Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Borat: cultural leanings of Jerkmenistan

By Khaled Diab
I finally got round to watching the film version of Borat at the weekend. While the original sketch version was often pretty hilarious, the format did not transfer well to a full-length feature film.

The reason I mention it in a blog about Israel and Palestine is that Sasha Baron Cohen purports to have made the film partly to touch upon the issue of anti-Semitism in the West.

Interestingly, I found, was that the film’s only episodes of explicit anti-Semitism were those played out by Baron Cohen himself: the Jew chase in Kazakhstan; the incident where Borat is terrified that he’ll be eaten alive by the Jewish proprietors of a guesthouse; or when he walks into a gun shop to ask the bewildered shop keeper for a gun that can kill Jews.

In contrast, there are explicit examples of bigoted behaviour, racism and discrimination targeted at blacks, homosexuals and Muslims. One memorable example is when a southern gentleman at the rodeo advises Borat to shave off his moustache because it makes him look like a Muslim and that was not welcome around those there parts.

Of course, given their history of being persecuted, Jewish sensitivity to anti-Semitism is understandable, but attempts to make a major issue out of it in the contemporary western context are misplaced. Ironically, the real Kazakhstan has many problems, but anti-Semitism is not really one of them, according to the Union of Council of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Baron Cohen would’ve been better off choosing Russia or the Ukraine where neo-Nazism is alive and kicking.

Today, the worst forms of discrimination are targeted against other minorities, such as blacks, Arabs and Muslims. However, even in these cases, it would still be a stretch to label it persecution, since, fortunately, there are plenty of checks and balances in place to protect minorities, and most people are more enlightened than they were a few decades ago.

That doesn’t mean we should not be vigilant – we must be. But that doesn’t mean we should cry wolf when what we mean is barking Chihuahua. In addition, minorities should stick together and defend their collective rights. That’s why I find it shocking that, for instance, the Jewish community of Antwerp has weighed in behind the far-right Vlaams Belang. Do they not realise that, given half the chance, the party would turn on them, too, and this is only an alliance of convenience? Or how about the stories of certain extremists Islamic groups aligning themselves with neo-Nazis? Don’t they realise that in the Nazi order of things Arabs feature lower down the pecking order than Jews?

Proud to be Kazakh?
The film also raises the question of how quasi-racist or culturally chauvinistic one is allowed to be in their attempts to highlight bigotry. In other words, can you be a bigot when trying to reveal bigotry? I mean, with this film and the hype surrounding it, aren’t you glad you’re not Kazakh? I certainly am glad Baron Cohen passed over the Egyptians and decided to portray another Johnny Foreigner as incestuous, lascivious, macho, uncultured and perverted!

In his own defence, Baron Cohen has said that his depiction of Kazakhstan is not meant to bear any resemblance to the real country. And his ignorance of the mineral-rich Central Asian state which is actually the size of western Europe shines through. For instance, Borat comes complete with his own Orthodox cross, even though the vast majority of Kazakhs are Muslims or follow one of the indigenous religions, referred to locally as nanim, or beliefs.

The question also begs itself, if Baron Cohen had wanted a country that few in the west had heard of or knew about, why not go the full hog and really make fun of people’s ignorance by creating a fully fictional ‘-stan’? My suggestion is Jerkmenistan.

Here are some facts about the real Kazakhstan:
* It is 2.7 million km2 which is bigger than western Europe
* Horses are believed to have been first domesticated here
* In medieval times, the Kazakh Khanate was located on the Great Skill Road and attained a decent level of prosperity until infighting between the different tribes weekend the Khanate
During the so-called Great Game between the major European powers, the Khanate fell under the control of the Russian empire, which later became the Soviet empire
* Kazakhstan declared its independence in December 1991 and strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president ever since. In fact, in 2000, the parliament ‘granted’ him lifetime powers and privileges.
* Kazakhstan is a semi-authoritarian country whose vast oil and mineral reserves mean that the government can afford not to be accountable to the people

©Khaled Diab.


IsraeliMom said...

I was never under the impression that the movie was about antisemitism. Maybe it was portrayed differently in the European press? Here the overall notion was that he was trying to expose American superficiality and prejudice against lots of things, not necessarily Antisemitism. In fact, I agree that there wasn't any there by his "victims", only by him.

I saw it as just one more take on portraying the Kazakh's as primitive, nothing to do with the Jews per se.

Sure, it's outrageous in many ways. It is not politically correct either. It was still really funny for us. I was crying from laughter at the scened of the naked fight in the hotel lol

Khaled Diab said...

The film had its moments - like the car showroom scene when he asks to be shown the 'pussy magnet'. But this is more suited to a sketch show, not a film.

Also, I wonder how many people would be cracking up at it if he pretended to portray a nationality we know intimately.

DrO said...

I found this site thanks to your Guardian CIF piece on the other right of return, which I thought was really great - I wish there were more people writing such fair and considered pieces in our press. I dread reading CIF these days and yours was a pleasant surprise - from the title, I thought it was going to be more in line with the usual tone of the Guardian!

But this piece on Borat I thought was somewhat disappointing on the issue of anti-semitism. I think the problem with anti-semitism is that it's a sort of discrimination which quite often doesn't get recognized as such - it gets morphed into other things, like, most notably for our day, anti-zionism. And this, I think, also helps to explain (although not justify) the foolish sympathy which is shown by some Jews with the far right in Belguim - if everyone else ignores, makes excuses etc, for the discrimination you face, you become desperate to speak to people who are recognizing the danger presented by those who persecute you. To my mind, as you say, this is mypopic and misguided but it is at least explicable - it is an act of desperation for someone to speak to your plight. If the other parties gave recognition to this problem (which they will not do, I presume, for fear of alienating the Muslim minorities), then they might not be forced into such a shameful compromise.

Chris said...

Hello Khaled. I've just read your piece on Comment Is Free on "The Muslim Faithless", which was highly informative and a pleasure to read.

Now, this blog post:

I think for Borat's examination of antisemitism you really need audience involvement. For example, when I first saw the film, everyone in the cinema raucously laughed at the Jew gags, yet when Borat referred to a black gentleman as "a genuine chocolate face" there was an audible gasp of shock throughout the auditorium. It seems that antisemitism is somehow more "acceptable" than other kinds of racism.

As for Kazakhstan, doesn't it work better because the real Kazakhstan isn't how Borat would have us believe it is? That he's showing how ready some are to believe that a country in central Asia is completely backwards, (to borrow an expression from one wiser than I) our prejudices interrogated further by a joke of a higher order and a subtler irony?

Khaled Diab said...

dro and Chris, thanks - I'm glad you're enjoying my CiF pieces.

Thanks for your observations re anti-semitism. dro, anti-semitism can sometimes parade and masquerade as other things, such as anti-zionism. On the flip side, pro-Israelis often try to silence valid and warranted criticism of Israel by intimating that if you're not with Israel, then you're an anti-semite.

Chris, may be everyone laughed raucously at the Jew gags because everyone knew that Baron-Cohen is a Jew. It's like when a black comedian calls his homeys 'nigger', people feel they can laugh, but not when a white supremacist says it.

I'm not sure how 'subtle' the Borat's Kazakhstan is. Besides, I'm not sure many people watching the film have a clue what the real Kazakhstan is like, so it may as well have been a made-up country.