Review: Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema

 Michael Anderegg

Gayatri Devi and Najat Rahman, eds., Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014. Pp. 264. $29.99 Pb.

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The title of this collection of essays, Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema, appears to limit the scope of what is in fact a wide-ranging introduction to a rich and complex body of work by filmmakers from a variety of cinematic traditions. Focusing on humor, it turns out, in no way narrows the range of discussion. Given the very looseness of the term “humor,” and, in general, of what constitutes the “comic” and the other cognate and ancillary terms associated with it—comedy, satire, farce, burlesque, together with words like “funny,” “droll,” “amusing,” “laughable,” and “absurd,” to list a few—one might suggest that no film or television series can be entirely without humor of one kind or another. Nor, as the editors point out in their introductory remarks, is the term “Middle Eastern” limiting, including as it does, at least in their formulation, “multiple countries that are home to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, the Persians, the Ottomans, and the Nile Valley; multiple races and ethnicities; at least four major languages, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew, along with many languages and dialects; and three major religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and a minor one, Zoroastrianism” (2). The essays included in this collection discuss films and forms of comic expression not only from Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, and Iran, but from India and Pakistan as well.

If defining the term “Middle East” is problematic, so too, of course, is defining “humor.” This is true even when we are dealing with a more or less homogenous culture; when we are dealing with cross-cultural engagements, including but not limited to questions of linguistic transference, the problem is magnified. Some comic ideas will resonate no matter what the cultural context; others will not. Some types of humor are entirely physical, other types entirely verbal. In the cinema, comedy is often expressed physically and verbally at the same time. It may not be entirely ironic (another form of humor) that in attempting to theorize comedy, the editors and several of the individual contributors turn again and again to “western” writers and thinkers, from Aristotle and Plato to, especially, the Frenchman Henri Bergson, along with Kierkegarrd, Santanyana, and Freud. Theories of comedy, one might think, are the high brow equivalent of explaining a joke: if you have to say why or how something is funny, it probably isn’t. Actually, few of these writers wrote anything like a complete theory of comedy: even Bergson’s essay, titled “Le Rire,” is primarily concerned with why we laugh. The best discussion of comedy, no doubt, is Aristotle’s—unfortunately, his treatise doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, some attempt to categorize the why and how of comic effect is a necessary precondition to the investigation of such a wide range of texts and comic modes, especially when, as in Middle Eastern films, “a merry disruption of norms seems to uncover repressed content of a serious nature that goes to the heart of structural and representational questions regarding individual and cultural identity” (4).

For the western reader/filmgoer, many of the films and, in particular, television programs discussed in this volume are not easy to find and when found pose problems of accessibility. Not only do Middle Eastern films present cultural and linguistic barriers to outsiders, but even when such barriers have been ostensibly removed, difficulties remain. To pick an obvious but crucial problem, subtitles are often insufficient and/or misleading. In her essay, “Stereotypes and Cultural Power in Israeli Cinema,” Elise Burton notes that an important comic line in Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer, “What, have you become Ashkenazim?” is mistranslated in the official English subtitles into the contextually meaningless “What are you?” (which, let’s face it, isn’t very funny). Even titles can be problematic: Tere Bin Laden, for instance, can mean both “Without you, Laden” and “Your Bin Laden.” Keeping these problems in mind, it is nevertheless fortunate that several of the films discussed at some length in these essays can easily be found on Netflix and other on- and offline sources: Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2005), Rashid Mashrawi’s Laila’s Birthday (2008), and the Bollywood Tere Bin Laden (2010). Unsurprisingly, given the vagaries of international film distribution, these are relatively recent productions and thus cannot said to be representative of the full range of Middle Eastern cinema. As there is no space to discuss each of the nine essays in this collection, I will limit my remarks for the most part to commentaries on these four films.

Najat Rahman discusses both Laila’s Birthday and Divine Intervention (together with a third film, Paradise Now), films produced under Israeli occupation, in her essay “The Possibility for Politics in Recent Palestinian Cinema.” Laila’s Birthday and Divine Intervention can be seen as films that “consciously reflect on the act or representation, on its aesthetic and political dimensions.” “In representing what seems to defy representation, humor plays a key role, pointing the way to the possibilities and limits of cinematic representation” (32), Rahman writes.

In Laila’s Birthday, we follow the perambulations of Abu Laila, Laila’s father, formerly an important lawyer now working as a taxi driver. The one day during which the events of this film develop, while it includes bombs and explosives, mostly presents the protagonist with absurdist moments that have no culturally specific significance—life in any city can be frustrating, a continuous cacophony of noise and confusion, of bureaucratic stupidity and official intolerance, of misunderstandings caused by a breakdown of the social structure. The fact that this city is Ramalah, and not New York or London, of course, inflects every event with its own meaning and significance that may not necessarily be understood, or even noticed, by an outsider. But at least part of the humor in Laila’s Birthday stems from the way the characters, like the audience, are unable to read the events taking place around them correctly: for instance, are exploding shells coming from Israeli helicopters or from the factional internal fighting going on all around the city? Nobody seems to know.

If Laila’s Birthday depends for its comic effect on deadpan humor and absurdist but recognizably real situations, Divine Intervention is absurd in a different fashion, employing fantastic images “eclectically borrowed from video games and films, seemingly escaping the confines of Palestinian national identity only to reaffirm them” (44). Much of the film’s action take place at a checkpoint separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, and the climax of the film shows a female flying Ninja destroying a squad of Israeli soldiers. As Rahman reads this scene, “it is this incongruity of a flying ninja in this typical West Bank landscape juxtaposed with the familiar militarized figures that elicits the laughter and is emblematic of the absurd” (45). One wonders. Though perhaps satisfying to a Palestinian viewer living under the daily large and small indignities of the occupation—and we see a number of these throughout the film, some presented in a comic mode—one cannot help but interpret this final scene as wish fulfillment fantasy, and the humor, such as it is, seems finally inadequate to the issues at stake.

