Zero Dark Thirty and the Problem of Pakistan

February 24, 2013
By

Zero Dark Thirty has been the subject of heated debate since its early release on Christmas Day last year. A number of reviews have focused especially on the film’s deployment of torture as a plot device, and a few Hollywood stars have even organized an appeal against the film ahead of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony because of this. I agree with some of the reviews (the best, in my mind, are from Jane Mayer for The New Yorker and Deepa Kumar on the blog Empire Bytes), but I would like also to consider a few other aspects of the film that have not been widely discussed as yet.

The short version? Zero Dark Thirty is a drag. But not for the reasons you’d think.

I am currently teaching a class on Islam and the West (a problematic course title, one which my very sharp students have been analyzing and taking apart since our first meetings in January). For the purpose of such a class, which is intended to engage ideas about Islam that have circulated in the Western world (Europe and the United States, for our purposes) since the Crusades, it seemed the timely release of Zero Dark Thirty would make for a wildly interesting field trip. A sort of reconnaissance mission into the heart of the War on Terror entertainment division, if you will. And while after our group viewing, my students offered many thought-provoking considerations of the relationships between race and representation, “us versus them” dynamics, and how the cultural is very, very political, I came away with a much more immediate, though somewhat shallow, reaction:

Why is everyone in Pakistan speaking standard Arabic?

The character Hakim (portrayed by Assyrian-Swedish actor Fares Fares), a translator and native informant who is apparently involved with the CIA as well as the Navy Seals, seems to always address the generically threatening brown men who approach our lily-white (anti)heroine (her name is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain) in Arabic. Throughout the entire film. Sometimes there is Urdu. I heard Farsi and Pashto once or twice as well. But Arabic seems to be the language of Pakistan in Katherine Bigelow’s version of events. Sometimes, in real life, it is. Arabic and Urdu share an alphabet. They are linguistically related. But they are not mutually intelligible, and standard Arabic (which is not the same as Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran) is not even intelligible in most of the Arabic-speaking world. So. Standard Arabic in Pakistan. Yalla, let’s discuss.

I understand, in a way. Pakistan is full of brown people and Muslims. Or, brown people are all Muslims. Terrorists are all Muslims. Muslims are Arabs and brown. Terrorists, and therefore Muslims (and therefore brown people), speak Arabic. I’m not entirely sure how to chart this, but Brown People, Muslims, Terrorists, and Pakistan exist in an ever-shifting constellation. At least, they do in Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero-Dark-Thirty_Fares Fares

But when Pakistanis don’t speak Arabic… they only understand English! Towards the end of the film, when our brave American soldiers (who all seem to have beards, but do not seem to be jihadi terrorists – very confusing) are moving throughout the compound of the man who has been harbouring Osama bin Laden (“UBL” in the film’s parlance), Hakim stands outside warning the muttering horde of Abbottabadians who have been awoken by the sounds of extra-legal assassinations to go home. (Nothing to see here, folks, move it along.) Hakim initially begins warning the horde in Urdu (there’s really no other way to put it – we don’t have people so much as hordes in the film). It may have been Hindko, the most commonly used language in the city (and one that I myself am not familiar enough with to discern). Regardless, despite American soldiers pointing guns at them, the Pakistanis draw nearer. No common sense, these brown people. Hakim then implores them in English: “They will kill you! Go home! They will kill you!” Only then does the horde stop.

Yes, thank you Hakim. I am sure that our friends from Abbottabad would never have the sense to stay away from the armed soldiers had you not let them know in English.

But that is precisely the dilemma presented by the film’s fast-and-loose treatment of Pakistan (and brown people). The portrayal of black sites (filmed in a currently active prison in Jordan – something that made Jessica Chastain very sad), of Pakistan, of a nightclub in Kuwait; these portraits of lands teeming with brown people – every one of whom may be a terrorist – this is the problem with the film. The torture scenes, though never depicting the hundreds of detainees who are completely innocent of any wrong-doing, are not precisely why I didn’t like this film. I actually found the torture scenes rather ambiguous, though I don’t believe that a majority of the American audiences care either way. In my mind, the torture in the film, and the positions of the torturers, are not as clearly pro-torture as some previous reviewers have argued. What is clearly pro-torture is that the torture always seems to work. But this is not what I am concerned with in this post (others have covered this topic quite well).

