Cowboys and Wahabis


(For those who never watch Arab satellite TV: MBC is a Saudi company with several news, movie and children’s channels. 99,9% of the films they show are American, with subtitling in Arabic. The superfundamentalist kind of islam in Saudi Arabia is called ‘wahabi’ .)

After seven years of suffering I have decided to buy my own DVD’s with cowboy films. To my big surprise during my stay in Iraq, it is no use to wait for the many channels of MBC to show at least twice a week a western or a cowboy film. The decision makers in MBC have something against the western, whether it is a spaghetti western by Sergio Leone or a quality western directed by Sam Peckinpah or Steven Spielberg.

Not only my husband loves those films with Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, but me too, although I am a woman and although the average cowboy doesn’t respect women in their role as mothers and housewives. I even accept Kevin Costner in another role he can’t play, as long as he plays a  cowboy. But girls, don’t stop reading now. You will understand why women fighting for freedom might learn to love westerns.

Already as a girl of ten (in 1965) I was fascinated by a cowboy television series called ‘Rawhide’ that featured a very young cowboy, Clint Eastwood, and other handsome men driving millions of  anonymous cows to the west of the United States where the grass for the animals was still for free. Every Saturday I made sure I was on time at home to watch the next episode. I cannot remember one story line, but I remember the music. I was watching everything in black and white, but it didn’t matter at all.

Back to MBC. Why it  shows few westerns, neglecting our needs? Of course I could ask the Saudi prince running MBC but I am not sure I’ll get an informed, let alone an honest answer. So, let’s use our brains and try to find an explanation ourselves.

It cannot be the abysmal treatment of the horses, that die like flies, not unlike the humans in westerns who usually need one bullet only to collapse. I think the Arabs’ love of animals and especially horses has never inspired any kind of censorship inside MBC. MBC is even showing films with cute little pigs, dogs and non-halal fish and ditto dinosaurs.

The reason for the ‘censorship’  cannot be a kind of “unarab”  landscapes because cowboys and other gunslingers most often ride through deserts. Cowboys go thirsty, heroes leave their enemies to die in the sand hills with rattle snakes. What goats and sheep are to Arabs, the cows are to the cowboys.

Is it the women? Absolutely impossible, because most women in westerns are clad in clothes covering them from head to toe. You see their faces but they never wear lipstick. Most of them are Christians loving peace and hating guns. They protest against alcohol and want it banned. Like Arab females, women in westerns think their private house is the most important thing to care about after doing their religious duty so that they will go to paradise. Now and then there is some prostitute siding with the cowboys, but such women are very few.

Well, what else could it be? The alcohol drinking in the saloons? Well, if the Wahabis needed some clear examples of the uncivilized and murderous influence of alcohol on the male brain, they would show John Wayne in one film after another entering a saloon and greeting the drunks with a polite ‘salam aleikum’ in the subtitling, only to get a dirty eye from men in various stages of drunkenness. Brawls in saloons are almost as standard as cars chasing another car in the more modern movies.

Are most cowboys Jewish? I’ve never seen one Jewish cowboy, although the herds they are whipping are definitely beef and not porc.

Is it the fact then that most gunslingers and cowboys are famous American actors? I never noticed that the Saudi MBC had anything against Hollywood superstars. If anything, it is happy to keep Arabs busy with love dramas, mad dinosaurs and serial killers instead of political reforms. However, I haven’t seen one film on MBC with Ronald Reagan, the actor turned president. Only politician Arnold Schwarzenegger is popular with the Saudis, but that might be because he never became president of the United States. He is just governor of California, on the West coast of America, not the East where foreign policy is made, in Washington.   California is where most Emiratis spend their American holidays, I presume, given the eye-blinding hotels in Orange County and similar places.

So, what is the problem?

Westerns reached their peak of popularity in the fifties and sixties. The books they are sometimes based on were hugely popular fifty years earlier. Does MBC consider westerns something for old men now in their sixties or nineties? I doubt it, because old westerns have been reproduced by the hundreds on DVD until this year. I had to make a reservation for High Noon that will released again in July this year. You can buy all films of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood on DVD. Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman produced their western Unforgiven only a few years ago and it was a huge success. The genre is alive and kicking.

Honestly I think my husband and me and millions of other Arab film lovers are the victims of a lack of intellectual depth in the headquarters of MBC in Dubai. Now, of course, if MBC buys a film like Titanic or Slumdog Millionaire for ten or twenty million dollars and then gets 500 second-rate flopped Hollywood films for free, you will understand that buying films is not so much an intellectual as a financial operation. Nevertheless, we are the consumers, we are the viewers and we deserve more respect for our needs. The coming months I will be watching my own DVD’s and missing, in this way, thousands of minutes of advertising on MBC, for shampoos and cars and detergents.

The intellectual point about westerns is simply that most cowboys and gunslingers hate religion and everything we associate normally with civilization. Pious women, priests and coward home owners are ridiculed in westerns. How many cowboys spend more than thirty seconds praying in a film?

I am sure the Saudi religious police would prohibit a  cowboy film festival if those bigots went to judge the films. Those cowboys love freedom. When someone insults them or hurts them, they are passionate about their revenge and don’t wait for some  judge to intervene – actually, they don’t believe that only Allah has a right to revenge. They love money sometimes but they are never selling their soul. If their horse is happy, they are too. They love the wilderness, not the cities (sometimes, they are wanted there). These unmarried bachelors love to ride alone, not sing together in a church or cook a refined meal in an orderly kitchen together with their spouse. Usually, they are unable to quote the Bible and they don’t know the words of Christian songs.

So, girls, in the end what you are watching in a western, is the defense of a form of dignity that has been lost in the Arab world and elsewhere. MBC doesn’t bother to remind you of this loss too often. I am not a cowboy, I prefer pepperspray to guns, but I love to remember what joy the wilderness brings to the human heart – places without kitchens, bedrooms, wedding parties, dress codes and schools.

Therefore, what Saudi decision-makers in MBC should understand is that the average cowboy or Hollywood ’westerner’  is totally unamerican. The widely held idea that the cowboy is the typical American par excellence is, objectively speaking, totally wrong.   The cowboy is against everything his civilization stands for, not only religion, which is anyway Christian, so not something Saudis would love to promote. He is against American law, American women, American cities, American railroads, American business men and politicians, the cowardice of American settled settlers – and against the American army.

What more do you want?


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