Sunday, August 15, 2004
Beirut Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is provoking strong Arab reaction. Kuwait banned it, Jordan tried to cut it, Syria has not decided, and Saudi commentators are denouncing it.
Many Arab moviegoers say with a twinge of envy that they wish the region, where free speech is for the most part restricted, had its own Moore. Some say it reinforces their bad image of the United States and shows Americans what their own media does not.
A few believe Moore is unfair to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"When he condemned the war in Iraq ... he pictured it this way: Baghdad was happy and safe until cowboys Bush and Blair came," Saudi columnist Reem al-Saleh wrote in Kuwait's Al-Siyassah daily.
"He ignored 30 years of muscle-flexing invasions, villages massacred by chemical weapons ... millions of bodies, and mass graves. He has no right to hide the full truth."
Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was driven out by the U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War. Many Kuwaitis are grateful to the United States.
Gianluca Chacra, whose Dubai-based company released the film in the Middle East, said attendance was at blockbuster proportions.
"We were quite scared that due to the Saudi content it might not pass," Chacra said.
In the United Arab Emirates, the information minister, in an unusual step, asked to see it first, then approved it. In Jordan, the censors insisted the Saudi content be cut, Chacra said. They later took the film to "higher authorities," who OK'd it in full, he added.
Kuwait banned the film on the spot, Chacra said. He did not bother showing it to the censors in Saudi Arabia, where there are no movie theaters, only videos.
The movie is playing in the remaining four Gulf Cooperation Council countries. In Syria, Yousef Dakalbab, head of distribution at the government-run Public Cinema Organization, said the film "may be shown or may be banned."
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is playing in Lebanon and Israel and will open in Egypt later this month.
Emerging from a Beirut theater, 22-year-old student Shafiq Nassif said the film showed dead and mutilated Iraqis that Americans do not see much of on their TV screens.
"It's good that Americans can get to see this," he said.
For Radwan Rizk, a 47-year-old Lebanese gym owner, the message was double-edged: Moore's presentation shook his idea of American democracy, yet reinforced it, too.
"I hope that we can come to a point where we can criticize our own governments the way he did -- freely," Rizk said.
Dalal el-Bizri, a Lebanese sociologist based in Cairo, Egypt, warned that the movie "should not be allowed to reinforce the hatred that people feel for America."
"If you have a problem with the United States, hatred will not solve it," she said.
In Cairo, 28-year-old Noha Sayed Al-Ahl, who runs an arts and culture advocacy group, did not find the film tendentious.
Moore "used real footage and facts to support his point of view and used as much proof as possible to back up his claims. If he hadn't, somebody would have taken him to court," she said. "He really cares about America and the foreign policies of America and is brave enough to speak his mind and interpret events in an alternative way."
In a Beirut gym, two women in their 40s discussed the movie as they worked out.
"I loved the movie because it showed that Bush was a partner in terrorism through his dealings with the Saudis and (Osama) bin Laden's family," said Sana Rafeh, a teacher.
Many said the funniest parts were those depicting Bush, but Jordanian Tareq Khalil said he still believed "America is the most powerful country in the world, and Bush is the strongest man."