Silly 'Arab' soap opera lights the fires of mistrust
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Silly 'Arab' soap opera lights the fires of mistrust

The Middle East becomes a scene of a great romance. The people are cool. The camels are cute. The sky is blue, boundless, and the smooth ridges of the sand dunes are as seductive as the chiselled face of the beardless Muslim sheikh, whose handsome head is wrapped in a chequered keffiyeh.

In this brilliant Thai prime-time soap, the beardless sheikh, a post-Aladdin prince charming, and his French-Asian lover get lost in the desert and stumble upon an oasis (which looks like a dirty puddle near a construction site in a Bangkok alley) and soon their love defies prejudices, the cultural chasm, dehydration and probably the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian chemical missiles, Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, etc.

Like a mirage or an opium dream, this is a romantic vision fuelled by risible, naive, dumb, Orientalist fantasy.

Thai soaps are a marvel. As the world watches Egypt crumble, as Syria edges ever closer to jahannam - hell - as the Islamist-versus-secularist debate heats up everywhere, as we dream of the 2015 Asean bloc whose members will be predominantly Muslim, as all of this unfolds, a Thai soap drama on Channel 7 entertains us with a fairytale love story set in the desert (mostly unconvincing) of a fictitious Middle Eastern sheikhdom.

Forbidden love, jealousy and weird set design are conspicuously present. All actors in Fah Jarod Sai - "The Sky Touches the Sand", or just imagine Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky - are Thais made up to look faintly Arab, or at least the photogenic, "acceptable" version of what we think Arab people should look like, or should be, regardless of what they really are.

It's all meant as entertainment, of course. We all need that (plus sleeping pills) to get through life unscathed. The series flashes a disclaimer at the beginning that the story - based on a popular novel by Sopak Suwan, who used to spend her time in the Middle East - is fictitious and not intended as a commentary on any particular culture and its practices.

Such a claim is not hard to buy, for the lure of exoticism is invariably superficial, slapdash, misguided and driven by shallow visual signifiers, either when it's the West imagining the East (think Aida, Madame Butterfly, Mulan) or the Far East is imagining the Middle East.

The claim of "poetic imagination" is valid, but it's always a limited, blind-sided imagination - the imagination carved out of petty, touristy, bourgeoise excitement. In the case of this Thai soap, it looks particularly quaint, garish and wantonly ignorant at a time when the issues of Muslims and the Middle East (not to mention our southern mess) are most complex and painful.

Of all the images and discussions about the Muslim world, about Egypt and Syria and the deep South, about politics and socio-cultural hot points, all that a Thai TV soap wants to remember and propose to us is a hunk-like sheikh on a camel rescuing a Thai-looking French damsel. That's not a problem, that's just stupidity.

The soap is actually quite funny. But problems arise when another type of imagination asserts itself, an imagination that's as limited as that of the series.

On Thursday, a Muslims for Peace Group - who vehemently demonstrated in front of the US embassy against the anti-Prophet Mohammed clip Innocence of Muslims last September - issued a statement calling for the ban of Fah Jarod Sai. The group believes that the series is an insult to Islam (when in fact religion is not a point of the story) and that it distorts the image of Muslims (the oppression of children and women is false).

Be careful, for the clash of imagination is often a precursor of other, more physical clashes. To the producers of the series, the Muslims belong to the pre-Ottoman, Arabian Nights fairytale - a fraud and a kindergarten fantasy. For the Muslims who demand the ban, their imagination seems to cling to the glory and gospel of pure faith, which is not possible in any religion on Earth.

As in other cases when Islam is offended, sometimes unfairly, the extreme reactions of some proponents only give the faith a bad name. On Thursday, news of Muslims for Peace protesters rallying against the series drove online commentators to spew hate speech and anti-Islam slurs on various sites.

Typical of when a matchstick lights up a wildfire, the silly soap series set in a fake desert with fake Muslims has now sparked a senseless tirade against "bad Muslims" in the deep South who "kill innocent children and women". This is scary, troubling and a case of an unnecessary confrontation between false fantasies that are hurting us all.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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