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Western sexual culture, offshoring concerns and parasite hysteria combined with naked warmongering: “A Hologram for the King”

A Hologram for the King movie poster

“A Hologram for the King”
Dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen
Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, and Saban Films
R, 97 minutes, 2016

Spoiler alert

This reviewer wasn’t expecting this to be a good movie politically, but I wasn’t expecting it to be blatantly chauvinist and warmongering either. It came like a slap in the face.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The movie raises the idea that working for the CIA even “freelance” is nothing to joke about with some Saudis who have rifles. The Amerikan viewer will think of terrorism. At the same time, the movie raises the idea of Amerikans being welcome to help with a revolution in Saudi Arabia. The idea that adultery is dangerous, beautiful, desirable, and possible at least individually, develops throughout the movie.

Anybody who doubts that Amerikans think about war against Saudi Arabia, even if it just goes on the backburner, or doubts that Amerikan liberals are still at the forefront of warmongering against Muslim countries on lifestyle questions, need only watch “A Hologram for the King” to start understanding what’s going on with Amerikans culturally at this very moment. Even if there won’t be an invasion of Saudi Arabia any time soon, Amerikans have been prepared for one and are being prepared for one. The immediate effect at the time of this writing may just be to discredit Saudi, Arab, Islamic or non-Amerikan leadership in peace efforts in the Middle East. International businesspersyn Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) says the word “invasion” and dismisses the idea, apparently thinking of a non-Western invader. (Although, what ey says could also have all the incredulity of “why would Americans want to invade this heap of dust.”) It must be another delusional notion of Alan’s driver, who is paranoid about car bombs and witnesses waiting outside eir home. Yousef (Alexander Black) clarifies that ey was asking about whether Alan might be willing in the future to help bring “democracy” to Saudi Arabia. Would ey support Yousef. It is a brief and vague discussion that just shows how Alan feels about Yousef—and Saudi society—nothing happens.

Alan knows how to use a rifle, but has enough sense (or indifference) not to shoot a wolf that shows up during prayer. The wolf scene simultaneously symbolizes non-Muslim Alan’s potential to contribute to an anti-Saudi struggle, Alan’s sensitivity and awareness, and Alan’s willingness to let a threat (and endangered species) roam in Saudi Arabia that Saudis allegedly would shoot if they weren’t distracted.

Not being a cultural ignoramus is required to do effective CIA, Pentagon, State Department and sales work in the Middle East, with allies or enemies. It comes as a surprise to Alan that eir younger colleagues don’t know what “Lawrence of Arabia” is as a movie.

Because it is on a shorter route, Yousef helps non-Muslim Alan infiltrate eir way through Mecca. Alan sees the Masjid al-Haram. Yousef asks Alan to avert eir eyes. A concerned relative is in the backseat. The viewer is shown the Kaaba and a sea of worshipers.

This movie was marketed as a comedy. There is a line about sweeping sand in a desert. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have unions; it has “Filipinos.” Humor is blended with seriousness. Saudi Arabia’s effort to diversify its economy is portrayed as a joke, a facade or pitiful. (King Abdullah Economic City, which is represented in the movie with a different name, has grown considerably since the book on which the movie is based was written.)

Yousef, who seems to like more Amerikan music than Alan does, plays Amerikan music while telling Alan about executions in Jeddah as they drive through. Alan and Yousef discuss consequences of adultery.

Despite Alan’s profession as a businesspersyn, Alan feels guilty about eir involvement in sending bicycle manufacturing jobs overseas to China. China is a theme of the movie. Almost everything about Saudi Arabia chafes Alan’s nerves or poses a challenge, including the lack of Alan’s preferred beverages, scheduling difficulty, Internet connectivity issues, Chinese doctors, and Chinese competitors. (Amerikan liberals discourage investment in Arab and Muslim countries and then complain about Chinese competition.) Alan stays at a five-star hotel but has to endure operating in a tent during the day while waiting to present to the king. It has been one letdown or irksome thing after another, first in the States and now with these people who are alien to em.

