Thursday, January 7, 2010

Middle-East Avatars

When Joan and I were in Toronto last week, we went to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar. You’ve surely heard of it. Many of you have probably seen it. It’s a huge hit, both at home and abroad. But it set me thinking in an unusual direction about a topic that I doubt occurred to the director or to any of the people appearing in the movie and that is what I’d like to write to you about this week.

The story—a kind of Dances With Wolves set in outer space—unfolds in the year 2154. It’s a strange new world in many different ways, but Cameron avoids any dramatic paradigm shifts and the future is imagined merely as an intensified version of the present. We have machines, for example, but they have even faster ones and better ones. We send astronauts to the moon, but they send travelers to distant planets (including the moon of the planet Polyphemus called Pandora on which the action in Avatar takes place). We have computers, but they have really, really cool ones that do all sorts of stuff we think of as theoretically possible but which no one now actually knows how really to accomplish. We have sophisticated weapons, but they have even more devastating, more accurate ones. We have fantasy movies about toy Transformers magically made real, but they really do have robots the size of buildings that do whatever the controllers strapped into their metallic laps wish them to do. It’s like our world on steroids.

But for all that the world in the movie is different and more sophisticated than our own, it’s also very similar. We see many of the same problems that plague our world in the present no less insolubly plaguing Pandora in the future. And chief among them is the problem of how fairly to apportion resources and how to live in peace with other nations. Earthlings have come to Pandora, it turns out, not to make friends or boldly to go where no one has previously gone, but to mine for precious ore called—you have to love it—unobtainium. That in and of itself doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, but the fly in the ointment is that the richest and best deposits of unobtainium are under the part of the pandoran jungle inhabited by the Na’vi, a race of blue-skinned, yellow eyed giants who live in harmony with the flora and fauna of their planet’s ecosystem in a way that humans today can only dream someday of achieving. And they are disinclined to move off their sacred camp merely because some big, bad earthlings with really big, bad guns have blown into Dodge. The concept of there being avatars on Pandora is related to an effort to head this potential conflict off at the pass: scientists have figured out how to make model Na’vis (I almost wrote: model nevi’im) that look and smell like the locals but which are actually man-made shells inhabited solely by the psychic identity of earthlings (soldiers or scientists or whomever) safely locked up in the secure confines of the mother ship. And thus do earthlings wander Pandora looking like Pandorans on the outside, but remaining pure earth people on the inside. The slightly condescending concept is that the locals will be too stupid to notice the presence of any Stepford Pandorans in their midst and so will be susceptible to the well-timed suggestion that they move on to some other neighborhood and leave their current turf to whomever might wish to settle there once they’re gone. That, at any rate, is the plan. It doesn’t work.

The actual plot of the movie is not what I want to write about, however. The short version is that there’s this paraplegic guy, very well played by Sam Worthington, who ends up entering the avatar shell originally prepared for his lately deceased identical twin. (This sort of makes sense in the context of the movie.) When his life is saved by a real Na’vi maiden, extremely convincingly played by Zoe Saldana, he ends up going native, falling in love, and, in the end, leading the charge to save the Na’vi and their homeland from the big bad invaders who have endless fire power but no moral consciousness. I won’t give away the ending, which is as moving as it is little surprising, except to say that the audience is clearly intended to understand that the right people won, and that the day was duly saved by the one guy who had the courage to stand up to his own people and to do the right thing.

So that’s what the movie is about on its outermost level. But hiding behind the story of a paraplegic ex-marine and his twelve-foot-tall, blue-skinned girlfriend is another story, one most viewers will recognize all too clearly. Other than the hero, a handful of his friends, and some scientists (including a peculiarly cast Sigourney Weaver), the earthlings are depicted as rank imperialists. They have no respect for the natives, no interest in learning about their ways or about their culture or their faith. They are clearly mimicking those Europeans who arrived in the New World and claimed it for their European masters without regard for the fact that the land was already populated by millions of people who had no need to be discovered at all and whose civilization was, in many ways, the equivalent of the Europeans’ in terms of its complexity, its sense of social justice, and its morality.

We all know how that story ended. And, for the most part, we don’t think about it that much. We tell ourselves that times change, that history marches on. We know in some vague way that wrongs were done, but most Americans would be unable even to identify by name the Indian tribe that was living on the land on which their own houses now stand before European settlers arrived here three or four centuries ago. Being sensitive, moral people, we find the story of how the indigenous population was disenfranchised, then neatly gotten rid of, to be upsetting. But we solve that problem, mostly, by ignoring it and telling ourselves (a) that there’s nothing to do about it now and (b) that it wasn’t our people who arrived here when there were still indigenous Indian tribes in place where we live, so it’s not really our burden to bear. And besides, who knows if those tribes in place when the Europeans arrived were themselves the original indigenes? One way or the other, we tell ourselves that what’s done is done and we have no choice but to learn from the past and move forward into the future.

