January 28th, 2010 21:11 EST
Whose kingdom of heaven is it? Listen to the music
I have been listening to the score of the 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven. As usual with me, epiphanies start from my toes and take their sweet time climbing the stairs.
It first dawned on me that there was a kind of Eurocentric oh sh*t! element in the score when I realized I had been enjoying entirely too much the music`s medley of Western and Eastern sounds. In time I realized that the Eastern sounds, however exhilarating, were meant to connote a strain of menace and danger (besides being a musical cliche). Danger to whom? Certainly not the Kurd Saladin and his Muslim armies; danger then to the Christians. Us, us simply because they are not us.
In other words, everything is going along swimmingly in Christendom until you hear those Saracen drums and ouds and swords beating on shields "and suddenly it`s Oh Sh*t, man the gates! Yes, but whose gates? The Saracens themselves had been invaders, taking the Holy Land from the Byzantines. The Crusaders then sacked Byzantium, their putative ally, and invaded the Holy Land.
So just whose land was being invaded, and whose gates were being menaced? The Jews (who some claim were the original occupants) had been long since dispersed by their pagan and then Christian persecutors. But the Jews themselves had been invaders. Before them there had been Phoenicians and Philistines and Canaanites, and some of them were actually of pre-Islamic Arab origin.
So here was this hotly contested and complicated real estate, with anvil-shaped clouds on its various titles, being contested by the superpowers of the time, the Crusaders and the Saracens. The Saracens were an advanced civilization by then, and the Christians would have much to learn from them, which they proceeded to do and to which we owe much of our technological prowess.
I have no quarrel with the historicity of the Ridley Scott film. The eminent Islamic scholar, Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University, was its adviser. I enjoyed it. But over time, simply because I am often a slow learner, I could not help but notice that the score, however much it pays homage to the Saracen enemy, does in fact present the Saracens as a dangerous enemy without which Jerusalem would be better off "this following hard on the heels of our 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are no accidents, and cops are always suspicious of coincidences.
Saladin, the Kurdish sultan of the Saracens, was noble, just and wise, and so he is presented in this film and in many others. But he is the enemy, and that does draw a line between East and West, friend and foe; it draws a line in this time of hyper-commercial globalization, saying in effect that what`s sauce for the goose (commerce) is not sauce for the gander (politics and religion).
A film, many films in fact, could have been made about the achievements of Arab (Saracen) civilization, about the Convivencia in Spain (a time of unparalleled tolerance and progress), about Arab science, medicine and mathematics. But an epic was made in the wake of an attack on an Arab country about a medieval conflict that still defines the relationship of Muslim and Christian.
I think this is something to ponder. It is worth pondering, as well, that when Arabs hear those ouds and drums they do not think of menace and anger. They think of their culture and its worth. But when they hear medieval Christian sounds, when they hear the triumphalism in some Christian hymns, such as Onward, Christian Soldiers, they hear the menace.
Kingdom of Heaven is, then, a Western film, as indeed it purports to be "an Anglo-Spanish-US-German co-production, as the credits say "in which the Crusaders, and the film`s modern audience, are invited to respond to the sounds of Araby in much the same way we responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Oh sh*t! And then of course Johnny gets his gun and goes to war.
But what about Zaid and Abdul getting their swords and going to war to meet the Christian invaders? That is lost in the Eurocentrism of the film, Eurocentrism in a time of free trade and mutual exploitation of markets. It doesn`t exactly make this excellent film and its rousing score an anachronism, but it does suggest a deeply ingrained problem of perception. If we are to be true internationalists, then perhaps we ought to stop making nationalistic films. This four-nation endeavor is, in spite of itself, nationalistic to the degree that Westerners perceive Muslims as enemies. Can they trust a people to whom their music is sinister? Can the West trust a people who find their culture odious? Who knows, but we had better start asking ourselves those questions if globalism is mean anything other than exploitation of cheap labor markets.
It could be argued "in fact, the Bush Administration had a stab at it "that the terrorist attacks on America constituted a nationalist Arab attack on America. But the truth is much more complicated. Fanatics attacked us, and not from Muslim nations alone, just as surely as homegrown fanatics bombed a federal building in 1995 in Oklahoma City, killing 168 fellow Americans.
The Saracens elicit an Oh sh*t! response from us, but we on the other hand are free to ignore the Oh sh*t! response we and our attitudes elicit in them, because, after all, we are the important ones, and they, being them, are something else. Not exotics or Hollywood extras exactly, but not quite as human or understandable as we are. It`s reminiscent of the oh sh*t moment Richard Lionheart must have experienced marching from Jaffa to Jerusalem when he encountered an immense Saracen army encamped outside the holy city. He expected the Good Humor man, maybe?
And therein is the stubborn problem. It is not about the Kingdom of Heaven, because we can`t truly say just whose kingdom that is supposed to be. Christendom`s? The Hebrews`? The Saracens`? Whose kingdom? Whose heaven? We don`t agree about that today any more than we did then. Under such circumstances, isn`t it irredeemably biased to suggest menace on the one side and the menaced on the other? What is inherently more menacing about the oud than the Irish harp? Only our preconceptions assign menace to the oud, the precursor of several Western instruments.
The dilemma reminds me of all those movies in which jackbooted Nazis in black uniforms would appear to the accompaniment of menace music after years of the world having ignored what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, gypsies and other undesirables. " Our official policy was to let someone else worry about it until oil-starved Japan attacked us. Then we rolled out the menace music.
The 21st Century would seem to be a good time to globalize our intellects as well as well as our business practises. (A movie like Clint Eastwood`s Letters From Iwo Jima suggests a good model.) Propaganda may attain the level of art, witness Leni Riefenstahl`s Triumph of the Will, a Hitler fest, but music has much more admirable uses than to demonize fellow human beings. It seems obscene, after all, that a people whose language has named more than half the stars in the heavens should be perceived as oh sh*t movie incidentals. What will we think if a vibrant Chinese film industry doggedly portrays us as smelly round-eyes and our sounds of music become their oh sh*t moment?
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.