolent “Oriental” imagined by nineteenth-century European scholars and cultural producers, the 1980s media construct of the Arab/Middle Easterner/Muslim was a wild-eyed “terrorist” or part of “bloody-thirsty mob.” In 1983, the bombing of the barracks housing U.S. and French members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, which took the lives of 299 service personnel, solidified this imaginative geopolitical orientation. Popular culture’s response was legion, most visible in the proliferation of anti-Arab cinema. Action films such as a The Delta Force (1986), Iron Eagle (1986), Death Before Dishonor (1987), Navy SEALs (1990), True Lies (1994), Executive Decision (1996), and Rules of Engagement (2000) stand as testament to Jean Cocteau’s maxim that film is a “petrified fountain of thought.” Other pop culture media forms, from children’s cartoons to bumper stickers to comic books, contributed stereotyping of Arabs as malicious, uncouth, anti-Western others—in a word—villains.
As the new millennium dawned, it was clear Americans were grossly misinformed about the Middle East, its customs, its lands, and its people. The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. did little to enlighten the masses or improve popular cultural representations of the Arab world. The politico-spatial inclusion of Afghanistan within a post-9/11 Middle East, an unintended outgrowth of the allied (U.S.-UK-Australian) attacks on Al Qaeda and their Taliban hosts, elided the country’s storied history and dramatic difference from the Arab world, while simultaneously yoking the mores of Pashtunwali ("the Pashtun way") to the idée fixe of the “Middle East.” Any mitigating factors that might have balanced the Middle East’s conception in the Anglophone geopolitical imagination evaporated overnight, leaving nothing but the negative contexts of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, instability, violence, and the oppression of women. From this point onward, it can be argued that the Middle East came down with a mortal case of what geopolitics scholar Francois Debrix calls the “abjection syndrome,” suffering both rejection and fascination in the West’s geopolitical imagination. The ensuing Iraq War only worsened the situation, playing out certain elements of the late Samuel Huntington’s 1993 “clash of civilizations” theory. The grand failure of the neoconservatives’ plan to bring pluralism and the free market to the Arab Middle East though regime change in Iraq only reinforced generic stereotypes of the Arab as politically hamstrung by misplaced allegiance to “corrupt” politicians and “irrational” clergy. However, this simplistic geopolitical narrative began to crumble in the first days of 2011 as the winds of change swept across North Africa, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.
Everywhere, it seemed, young Arabs were fed up with dictators of all stripes: nationalist, Islamist, and monarchist. Enough was enough, as the slogan of “kefaya” underlined with the gravity only a single word can. Catalyzed by the bravery of few and organized by the social networking talents of the many, ordinary people took to the street and toppled decades-old regimes around the Arab world. Despite the heady nature of this transregional phenomenon, American tabloid television-centric media spent more time obsessing about the dangers of Islamism and constantly asking the frankly stupid question of “Will this increase the danger of terrorism?” This absurd reporting (particularly when contrasted with the way in which the mainstream media gleefully welcomed similar changes in Eastern Europe in 1989) reflected the deeply rooted prejudices in the West about Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East, and—in my opinion—contributed to the sloppy response of Washington as it tried to come to terms with the changing nature of power and politics in the region.
Now we have the world’s most dangerous interlocutor, Sacha Baron Cohen, adding his voice to the discussion. While I am sure we will all get a good laugh out of The Dictator, I can already see how the film will worsen the American geographical imagination of the Middle East and due further damage to our already frayed relationship with the new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, if not the whole of the Arab world. Of all the peoples and places around the globe, the stereotype of the Arab, the Muslim, and the Middle Easterner is—arguably—the most profound, pernicious, and perfidious. Get ready for it to get a bit worse.


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