Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000, by Melani McAlister. Berkeley, CA, New York, and London: University of California Press, 2001. ix + 276 pages. Acknowledgments to p. 280. Notes to p. 320. Bibl. to p. 346. Filmography to p. 347. Index to p. 358. $50 cloth; $19.95 paper.
Melani McAlister, Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, has written an excellent study of the influence and uses of American perceptions of the Middle East. As she shows us in her wide-ranging work, these perceptions have been important in the defining and manipulation of the American identity itself (for both white and black Americans), as well as the characterization of politics and war. Through the auspices of religion, entertainment, and propaganda, the Middle East has come to be a mirror through which we have remade our image.
Where have these reworked images of the Middle East played a role in the evolving American self-image? McAlister begins with the epic films of the 1950s such as the Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. She shows how they were used to metamorphize the issues of biblical slavery and gender inequality into Cold War themes. The Egyptians and Romans stood in for the Soviets and the dying colonial Empires of Britain and France. The oppressed Christians and Jews stood for the newly independent "Third World"' for whose loyalty the Cold War adversaries competed. And the heros stood for America and its values. The on-screen relations of ancient men and women taught the lesson of family values as idealized in the American household. The total image was of the American people possessing a "benevolently superior" posture projected in neo-biblical terms. Could there be any doubt on which side God was on?
The image of the biblical Middle East was so alluring that it invaded almost all categories of life in America in the postWorld War II era. African Americans would find a place for it in the evolution of Black consciousness and rebellion; the tour of King Tut treasures to the United States in the late 1970s, coming as it did in the wake of the oil crisis, allowed Americans to capture the ancient Middle East as their own through art (while struggling over the racial ambiguity of Tut himself); in 1961, the film Exodus seemed to bring the ancient Hebrews into the modern world while playing on themes from the movie genre of the American Western. When the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 broke out, this cinematic replaying of the entry of the Hebrews into the promised land helped define the parameters of American foreign policy. Like Americans in Vietnam, the Israelis/Hebrews were fighting the "good fight. …