Sunday, January 24, 2010

Kufiyas as (desired) signifiers of danger for soldiers and other tough guys

Lately I've run across a spate of kufiyas that are quite distinct from the hipster, the solidarity or the designer kufiyas. Kufiyas worn by military (Modern Warfare 2) or counter-terrorist ops (From Paris With Love). By a visionary tough-guy post-apocalyptic wanderer (The Book of Eli). And by the leader of a group of soldier dragon-hunting volunteers--also post-apocalypse (Reign of Fire).

I wish I had the time and money to play the video game Modern Warfare 2, it looks like a really incredible game. Yes, it's all shoot-em-up, but just check it out if you doubt that it would be a hoot to play. The case for the game features a picture of a US military guy whose neck and face are wrapped with a kufiya. I didn't see much kufiya action when I looked at the game previews, but the case seems to indicate it is a significant clothing item for some of the principals. Or at least a marketing mechanism.

I've been told that the kufiya is standard wear for US Marines operating in Iraq. (As of today, they are out.) I hope to have a bit more data on current Marine usage soon. The kufiya was also adopted by US soldiers during the first Gulf War. Recall the character of Chief, played by Ice Cube, in the film The Three Kings--still the best film dealing with the 1990-91 war. (Photo source here.)

The kufiya is of course a handy item to have in the desert and sun, useful for shading oneself, keeping out the dust, achieving anonymity, etc. And it's handy in the cold evenings as well. No surprise then that the British military have used them since at least the Second World War--using the name shemagh.

But besides the utility of the kufiya, there is also the fact that, by wearing an item iconically associated with the "bad guys," the "hajjis," US soldiers may hope to capture and mobilize some of the danger associated with the enemy and his ability to plant IEDs, as well as perhaps to tame it.

That seems to be what is going on with the military contractor team leader in the film The Hurt Locker, played by Ralph Fiennes. His wildness and recklessness seems to be signalled by the fact that he, and the rest of his crew, are garbed in kufiyas. In fact, when the EOD unit led by Sergeant James first sights the contractors, they think they are "hajjis" (i.e., Iraqi insurgents). This is entirely due to the fact the kufiyas wrapped around their faces. (My earlier remarks on The Hurt Locker are here and here.)

The upcoming film, From Paris with Love, which opens on February 5, stars John Travolta as FBI agent Charlie Wax, whose mission it is to stop a threatened terrorist attack on Paris. From the trailer, it's clear that Agent Wax is another one of those cops or intelligent agents or soldiers so typical of Hollywood action movies, one who must use "unorthodox" methods--involving massive violence, machismo, over-the-top stunts, and borderline-insane schemes--to defeat the bad guys. Wax's signature shaved head, leather jacket, goatee and kufiya are all essential stylistic elements that combine to signal that he is Dirty Harry for the twenty-tens. Looking through the various trailers and publicity photos for the film, I found it hard to find a scene where Travolta/Wax wasn't in kufiya.

And then there is The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington as Eli, a wanderer through a post-apocalypse United States, who carries the Bible and is the master of all weapons. Although he is not always shown with a kufiya around his, he does wear it at many times, and so in this film too the kufiya functions as a sign of Eli's toughness.

I'm told that there is a key scene involving the exchange of a kufiya for water. (The US has been turned into a parched wasteland.) The film has received quite mixed reviews, but for the sake of research, I do intend to see it.

You can view the trailer for the film here, at the official website.

And here's another shot of the kufiya-garbed Eli:

And another image, from the cover of The Book of Eli comic book:

Finally, there is the 2002 film Reign of Fire, and the character of Denton Van Zan played by Matthew McConaughey. The year is 2020. Dragons have been brought to life, out of hibernation. They multiply and burn much of the earth. Humans respond with nukes, and the planet is virtually wiped out.

A band of heavily-armed volunteers from the US, led by Van Zan, arrives in England to aid a small group of survivors, headed by Quinn (Christian Bale). Van Zan is super-tough and battle-hardened, a true warrior. He has the attitude and demeanor of a Marine officer. He is bald, fully bearded, and his body is loaded with tattoos. And he is frequently seen wearing kufiya. Like the bald pate and the tattoos, the kufiya is key to Van Zan's fierce, uncompromising, wild-man persona.

Below we see Van Zan in conversation with Alex (played by Izabella Scorupco), who is part of his military team.

