‘Researcher dies in combat’

Hugh Wilford

  • America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State by Osamah F. Khalil
    Harvard, 426 pp, £25.95, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 97157 8

‘Argo fuck yourself.’ The line is repeated several times in Ben Affleck’s 2012 historical spy thriller, Argo. Based on the memoir by Tony Mendez, a CIA agent, the movie depicts the covert rescue of six US embassy workers caught up in the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis; the CIA used a fake film-shoot – of a schlocky sci-fi story called ‘Argo’ – as cover for spiriting the diplomats out of Tehran. American audiences seemed to enjoy the joke. Argo won three Oscars and earned a presidential stamp of approval when Michelle Obama presented the Best Picture award live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. In Iran itself, however, the film was less well received. Despite an opening sequence that apologetically acknowledged CIA involvement in an earlier operation – the 1953 coup against the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which many Iranians view as a direct cause of the 1979 revolution – Argo made surprisingly little effort to reflect Iranian perspectives: most of the Iranians in the movie were either bungling officials or members of violent mobs. Some critics felt that the pun on the movie’s title might as well as have been a message from Washington via Hollywood to Tehran.

Why would a self-professed liberal like Ben Affleck – who majored in Middle East studies – show such insensitivity? The main reason, many scholars would argue, is Orientalism. When Edward Said elaborated his critique of Western scholarship about the ‘East’ in 1978, he focused on British and French Orientalists. Since the publication of Orientalism, however, a number of writers have applied his analysis to American culture and have found distinct similarities with European Orientalism, including a tendency to represent the Middle East in ways that implicitly justify Western imperialism in the region, portraying it as stagnant, irrational and licentious. Generations of American movie-makers have tended to use a narrow range of derogatory stereotypes – the greedy sheikh, the exotic belly-dancer, the fanatical terrorist – to portray Arabs and Muslims. Argo is, in this sense, merely a recent expression of a long cinematic tradition. Such Orientalism isn’t limited to the movies. With its depiction of Islamist terrorism as a threat to domestic American life, the TV series Homeland and its spinoff Tyrant have effectively functioned as a fictional rationale for successive post-2001 US interventions in the Middle East.

In America’s Dream Palace, Osamah Khalil goes further: he argues that Saidian Orientalism and the imperatives of the US national security state have affected not only producers of American popular culture but those who really should know better: the country’s Middle East experts. Khalil begins his story in the First World War with the ‘Western Asia’ division of the Inquiry, the team of US advisers established to help Woodrow Wilson prepare for the Paris Peace Conference. Made up of Orientalist scholars and Protestant missionaries (at the time, the only US citizens with any sustained first-hand experience of the Middle East), the division presented Wilson with a demeaning picture of the region’s inhabitants as congenitally incapable of self-government: their assessment helped to win Wilson’s agreement to British and French rule by mandate over the territories that would become Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Unfortunately, the few Arabs consulted by the Inquiry – such as Emir Faisal, friend of T.E. Lawrence and future king of Iraq – reinforced this assessment, inaugurating the role of ‘native informant’ that other Arab leaders would fill for the Western powers in the years to come.

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[*] Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States (Stanford, 392 pp., £24.99, March 2016, 978 0 8047 9906 5).