Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is "Avatar" (Secretly) Pro-Palestinian?

Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin for the NY Times

The cover of today's Sunday NY Times Magazine features a photo of Avatar co-stars Zoë Saldana and Sam Worthington. And you notice, right next to Saldana's left breast (in the shadows), a dramatic tattoo, in Arabic letters!

It's rather amazing that Hollywood stars desiring to have a bit of Middle East exotica inked onto their bodies can't seem to find an Arabic or a Persian speaker who could produce actual words that make sense. LA is full of such people, as everyone (except the stars, I guess) knows. So Saldana's tat here does have Arabic letters, but it makes no sense, the letters are just strung together randomly, and in some cases, incorrectly. Rihanna's Arabic tat, as you will recall, is slightly more sense-making.

I did a bit of hunting, and this photo from the NY Times may mark the first public display of this particular Zoë S. tattoo. As far as I could determine, from scouring some of the sites that pay close attention to celebrity tattoos, Zoë Saldana had previously revealed only two tattoos, one on her bikini line, and another on her left foot, also in Arabic. The second word may be is'al-ha, or "ask her," but I'm not really sure.

As for Avatar and whether or not it's pro-Palestinian, Zoë Saldana's tattoos are just a ruse. I seriously doubt whether James Cameron or anyone involved in the making of the film gave Palestine any thought at all.

Nonetheless, some Palestinians have strongly identified with the Na'vi, the "blue people," of the film. It's not hard to imagine why. Palestinians' experience of occupation, their very strong attachment to the land of Palestine...But more important is the fact that the Na'vi defeat and expel the colonizers. This is where the comparisons that critics of Avatar have drawn with Dances with Wolves perhaps falter. Avatar is a much more hopeful film for those confronting Western colonialism than Dances. Moreover, while the trope of the white guy who joins up with indigenous peoples in order to save them is rather old-school, 19th century, Palestinians today routinely incorporate "non-natives" into their struggles. In fact, the most important struggles going on in the West Bank today, struggles against the Wall, particularly at Bil'in and Nilin, as well as struggles against the ethnic "cleaning" of Jerusalem, typically involve Palestinians demonstrating side-by-side with Israeli progressives and "internationals"--the latter frequently involved with the International Solidarity Movement. The Israelis and the internationals aren't "liberators" coming from the outside but are there in solidarity with grass-roots movements that are led by Palestinians.

Therefore the stunning image I saw in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Feb. 12, of demonstrators at Bil'in dressed up as Na'vi, made sense. The demonstrations at Bil'in started up in December 2004, and have been held weekly since 2005. They are one of the most hopeful examples of principled, non-violent, grass-roots struggle against the Israeli occupation, as well as of international solidarity. So I was glad to see them receive a bit more media attention, albeit short-lived and episodic.

This is the Reuters photo I saw reproduced in the LA Times, which was published in multiple outlets. I love the look of Palestinian Na'vi wearing kufiyas as loincloths. (The five demonstrators who dressed up as Na'vi included internationals and Palestinians.)

Check out the video to see the demonstration, and Palestinian Na'vi getting teargassed.

More photos are here, in a blog which unhelpfully calls this look "protest chic."

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