Powell Showcases Middle East in American Popular Fiction
The exhibit, curated by CNES Assistant Director Jonathan Friedlander, runs Nov. 6-Jan. 12 at UCLA’s Powell Library. A Jan. 11 lecture will treat the Middle East in American crime fiction.
Published: Thursday, November 02, 2006
Scheherazade's tales have appeared in many forms in books, magazines and comic books and have inspired characters in film, music, theater and other performing arts.
"Tales of the Imagination: The Middle East in American Popular Fiction," featuring items that testify to the powerful, continuing hold the Middle East has on Western imaginations, will be on view at UCLA's Powell Library from Nov. 6 to Jan. 12.
Sparked by the "Tales of a Thousand and One Nights," writers, illustrators and publishers in the late-19th century began to exploit the Middle East as a favorite subject matter. Scheherazade's tales have appeared in many forms in books, magazines and comic books and have inspired characters in film, music, theater and other performing arts.
From the pages of the Bible have come stories about real and fictional Judeo-Christian characters, including the eponymous hero of "Ben-Hur; A Tale of the Christ" (1880). The story of Moses connects biblical narratives to Egypt, which has provided a richly detailed background for historical novels conjuring tales of lost tombs, hidden treasures, the supernatural and the ever-fascinating Cleopatra.
Rudolph Valentino's character of the Sheik remains an omnipresent figure in the lucrative genre of romance novels. More menacing portrayals as found in the pages of pulp fiction serials, including Argosy, Spider and Weird Tales, were massively popular during the 1920s and '30s, as were men's magazines of the 1950s and '60s with sadistic images of Arabs adorning their sensational covers.
More recently, Middle Eastern scenarios have come to dominate mysteries and spy novels, setting plots featuring conspiracy and intrigue, conflicts over land and resources, ideology and nationalism fought in exotic oases, casbahs and bazaars. Stories based on the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq draw on current events to blur the lines between personal anecdote, news and history.
As this extensive body of work shows, it is in the nature of popular culture to appropriate from many sources and continually reinvent itself — and drawing on the Middle East has proven to be extremely profitable. Yet this cultural appropriation, even in fictional format, can be destructive. And while academia has debunked Orientalism, this "American Orientalism," which can affect consumer culture and foreign policy alike, deserves critical study as well as self-reflection.
The exhibition curator is Jonathan Friedlander of the G.E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies. Its contents are drawn from a large archive of Middle Eastern Americana collected by Friedlander and housed in the Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections. It is the second in a series of exhibitions dealing with American Orientalism, the first of which, "Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique," appeared in the Powell Library Rotunda last year.
Admission to the library and the exhibit is free.
Hours for the library are as follows:
Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sunday, 1 p.m.-10 p.m.
Hours vary on Friday, Nov. 10; during the Thanksgiving holiday, Nov. 22-24; and during UCLA intersession, Dec. 16-Jan. 7.
Reeva Simon will give a lecture on "Terrorists, Fanatics and Spies: The Middle East in American Crime Fiction" at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 11. Simon is a professor of history at Yeshiva University, where she teaches Middle East and Islamic history; she served as associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University from 1993-2003. Her current work, "From Jihad to Jihad: Crime Fiction as Political Metaphor," is a sequel to her earlier book, "The Middle East in Crime Fiction: Mysteries, Spy Novels and Thrillers from 1916 to the 1980s."
For more information, visit http://www.americanorientalism.org/.