Many international businesspeople will find “A Hologram for the King” to be an accurate depiction of the Western foreigner experience of Saudi Arabia in some aspects (maybe not the part where seemingly everyone delivers a sales pitch directly to the king). Therein lies a problem because it is realism without history or explanation. The role of u.$. imperialism in producing the oil-based economy and the poverty in Saudi Arabia seen in both rural and urban areas, and in unsatisfied desire for Western investment, isn’t brought up in any clear way. Traumatized Amerikan Alan Clay, who has a life story to tell seen in flashbacks, just enters Saudi Arabia as an innocent. Ey is victimized by global competition and Saudis who don’t give em the red-carpet treatment or show too much eagerness to deal with em. The repeated reference to the shutdown of manufacturing in Amerika, together with Alan’s difficulties in Saudi Arabia, suggests Amerikan nationalist unity against a threatening system of investment and trade, which Amerikans (mostly bourgeois or petty-bourgeois) actually benefit from. The idea that Saudi ineptitude or lack of will is to blame for the economic structure was already in the Western media, before this movie came out, so the “invasion” talk suggests a solution. It suggests it by rejecting invasion in one sense prior to the conversation about Alan’s CIA joke, which is followed by a serious discussion of whether an Amerikan businesspersyn would help to fight for so-called democracy in the country.

In the non-movie world, some international businesspeople in Saudi Arabia are working for the CIA or the BND whether they know it or not. That is also real, just as real as ridiculous tourists taking dozens of the same photos of the local animals. The Amerikan and German movie seems to express self-consciousness about this though Alan isn’t shown to be CIA. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Amerikans who do business with high-level officials in the Middle East often find themselves being debriefed by CIA agents as if they had just completed a mission for the CIA and didn’t know it. The concerned Saudi’s question to Alan as if Alan would know if ey were working for the CIA or not is thus somewhat misguided. Anyone involved in significant dealings in the Middle East can assume ey is involved in spying.

Since “A Hologram for the King” raises the topic of CIA activity and “invasion” so explicitly, some might say the movie removes these things as unconscious factors. Without training, though, few people who do things useful to the CIA will know who is the ultimate recipient of information or the ultimate beneficiary of action based on bad or weak principles. On an obvious level, in “Hologram” Alan repeatedly goes to a Saudi office area unaccompanied without permission. Ey is impatient and seems genuinely upset. It might not matter if somebody like Alan was generally aware of businesspeople involvement with the CIA or aware of having an inclination to spy for some reason. Ey might still see or hear something and tell somebody about it later in a seemingly innocuous context.

Alan interacts with a professional from Denmark. Ey gets into a party at the Danish embassy by pretending to be from Copenhagen. Ey drinks some vodka before Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tries to have sex with em in a room at the embassy. Alan says ey would rather not. Alan hardly knows Hanne. It’s an interesting twist on typical scenes of Western debauchery (including cocaine use) at hotels and compounds in oppressed or Arab countries. Also, it is seemingly supposed to contrast with Alan’s interaction with eir female Saudi doctor, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). Many Western females are too eager for sex for Alan; Alan might prefer sex with somebody like the doctor who has to take things more slowly because of a cultural and legal situation (one partly necessitated by imperialism, and global patriarchy, in which First World people are privileged in permissive and unstructured situations).

It happened that wimmin wearing hijabs sat next to this reviewer in the theater. They quickly turned to each other and talked during the sexual scenes. I had to look at the screen because I was there to review the damn movie. Awkward. Luckily my notepad served as evidence that I wasn’t there just for vicarious enjoyment or to be titillated by Amerikan-German pornography of colonialism and sex for its own sake.

Some of the scenes would make even some devout Christians in Amerika blush; not so with liberals. Alan’s relationship with Zahra develops from being alone with Zahra to touching eir arm/hand, to nude swimming, to sex. They are willing to risk much for a relationship that doesn’t yet involve having children (they both have children already) or marriage. “Hologram” raises that sex for pleasure is worth dying for, perhaps going to war. (An emphasis on needing heterosexual sex for its own sake, but not children or marriage, is found in Western culture.) The ending of the movie is so artistic that Western viewers may be left longing for a resolution in which Alan and Zahra can still be together in the distant future or can have similar relationships with others in Saudi Arabia.

Alan’s medical contact with Zahra involves a cyst on a eir back. Zahra and Alan discuss whether Alan’s feelings and distress are effects of the cyst and other physical conditions, and vice versa. Alan has a sensation of something being under eir skin both literally and figuratively. Alan is someone with whom many people in the First World will identify to some extent. The movie’s being so dreamlike makes this easier. Like Alan, they have experienced situations beyond their control, but they remain privileged and have a nagging sense they could have done more to make a difference in their lives. Alan experiences Saudi Arabia as inhospitable and inflexible initially, but finds a way to flourish as an individual through colonialism and encouraging Muslims to accept Western imperialist country approaches and influence with promises of sexual liberation for both females and males, and assurances of political support.

As usual, with many Western viewers anything involving females, sex, and choice, will be beyond critical exploration. Many Western pseudo-feminists will defend “A Hologram for the King” to the hilt. Even if there were no nudity or sex in the movie, it would be an example of pornography eroticizing both Western cultural hegemony and suggestions of spying and war. ◊

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