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Friday, December 16, 2005

This is Peter Suderman's Syriana review in the National Review. Needless to say I did not agree, and felt so strongly to write him in response:

Mr. Suderman,

As an avid reader of the National Review I was particularly disappointed in your recent "review" of Syria. I am quite comfortable in assuming that you have never studied anything remotely close to Islamic History nor have you traveled anywhere in the Middle East. Your article is itself a stunning example of typical American ignorance with regard to cultural, historical, and national nuisances.

First off, Syriana does not open with a "throng of Arab men" quarreling. The men are Pakistani (I would make the stereotype that few Arabs play Cricket). The men look different than Arabs, dress differently than Arabs, and do not even speak Arabic. They are cheap labor often exploited throughout the Arab-Oil world, most notoriously in Saudi Arabia.

Secondly, the "simmering nervous score" that opens the movie is the Muslim call to prayer, which is sounded five times a day throughout the Muslim World. I personally find the mu'azin's (the Arabic title of the man who sings the call to prayer, although today it's mostly done with a tape or cd through a PA system) call beautiful and quite artful. Although I suppose some Muslims would view Catholic singing at the beginning of Mass a "simmering nervous score". Still, perhaps others might have an appreciation for it.

You describe the world of Syriana as one in which "every word is a half-truth spoken in code", and for that you are quite right. Arabic is a masterful language, whose perspicacity and depth, when properly woven by a skilled Arab poet, is rivaled only by Shakespeare's mastery of the English language. The very nature of Arabic as a language is that it's ambiguous. For Arabs, words can be weapons. Literally. Arab history is littered with stories of battles being fought not with the sword, but by the two armies' most skilled poet. The two men would battle a war of insults and arguments until one was the clear winner. But I digress.

Ultimately, no matter what the "conventional liberal piffle" was (I'm still trying to decide which part of it was), I thought Syriana to be thought provoking and debate engaging. I found it refreshing to go to a film which actually required some interaction with the audience, challenging them to struggle with the material instead of numbing the brain for 2 hours with violent special effect and driveled dialogue.

I am also not quite sure if you have ever spent time in out nation’s capital, for all the great things our government does for countries around the world, to not think that it’s a place of relative "low moral gravity" is a bit naïve. Back scratching, conflicts of interest and a general lack of integrity are very much alive in Washington DC.

I thought George Clooney’s and Jeffrey Wright’s performances to be spectacular. Clooney’s Arabic and Farsi were flawless, as someone who in the past was comfortable lobbing Clooney in with the wacko-Left crowd of Hollywood like Michael Moore and Al Franken, it was pretty clear to me that the man has some clue of the current realities of the Middle East, where things are often ambiguous and not as cut and dried as some politicians and oil executives would have us believe. Wright’s cold, business-like demeanor was particularly realistic; he would be most deserving of an Oscar nod. I do, however, agree with your assessment of Matt Damon’s performance. I’m not sure whom I would have cast, but I did not feel he was able to pull off the frustration you accurately believe he is trying to express.

As for the little doubt of the film’s "devoutly liberal pedigree", I’m not quite so sure. Obviously Clooney’s leftist credentials are unquestionable, but I found myself surprised by the air of objectivity in Syriana, unless you are involved in the Oil Industry. I often found myself questioning which side and character to cheer for; the rogue Prince Nashir, who genuinely seeks the betterment of his own people through political progressivism and non-economic oil dependency on his, not American, terms, even though he actively courts the support of Muslim fundamentalists; or, the oil executives, who despite being incredibly avarice in their pursuit of filthy lucre, are pursuing an oil merger that is ultimately in the average American’s best interests.

Most fellow Conservatives I know who have seen the film found it incredibly relevant, thought provoking, and eerily realistic. At the end of the day, Matt Damon’s exclamation that "this is a fight to the death", is the reality of politics and economics in the Middle East. And until the United States is willing to curtail our pusillanimous and pathetic dependence on foreign sources of oil, the US government and oil companies will have to work in ways to promote the spread of democratic process and values, deal in circumstances which may be ethically confusing, and confront persons and ideologies which would see the destruction of the American way of life, all this in a part of the world where the vast majority of Americans do not know the difference between an Arab or a Pakistani, or between Arabic and Farsi.

I submit to you that perhaps this film, in a non-partisan debate, could be a productive source of constructive criticism of some American policies in the region. Perhaps at the very least it would be a good opportunity for Americans to be exposed to a culture, language, and religion of which their appreciation for and general knowledge of is extremely lacking, as you have made so painfully clear.

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