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The International Writers Magazine:

Cultural Receivers
Marwan Asmar

Like it or not we are cultural receivers, and I dare say, if western audiences were exposed to "our culture," the influence would be much more balanced; and they, western audiences, would become cultural receivers too, willing to accept alternative cultures, alternative point of views and alternative film.

As an Arab and a Muslim, I am actually besotted by Western culture although in this day-and-age I might feel somewhat ashamed to say it. But this is the truth not only about myself but also by a lot of my compatriots who dwell on films from the West, namely Hollywood, and to a lesser extent films made in Britain, if they could get hold of them as they sadly dwindle by the day.

But this is the situation as it exists today. Watching western films is to be seen different from American politics, the country where most of these movies are produced in. Watching European films is a rarity still, and today English hegemonizes our viewing habits.

No matter how you try to get away from it, you get back to the Hollywood/British pictures as if they are around the corner or as quickly as they boot you in the back, for today such is the nature of globalization you can’t get away from.
It doesn’t of course mean that you are less of a good Muslim, but what it means is that there is a sort of blending going between my culture, and the dominant culture, between my identity, and the imported identity that is willingly thrust upon me, and which I feast my eyes on with shy delight.

With me, a man in his late 40s, that sort of blending could be a little disconcerting when I watch my 20-something daughter viewing things which I wouldn’t necessarily approve of, or see my 12-year-old son glued to a movie that is totally alien to our "Islamic" culture. But then I think, it is up to us as parents to take our socializing role more seriously and allow for a constructive social blending between our eastern culture and the western expose which we are constantly subjected to, and if I may say like, and with the rest of my family liking as well!

The other day, we sat—me, my wife and daughter—to watch a relatively old 1990's film by Jack Nicholson called As Good As it Gets. It was a Nicholson vintage, not only for its sinister aspects, but for the laughter it produced as well the good dialogue some of which I didn’t necessarily approve because of the somewhat open and abrasive style of language and because of my daughter watching.

I always used to think of myself as liberal and progressive and suppose still do, but for my Muslim children, who pray five-times-a-day, I am a reactionary which I hate to be labeled as that because of the political connotations of the word.
Nevertheless as a good Muslim I keep questioning whether I should be watching stuff like this, this time I didn’t ask, what I did was to sit and watch the film, which many of my compatriots usually do, and if they don’t like the film well, it’s not really related to religion, but to the dialogue which needs you to have a good command of the language and perhaps of the idioms and culture it has labeled.

The storyline and the eccentricity of the man who comes out as a crazy but lovable character, makes the viewer all eyes and ears, with the language and facial expressions carrying you through.

This is what we do in the Arab world, we are constantly glued to our television sets, and sometimes cinemas, watching western films with adventure. It has become a cultural link and extension. Despite our moderately good English, we also read the subtitles included that tell us what is going on but not totally, deleting the swear words for instance and/or the sexual expressions, which sometimes I thank God they do!

On another level, the cultural link does not mean we’ve lost our own "Islamic/Arab/Third Worldish" point of views, far from it. What it means is that we want to watch good quality stuff that quite a lot of the time we do not have access to, and despite locally-generated materials.

Ok, sometimes there might be trashy pieces of film, but that also means, and like western audiences, we switch off, or switch to other channels to look for other films from Hollywood or other forms of entertainment. And in between other trash, we more than likely find other stuff to watch!

Also, we, "Islamic/Arab/Third Worldish" are also more open than western audiences but this is maybe because the cultural link is a one-tunneled affair. Like it or not we are cultural receivers, and I dare say, if western audiences were exposed to "our culture," the influence would be much more balanced; and they, western audiences, would become cultural receivers too, willing to accept alternative cultures, alternative point of views and alternative film.

In the past—1980s when I was watching in the UK—Channel 4 attempted to show films, including Arab, that depicted alternative cultures, some were Egyptian, Algerian, and Moroccan. I remember thinking I wanted to see films by Duraid Lahham, the Syrian political satirists, who in the 1970s, was making fun of the Arab situation.

But the problem with the showings in general is they were consciously catering for minority viewers, those especially be looking for such things, whereas the objective should be today to show alternative cultures to mass audiences whether they are British, Americans, Canadian and so on and create better links of bondage that would go beyond political narrow-mindedness and show there is a continuum of humanity among the races of the world.

But critics might then jump on a different wagon and say showing alternative film may not be popular with the English-speaking world audiences simply because they are not used to subtitling as we are, say in the Arab world, and thus would not watch the films, dramas or documentaries that are in different languages.

In all fairness, that could well be the case as well. In the West, audiences have become for want of a better word, "sophisticated" and their attitudes molded to accept certain modes of watching. They have been conditioned to have a limited time span where subtitling would delay, serve an obstruction to the picture and the sound that is upfront.
Because these audiences live in the countries where these high-powered films have been produced, there developed no tradition of attempting to understand alternative cultures through film as is the case in Muslim/Arab/Third World countries.
© Marwan Asmar Feb 2008

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