Rather, I dislike this film because it is, first and foremost, monstrously boring. Long and poorly paced and not even well written, at that. I dislike this film because I hate when (white) women are propped up as heroes in some post-feminist militarized fantasy (the hunt for Osama bin Laden is Maya’s “baby” and she cries when the mission is through – a septic analogy for motherhood). I dislike this film because its racism and Islamophobia is not in the depiction of torture, is not through positioning a white CIA official as a Muslim (shocking!), is not even in the casual slights and slurs used against the (always guilty) detainees, the food, or the people (“it’s not safe being white here”). Its inherent racism and Islamophobia is instead tucked away within the casual Orientalist inclusion of Arabic by Katheryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. Arabic is the film’s aural cue to the audience: they have spoken Arabic! Begin racializing The Browns!

one does not simply ARABIC

We don’t need the browns to have bombs strapped to their chest (though one does, in the film). We don’t need the browns to wear kufis or galabeyas or burqas (though some do, even though burqas are particularly out of place in most urban areas in South Asia – the equivalent of seeing a dozen women in burqas at a strip club in East Lansing). We don’t even need the browns to be incompetent terrorists, oil-rich sheiks, or leering at scantily clad Western women (though, again, ZDT features elements of all of these stereotypes). As long as the browns we identify as bad share a common language – Arabic – we can safely cheer against them. Do I think most audiences understood that Arabic was being used in the film? Not at all. But I do know that Arab = Muslim = terrorist is the maths for far too many. So that the browns all seemed to be able to communicate with each other (regardless of where they are situated or said to have come from) is the fear mongering take-away from the film. It’s why I don’t speak Arabic on the phone while I’m at an airport. It’s why too many of my friends and family have been treated with suspicion while out in public. “If it sounds like an Arab, looks like an Arab” and so on.

Zero Dark Thirty consciously avoided many of the common stereotypes we’re always on the watch for. We have a white Muslim who works for the CIA and approves of torture. We have a brown translator in the CIA and the Navy Seals who seems torn about the tasks he must perform in the War on Terror. We even have a lead – Maya – who seems impressively knowledgeable about Islam, and sometimes even discerning of the differences between radical ideologies and commonly held religious tenets. But the casual, almost off-hand presence of Arabic in the everyday lives of Pakistanis reduces them to nothing more than brown bodies in a desert. Much as they appear, I imagine, on an unmanned aerial drone operator’s control screen. This reductionism, the relegation of Pakistanis themselves to the background of the film, is the true danger of this film. I think I’ll cheer on Emad Burnat’s Five Broken Cameras instead this Oscars season.

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28 Responses to Zero Dark Thirty and the Problem of Pakistan

  1. Pathani on February 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Alright, let’s get a couple o things straight. I had heard this exact criticism before I watched the film and was pretty offended that Big Hollywood wouldn’t make an effort to represent the correct languages in the movie. But when I watched the movie, Arabic is spoken only when there are Arabs around. The only part where I saw any discrepancy was when the can gets stopped in the market in Pindi but those may well have been Arabs too, who knows? Even the background conversations were Pashto or Urdu. As someone who speaks all three languages fluently, I think people have mistaken Afghan-dialect Pashto for Arabic possibly because of Fares’ accent, and frankly that’s embarrassing. That’s not to say the rest of your analysis is egregiously wrong but the language issue is definitely blown way out of proportion.

    • Sophia Azeb on February 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I think one of the problems in the film, however, is that even determining who is an “Arab” is nearly impossible. [And what is an "Arab" in the first place?] In the three scenes when standard Arabic is specifically used to interact with random, unidentified brown people on the streets of Pakistan, we have no indication of their linguistic identities – but phrases like “tayyeb” and “yalla” kind of give the language mix-up away. That, to me, is not a disproportionate critique, for precisely the reasons I offer in the original piece.

  2. Pathani on February 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Alright, let’s get a couple o things straight. I had heard this exact criticism before I watched the film and was pretty offended that Big Hollywood wouldn’t make an effort to represent the correct languages in the movie. But when I watched the movie, Arabic is spoken only when there are Arabs around. The only part where I saw any discrepancy was when the can gets stopped in the market in Pindi but those may well have been Arabs too, who knows? Even the background conversations were Pashto or Urdu. As someone who speaks all three languages fluently, I think people have mistaken Afghan-dialect Pashto for Arabic possibly because of Fares’ accent, and frankly that’s embarrassing. That’s not to say the rest of your analysis is egregiously wrong but the language issue is definitely blown way out of proportion.

    • Sophia Azeb on February 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I think one of the problems in the film, however, is that even determining who is an “Arab” is nearly impossible. [And what is an "Arab" in the first place?] In the three scenes when standard Arabic is specifically used to interact with random, unidentified brown people on the streets of Pakistan, we have no indication of their linguistic identities – but phrases like “tayyeb” and “yalla” kind of give the language mix-up away. That, to me, is not a disproportionate critique, for precisely the reasons I offer in the original piece.