Perhaps the most obviously “comic” of these four films is the Bollywood produced Tere Bin Laden, which in some ways resembles Hollywood films aimed at youthful, hipster American males—Judd Apatow without sex, bad language, or bathroom jokes. The main character is played by a famous young Pakistani singer, which allows for several interruptions of the narrative for a variety of musical interludes. The comedy, at times more than a bit lame, is described by Mara Matta, in “Laughter Across Borders: The Case of the Bollywood Film Tere Bin Laden,” as an example of “spoof” humor and “mad” comedy. The plot, which involves the making of a “fake” video featuring an Osama Bin Laden look-alike, is not really worth detailing. The real question Matta wants to address is one that might be easily missed by a viewer not from the Asian subcontinent or the Middle East, “the fact that Tere Bin Laden, despite its main actor being a Pakistani, is an Indian production shot and edited by an Indian crew working in the Mumbai Film Studios deeply affects the image of Pakistan portrayed therein” (218). The film was banned in Pakistan, not primarily because it satirizes such issues as America’s war on terror, but because, ultimately, it was believed to make Pakistanis look ridiculous. The political and social commentary one might be tempted to find in Tere Bin Laden, turns out to have more to do with the fraught relations between India and Pakistan than with the geopolitical issues the filmmakers appear to foreground.

Perhaps the most obviously “comic” of these four films is the Bollywood produced Tere Bin Laden, which in some ways resembles Hollywood films aimed at youthful, hipster American males—Judd Apatow without sex, bad language, or bathroom jokes. The main character is played by a famous young Pakistani singer, which allows for several interruptions of the narrative for a variety of musical interludes. The comedy, at times more than a bit lame, is described by Mara Matta, in “Laughter Across Borders: The Case of the Bollywood Film Tere Bin Laden,” as an example of “spoof” humor and “mad” comedy. The plot, which involves the making of a “fake” video featuring an Osama Bin Laden look-alike, is not really worth detailing. The real question Matta wants to address is one that might be easily missed by a viewer not from the Asian subcontinent or the Middle East, “the fact that Tere Bin Laden, despite its main actor being a Pakistani, is an Indian production shot and edited by an Indian crew working in the Mumbai Film Studios deeply affects the image of Pakistan portrayed therein” (218). The film was banned in Pakistan, not primarily because it satirizes such issues as America’s war on terror, but because, ultimately, it was believed to make Pakistanis look ridiculous. The political and social commentary one might be tempted to find in Tere Bin Laden, turns out to have more to do with the fraught relations between India and Pakistan than with the geopolitical issues the filmmakers appear to foreground.

The one film that at first sight appears to stand apart from the usual political kinds of questions that inform the others discussed so far is Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. Kiarostami, an internationally acclaimed film maker, is quoted in Gayatri Devi’s essay on the film as saying that art should be timeless: “In a country like Iran, where social and political issues are constantly shifting, the artist should focus beyond these mundane issues, on more fundamental realities like humanity itself, which is more universal” (169). Nevertheless, Devi finds that The Wind Will Carry Us encourages a political reading which emerges from an aesthetic that combines both the sublime and the comic, or, rather, as Devi terms it, the comic sublime. In the course of the narrative, the central character, Behzad, a filmmaker from the city, visits a Kurdish village in order to document the mourning rituals for a one hundred year old dying woman. By the end of the film, Behzad, “a ridiculous character in the Aristotelian sense,” has undergone a spiritual growth such that “he is ready to confront the sublime and be transformed by it rather than one who simply deserves to be laughed at” (183). There is very little overt comedy here, though there are comic situations such as increasingly frequent trips Behzad takes to a high point in the landscape in order to get cell phone reception and to answer to his bosses who want to know when the old woman is going to die. For the most part, what laughter this film elicits is, in Devi’s formulation, “quiet” laughter, a laughter that “does not create aggression, violence, or hostility, even if one laughs alone” (166). The Wind Will Carry Us, like many of Kiarostami’s films, is often subtle and mysterious, not easy to comprehend, one suspects, even for an Iranian viewer. The politics and social commentary of the film are both internal to the culture where it was created even as it touches on and at the same time transcends the universally understood values of urban vs. rural life, western style sophistication contrasted to the rituals and habits of an ancient culture.

Although these essays at times suggest something of the political and social effects of cinematic humor in a variety of Middle Eastern cultures, one might want to ask where the evidence for this is to be found. Lacking in this otherwise admirable collection is any detailed analysis of reception. This, of course, is a particularly tricky matter where audiences live in repressive regimes: Kiarostami’s films, for example, are officially banned in Iran, as was Tere Bin Laden in Pakistan, though in both cases, bootleg DVDs and internet downloads can get around the censors. Even if we consider one measurement of reception—the number of tickets a film sells—it is not always clear what to conclude from that evidence. Somy Kim, in a discussion of the popular Iranian comedic melodrama, The Outcasts, which makes fun of the clergy while at the same time valorizing the Iraq-Iran war, concludes that “while the melodramatic martyr narrative allowed [the film’s] government approved release, the comedy and its attendant social critique are what appealed to an Iranian audience struggling to accept the strictures of an increasingly restrictive government” (159). But that conclusion cannot be assumed without some tangible evidence to back it up. Apropos of this problem, Cyrus Ali Zargar, discussing Iranian television, quotes Anatoly Lunacharsky’s description of satire as “a moral victory, lacking a material victory” (80). And sometimes, not a victory at all: comedy can be supportive of the status quo as well as in opposition to it. One hopes that further research into these questions will be encouraged by the publication of the enlightening essays in this useful collection.