Stuck On Half Moon Street
December 30, 2008 2 Comments
If you’re as cynical about and tired of Middle Eastern politics as I am, an interesting thing to do for a laugh is to go back and watch or read some old movie or book from a long time ago that touched on Middle Eastern politics. Chances are, all the same issues will be present and it will be manifestly clear how little has been solved or progress has been made.
Conversely, if you’re a wide-eyed optimist about things such as the “peace process”, doing the above can be an important corrective.
For example, Half Moon Street is a (rather strange) movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine. The main plot has Weaver, a supposed expert on the Middle East who works for some sort of “Middle Eastern Institute” in London, deciding to become a call girl. (This is mostly presented as liberating and independent, and Weaver appears to be attempting to look defiantly unsexy and unwomanly despite being nude in many scenes; the whole thing is steeped in a quaintly ’80s notion of feminism.)
Anyway, she gets caught up in Arab/terrorist/etc political intrigue in the process, because (it’s pretty clear even before the conclusion) she’s being used as bait to try to blackmail or trap Michael Caine. Why? Because the Caine character is a bigger “expert” whom the government turns to in order to negotiate secret, and fragile, “peace talks”, and the Bad Guys who Don’t Want Peace (and the movie is very strange in its hints about whom these Bad Guys are) wish to prevent him from Creating Peace with his ingenious plans for Talks and Negotiations (which, of course, it is implied he will do if only he and his genius are kept safe from the Bad Guys).
The good smart people can create peace with their brilliant negotiations and talks and summits, if only the Bad Guys will let them and stop standing in the way. This is all pretty familiar territory to anyone following current events and familiar with conventional wisdom. But the funny part is that this movie was made in 1986 and based on a Paul Theroux book from 1984. All the same assumptions and naive beliefs are there as we have now. Apparently the smart people are so smart that they haven’t learned a single thing in almost 25 years.
What really struck me, and what strikes me as more deserving of comment than it seems to get, is that in the film (as with real life) Middle Eastern politics are constantly being presented as something complicated and intricate (and of course important) that can and needs to be studied by “experts”. The rather obnoxious Weaver character is presented as someone of overwhelming brilliance because of how much she understands. One thing she says in a (supposedly brilliant and cutting-edge) “talk” she gives is that it’s cool for OPEC to limit production even though the Saudis don’t like it (paraphrasing). At another point in the movie she praises Kuwait’s “social services” (this was pre-Gulf War). This is the sort of brilliance that Hollywood minds believe can solve problems such as Israel-Palestine, you see.
About 2/3rds of the way into the movie, my mind started wandering, and I asked myself: why do we need so many “experts” on the Middle East, and so many “institutes” to “study” this (rather simple in its barbarism and not at all difficult to understand) place? What makes “the Middle East” so special? I mean, how many “Norway experts” or “Institutes for the Study Of Danish Politics” are there I wonder? My answer is: overeducated social-science people need ways to feel important and useful, and so they are the ones who create demand for roles such as “Middle Eastern expert”, and perhaps they are egged on and indulged by wealthy Arabs needing somewhere to shower their propaganda money. In other words, it’s not that the “Middle East” needs so much “studying”, it’s that a bunch of otherwise-useless people either need something to “study” or have too much money to throw at those who do.
To people whose views were informed by actual reality, the failure of “peace process” and “Middle-East expert” type thinking to accomplish, well, anything over the past three (four? five?) decades would present a challenge to conventional wisdom. But we seem stuck with the same old assumptions and beliefs. Our views about “the Arab world” are more like a mythology than anything else, and I wonder if we underestimate Hollywood’s role. They are our mythmakers after all.