The Mid-East Mystique

The L.A. Times has a profile of UCLA professor Jonathan Friedlander, who is using his collection of ‘orientalist paraphernalia’ for an exhibit at the Powell Library. The items were collected over the years, bought at antique shops or even at the local Sav-On.

Several hundred items will be on view until Dec. 16. The complete collection, by contrast, comprises more than 1,500 pieces: 1930s comics and pulp fiction such as “Spicy Adventures” and “Desert Madness”; ads for Ben Hur Flour; bottles of Pyramid Beer; video games such as “The Prince of Persia”; sheet music for songs including “The Sheik of Araby” and “Persian Moon.” Exotic topless women undulate on the covers of Arabic music CDs. Fierce warriors scowl from the covers of DVDs. (Most of the collection is available for view on a database at the exhibition, which includes listening stations and film clips.)

Despite his attraction to these artifacts, Friedlander maintains there’s something pernicious at work in them. The images, which seem increasingly cartoonish the more you look, portray the Middle East as an irrational, oversexed, violent land given to despotism and mysticism. The women tend to move in harems and wear very little; the men seem not to go very far without their scimitars.

“It becomes ahistorical anything goes,” Friedlander says of the mishmash of myth, reality and disparate historical periods portrayed. “And you erase people’s cultures this way: It all becomes ‘the East,’ ‘the Orient.’ “

What’s even more twisted is how Camel cigarettes are exported and sold to the Arab world. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that one can sell the Orientalist mystique even to the Arabs. How’s that for a research topic?

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