December 12, 2005
On Syriana (cross from Lounsbury)
Having just seen this film, I thought I might make a comment or two.
Overall, a very interesting film, I rather liked it. Somewhat on the dramatic side, as relatively large budget film has to be, but very nicely done overall. I shall not pretend to review the film as a film reviewer, but some thoughts on its MENA subject matter and small details that pleased me (as well as displeased), from someone who operates in this kind of world.
What follows will have direct reference to the film’s events, “spoilers” to use that silly precious little phrase. Don’t want to read them, don’t read on. For those who may want to see the film, my summary is I found the film to be a very nice rendition of affaires here in my region, although to be sure dramatised.
First, the name is quite stupid, and I have no idea why they chose it.
Second, some thoughts then on the details, which overall pleased me immensely.
As a general matter, as this is the world I travel in, I found the details were quite accurate. Dramatised to be sure (above all the oil business side), but spot on in general style. For a dramatisation, I would say there are few movies that I have seen that touch on my world that have been as ‘right’ as this in a general sense.
Among the small details I particularly enjoyed, the fact that in large part they got the Arabic right, right down to dialects (Other than the Gulfies often spoke with a Shami accent, but then lots of the elite Gulfies really do, due to education – although on the other hand I am not strong in Gulf dialect so I may misjudge this) pleased me immensely. George Clooney’s several Arabic lines were really quite well done (I presume his Farsi was equally well delivered, at the very least it did not sound grossly wrong), on the other hand Alexander Siddig gargled several of his lines; his Arabic sometimes left something to be desired. I also presume the Urdu among the Paki workers was well done, but I am no judge of that. I note that in wandering around online that the subtlety of getting the nationality of Gulf menial workers right (non-Arab) was lost on most, for I saw numerous comments taking them for Arabs.
These are tiny details of no real consequence, other than underlining a remarkable and laudable attention to detail. While probably lost on 99 percent of the audience, it speaks well to the background work put into the film. Indeed the film captured the dynamic of the guest worker culture in the Gulf quite well, another subtlety that I think was lost on almost all viewers, although in many ways quite important to the socio-economic challenges there.
I also note that Dubai was a nice stand in for a generic “Gulf Emirate” although I rather thought some of the scenes must have been shot towards Sharjah, although given my highway and hotel knowledge of Dubai I am not the best judge of that.
Casablanca was its usual decent self as a Beirut stand in, although I recognised the neighbourhoods they were shot in (if I am not mistaken, Derb as-Sultane and certainly downtown. I note I have an apartment not far from the hotel depicted. It amused me immensely, the hotel in question is well known as a Gulfie whoring hotel).
As to the plot, there were some fairly stereotypical items such as the evil oil company story line, although this was not terribly overplayed. I could have done without the evil corporation sub-text, but on the other hand it is childish to deny influence peddling and the like existence, and for better or worse the kind of world that energy firms have to operate in region is a corrupt one. Perhaps I misread this, my pragmatism and amorality leading me to accept that that in fact one can not be Snow White and do business around here. Nor should one be dirty up to the elbows to be sure. As longer term readers know, I am not a huge fan of the US foreign corrupt practices act prissiness, as it criminalises things that would be best left out in the open and perhaps forced to declare as a matter of business. I note in passing I liked the portrayal of the due diligence process. Anyone who has sat in such rooms should have enjoyed that.
I also found the implication of CIA involvement in assassination of heads of State also was a bit overdone, above all in direct connexion with oil company interests. On the other hand, films do have to be dramatic, so I was inclined to forgive this little hook. It was just ambiguous enough to give it a pass for dramatic license.
Among the items I most disliked was the idealisation of the elder Emir (although this was conveyed as the interpretation of the Energy Analyst, a good character, so one can take it in many ways including his gullibility and wanting to make his son’s death meaningful – again the film was subtle), but less so on his wanting to do good, but the economics of his proposals and the pretension that new export lines and state driven developments would somehow of necessity revolutionise the ability of the Emirate or whatever to capture more of the value or diversify. The overall implication that somehow it was the US or foreigners that have held back the Gulf from developing better, more diversified economies struck me as the worst, most anti-Globo-ish left nonsense to be found in the film, followed by the implication that somehow an oil firm was directly controlling US policy for the MENA region.
However, they did make good story lines and they have enough of a grain of truth that overall the story had a rather more plausible ring to it that virtually any other film on the region I have seen in a rather long time.
Indeed, for the thoughtful viewer coming to the film without particular ideological axes to grind, with the exception perhaps of the CIA hit on a sovereign and the possible idealisation of the same figure, there is much to reflect on here from a pragmatic stand point, most specifically with respect to the necessity of dealing with
The reality of the region is rather less-than-pleasant, and the film does bring that home. If one leaves aside the under current of conspiracy – although not entirely, for conspiracy is indeed how many things get done in the region – it poses proper questions. The US, GB, Europe, etc. have to do business with the Gulf and will have to do more so in the future. Yet there are many overlapping agendas, and I would say few understand them well. Further to that, one’s short term interests for getting certain things done run counter to one’s long term interests for change. Where should the balance be struck?
There are important questions, as is the degree to which dependency on hydrocarbon based energy obliges one to be involved with a terrible tar baby. While I am sure many of my colleagues with Right views will be somewhat annoyed by the stereotypical oil-company-CIA-USG axis undercurrent (although I might add the economist/analyst quasi hero is rather unusual and unleftish), I would advise letting this slide in favour of the occasion to reflect on the real questions and challenges.
Regardless, an interesting film. Should anyone have questions about certain details, feel free. I might actually answer.
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I agree that the guestworker bit was very well done (and probably stood out more for those with any exposure to the region). It ended up being the storyline I thought about the most after seeing the movie.
There were hundreds of little details that suggested a lot of homework being done behind the scenes (e.g. that tiny but telling bit about the group pushing for Iran's liberation). I want to see the movie again for that very reason.
I also thought that earnest but patronizing energy analyst was a bit like that guy from The Quiet American.
Posted by: eerie at December 12, 2005 04:34 PM
Indeed, lots of very good details, clearly a lot of hard work was put in. Right into getting the Arabic dialects right. The sort of thing I appreciate.
The earnest but patronising energy analyst was also spot on. A bit like the Quiet American. A bit like I used to be before I lost my virginity to this region.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 12, 2005 04:43 PM
Ah, something to look forward to then.
Posted by: eerie at December 12, 2005 04:52 PM
here's an explanation of the title:
"Turns out only the most dedicated policy wonks will possess that particular bit of foreknowledge: D.C. think tanks use the word to represent the quixotic, arguably foolhardy notion of a Middle East reshaped more to the West's liking."
Found it in nerve.com's movie review.
haven't seen it yet. will watch it soon & let you know about the credibility of the persian. on that note, it's NOT "farsi", just as it's "french" and not "francais", "arabic" (not "'arabii"), "russian" (not "po-russkii"), "german" (not "deutsch"), etc.pp.
there's even a decision of the north american association of persian teachers on that subject.
Posted by: raf* at December 13, 2005 03:13 AM
robert baer explains the term "syriana" here.
Posted by: raf* at December 13, 2005 03:44 AM
Anyone spot me in it?
Airport scene, backpack, going up and down and escalator, dazzling beauty?!
Posted by: secretdubai at December 13, 2005 06:27 AM
My dear fellow.
It's fucking Farsi to me and it will so remain. Persian for me are cats, idiots who want to restore old empires and arch fools.
So its Farsi.
As to the explanation of the title: stupid decision. Title is bloody stupid.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 07:19 AM
Posted by: Meph at December 13, 2005 07:46 AM
your comment is SUCH a relief. had already contemplated the horrible scenario of you having gone soft. wheeew ...
glad you got your spirits back.
Posted by: raf* at December 13, 2005 08:28 AM
I just needed the proper motivation.
But I don't like the bloody rugs.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 10:15 AM
"proper motivation"? well, i always thought only wannabe-indigenous 1st-year islamic studies students would say "farsi", and maybe also ignorant gits from beyond the big blue.
now it looks like it's them ... and you.
sad, sad indeed.
Posted by: raf* at December 13, 2005 11:39 AM
Odd that Siddig would muff his Arabic - isn't he half-Egyptian or something? (Maybe familiarity bred contempt and he didn't listen to the dialogue coach as closely as Clooney did or something.) Wonder if they'll show it in Beirut. Probably. (Wonder if they would have showed it a year ago...)
Posted by: Tom Scudder at December 13, 2005 01:10 PM
I wouldn't say Siddig muffed his lines, that would be exagerating. However, I found his delivery poor several times.
Re Farsi: I have never heard someone refer to Farsi as Persian unless they were part of that absurd coterie of "Persian" Iranian exiles who like to pretend the entire Islamic history of the country did not exist, etc. etc. Ridiculous gits, just like the idiot Maroni lebs who claim to be Phonecians and not Arabs or whatever, to use a point of illustration. Tripe.
Persian is an out of date and ridiculous word to use for the language. Farsi is a fine and useful word. PhD students I know use it, I use it, lots of others not at all ignorant nor wanna be use it.
So, while perhaps your experience is different, I nevertheless find the idea of saying "Persian" for Farsi silly.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 01:24 PM
it's NOT "farsi", just as it's "french" and not "francais", "arabic" not "'arabii"), "russian" (not "po-russkii"), "german" (not "deutsch"), etc.pp.
In that case, you should be calling the language IRANIAN since it is spoken in IRAN. Keep up with the times, boy. It's not 1934.
I nevertheless find the idea of saying "Persian" for Farsi silly.
I will, however, say a word in defence of "Persian." A number of Iranians who are neither fools nor would-be-empire-builders call themselves "Persian" and for good reason. A sad but significant minority of Americans become wary or even overtly hostile when they discover someone is from "Eye-ran." Fortunately, the vast majority of this type of people have the geographical and historical awareness of tree squirrels and never figure out that "Persian" is a quaint synonym for "Iranian."
Posted by: Anonymous at December 13, 2005 03:07 PM
Point well taken.
Regardless, this is a silly conversation, Persia, Parsi, Farsi, Shmarsi.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 03:21 PM
I nevertheless find the idea of saying "Persian" for Farsi silly.
I'm no Persian/Farsi/Iran expert, but to me Farsi is a more precise term than Persian - speakers of other related C. Asian languages sometimes also refer to their languages (Tajik, etc) as Persian languages or dialects. At least when one refers to Farsi, it's somewhat clearer that one is referring to the language spoken in Iran.
Posted by: Eva Luna at December 13, 2005 03:27 PM
Well now that we have put to bed the Faris/Parsi/Persian silliness, it appears I managed to say nothing of other interest.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 11:10 PM
BTW, I looked up Siddig, his father is Sudanese and his mum is English. Now I think I understand why I found his Arabic to be odd. (again not bad per se, but I still think he gargled some lines)
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 13, 2005 11:16 PM
you made me do it:
Persian, the more widely used name of the language in English, is an Anglicized form derived from Latin *Persianus,
The Academy of Persian Language and Literature as well as many lexicographers have announced that "Farsi" is not the appropriate term to use for the Persian language in English.
OF COURSE, you can call it what you want. you can also spell "potato" with an "e" at the end.
btw, dear anonymous, i'm a trained historian ... in the history of the middle east ... and taught undergrad & grad courses on the subject. here's a tidbit of information for you: when countries' names change, the names of the languages spoken there don't necessarily change as well. come to think of it, here's another one: according to your logic, "german" shouldn't be called "german", but "deutschlandian", no? and one more question: until 1991, did you call "russian" and "ukrainian" & all those other languages of that region then "sovietunionian"?
it's a question of nomenclature, not of what "feels right". of course, y'all are free to play the patronizing westerner who is telling them oriental ayraaniyuns what they should be calling their language.
in the meantime, i will continue to keep this on a rational level, you know, with well-sourced statements.
Posted by: raf* at December 14, 2005 04:02 AM
Eva Luna is correct. Farsi is a more precise term than Persian. Some Persian "languages" are semi-mutually comprehensible and can be thought of as dialects. Others, for example, Hazaragi, aren't really much closer to Farsi than English is to Dutch.
Posted by: Anonymous at December 14, 2005 06:11 AM
the "net" ate the full wikipedia quotation (because of a poiny bracket in it).
here it is:
"Persian, the more widely used name of the language in English, is an Anglicized form derived from Latin *Persianus, Latin "Persia", Greek "Persis", a hellenized form of Old Persian "Parsa". Farsi is the Arabicized form of Parsi, due to a lack of the /p/ phoneme in Standard Arabic. Its use in the English language is very recent (since the 1970s). Native Persian speakers typically call it "Fârsi" in modern usage. ISO (International Organization for Standardization), the Academy of Persian Language and Literature, and many other sources call the language "Persian". The government of Afghanistan uses both "Dari" and "Persian" in English communications.
The Academy of Persian Language and Literature as well as many lexicographers have announced that "Farsi" is not the appropriate term to use for the Persian language in English."
maybe they'll change it.
on that note - dear anonymous - what do you call all the various arabic dialects, quite a few of which are mutually incomprehensible?
Posted by: raf* at December 14, 2005 07:40 AM
My dear Raf:
There is a word for this "conversation."
Boring. Or tedious.
Rather, put it this way, a bunch of bloody academics can say whatever the bloody hell they want. Farsi it is for me, Farsi it will be. I find the posturing otherwise unconvincing and will go with the usage I most often have encountered in the past decade.
Now, no more of this idiotic, pointless conversation. Bitch about Siddig or something.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 14, 2005 10:10 AM
"usage wins" ... interesting logic.
your post, your call.
alexander "sid" siddig ain't worth bitchin' about. i'd just like to direct the esteemed reader to the actor's own homepage. yes, it's called "sid city". and it does sprout such gems as "according to Sid, 'El' means 'the son of'" ...
Posted by: raf* at December 14, 2005 10:33 AM
I enjoyed watching Siddig in this movie, just as I enjoyed him in Kingdom of Heaven (L, did you ever get around to seeing that?). He's good at playing elegant, thoughtful types.
Posted by: eerie at December 14, 2005 10:48 AM
Usage wins is a statement of fact, not logic.
Regardless, I did see Kingdom of Heaven (although dubbed, which was annoying) and he was very good. I thought he was good in Syriana, but as that "El = son of" suggests, his Arabic was sometimes less than what it might have been.
Mere whinging on about small detials, however.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 14, 2005 11:16 AM
While reading this exchange, at some point I lost the will to live.
Posted by: Meph at December 14, 2005 12:10 PM
on that note - dear anonymous - what do you call all the various arabic dialects, quite a few of which are mutually incomprehensible?
Historian you may be, but linguist you ain't.
When people speak casually of "speaking Arabic" they are, of course, referring to Modern Standard Arabic just when people speaking Chinese, they are typically referring to Mandarin.
Chinese is, in fact, an excellent example. Chinese is really a language family rather than a language. People who actually speak "Chinese" usually specify that they speak Mandarin or Cantonese or whatever because it makes quite a difference. Most people in Hong Kong, for example, speak Cantonese and Cantonese is so different from Mandarin that they communicate with other "Chinese speakers" in China using English.
The same thing is true of "Arabic," though Arabic dialects are far more mutually intelligible than Chinese. If you want to use "Arabic" as short hand for Modern Standard Arabic, that's fine. But if you mean Egyptian or Saidi it's best to specify Egyptian or Saidi. In any event, it's perfectly correct to do so.
The same thing is true with "Persian" and "Farsi." You can use Persian to mean Farsi but Persian is really a group rather than a language. If you mean to say someone is speaking Farsi, then by all means, it's perfectly correct to say so.
As for The Academy of Persian Language and Literature, as they are studying all the Persian languages and dialects rather than just Farsi, they're correct to say that you shouldn't use "Farsi" for "Persian." But that's a different proposition from specifying that someone is speaking Farsi, especially when you are criticizing their accent.
Posted by: Anonymous at December 14, 2005 05:39 PM
I do vouch for the "Persian" euphemism. True story in Texas many years ago:
Me -- white guy in cab to driver: So where you from?
Driver: (tensed) Um, Persia.
Me: Oh Iran, you can say that, it's ok. From Tehran?
Driver (relaxing): Yeah.
Witnessed conversation in Texas a few years earlier during hostage crisis.
Drunk redneck acquaintance to Filipino-American student: You're not Eye-ranian are you? Because if you were, I'd have to beat you up.
Filipino-American student (who probably could have won the fight): Why the hell would you do that?
Redneck, shrugging non-aggressively: Just gotta.
Nothing bad happened, other than that.
Anyway the language name debate can get tedious, try the "Gaelic versus Irish" debate for nationalism gone stupid.
Havent seen Syriana and can't find the name's explanation on the link, if anyone can summarize as the name is off-putting and unhelpful, it would be helpful.
Posted by: matthew hogan at December 16, 2005 11:04 AM
Syriana. I ref. Adam Horschild's excellent 'King Leopold's Ghost' as a wholly contemporary description of the Gulf of Guinea today in its dealings with the big oil melange.
The companies, often national companies, holding the strategic reserves (quite different from the oil majors) are joined at the hip with government so foreign policy is built-in.
And while foreign affaris is the art of the least odiferous compromise; the semblance of elegance and tidiness does sometimes fall down the cracks, particularly in the least illuminated regions.
"Nasty, brutish and short" should refer to the trajectories of special advisors who manipulate such scenarios. Their networks are seldom as deep as they are lofty, and thus the curse of intrigue is rooted.
A trite truism, but the truth is nastier than fiction and impossible to film, unless one resorts to disturbing allegory.
Posted by: fossdyke at December 21, 2005 07:41 AM
The language, just like the ethnicity, has been called Persian forver. Your sir, are an idiot!
Posted by: Mani at December 28, 2005 03:23 PM
My dear Mani:
Don't be an insufferable moron or worse, one of those "It's Persia" people. Persia no longer exists, the name changed and that's that. (Of course it has not, as a matter of fact, been called "Persia" forever, whatever idiot nationalists want to believe)
Now fuck off you stupid git.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 28, 2005 04:14 PM
glad i missed the heated debate last month on persia/iran/farci/blahblah.
my roommate over the summer was from Tehran. She was a very nice girl. getting her PhD in something like chemical geography. she refered to it half and half as farci and persian. also, she called it iran all the time. and, on a side note, her mother was quite sweet having come to stay with us for a month.
L: i know you'll be dissapointed, but I didn't catch the differences in the dialects. now, to be fair, the sound was very low-quality and i was somewhat intoxicated, however, it all sounded east of egypt to me!
and while we're on explosions, they really should have had a big enough budget to blow up a tanker. that was LPG, right? growing up so far away from major oil ports has left me at somewhat of a disadvantage.
and finally, touching on the whole P/F/I thing, stop being so politically correct! it's annoying!
Posted by: drdougfir at January 7, 2006 02:13 AM
I saw the movie. George Clooney only said three sentences in Farsi. First one was fairly well-spoken for a foreigner where he says "I was looking for the bathroom". The second one, saying "You don't speak Farsi", required a native Farsi speaker like me to rewind once or twice because it was completely with an English intonation. The third one, "..do you, you son of a goat", well I have listened to it like 20 times and still can't tell what it is he's trying to say because we don't even have such a curse in Farsi. Son of a goat??? Help me out here fellow Iranians (a.k.a. Persians, etc.)
Posted by: Arash at January 27, 2006 01:16 PM
Thanks for the late but useful comment.
Son of a goat, well, I wouldn't get hung up on that, one can make up insults sometimes. I might say something like that in Arabic if I were suddenly possessed by creativeness or something else (or thought the standard charmoutah and the like just didn't get what I wanted).
So, Clooney did okay with his farsi.
I would note, by the way, for those still reading, that having recently seen Kingdom of Heaven I can attest that Siddig's Arabic is not very good (or perhaps in the alternative, marked heavily by some bizarre Soudani accent, not to be a snob).
Posted by: The Lounsbury at January 27, 2006 03:13 PM
Can anyone tell me where the man w/ the blue/green eyes who runs into Clooney in Tehran and befriends the Pakistani boys in the Gulf could be from? He doesn's speak Farsi/Persian (let's not start that debate again) but speaks Urdu (I'm assuming b/c the boys do not speak Arabic). I speak none of these languages, so any thoughts would be appreciated.
Posted by: brp at February 9, 2006 05:31 PM
He's Egyptian and speaks in both Egyptian dialect at times, and Formal Arabic. He is the "blue eyed Egyptian" the Agency mentions. The boys do speak Arabic, just not well. The conversation where the younger beardless boy seeks employment on a boat is entirely in Arabic - presumably the dishdash wearing boat owner is an assimlated Pakistani. The boy's Arabic, when he speaks, is shakey.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 9, 2006 05:47 PM
Thanks. If I may, perhaps you could also help me w/ another question that's been nagging me. I'm afraid it is unrelated to the film. I overheard a conversation be/ two students (one from Afghanistan and the other from Pakistan). What could they have been speaking to one another? I tried to find an answer online but there seem to be quite a few possibilities (Dari, Gawar-Bati, Hazaragi, etc.). Unfortunately, I don't know where specifically they are from within their respective countries. That would probably help. I guess I could have asked but as a shy Filipina-American, I couldn't bring myself to interrupt their conversation. Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
Posted by: brp at February 9, 2006 06:14 PM
Just about anything. Dari, Pashtun. Pashtun would seem more likely, but really on this info it's a fool's game to say.
It's best not to interrupt conversations in other langauges.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 9, 2006 06:20 PM
I should have noted, btw, that most conversations between the boys and in general among the guest workers are in a Paki language, I presume Urdu but whatever language they have in common.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at February 9, 2006 06:23 PM