Beirut: 2000 years of an Orientalist myth

Despite the increasing ease of travel and migration, Westerners still rely heavily on the media for information regarding foreign populations, and thus only tend to have a second or even third-hand experience of the world. Thus, the West’s conception of the Arab world is almost fully formed by the media: news outlets, movies, politics, books, etc. Due to the ongoing wars, invasions, and occupations of Arab lands in which the U.S. is heavily implicated, it is evermore crucial today to scrutinize this portrayal. Why? Here’s a hint – it’s far from accurate.

When Edward Said wrote Orientalism, h saw it as a primarily Franco-British problem and practically spared Americans for their lack of national engagement with the Middle East. However, the US should today seem to be a world-leader in Orientalist thought and practice.

Dark, mysterious, exotic, dangerous, unknowable… These are some of the words that come to mind when discussing deeply racist, Orientalist topics. As it happens, those were precisely the words which raced through my mind while watching the trailer of the upcoming Hollywood movie Beirut.


I got enough from the trailer to know this will be yet another troublesome portrayal of the Arab World. The plot revolves around a fictional hostage situation set in 80s Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The movie does not include a single Lebanese actor or staffer – let alone being filmed in its eponymous city. Rather, it was filmed in Morocco.

Although I am a native Arab speaker, I could barely make out the language being spoken. Kids, running around with toy guns, dancing on a tank, men swathed in keffiyehs carrying machine guns and casually strolling through the streets… These are the ‘facts’ that prepare the viewer for the absurd assertion: “The monsters have taken over Lebanon! Something needs to be done.” The trailer ends with a series of bombs, killings, and explosions, with the voice-over “2,000 years of revenge, vendetta, murder...welcome to Beirut.” Born and raised in Beirut, hearing thousands of civil war stories from my dad, and having lived through two wars myself, I am explicitly aware of how simplistic and reductive this assertion is.

Consequently, my article isn’t here to critique a Hollywood movie; it here to tackle a still prevalent idea of “the Arab World” engraved in the mind of the “West.” I balk at the fact that a high-grossing, large-scale, big-name Hollywood movie like Beirut till sells in “progressive” circles. Of course, it’s not altogether shocking. While Hollywood may have made some strides in its portrayal of women and its diversification of roles for people of color (if nowhere near the degree the media would have us believe), movie moguls have not yet embraced the West’s depiction of its ‘East’. In fact, now bored by exploiting other marginalized groups, Hollywood seems to have reverted to the age of the Indiana-Jones-esque, exotic, mysterious Orient.

In just the last five years, it has produced the latest Sta War trilogy (which has surprisingly escaped backlash for it blatantly orientalist and mystifying depiction of a quasi-Arab world), America Sniper, The Dictator, Zero Dark Thirty, an Lone Survivor. All set in or otherwise embedded in an unfathomable, culturally opposite, evil ‘East’. The entire set met little to no critique; on the contrary they earned two Oscar wins, two Oscar nominations, and over 106 wins in other categories/awards.

Suffice it to say, such movies meet very little opposition in the West. This, despite the fact that every single one of them lauds gruesome, militaristic violence, a topic which is officially much denounced (when you think of the Holocaust, the slaughter of Vietnamese by American troops in the 60s and 70s, or the near-extermination of Native Americans). Yet, as long as it is directed at Arabs and Muslims, it is okay. I think this ongoing trend, now continued with Beirut, s reflective of an endemic Western problem; a sickness I think is most helpfully referred to as the politics of bodies.

Forget the racism, forget the mysterious veiled figures, forget the screaming and shouting, the sand everywhere...the biggest problem, as I see it, is the problem of bodies. Bodies blown apart, bodies strewn on the floor, bodies tortured, bodies maimed. The common denominator between all these bodies? They are non-White. Being non-white, non-Western, they are dispensable. This appears to be Beirut’s message in a nutshell. One white women killed in the Middle East justifies launching an entire American tirade of collective punishment against the whole region. In other words, this politics of bodies is the question of American exceptionalism.

Variety praises Beiru fo “keeping it relatively apolitical, in the sense of taking no particular side.” Their justification? “Apar from our flawed but genuinely well-intentioned heroes, nearly everyone here operates out of duplicitous self-interest.”hy are the Americans always the “well-intentioned” ones, when they are bombing and causing war in other countries? Most importantly, why does America have to keep telling itself this mythology?

American humanity is exceptionally important. One American body, therefore, requires piles of ‘other’ bodies in return. Bottom line, it’s a question of humanity; who qualifies as human enough, who fits into the criteria of worthy of sympathy. In sum, who is worthy of life? Such movies show you exactly what the answer is. They manipulate your sympathies; worse even, they explicitly single out who deserves your sympathy. That is why, when you watch an explosion and see a bunch of Arab bodies flung to the side, you, presumably the desired White (or White-identifying) viewer, aren’t really meant to feel anything. But when one American body is even threatened, a full-scale war must rupt immediately. This narrative of immediate, unequal “response” (no one ever asks about the history leading up to these encounters) is precisely the same narrative we encounter continuously in film, news, politics, and media.