Van Zan, true to his image, dies after the explosive charge he shoots at the dragon with his crossbow fails to kill the beast. Van Zan jumps off the high tower he is on, in a vain attempt to slay the dragon with a battle axe. He is bare-chested, showing off all his tattoos, having thrown off his sleeveless jacket and kufiya. His wild, suicidal yet noble gesture leads to his death. Alex and Quinn kill off the dragon and survive to re-establish human civilization.

Like all such wild men who break taboos and regulations and the rules of civilized behavior (the Geneva Conventions, for instance) to defend "us" against the terroristic enemy, Van Zan is not able to be domesticated. In such cases, the kufiya seems to function not just as a kind of talisman of the opponent, that lends potency to the action hero by a kind of sympathetic magic, but it seems to signify as well that he cannot be really assimilated comfortably into the society which he defends. Like Van Zan, the military contractor of The Hurt Locker played by Ralph Fiennes is killed, by the Iraqi insurgents. The character of Sgt. James, who also wears kufiya in the film--although it's a khaki one, and hence more subdued kufiya than the contractor's hajji-looking black-and-white checked shemagh. Nonetheless, at the end of the film, James is unable to re-enter civilian life. It's just too dull and lacking in adrenaline rushes. He re-ups for another tour of "explosive ordinance disposal."

I hope I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that Eli dies at the end of The Book of Eli. [P.S., May 15, 2011: Elyse just informed me that Eli wears a white galabiyya in the last scene. I didn't remember that. He dies as a kind of devout Muslim???] And we can guess, based on our experience with all the Dirty Harrys and the John McClanes (Die Hard series) and the Martin Riggs' (Lethal Weapon series), that Agent Wax does not get happily married and go off to live peacefully in the suburbs, at the end of From Paris with Love.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interzone radio podcast

After a long break that started in July, I've returned to the airwaves and the netwaves. Interzone Radio is back on KXUA, 88.3 FM, every (almost) Tuesday from 6-8 PM (Central Time).

You can listen on the net by going here and clicking on the player on the right of the page. My intention is to do podcasts of the shows from here on in. You can access the podcast of my show (the first ever) of January 19 here. The show was dedicated to Haiti, and featured some Haitian music.

Playlists will be regularly posted here.

Please join me every week. Or if you can't make it, get the podcasts. (I'm trying to figure out how I can offer subscriptions.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

"The Taqwacores" to screen at Sundance! Trailer now available on MTV!

Check out this terrific trailer for "The Taqwacores," courtesy MTV. It will screen soon at the Sundance Film Festival. Five chances to view it between January 24 and January 29. The Kominas will be there.

This makes me even more appreciative of Sundance, which screened Slingshot Hip-Hop, Jackie Salloum's film about Palestinian rap, in 2008.

Will Quentin Tarantino show up for an after-party, as he did for Slingshot?

Big congrats and mabrouk to all concerned, and particularly to Michael Muhammad Knight, the author of the novel The Taqwacores. And many other books, which all readers of this blawg should purchase and read. (Confession: I'm one of the inhabitants of Knight's Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America. It's cool to be part of MMK's vision of Islamic USA.

And of course, there are kufiyas, in the film, and in the trailer. This guy is the "West Coast Punk." From the trailer, it appears that he will be a quite interesting and provocative character in the film.

But the Riot Grrrl and the Queer Punk look promising too, eh?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dissin' skinny jean (and pashmina scarves, i.e., kufiyas)

The world's gone mad, the world's gone drag. Boys in their little sister's jeans like DAMN!!!

"Skinny Jeans (The World's Gone Mad)" is a kind of old-skool attack--or maybe better put, a satire representing a particular vision of old skool--on the new male style trends associated with the "jerk" scene, and in particular, the skinny jeans. (Thanks to Wayne Marshall to telling me about this vid.)

The Protracktorz and The Incomparable Shakespeare deploy a number of rhetorical strategies to put down the skinny jeans. They associate it with drag (i.e., homosexuality), with effeminity (sister's jeans), and with other purportedly unmanly fashions: to wit, pashmina scarves (which are really kufiyas) and plaid shirts.

Pashmina scarves, plaid shirts, oh no.

The skinny jeans and associated styles are also associated here with "boys" as opposed to men, with styles worn in 5th grade, with accessories like the man purse, with posing.

The "news broadcast" that interrupts the vid presents a number of femme-sounding synonyms for tight jeans: slimmies, thigh riders, hip handlers, bootie huggers, denim with spandex or mandex, soccer pants, butt wranglers.

