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Building Bridges Instead of Imperial Wars

By       Message John Grant     Permalink
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Here's another, Abdul Hanan, age 20, who says, "We would have killed many of them already, but our commanders are cowards and don't let us." He adds that Americans curse, treat them roughly and bully them. Then, he seems to reveal the crux of the matter: "We like the Americans' heavy weapons, but we don't like their soldiers."

The question about Afghan "allies" killing US soldiers is often couched in intentionally evasive or distracting terms. We are assured the killers' motives are "personal" -- ie. friction between two men -- when it should be clear the issue at hand is really one of loyalty to US foreign policy, in this case, imperial intervention, versus loyalty to one's homeland. The lure of western affluence and our very lethal weaponry certainly makes the relationship complicated; but it doesn't alter the deep calling of the homeland and the offensive nature of an arrogant occupying army.

The film Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert addresses these ideas with a clear-headed dramatic insight beneficial for westerners to grapple with.

"We win or we die."

Lion of the Desert was produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-born Muslim who became a US citizen, studied film at UCLA and ended up working with film director Sam Peckinpah on films like Ride The High Country. In 1976, with Quinn starring as the prophet Muhammed's uncle Hamza, he made Muhammed: The Messenger of God, a film also funded by Gaddafi that dealt with the life of Muhammed while, respectful of religious prohibitions, it never actually showed the prophet. The opening was ruined by violence when a Nation of Islam faction, mistakenly believing Quinn played Muhammed, took over the offices of B'nai B'rith. Two people were killed. The film sank into oblivion.

The story, then, gets quite strange. Producer/director Akkad shifts gears and creates the slasher film Halloween. The commentator
Juan Cole
puts an interesting Muslim spin on these horror films that are about a killer of females set off by seeing his sister having sex.

"The anxieties around the Halloween films are, whether it is by coincidence or deliberate, very Middle Eastern," Cole writes. "Michael Myers's killing of his sister echoed the problem of honor killings in the Arab world, where lack of chastity in teenaged girls so dishonors the men of the family that they are sometimes driven to restore their honor by doing away with the girl."

The series was so successful it generated seven sequels. A frustrated Akkad told an interviewer, "I cannot understand the continuing success of Halloween. Do you realize they want to make Halloween Nine!?"

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At this point, Akkad turns to the making of Omar Mukhtar, Lion of the Desert, which was filmed in Libya from an excellent script by the Irish screenwriter H.A.L. Craig.

The film opens in an ornate palace with a shaved-headed and strutting Rod Steiger as Mussolini giving marching orders to General Graziani, played with suave cold-bloodedness by Oliver Reed. Five previous generals have failed and been made fools by Omar Mukhtar. Mussolini is determined that a simple desert peasant will not "thwart the destiny of 40 million Italians."

Cut to a graceful, wise Quinn in a white robe teaching young Libyan kids the Koran. Holding his wire-rimmed glasses balanced on his finger, he talks to them about how the Koran teaches the value of balance. The glasses become a nice symbolic thread. A little boy whose father has just been killed in battle playfully snatches the teacher's glasses and puts them on to warm laughter from the surrounding men.

Running from an Italian gas attack, Mukhtar drops the glasses, which are returned to him after he's captured at the end in a dramatic meeting with General Graziani. Mukhtar refuses Graziani's offer that they "both work together to make peace," something that would have saved his life. Graziani orders him to be hung.

Standing on the gallows, with his people forcibly gathered to witness his hanging, he puts on the glasses to read a verse from the Koran. As the noose is put around his neck and his hands are tied behind his back, he is shown grasping the glasses. The glasses fall to the gallows floor. The disturbed crowd begins to move in menacingly, and the soldiers quickly remove the body and flee. The little boy walks up onto the gallows and picks up the glasses.

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The film shows Italian soldiers and tanks pouring into Libya to thwart the insurgency. Graziani slaughters villagers and incarcerates thousands in concentration camps. Real aerial documentary footage is shown of vast encampments. As a Vietnam veteran, it reminded me of a time when I was attached to a Fourth Division unit tasked to remove and repopulate several villages into a large "strategic village" where people could be controlled by US forces. I watched young US soldiers in armored personnel carriers herding the Vietnamese and their water buffalo like it was a cattle drive.

The Italian actor Raf Vallone plays Colonel Diodiece, a more diplomatic soldier who respects Mukhtar for his spirituality and his humanity. Graziani uses him in an attempt to co-opt Mukhtar, but he sees Diodiece as a fool. As far as Omar Mukhtar is concerned, both men are the enemy, equally linked to the drive for empire at his expense. He will have nothing of a "peace" imposed by Italian violence. In this respect, Pax Italiana is the same as Pax Britannica and Pax Americana.

A boyhood friend of Mukhtar played by John Gielgud travels under a white flag into the guerrilla's mountain stronghold. He reasons with his old friend: You can't win; Graziani is too powerful. "It's your last chance for an honorable peace."

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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