  3. Pathani on February 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Alright, let’s get a couple o things straight. I had heard this exact criticism before I watched the film and was pretty offended that Big Hollywood wouldn’t make an effort to represent the correct languages in the movie. But when I watched the movie, Arabic is spoken only when there are Arabs around. The only part where I saw any discrepancy was when the can gets stopped in the market in Pindi but those may well have been Arabs too, who knows? Even the background conversations were Pashto or Urdu. As someone who speaks all three languages fluently, I think people have mistaken Afghan-dialect Pashto for Arabic possibly because of Fares’ accent, and frankly that’s embarrassing. That’s not to say the rest of your analysis is egregiously wrong but the language issue is definitely blown way out of proportion.

    • Sophia Azeb on February 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I think one of the problems in the film, however, is that even determining who is an “Arab” is nearly impossible. [And what is an "Arab" in the first place?] In the three scenes when standard Arabic is specifically used to interact with random, unidentified brown people on the streets of Pakistan, we have no indication of their linguistic identities – but phrases like “tayyeb” and “yalla” kind of give the language mix-up away. That, to me, is not a disproportionate critique, for precisely the reasons I offer in the original piece.

  4. Pathani on February 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Alright, let’s get a couple o things straight. I had heard this exact criticism before I watched the film and was pretty offended that Big Hollywood wouldn’t make an effort to represent the correct languages in the movie. But when I watched the movie, Arabic is spoken only when there are Arabs around. The only part where I saw any discrepancy was when the can gets stopped in the market in Pindi but those may well have been Arabs too, who knows? Even the background conversations were Pashto or Urdu. As someone who speaks all three languages fluently, I think people have mistaken Afghan-dialect Pashto for Arabic possibly because of Fares’ accent, and frankly that’s embarrassing. That’s not to say the rest of your analysis is egregiously wrong but the language issue is definitely blown way out of proportion.

    • Sophia Azeb on February 24, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I think one of the problems in the film, however, is that even determining who is an “Arab” is nearly impossible. [And what is an "Arab" in the first place?] In the three scenes when standard Arabic is specifically used to interact with random, unidentified brown people on the streets of Pakistan, we have no indication of their linguistic identities – but phrases like “tayyeb” and “yalla” kind of give the language mix-up away. That, to me, is not a disproportionate critique, for precisely the reasons I offer in the original piece.

  5. Ram on February 25, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I’m brown and liked the movie. I speak English and Kannada, a South Indian language. I don’t know Arabic, and couldn’t tell what anyone was saying. I didn’t see any generalization about all brown people being terrorists. Brown people were victims as well as perpetrators. The scene was a war zone. A friend who fled Kashmir mentioned that at some point when she was growing up, her town started to fill up with people who didn’t speak the local language. These people were insurgents. I think you’re making generalizations about what is portrayed in ZDT, that I, a brown man, didn’t even come close to seeing.

  6. Ram on February 25, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I’m brown and liked the movie. I speak English and Kannada, a South Indian language. I don’t know Arabic, and couldn’t tell what anyone was saying. I didn’t see any generalization about all brown people being terrorists. Brown people were victims as well as perpetrators. The scene was a war zone. A friend who fled Kashmir mentioned that at some point when she was growing up, her town started to fill up with people who didn’t speak the local language. These people were insurgents. I think you’re making generalizations about what is portrayed in ZDT, that I, a brown man, didn’t even come close to seeing.

  7. Ram on February 25, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I’m brown and liked the movie. I speak English and Kannada, a South Indian language. I don’t know Arabic, and couldn’t tell what anyone was saying. I didn’t see any generalization about all brown people being terrorists. Brown people were victims as well as perpetrators. The scene was a war zone. A friend who fled Kashmir mentioned that at some point when she was growing up, her town started to fill up with people who didn’t speak the local language. These people were insurgents. I think you’re making generalizations about what is portrayed in ZDT, that I, a brown man, didn’t even come close to seeing.

  8. Ram on February 25, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I’m brown and liked the movie. I speak English and Kannada, a South Indian language. I don’t know Arabic, and couldn’t tell what anyone was saying. I didn’t see any generalization about all brown people being terrorists. Brown people were victims as well as perpetrators. The scene was a war zone. A friend who fled Kashmir mentioned that at some point when she was growing up, her town started to fill up with people who didn’t speak the local language. These people were insurgents. I think you’re making generalizations about what is portrayed in ZDT, that I, a brown man, didn’t even come close to seeing.

  9. Charan on February 27, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Everyone in Pakistan does not speak Arabic. True
    Everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist – False
    Every Terrorist in Pakistan has been to a training camp where lessons in Arabic are mandatory-True
    Al-Qaeda leadership is mainly Arab, with afghans and Pakis providing the foot soldiers – True
    Terrorists in Pakistan use Arabic to communicate and to tell others about their higher status in the organization thanks to their proximity to Arabs – True

    Get it?

  10. Charan on February 27, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Everyone in Pakistan does not speak Arabic. True
    Everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist – False
    Every Terrorist in Pakistan has been to a training camp where lessons in Arabic are mandatory-True
    Al-Qaeda leadership is mainly Arab, with afghans and Pakis providing the foot soldiers – True
    Terrorists in Pakistan use Arabic to communicate and to tell others about their higher status in the organization thanks to their proximity to Arabs – True

    Get it?

  11. Charan on February 27, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Everyone in Pakistan does not speak Arabic. True
    Everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist – False
    Every Terrorist in Pakistan has been to a training camp where lessons in Arabic are mandatory-True
    Al-Qaeda leadership is mainly Arab, with afghans and Pakis providing the foot soldiers – True
    Terrorists in Pakistan use Arabic to communicate and to tell others about their higher status in the organization thanks to their proximity to Arabs – True

    Get it?

  12. Charan on February 27, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Everyone in Pakistan does not speak Arabic. True
    Everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist – False
    Every Terrorist in Pakistan has been to a training camp where lessons in Arabic are mandatory-True
    Al-Qaeda leadership is mainly Arab, with afghans and Pakis providing the foot soldiers – True
    Terrorists in Pakistan use Arabic to communicate and to tell others about their higher status in the organization thanks to their proximity to Arabs – True

    Get it?

  13. Muhammad Attar on February 28, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Yes, of course, Pakistanis speak Arabic. Where have you been all these years? Since they stopped being “Indian” which they were for 5000+ years after the partition of India 65 years ago, they have been rapidly arabicizing (is that a word?). That is when “khuda hafeez” became “allah hafeez”. So, what is wrong with Pakistanis trying to be like their prophet (pbuh) – speaking arabic, wearing hijab, using shariah, being sunni, etc. That was Zia ul Haq s mission – to provide a new arab identity to pakistanis. Nothing wrong with that or to be ashamed of. We just think arab culture and language is worth emulating.

  14. Muhammad Attar on February 28, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Yes, of course, Pakistanis speak Arabic. Where have you been all these years? Since they stopped being “Indian” which they were for 5000+ years after the partition of India 65 years ago, they have been rapidly arabicizing (is that a word?). That is when “khuda hafeez” became “allah hafeez”. So, what is wrong with Pakistanis trying to be like their prophet (pbuh) – speaking arabic, wearing hijab, using shariah, being sunni, etc. That was Zia ul Haq s mission – to provide a new arab identity to pakistanis. Nothing wrong with that or to be ashamed of. We just think arab culture and language is worth emulating.

  15. Muhammad Attar on February 28, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Yes, of course, Pakistanis speak Arabic. Where have you been all these years? Since they stopped being “Indian” which they were for 5000+ years after the partition of India 65 years ago, they have been rapidly arabicizing (is that a word?). That is when “khuda hafeez” became “allah hafeez”. So, what is wrong with Pakistanis trying to be like their prophet (pbuh) – speaking arabic, wearing hijab, using shariah, being sunni, etc. That was Zia ul Haq s mission – to provide a new arab identity to pakistanis. Nothing wrong with that or to be ashamed of. We just think arab culture and language is worth emulating.

  16. Muhammad Attar on February 28, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Yes, of course, Pakistanis speak Arabic. Where have you been all these years? Since they stopped being “Indian” which they were for 5000+ years after the partition of India 65 years ago, they have been rapidly arabicizing (is that a word?). That is when “khuda hafeez” became “allah hafeez”. So, what is wrong with Pakistanis trying to be like their prophet (pbuh) – speaking arabic, wearing hijab, using shariah, being sunni, etc. That was Zia ul Haq s mission – to provide a new arab identity to pakistanis. Nothing wrong with that or to be ashamed of. We just think arab culture and language is worth emulating.

  17. Hugh Pope on February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thank you so much for such a compelling post. I felt very similarly about the director’s previous film the Hurt Locker – including the demonisation of faceless Iraqis who bore no resemblance to the real people of that country (my own rant is here at http://hughpope.com/2010/04/23/the-hurt-shocker-war-is-a-dangerous-drug-for-film-makers-too/). Perhaps the most shocking thing is that so few viewers of these films seem to care about the deep and and lasting distortions in such films.

  18. Hugh Pope on February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thank you so much for such a compelling post. I felt very similarly about the director’s previous film the Hurt Locker – including the demonisation of faceless Iraqis who bore no resemblance to the real people of that country (my own rant is here at http://hughpope.com/2010/04/23/the-hurt-shocker-war-is-a-dangerous-drug-for-film-makers-too/). Perhaps the most shocking thing is that so few viewers of these films seem to care about the deep and and lasting distortions in such films.

  19. Hugh Pope on February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thank you so much for such a compelling post. I felt very similarly about the director’s previous film the Hurt Locker – including the demonisation of faceless Iraqis who bore no resemblance to the real people of that country (my own rant is here at http://hughpope.com/2010/04/23/the-hurt-shocker-war-is-a-dangerous-drug-for-film-makers-too/). Perhaps the most shocking thing is that so few viewers of these films seem to care about the deep and and lasting distortions in such films.

  20. Hugh Pope on February 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Thank you so much for such a compelling post. I felt very similarly about the director’s previous film the Hurt Locker – including the demonisation of faceless Iraqis who bore no resemblance to the real people of that country (my own rant is here at http://hughpope.com/2010/04/23/the-hurt-shocker-war-is-a-dangerous-drug-for-film-makers-too/). Perhaps the most shocking thing is that so few viewers of these films seem to care about the deep and and lasting distortions in such films.

  21. Mike on March 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    You’re drawing unacceptably loose conclusions when you say the film equates brown, Arab and terrorist. Obviously, the many middle eastern people who helped the intelligence agencies with their task were not terrorist. Even the people in the market who they had to skeptically search through were obviously not terrorist. In fact it was the opposite. Since most were not terrorist, it was the entire difficulty of the search. This post is incredibly defensive and exaggerated. You were looking for a bias you expected, and found it where there is none. The torture in the beginning of the film didn’t work. That was the point. That’s such a simple fact you got wrong, the far more complicated issues of language and skin color portrayal should hardly be taken seriously. It seems the work you do is quite important. I hope you can think a bit more critically and honestly when it comes to real human rights instead of a film.

  22. Mike on March 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    You’re drawing unacceptably loose conclusions when you say the film equates brown, Arab and terrorist. Obviously, the many middle eastern people who helped the intelligence agencies with their task were not terrorist. Even the people in the market who they had to skeptically search through were obviously not terrorist. In fact it was the opposite. Since most were not terrorist, it was the entire difficulty of the search. This post is incredibly defensive and exaggerated. You were looking for a bias you expected, and found it where there is none. The torture in the beginning of the film didn’t work. That was the point. That’s such a simple fact you got wrong, the far more complicated issues of language and skin color portrayal should hardly be taken seriously. It seems the work you do is quite important. I hope you can think a bit more critically and honestly when it comes to real human rights instead of a film.

  23. Mike on March 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    You’re drawing unacceptably loose conclusions when you say the film equates brown, Arab and terrorist. Obviously, the many middle eastern people who helped the intelligence agencies with their task were not terrorist. Even the people in the market who they had to skeptically search through were obviously not terrorist. In fact it was the opposite. Since most were not terrorist, it was the entire difficulty of the search. This post is incredibly defensive and exaggerated. You were looking for a bias you expected, and found it where there is none. The torture in the beginning of the film didn’t work. That was the point. That’s such a simple fact you got wrong, the far more complicated issues of language and skin color portrayal should hardly be taken seriously. It seems the work you do is quite important. I hope you can think a bit more critically and honestly when it comes to real human rights instead of a film.

  24. Mike on March 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    You’re drawing unacceptably loose conclusions when you say the film equates brown, Arab and terrorist. Obviously, the many middle eastern people who helped the intelligence agencies with their task were not terrorist. Even the people in the market who they had to skeptically search through were obviously not terrorist. In fact it was the opposite. Since most were not terrorist, it was the entire difficulty of the search. This post is incredibly defensive and exaggerated. You were looking for a bias you expected, and found it where there is none. The torture in the beginning of the film didn’t work. That was the point. That’s such a simple fact you got wrong, the far more complicated issues of language and skin color portrayal should hardly be taken seriously. It seems the work you do is quite important. I hope you can think a bit more critically and honestly when it comes to real human rights instead of a film.

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