How The Middle East Became Another Planet

From Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless with his harem and his war rocket Ajax, to Frank Herbert’s prophecy-obsessed desert tribes in Dune battling over a valuable resource, the Middle East has always been another planet to western science fiction creators. In his box office hit Argo, Ben Affleck played the CIA agent who in real life rescued 6 Americans from revolutionary Iran via the cover of a science fiction film location trip.

But the film’s real power, lay in how it was itself (apparently without any irony) filmed as a 70s science fiction apocalypse drama. Relentless hordes of zombie Muslims break down gates, smash windows, emerge from side streets to thump their zombie hands against the hero’s minivan, use zombie cunning to reconstruct shredded photos and even chase the departing plane down the tarmac in their relentless hunt for human/American meat.

While it is now fashionable to sneer at the supposed racism of it all, those of us old enough to remember those dark times will never have forgotten the images that appeared on our television news bulletins: the women swathed in black, the chants of hatred, the torment of the US embassy hostages. A nation before our eyes transformed, as if by a virus, into an alien state. Over time secular leaders of the revolution were to find themselves victims of the terrifying purges that followed as the clerics turned a popular uprising into a new theocracy. The Iranian revolution, though dependent on a unique set of Persian and Shia circumstances, was to create and inspire a new generation of Sunni militants; its imagery overlapping with the visual clichés of science fiction not least in the obsessive pursuit of nuclear or “dirty” weapons.

Could Western science fiction have shaped some of those forces too? Writers  have explored the theory that Al Qaeda took its name from an Arab translation of the title of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel series. Did Osama Bin Laden read it in the early 70s like the young Newt Gingrich (another fan with ambitions of great power) in his wild teenage years in the West? Even Ayatollah Khomeini, no fan of cinemas and their whoreish fantasies, wrote spiritual advice about marriage with extra-terrestrials.

Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi revealed recently that the 1968 film Planet of the Apes had influenced his vision of nation-building. As I write crowds of ordinary Egyptians are back on the streets protesting his granting of sweeping powers to himself. But President Morsi found a rather bizarre lesson in the film of a repressive religious state that grew out of a world destroyed by war. He implied he knew better than the citizens and court judges contesting his actions: “That’s the conclusion,” he told Time magazine of the film. “Can we do something better for ourselves.”

Mohamed Morsi saw the film when he lived in Los Angeles for several years from the late 1970s. I wonder if he ever watched Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)? Shot in the new Century City Shopping Mall of West Los Angeles, its visuals deliberately re-imagined police brutality against 60s civil rights and student anti-war protestors. When I lived in LA, I wandered round the mall, remembering how the film juxtaposed happy shoppers with the police pouncing on dissidents.

Like President Morsi, the film remained with me and the imagery came alive again as I watched internet footage from last year’s anti-government protests in the Gulf states. Fired on and beaten by riot police, in some states armed by British firms, young people took refuge where they could – in a Costa Coffee in Bahrain – in one case. They were dismissed within their nations, and by some outside, as naïve “Rolex revolutionaries.” (Egyptian economist Tarek Osman talks about the label in our recent Radio 3 Free Thinking discussion with BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen about the Arab Uprisings) But their abuse was real. In Bahrain, doctors who treated injured protestors were tortured and jailed. In Qatar, a poet who wrote verses inspired by Tunisian uprising, has just been jailed for life. Has the appearance of Western affluence and shared consumer totems made it easier to turn a blind eye? How bad, really, can it be if they are hosting a Grand Prix, the football World Cup or have Top Shop and Starbucks like us?

One of the most mined SF clichés of the 60s and 70s is the affluent society masking a repressive police state.  It used to look heavy handed when it was filmed in the shopping malls of LA. But we find ourselves looking to the Middle East this time to see the political prophecies of science fiction come to life.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue

Further reading/listening

Al-Qaeda and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (Fantastic Guardian article by Giles Foden 2002)

President Morsi and The Planet of the Apes (NY Times Lede Blog Nov 2012)

The Arab Uprisings and democracy BBC Radio 3 Discussion with Egyptian political economist Tarek Osman and BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen (Nov 2012)

UK arms sales to Bahrain (Guardian Feb 2012)

Cameron defends “legitimate” arms sales to autocratic Gulf states (Telegraph Nov 2012)

Bahraini doctors jailed for treating injured protestors (Guardian Sept 2011)

Poet jailed for life for criticising Qatari Emir (Guardian Nov 2012)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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