Syriana is a new film about the oil industry, Middle East politics and Beltway meddling, by Stephen Gaghan and Steven Soderbergh, the guys behind Traffic. It’s also the first major movie I’ve seen which deals with the shabby treatment of desi workers in the Middle East.
The trailer is cut like an action thriller, but it’s actually a thought-provoking, 2Å“ hour-long film on the moral ambiguity of America’s oil dependency. The thrust of the story, based on a nonfiction book called See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, is that the U.S. uses the CIA to set up pliant dictators in oil-producing countries instead of those who might promote democracy. A Texan oil CEO utters this similarly realpolitik line (paraphrased): ‘The Chinese economy isn’t growing as fast as it could because they can’t get enough oil. And I’m damn proud of that.’
The movie opens with a shot of desi oil workers struggling to get onto a crammed Tata bus. Later in the movie, a shady oil company merger triggers layoffs. A Sikh foreman gets on a megaphone to Pakistani workers, telling them they’ve been fired, they must surrender their badges, and unless they find another job soon they have to report to immigration within two weeks and be deported.
Casting sees desis’ brown skin as closer to the popular conception of a terrorist than light-skinned ArabsThe Urdu-speaking Pakistanis are portrayed as naÃ¯ve young villagers who just want to make a better life for themselves. Two of the young men become radicalized after racist Arab security guards beat them. They end up in a madrassa limned in sympathy, in stark contrast to the unwelcoming society around them. A striking-looking Arab evangelist preys on their insecurities and inevitably turns them into C4 fodder.
If you think that’s a spoiler, you haven’t been paying attention to desi roles in the movies these days I’m noticing an odd trend at the movies. Like The War Within, they pick Pakistanis rather than Arabs to portray suicidal terrorists. It doesn’t at all fit with recent history as most Pakistan-based suicide attackers have focused on India. They don’t seem as attached to pan-Arabism as, well, Arabs, and 2nd gen idiots in London notwithstanding, they’ve got nowhere near the presence of Arabs in global terrorism. It seems more and more like casting sees desis’ brown skin as closer to the popular conception of a terrorist than light-skinned Arabs. On the other hand, perhaps this casting was driven by simple plot imperative.
Most of the desi oil workers have native accents, but the guy playing the father of one of the terrorists speaks in incredibly shaky Urdu. It made me wince every time he opened his mouth. There’s also an interesting Urdu voiceover which continues a few moments into a scene with Ms. Saving Silverman, Amanda Peet. It’s an odd mix of superbrown and ultrawhite.
The most fascinating parts of the movie aren’t the desi parts, but rather the dispiriting predicament of an oil country ruler and man of wealth. Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig from Deep Space Nine, Kingdom of Heaven and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) is a vital, efficient Ph.D. from Oxford with a yen to pull an AtatÃ¼rk and join modernity, yet he finds himself between the Scylla and Charybdis of dynastic politics and the American penchant for military intervention. Back in Washington, a delicately shaded good-guy lawyer turns pragmatist in the Beltway crucible, preferring ‘the appearance of doing something’ over actually excising a culture of kickbacks.
The politics here are none too subtle with a group called the Committee to Liberate Iran, clearly modeled on American neocon groups like the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and the Project for a New American Century. In the movie, the Committee to Liberate Iran is a bunch of loonies with holy fire in their eyes who attend not to the reality of fractured Middle Eastern politics, only to ideology. How very familiar.
The movie pays homage to Wall Street with a K Street hunchback raving about the virtues of corruption in the Middle East: ‘Corruption is why we win.’ Gordon Gekko lives. There’s also a visual pun on a famous scene in Titanic. Christopher Plummer is fabulous as an amoral lawyer and CIA veteran. Matt Damon surfaces again in a geopolitical movie filmed like shaky handheld veritÃ©, dÃ©jÃ Bourne.
In Beirut, the CIA agent played by George Clooney shows up at Hezbollah headquarters and asking for permission to assassinate someone else on their turf. Things go all pear-shaped, and he ends up in a torture room, supine and naked on the floor with thirty-five pounds of method acting blubber gilding his torso like white on a beached whale. It’s his Bridget Jones moment.
South Asian contract laborers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls, make up the great mass of the population. Dubai lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan, and Indian maids, while the building boom is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians working twelve-hour shifts, six and half days a week, in the blast-furnace desert heat… Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on “forced labor.”
Indeed, as the British Independent recently emphasized in an exposÃ© on Dubai, “The labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.” “Like their impoverished forefathers,” the paper continued, “today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab EmiratesAsian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery when they arrive in Dubai. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.”
In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots are also expected to be generally invisible. The bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts, where laborers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, are not part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury without slums or poverty. In a recent visit, even the United Arab Emirate’s Minister of Labor was reported to be profoundly shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the laborers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested.
Paradise, however, has even darker corners than the indentured-labor camps. The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai — any of the hipper guidebooks will advise — is the “Bangkok of the Middle East,” populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian, and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10% of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)… [Link]