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Of Sheiks & Cinema

By Jack Feuer

Published Jul 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Jonathan Friedlander has spent 30 years collecting pop culture artifacts that reflect our fascination with the Middle East. Books, movies, videos, even cigarette packs are part of the tireless UCLA scholar's collection of Orientalist Americana at the Young Research Library. Now he's traveling the U.S. to photograph the majestic, Orientalist movie palaces of the 20th century before they're all torn down — or turned into drugstores.

Photo by Lisa Wyatt

Just say the names and you can almost feel the warm desert breeze in your hair: Luxor, Sahara, The Nile, Babylon and The Egyptian. Others, like Baghdad, Cairo and Mecca, may conjure up modern images as well. All of these names adorned more than 200 movie theaters across America throughout the 20th century, testament to a fascination with the Middle East that has been powerfully articulated in Hollywood for nearly a century.

Now these proud and beautiful buildings are being torn down or repurposed as night clubs, bars, even a Rite Aid — perhaps 40 at most are left. But Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies at the International Institute, is crossing the country, photographing the remaining buildings and assembling historic images of the theaters in their heyday before they all disappear.

It's just "the tip of the iceberg" of the affable scholar's career-long obsession with the subject. The theater photos, he says, "are part of a broader body of work and material culture I call Middle Eastern Americana: print, electronic, audio, visual, ephemera — artifacts, fetishes, souvenirs, objets d'art and consumer items spanning more than 150 years of American history."

His voluminous collection of Middle Eastern Americana — Friedlander says it's the largest collection of American Middle Eastern artifacts in the United States — is safely housed in the Special Collections Department of Young Research Library and on the Online Archive of California, and is the subject of a forthcoming book by Friedlander titled Tainted Beauty.

Well, most of it is, anyway.

The academic's small office in Bunche Hall is crammed floor to ceiling with decades' worth of collecting. Stacked on overflowing shelves is Orientalist bric-a-brac like an "Escape from the Casbah" board game from the '60s or '70s. A movie poster with Laurel and Hardy in turbans. An Aladdin coffee can. Mardi Gras beads. Iraq War and Prince of Persia videogames. Pulp novels (The Spider! The Shadow!), Sheik condoms and hundreds of packs of Camel cigarettes — a seminal, if unhealthy, influence on the creation of the collection.

"My office is always in transition," he says with a smile. "When people come in, I tell them I'm assembling the second phase of the collection."

Friedlander migrated west from Brooklyn to UCLA in 1972 to do graduate work in Middle Eastern history and, always interested in pop culture, he was intrigued by America's seeming obsession with the mysterious lands of the desert. "I just became fascinated by the representation of the Middle East," he recalls. "I started smoking Camel cigarettes and drinking mocha java coffee — a Middle Eastern tradition — when I came to Westwood."

The young scholar quit smoking in 1975, "but by then I had become addicted to Middle Eastern Americana. I remember going to the Vista Theater on the corner of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards with my wife, Carol, when the film Berlin Alexanderplatz came out [Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic, 15½-hour adaptation of Alfred Doblin's novel]. It's a long, long movie and we went to see it at the Vista in 10 installments. The box office smacked of Egypt and if you walked inside, you were amazed at the exotic space created by the people who built it in the 1920s ... it stuck in my mind, part of something else I was interested in, as I was studying Mideastern Americans."

In fact, Friedlander's dissertation was on Anglo-Egyptian relations as they manifested in cartoons, caricatures, jokes and humor about Egypt and the Middle East in the British humor magazine Punch from 1841 to 1956. As he continued his research, he frequently came across an Orientalist-themed theater, somewhere out in the heartland, and his interest grew.

For Friedlander, the subject says as much about who we are as a nation than it does about films, architecture or even cigarettes. "The proliferation of these images is immense," he says. "You see them everywhere. And when we talk about Orientalism, we talk about the perception of the East by the West. It's a very complicated relationship going back to the Crusades. [Palestinian-American culture critic, writer and activist] Edward Said coined the term. He understood this perception of the East was aggressive and destructive. It neutered history and time and space by juxtapositioning perceptions to the disadvantage of Middle Easterners. And if you really want to look at Orientalism in the United States, you have to look at the movies. There's nothing more American than the movies."

As he documents the vanishing palaces, Friedlander often convinces the people he meets to pose in his shots. Among the most memorable: a supervisor in a former Orientalist theater in Seattle that is now a Rite Aid. Friedlander walked in and asked the man if anything remained of the movie palace. The supervisor showed his guest a back room "with electrical wiring all about and boxes stacked up, and there they were — these majestic columns — in the midst of all of these consumer items. Bringing a human element into the frame creates a dialectical relationship that doesn't exist when you just have the architecture."

With all of that passion, then, why is Friedlander calling his next book Tainted Beauty? "A lot of people talk about Orientalism as a benign phenomenon," he concludes. "People eat fajita pitas, have henna tattoos, go to belly dancing contests and Mardi Gras celebrations. It's a living tradition, but I also see the dangers of it. I'm always reminded that this beauty is tainted — there's a very large subtext in this material and I hope people can go deep and see it as self-reflective. It's really about who we are."