I find myself thinking about Israel in this context as well…and I suspect that Avatar will be taken as a kind of midrash on the Israeli-Palestinian controversy by viewers all over the world. In terms of the battle for world opinion, it suddenly strikes me—after seeing the film and liking it so much—to wonder how much has turned and will turn in the future on the question of which party ultimately gets to play which role when the story of the film is transposed onto the world of Middle Eastern politics. The Palestinians have done yeoman’s work in presenting themselves as the Na’vi, after all, by depicting themselves precisely as the indigenes pushed off their space by morally obtuse Europeans who, almost arbitrarily, chose to settle in their place and then semi-amazingly got a world racked with guilt over its own genocidal tendencies to ratify its take-over of somebody else’s property. Indeed, if there’s one point upon which all Palestinian groups seem to agree, in fact, it’s precisely the concept that the fate of the Palestinians in Israel is precisely parallel to the fate of native peoples the world over. Taking the story into outer space is merely the next logical step in the effort to come to terms with the horrible heritage of racist imperialism.

I wonder why it is that Israel hasn’t devoted itself to noting more passionately and more clearly that the Jews are the real indigenes in this story and that it was the Arabs who came lately to the land, arriving first on the scene in the seventh century (the precise date is 636 C.E.) when Muslims first wrested the land from a decaying Byzantine Empire. Okay, it’s true that today’s Palestinians are not the invaders who seized the land thirteen centuries ago. And it’s surely also true that thirteen hundred years is long enough to feel rooted in a place for any people. (Consider how Americans feel about their country after only two and a quarter centuries, for example.)

But the other side of the coin, the one I see unrepresented in Palestinian comments on the conflict is a willingness to own up to the fact that they are not the indigenes, that the fact that they call themselves Palestinians does not make them historically or ethnically related to the Philistines who once lived on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. (It was the Romans who chose to insult the Jewish population by naming their subjugated province after the by-then-vanished people whom the Jews recalled as having once been their bitterest enemies. But there is no connection between today’s Palestinians and the inhabitants of ancient Philistia other than the etymological one.) It seems to me, however, that there is room for compromise on this point…and that this single idea would be an excellent way for two people at loggerheads to begin to accept each other’s presence in what is, after all, a very small place where they are destined somehow to co-exist.

The Bible stresses over and over, of course, that the Israelites came to the land from elsewhere. Abraham came from Ur, today in southern Iraq. The Israelites themselves arrived from Egypt. You could dismiss those traditions are mere red herrings because there simply are no living representatives of the earlier Canaanite nations in our world, no Girgashites or Perizites or Amorites or Edomites and Israel alone is left standing of all those nations. Or you could use the fact that the Israelites too arrived from somewhere else as the stimulus to engender a kind of humility generally lacking almost entirely from the discussion.

In the end, the competing claims of both sides have to be tempered with a sense of historical reality. For Jews, Israel will always be home, the land promised to their ancestors and in which generations upon generations of their ancestors lived not for thirteen but for thirty centuries, if not for longer than that. But that sense of rootedness in the ancestral homeland could be seasoned with the recollection that, in the end, our own traditions stress over and over that we came from somewhere else originally.

The Palestinians could do well to drink of a bit of that broth as well. They, after all, aren’t really the aborigines either…and I can’t imagine that their leadership doesn’t know that perfectly well. The history of the Muslim invasions of the seventh century CE, after all, are unknown to most Americans, but to the key players in the Middle East these details are anything but obscure. So we’re dealing here with two competing claims to be the native indigenes pushed out by the big, bad invaders neither of which is as absolutely anchored in historical reality as their most vocal proponents would like to think. What that means to me is that it should be possible to replace arrogance with humility…and to seek a kind of peace that will not only accommodate the living but also suit the memory of generations long since passed from the scene.

In the end, Avatar is about invaders stealing what they want because they can. To cast the Israelis as ruthless invaders come to take what they want merely because they somehow can is to ignore history. But to look past thirteen centuries of Muslim presence in the land and to wave it away because the first among them to arrive came as invaders from afar—that too seems just a bit overstated. Avatar is a first rate movie, one that I think all my readers will enjoy immensely. But, in the end, it’s just a gorgeous cartoon. And the lesson the film holds for those of us who daily pray for peace in Israel is that peace will never be made by people who look across the table at their counterparts from the other side and see not men and women trying to negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement but cartoon characters somehow magically, not to say sinisterly, transmogrified into avatars that only look like real human beings.

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