Added to this is that the male models are made to look decidedly "unmanly" in the "American Idle" spoof that is the vid.

This model has nerdy glasses, is "too" light in skin color, and sports the offending pashmina/kufiya and the plaid shirt. Which of course don't match. Not to mention the skinny jeans.

This male model is at least a bit darker in skin tone, but he wears a
pink shirt, with the image of girl on it, and that of course immediately makes him suspect. As does that strangely colored hat. The nerdy glasses don't help either. The cute shop assistant is impressed by neither of these dudes.

When you see the vid, you also notice that an important part of the objection to these styles (skinny jeans and pashminas/kufiyas and [maybe?] plaid shirts) is that they are also associated with white hipsters. What could be more hipster than skinny jeans and kufiyas?!

Wearers of skinny jeans, in sum, are damned for being girly, adolescent, associated with whiteness.

As opposed to the real, authentic black men who are mocking and protesting against the tight jeans. The homophobia here is scarcely veiled.

What this is all about is a cultural phenomenon associated with a dance music known as jerk, that hails from LA, that is very much a teen phenomenon, and that is very much about the skinny jeans. The band most famously associated with jerk, the New Boyz, have released an album called Skinny Jeans and a Mic. Check out the vid for their song, "You're A Jerk."

The video gives you a good sense of how fun and energetic the jerk scene is. How it resembles original hip-hop, in that it is not merely about rapping, but also about a style of dancing and a sense of fashion and a location in the street. Guy Trebay's lively and compelling account of jerk is here.

Stephanie Diania, New York Times

And notice that no one in the vid looks anything like the male models who are spoofed in the Protracktorz video. The "jerk" kids look like hip-hoppers, but with tight jeans. There are no "pashminas" or plaid shirts in sight.

I was recently in Philadelphia, and I did see a lot of twenty or thirty-something African-Americans wearing kufiyas. They weren't teenagers from the jerk scene. But neither were they slavishly imitating white hipsters, although there were certain stylistic commonalities. Kufiyas have been around in the black communities since the '70s, and are not signs of unthinking adoption of "white" style.

New Boyz defend the skinny jeans style here. They argue that it's not novel, that it's a style that was big in the West Coast and East in the 80s. "A lot of the people who are hatin' on you are people who are scared of change."

The Protracktorz are just jealous old guys, worried that something new is up that they don't get, something that it is going to pass them by. They don't understand jerk at all. Or kufiyas either.


On skinny jeans as a global phenomenon, please listen to Wayne Marshall's recent lecture at MIT, "Skinny Jeans and Fruity Loops."

And for Wayne's exhaustive(ing) archive of items on skinny jeans, go here. (How does he do it? Is he super-human?)

UPDATE: April 6, 2010. Please see comment one. I completely missed the point that this vid is a spoof of narrowminded and conformist views within hip-hop towards new phenomena. Damn. I apologize to The Incomparable Shakespeare. Now I love the vid even more.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

misc. #2010.z

Hipsters. Orientalism. Qaddafi. Yusuf Islam. Rififi. Taqwacore. The Japanese Red Army. Any interest? Read on...

Random stuff I've been gathering for awhile. I meant to do longer posts on some of this material, but the time has passed for that. Time to get all this off my desktop. Here goes.

1. Bashing the hipsters. According to Ben Sisario, this is the place. Hipster Runoff. Only two kufiya posts, here, and here, that don't really add much to kufiya snarkiness. But if you are in search of snide, irreverent and often witty hipster satire, it's all here.

2. Popular Orientalism. Last February the New York Times published an article, in the Antiques section, about Goldsheider ceramics, very popular among the US middle class. Especially popular were the Art Deco figures of the 20s and 30s, including those featuring "harem dancers." What caught my eye was the photo of a figurine called "Aida," which the online version did not reproduce. Now I've found an image (at left). The one I saw on ebay was selling for $4000. An earlier post on the popularity of harem and belly-dance dress among the US bohemian bourgeoisie is here.

3. Gaza and pop culture. Last January, Yusuf Islam (ex-Cat Stevens) released "The Day the World Gets Round." Proceeds from the sale of the single go to UNRWA and Save the Children, for their work with children in Gaza. It's a cover a George Harrison song, and recorded with bassist Klaus Voorman, who used to play with the Beatles. I'm not a big Islam/Stevens fan, but I like this one.

