Beirut exhibition questions Orientalist cliches

At a Beirut cultural centre, Lebanese film buff Abboudi Abu Jawdeh is exhibiting vintage film posters that show a lost art and offers insights into decades of Western cliches of the Arab world.
Saturday 25/05/2019
A visitor observes vintage cinema posters at an art exhibition in Beirut, April 23. (AFP)
A rare collection. A visitor observes vintage cinema posters at an art exhibition in Beirut, April 23. (AFP)

BEIRUT - A pale woman rides through the desert, flanked by armed men on camels, a palace shimmering in the distance. This is Lebanon -- or so someone thought in the 1950s.

At a Beirut cultural centre, Lebanese film buff Abboudi Abu Jawdeh is exhibiting vintage film posters that show a lost art and offers insights into decades of Western cliches of the Arab world.

Abu Jawdeh gestured towards the desert scene, which is an Italian poster for the 1956 French movie "The Lebanese Mission."

"This is from the artist's imagination," said Abu Jawdeh, 61, standing beside the image featuring the camel riders and a palace resembling India's Taj Mahal. "He knew Lebanon was in the East, so he did this," he said, despite Lebanon having ski slopes and sand only on its Mediterranean beaches.

Abu Jawdeh moved to another poster for the same film, this time featuring an oil well. "I hope we will have some," he said, as Lebanon only this year starts exploration for hydrocarbons off its coast.

A glance at the film's synopsis reveals more inconsistencies. A Frenchman falls for the daughter of a Lebanese nobleman while in Lebanon hunting for uranium, a metal not mined in the country.

Abu Jawdeh began collecting posters in his teens, starting with films starring American actors Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. Visiting old cinemas across the region, he unearthed a world of images -- for more foreign films but also thousands of prints advertising films from the Arab world.

Some of his finds in this rare collection date to 1930s Egypt or Lebanon in the late 1950s. He owns approximately 20,000 posters, stacked up to the ceiling at his publishing house, their bright colours shielded from sunlight.

Different versions of the same poster are especially revealing, indicating which country required a change in a film title or a bra painted over a naked back to avoid offence.

As his collection grew, Abu Jawdeh said he noticed a trend in some Western posters for films set in the Middle East. They "resembled the paintings that Orientalists painted of the region in the 18th and 19th centuries," he said.

Dozens of these images are on show through May 25 at the Dar El-Nimer cultural centre in Beirut. Titled "Thief of Baghdad," after a much-remade fantasy film from 1924, the show is replete with turbaned men, flying carpets, snake charmers and belly dancers.

There is Elvis Presley starring in a film called "Harum Scarum" and a British-Egyptian comedy reportedly inspired by late Egyptian King Farouk's unrequited passions for a belly dancer.

With captions summarising often outlandish screenplays, the posters show a fantastical world far removed from the modern Middle East but also gross misrepresentation. "Come to savage seething Arabia on a terror search for forbidden treasures of the ages," reads the tagline for the 1957 action film "Forbidden Desert."

Late Lebanese-American academic Jack Shaheen analysed portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films. He watched more than 900 movies spanning a century to the early 2000s and concluded that only 5% showed Arab roles as "normal, human characters."

Instead, a whole people was systematically dehumanised or vilified. Often, all Arabs were Muslims and all Muslims were Arabs, wrote the researcher of Christian descent. Female characters were largely belly dancers or enchantresses, silent "bundles of black" or "terrorists."

Abu Jawdeh said he and others may not have always rejected such depictions. "We, too, liked seeing a belly dancer," he said.

However, the public now will likely see the posters differently, he added, welcoming a fresh-eyed re-evaluation of how the West has viewed the Arab world. "They need to see them to re-examine these human relations," he urged.

Around the corner, Rabbah Faqih, a 30-year-old master's degree candidate in archive management wearing a long black robe and her hair covered, looked at a poster featuring a skimpily dressed actress.

"I'm all for a good expressive poster to draw people in but I'm against commodifying women like this," she said. "We're not all belly dancers in Lebanon."

(Agence France-Presse)