America in Egypt
December 22, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The terrorist attacks awakened America to its tarnished image in the Arab world. We've heard a lot about our unpopular politics, but not as much about our image in Arab pop culture. Walter Armbrust is a professor of modern Middle Eastern studies at Oxford. He says the image of America inspires equal measures of love and loathing, especially on the big screen.
WALTER ARMBRUST: There's actually an Egyptian film that was made in about 1993 called Land of Dreams, and the land of dreams was America, and it was a film about a woman who was about to emigrate to the United States and the events of the film all revolve around her search for her passport, but of course what it's really about is her re-thinking the whole process of emigrating and whether the American dream is really so much better than the place that she comes from, and of course by the end of the film she decides not to go.
BOB GARFIELD: Does this ambivalence have its roots, do you suppose, in the population or is it just the conceit of some screenwriter?
WALTER ARMBRUST:That ambivalence is reflected in the population. You know most people know about the United States mainly through our own media, so in, in a way a certain image of America is a known quantity, but well America is rarely portrayed as a, as an unambiguous good thing, and you do indeed find the same ambivalence reflected in conversations with people. Of course one of the stereotypes is that Americans are licentious, and I remember having a conversation with some people once I'd known them for months and I was having dinner with them, I and my, and my wife, and in the middle of the conversation they asked is it true that marriage means nothing to Americans, and of course they knew that we were happily married, and yet this kind of question still comes up. So there's a constant interplay between stereotype and fantasy.
BOB GARFIELD: Apart from imagining us as a nation of libertines, how are American characters portrayed in Egyptian films?
WALTER ARMBRUST:Well there aren't actually that many films that portray Americans or foreigners, and when they do, they're usually there for a rhetorical purpose -- to show foreigners as being somehow strange, perhaps laughable, sometimes threatening, but more often just completely incomprehensible.
BOB GARFIELD: So whereas in the news media America and American policy often are demonized, that doesn't really show up in the film culture.
WALTER ARMBRUST:It does occasionally, but it's the exception to the rule. One of the most famous exceptions is a film called [NAME OF EGYPTIAN FILM] which is An Upper Egyptian in the American University. That was made in about 1998. Of course it's set in the American University, so a large part of the plot has to do with whether the American University is really going to be willing to allow its students to, you know, have freedom of speech to say whatever they want, particularly about the United States' relationship with Israel.
BOB GARFIELD:If an American audience were to watch, let's say, the top 3 Egyptian films at any given moment, and let's assume a perfect translation, would the American audience have any idea what was flickering on the screen in front of them?
WALTER ARMBRUST: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I mean you know these, these are commercial films. They're -- you know the plot structures are very similar to American commercial films. They borrow wholesale the stories and the plots from American films --It Happened One Night has been made, you know, 5 times. Irma La Douce has been made. Double Indemnity's been made. Gilda, Roman Holiday. I mean there's tons of, of American stories that have been adapted into the Egyptian screen. These films are not particularly impenetrable to a, to a foreign audience as long as there's a good translation.
BOB GARFIELD: Irma La Douce and Double Indemnity? No wonder they think we're depraved!
WALTER ARMBRUST: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Walter Armbrust, thank you very much for joining us.
WALTER ARMBRUST: Thank you for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD:Walter Armbrust is a professor of Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University and the author of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond.