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