Are Arabs really that mysterious and volatile? Do they love camels, guns, drums and hummus?
Whenever Hollywood has tried to dramatize the Middle East, it has generally fallen for stereotypes. There are the romantic sagas of past decades such as Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O'Toole (1962) or The Wind and the Lion with Sean Connery and Candice Bergen(1975). Here we have camels, swords, tents, rescued veiled women, and mystical desert nights. Through this lens the Middle East is nothing short of magical. The music is eerie and enchanting or pounded out with dance drums.
More recently we've seen a long list of violent dramas such as Rules of Engagement (2000), Syriana (2005), The Kingdom (2007), or Lone Survivor (2013) which are essentially war movies set in the Middle East. They rarely rise above the conflicts they display and Arabs are stock characters in battles. And there is no doubt about the enemy. (Afghanis are different than Arabs of course but few western viewers probably make the distinction.)
Then there are the new war dramas that make us relive the trauma of murky conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan through films such as The Hurt Locker (2009), Argo (2012), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Here we have the Middle Easterner as explicit enemy and America as heroically resolving the dilemmas of asymmetrical warfare.
Rarely in these films do we gain a sympathetic understanding about the Middle East's culture. Rarely do we see its humanity or its nobility. There is little there to admire. They often trade in stereotypes.
Occasionally television attempts to depict this complicated world with series that stumble into the same gross stereotypes. This year we have seen the worst example in FX's Tyrant which I have explored elsewhere. This show produced by the makers of 24 and Homeland offers a staggering display of cultural insensitivity where for the most part Arabs are violent, corrupt, sexual deviants who kill as easily as they like to take bribes. It is unfortunate that the series is produced in Tel Aviv.
But just when you're about to give up hope, a sterling exception comes riding over a desert dune. The Sundance channel is now showing An Honorable Woman and it is without doubt the best Middle East drama I've seen in years. Produced by Hugo Blick for the BBC and Sundance, the eight part series features a riveting performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein, the daughter of a Jewish weapons manufacturer who helps arm Israel. As a girl Nessa watches her father get assassinated but as she matures she takes over the company, develops it into a mass-communication corporation, and hopes to bring peace the Israel/Palestine. If people could just talk to each other perhaps then there would be hope, she thinks. But not everyone is happy. There are millions of dollars on the table here. And everyone thinks that their cause justifies taking that money at any cost. Even murder. And besides, peace may not be good for business.
Here we meet perfectly corrupt Israelis and Palestinians. We also meet moderate, sensible Israelis and Palestinians. And we discover that the British and the Americans are pulling more strings behind the scenes than we'd like to admit. Plenty of people get killed and the perpetrators are rarely clear. But within this complex and satisfying drama we have a brilliant story filled with nuance and sophistication. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) superbly plays the outgoing head of Britain's MI6 Middle East bureau and he displays a skepticism and wariness for everyone who steps up with a quick answer about either side. He trusts no one. He knows how truth-tellers survive in this conflict only with difficulty.
We should celebrate when a series gets it right. And does it well. The sets, the costumes, artistic cinematography, acting, and above all, the writing are absolutely top-drawer. The only disappointment is that Hugo Blick has announced that there would be no further episodes. The series is finished. Which may be fine. In eight hours, he will explain through metaphor and innuendo many of the finer points that we need to know when we listen to the shadowy players in the modern conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, IL. He writes extensively on the Middle East and has traveled frequently to countries from Iraq to Libya. He is also the author of numerous books and articles on theology as well as the Middle East. His recent publications on Israel/Palestine include Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology (2010) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2013). www.garyburge.org.