If pop culture were candy, my childhood would have been one long stomachache. I devoured the stuff like it was religion, sifting through it for signs of higher intelligence, or lower intelligence, and maybe some sense of my own intelligence (that search goes on, by the way). This hunger has continued throughout my so-called adulthood, but nothing matches the initial glimpse of that enormous body of culture, like the first sighting of a new continent.
My nose was always in a book, but it was rarely an Arabic book. I destroyed my eyeballs watching films, almost none of them about the Middle East. I damaged my ears forever listening to music, again, none of my own culture. This was mostly a matter of options—there simply weren’t enough local cultural products to consume. What I read in Arabic was history. This is what respectable Arab children read. I loved it, but I would be lying if I said they kept me up dreaming. Grandizer, Tintin, Asterix, Indiana Jones, Pink Floyd, The Doom Patrol, Star Wars, Roald Dahl, Jules Verne, Kurt Vonnegut…these were my original inoculations and I have the scars to prove it.
I am now a writer and a filmmaker. In prose, movies, and comic books, I contribute to the mass culture. My hope is to reach people the way I was once reached. What I write is, in a broad sense, Science Fiction, a mostly misunderstood form. Science Fiction is not extrapolative by nature, although it can be. It is not predictive. It is not meant to guess the future. It is also not an escapist medium, for much of it is really quite depressing.
Science Fiction is descriptive. It is a metaphor for the human condition. It is about the internal workings of human civilization and the mysterious workings of our identity. This is the kind of writing that comes naturally to me. It is the language of my soul.
But something is askew. Every now and then, a friend or a relative will tell me, “Omar, why don’t you write something normal. Why do always write that sort of thing? Why is it all so…weird?”
There are several implications to what they are saying.
First, that somehow an artist has control over what they write and what they are interested in. Nonsense, of course. We are imprisoned by our tastes like a poisoned man— there’s nothing we can do but vomit and hope for the best. The second implication is that writing “that sort of thing” is somehow too Western, not Arab enough, not close to my identity. When I tell them what I write is very personal and very much of myself, I don’t think they believe me.
These comments gave me pause, and I realized that even when I attempt to write so-called “naturalism”, trying to reflect the world as it really is, with the same rules of physics and logic that we live with every day…even when I try to do that, despite all my efforts, what comes out is Science Fiction.
Arab boy, why is your writing so alien?
Still from Naim’s The Final Cut (2004)
My parents left Lebanon in 1976.
I wonder why…
I grew up in Amman, Jordan in the seventies and eighties. Amman at the time was very provincial. Movie theaters were scarce, as were plays and quality TV shows. Our home was very Arab and very Lebanese—in ritual, in food, in tone. Yet both my parents were part of what might be called the “cultural elite”—artists, with artist friends. Art from all over the world filled the house, and it both blended and clashed with our daily habits. When we moved to Cyprus for most of my teenage years, the house was once again a bubble of Arab-ness. But it was here that I gradually discovered movies through videotape like most people of my generation.
I was always drawn to films about loneliness, not because I was lonely in my personal life, but because I felt alienated from the very art that I was seduced by.
One film that was deeply and utterly about loneliness and had an enormous impact on me was ET. ET is the story of a fatherless suburban boy who meets a lost creature from another world. They are both alone. They become friends, and help each other grow, and eventually ET goes home, and the kid cries, and the audience cries, and despite all this crying we are all quite happy. It’s a beautiful story, and like much of Spielberg’s career, do not let its enormous mainstream success distract you from its true artfulness.
For me, the “normal” world of ET was the alien part of the story. The creature was much less shocking than the suburbia that stretched out before me like a glittering field of stars. I saw suburbia and wondered, “what a strange place to live.” I saw the kitchen and was surprised by its contents. What’s that thing in the corner? A jar full of cookies? Really? What are those aluminum-coated meals they put in the oven for dinner? Where’s the Mujadara and the Kishk and the Kibbe? And how can they talk back to their mother that way? Such insolence! If I ever talked to my parents that way the punishment would be swift and severe. My parents were and still are happily married, but even my friends whose parents hated each other stayed together if only to spite each other. Because of this, it took me years to realize that Elliot’s parents were divorced—I thought dad was just at work all the time. (And what kind of name, exactly, is “Elliot”? My friends were named Mohammad, Mo-tassim, Khaled, Khalil, Wassim and Walid and Haya and Rania and Badia. But Elliot?)
American suburbia was far beyond my imagination, but when I saw ET — the new and unusual in the big plate of “normal” we have been served — I was relieved. I could imagine such a thing as ET. In fact, I had, regularly. My mind was crammed full of tentacled beasties, one-eyed gobloids, fanged gibberlings and twitching antennae.
As a teen I sank into the quicksand of horror literature. I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved H.P Lovecraft and Clive Barker, but my drug of choice was Stephen King, that other purveyor of monsters and suburban angst. Once again, the monsters were a relief from the sheer foreignness of the ordinary. His novel IT was my favorite (and no, not all my touchstones have two letter titles.) IT is about a demon who takes the shape of whatever his victims fear most: a clown, a giant spider, a vampire, a werewolf. Business as usual, no big deal, as familiar as fattet djej.
But even IT posed its own cultural conundrums. Halfway through IT, the pre-pubescent characters are cornered and fear they are going to die. There’s only one girl in the group, a smart aleck tomboy named Beverly. And Beverly decides she’s going to have sex with all the boys. And she does. This event boggled my mind in so many ways, and is still the only scene I remember from the book. Yes, sex is a provocative and hazy vision to all twelve year olds, but in Western culture it’s, you know, around. In advertising, in schoolyard gossip, on TV. It wasn’t around for me, and that scene in IT was as far from my life and my reality as you could get.
And so it was that the intentions of these stories were completely reversed in my mind. “Naturalistic” films are science fiction to me, and science fiction films are natural.
Now I live in the United States, and have lived here for over a decade. The feeling has not gone away. I feel at home in no place, in no language, with no people. It took some time, but I got used to it.
The pop-cultural environment in the Middle East is changing. The Internet is a big part of it, giving an outlet for all kinds of creative voices. Young Arabs are making more films, more comics, more television, more music, and it is reaching a wider and wider audience. Art in our own language, reflecting our own problems, and heroes that share our names and skin color will soon be the norm, not the exceptions.
My generation may be a pre-digital anomaly whose tastes and passions and obsessions are unique to us alone. It seems that there are wires crossed somewhere deep in the machinery of our selves. Maybe a valve is loose in there, or the motherboard is covered with bubble gum. But who can honestly say that their machinery runs smoothly?
Omar Naim wrote and directed The Final Cut, starring Robin Williams. It premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay award at the Deauville Film Festival. He is a contributor to the Samandal Comics Magazine.