Friday, May 18, 2007

‘Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique’


Orientalist imagery has long been appropriated for use in American film posters, cigarette packs, pulp fiction and popular music: scantily clad harem girls, tyrannical despots and turbaned mystics have personified an imagined Middle East in the popular culture, creating an American fantasy that represents the exotic and the erotic.

Hundreds of objects reflecting that imagined realm has just wrapped up its first run at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique,” an exhibit of Middle Eastern-inspired ephemera, is about to be launched as an extensive on-line data base complete with music samples, selected film clips and a comprehensive assortment of “Middle Eastern Americana” artifacts such as sheet music, souvenirs, book jackets and consumer goods, many bearing Middle Eastern insignias, and the accompanying advertisements which range from the crass to the cartoonish.

Appropriately housed in the tiled, arch-encircled rotunda of UCLA’s Powell Library, select items from the collection of Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies, comprised the display. Objects included comic books from the 1930s, pulp fiction book covers with titles such as “Desert Madness” and “Spicy Adventures,” video games such as “The Prince of Persia,” vintage sheet music for songs including “The Sheik of Araby” and “Rebecca Came Back from Mecca,” photos of topless women on the covers of CDs, fierce warriors on the covers of DVDs, “Turkish” tobacco products, Egyptomania films, and various and sundry consumer items such as Palmolive beauty products, Ben Hur flour, Sheik condoms – and a couple of Shriner fezzes.

The graphics and objects reflected the many images – some lurid, some diabolically savage, and others strikingly beautiful – that the mysterious East has provided for the imaginations of advertising artists and commercial and packagers, all to hawk the wares of popular culture. Many of the images are crassly commercial, some risqué enough to be deemed borderline lewd, while others are grotesquely distorted or lampoonish. At the same time, some reflect the skill of graphic designers who turned out cover art with distinctive beauty, incorporating the graceful lines of the region’s architecture and the exotic images favored by the Art Nouveau artists of an earlier century.

But they are all manifestations of the Orientalist image of the “mysterious East” that runs through American popular culture, notes Friedlander, with the distortions and negative stereotyping that continue to manifest their dangerous ramifications in American political posture today. The emphasis is on American, and Friedlander terms it all “Middle Eastern Americana.”

“What is the appeal of this iconography in the United States? The answer is complex,” Friedlander told Al Jadid. “Back in the 1920s, the mysterious Middle East represented freedom from the rigid morality of the preceding era, and so it was a popular icon on sheet music for fox trots and waltzes.” Sheet music was a popular medium at the time. Americans bought new songs up with the same enthusiasm that today’s music fans snap up CDs. “The graphic appeal of the front cover design, racy lyrics and catchy dance melodies made sheet music a popular medium at a time when many Americans were taught to read music and play a musical instrument. And with the advent of mass media, color printing and consumerism, and the dance craze of the 1920s, the four-to six-page pamphlet, often strikingly illustrated, had wide appeal,” Friedlander said.

“American Orientalism is undoubtedly our own creation and as such it deserves critical study leading to self reflection,” Friedlander said. With the co-option of the images of the East into so many areas of the popular culture, the impact has never been more chilling. “While academia has debunked Orientalism it is still a profoundly influential force, affecting consumer culture and American foreign policy alike.”

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid

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