4. Qaddafi, the Opera. Almost too odd to be true. News from September 2006, but still worth recording. Put on by the English National Opera in London, and called "Gaddafi: A Living Myth," it was ostensibly meant to attract younger audiences. To that end, Asian Dub Foundation was commissioned to dub the score. If we can credit The Guardian, it didn't work too well. I'm a huge fan of Asian Dub Foundation, but I can't figure out why they were involved in this project. But you can watch a clip about it here.

5. Rififi: a footnote. I had heard of this film but never seen it until last night. The name intrigued me, however, because it seemed to be some kind of riff on the Moroccan Rif. Of course this is the film that blacklisted US director Jules Dassin famously shot in Paris, was a huge hit in 1954, and reestablished his reputation (and income).

It is based on a novel by Auguste le Breton called Du Rififi Chez les Hommes, which was given to Dassin to film. He hated the novel but took the job because he needed it. In particular, he hated it because of its racism. The bad guys were all North African, and Dassin said, when interviewed later, "The truth is the book shocked me: it was all about Arab bad behavior, including necrophilia." So Dassin made the bad guys French, and focused the film in particular on the robbery caper.

The title of the film only comes up in the theme song, "Rififi," sung in the cabaret by Viviane (played by Magali Noël), but even then, you can't really make sense of what it means other than that it seems to be gangster argot. (Watch the sequence here.)

Dassin explained the meaning in a 2000 interview: "The title comes from the North African tribe, the Rifs, who were in constant conflict...So it's all about melees and conflicts and fighting, out of which the novelist Auguste Le Breton made the word 'rififi.'"

There's a history of US citizens being sympathetic to Riffians, going back to Abdelkrim's celebrated revolt against the Spanish colonialists in Morocco (1920-1926). But that's another tale.

6. The Kominas/Taqwacore. Since they toured, they've been getting lots of media attention. The Taqwacore movie (see below) has helped garner media attention too. Here's a nice AP report. My favorite line is this: "Usami said a reporter once questioned him on how he felt about some Muslims being terrorists. He responded by asking her how she, as a white person, felt about the African slave trade."

Here's another from Sapna. "[T]he band is not supportive of 1947, the partition of Pakistan. It is always much more important to be desi than Pakistani, Bengali, Indian. Having a south Asian identity is much more important than being from a region."

The film, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, will be screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival! Check out the film website.

Other good reports have been done, I've been trying to keep track, but right now, I can't locate the archive...Later, inshallah.

7. Japanese Red Army & PFLP on film. The invaluable magazine of Middle East art and culture, Bidoun, has partnered with the avante-garde art website Ubuweb to put up some fascinating sound and film documents. I've only just begun to explore.

Check out this one: Sekigun-PFLP: Sekai Senso Sengen (The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War), 1971.

In 1971, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi, both having ties to the Japanese Red Army, stopped in Palestine on their way home from the Cannes festival. There they caught up with notorious JRA ex-pats Fusako Shigenobu and Mieko Toyama in training camps to create a newsreel-style agit-prop film based off of the "landscape theory" (fûkeiron) that Adachi and Wakamatsu had developed. The theory, most evident at work in A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), aimed to move the emphasis of film from situations to landscapes as expression of political and economical power relations.

In 1974 Adachi left Japan and committed himself to the Palestinian Revolution and linked up with the Japan Red Army. His activities thereafter were not revealed until he was arrested and imprisoned in 1997 in Lebanon. In 2001 Adachi was extradited to Japan, and after two years of imprisonment, he was released and subsequently published Cinema/Revolution [Eiga/Kakumei], an auto-biographical account of his life.

Yes, really, "newsreel-style agit-prop." Fascinating. (The photo is from the film, of one of the four jets the PFLP hijacked in September 1970.) Of course, if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, like I am, the connections that groups like the PFLP made with the Japanese Red Army as well as Germany's Red Army Faction are, to say the least, the source of embarrassment. (I'll have more to say about the RAF in future.)

There is also a short Agnès Varda film here, Plaisir d'amour en Iran, which I hope to look at soon.

And speaking of popular Orientalism--or maybe, rather, avant-garde Orientalism--there are also some Jack Smith films on Ubuweb, including Flaming Creatures, Normal Love and Scotch Tape. Normal Love is quite as amazing as Flaming Creatures, and I hope to have something to say about it in future.