Omar Sharif's film Hidalgo perpetuates age-old stereotypes

March 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Hidalgo, the last movie by Omar Sharif, came to theaters in the United States this month. The film tells the story of an American, Frank Hopkins, who wins a horse race in Arabia. The cowboy's mustang horse outruns the famous Arabian horses in the desert, and the cowboy beats the Arabs at their own game.

The first part of the film shows us that the cowboy, Frank Hopkins, who is blond and green-eyed, is actually half Indian. He witnesses the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the Indians were massacred in the late 19th century, with great grief. When the massacre is over, he takes a piece of cloth which the Indians used in their religious rituals and makes it his own flag.

Of course, the purpose of all this is to convince the spectators that, while the Indians and the white Americans were the two sides of the colonial equation, the cowboy was not a party to that conflict; he got the best of the two sides. He is a magnificent hybrid, just like his mustang horse and just like the image America loves to give itself. The cowboy is no longer a colonizer.

The Arabs, too, are not part of the colonial equation. They are not the colonized, they are complete outsiders, they do not have the moral authority of the conquered, nor do they have the physical authority of the conqueror; the cowboy, of course, has both. Arabs are people coming from outer space that cannot be fitted into the human world of right and wrong. The cowboy is the summation of that human familiar world; he is the outcome of the best of both sides; he is moral and naturally faithful like the Indians, and strong, able and witty like the white folk.

The Indian religious piece of cloth, the symbol of his mother's Indian tribe, which the cowboy uses as a flag during the race, is just as indicative. It is simply a cross, yet it is painted in Indian colors. The fact that it is a cross emphasizes the image of the cowboy as a Crusader, raising the banner of the cross in the barren exotic land of those extraterrestrial Arabs. The fact that the Indian emblem and the cross look almost the same emphasizes the idea that there is only one universal truth which all the "good guys" will accept one day. The flag again is a symbol of the unity between the white American conqueror and the colored conquered Indian; the oppressors and the oppressed all come together against the Arabs who belong to neither.

Sharif, who plays the role of the Sheikh of Sheikhs, supposedly the political and religious leader of Arabs and the organizer of the race, states boldly in the film that the horses are sacred to Arabs, and that it is written in the Koran that God had created horses from scent and perfume. Of course nowhere in the Koran is there anything of that sort; however, I found it interesting that, according to Sharif, God used perfume to make horses, while perfume itself is but a human invention. That line in the script is as ridiculous as a line that would argue that God used computers to create men - quite an innovation in divinities.

The film claims that Arabs have been holding an annual horse race, organized by the Sheikh of Sheikhs, from Najd to Damascus. The race is so important, claims the film, that tens of Arab are willing to lose their lives in it. Of course there was never such a thing as the "Sheikh of Sheikhs," nor a "1,000-year-old race" as the one described in the film throughout Arab and Islamic history. Throughout the film there is not one standing building in the land of Arabs; it is made only of desert, ruins and tents.

The film takes place in 1899. By then Arabs had been fighting with guns and cannons at least since 1517, but Sharif is dazzled by the cowboy's minuscule six-bullet revolver and offers him 10,000 dinars in gold for it!

The sheikh and his daughter are the only good Arab characters in the film. The daughter falls in love with the blond stranger, and the sheikh allows her to go unpunished for spending the night at the foreigner's tent. He greets the cowboy saying "let the light come into the tent." When the cowboy stretched his hand to the sheikh, one of the sheikh's men explained: "If his grace were to touch an infidel he would loose his ability to foretell the future" - again, a belief that only exists in Hollywood not anywhere in late 19th century Arabia. Nevertheless, by the end of the film the sheikh, graciously acknowledges defeat with a big smile and a hand stretched for peace, saying that had he been able to tell the future he would have bet on the cowboy!

The feminine-masculine metaphor of the film is also shocking. As usual, the colonial master shows full masculinity; the cowboy can beat any man in fighting and in horseback riding. He is the most handsome and the noblest. This is accentuated by the fact that every woman that appears in the film falls in love with him. The fact that he is penetrating the desert that is un-penetratable also further emphasizes the masculine-feminine equation, where the American is penetrating the land of Arab's expressing his control and triumph over her. And the land, after trying to harm him, reject him and evade him, finally accepts his victory in an all but orgasmic celebration, with many Arabs chanting "cowboy, cowboy!" the moment the man crosses the finish line.

I am willing to forgive Michelle Chalhoub, known as Sharif, for all his magnificent insights of Islam, I am also willing to accept everything that the film says about the Arabs and their land, being a dark female in need for the domination of the white masculine light-bringer. What I am not willing to accept though is that the route of the race, from Najd to Damascus, has to pass by Al-Rub al-Khali on the borders with Oman (Damascus is to the north of Najd and Al-Rub al-Khali and Oman are directly to the south). I also find it difficult to believe that the city of Damascus is but a piece of desert that lies on the seashore.

Of course, we are told at the beginning and the end of the film, that it is based on a true story - true indeed!

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