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August 18, 2009

Angry Arab on Film Rendition

Rendition: Middle East and its presentation in Hollywood

I did not get to see the movie Rendition when it first came out, but I saw it recently on DVD. I never expect good out of Hollywood: in fact, I expect the worst when liberals tell me that a particular film, like Munich, is “sensitive”, or not that bad. Rendition is politically good in talking about the plight of an innocent Arab-American: it was good how it showed that some Arab-Americans can be seen as integrated into American life. But there are certain things that always bother me. Let us start with the Israeli factor. In every movie on the Middle East, you see an Israeli hand or foot or more. This one was no exception: there were Israeli actors who played Arab actors. Hell, the Arab who got the most screen time was an Israeli actor. And usually they shoot the Arab scenes in Israel but in this movie they shot them in Morocco. So that was good. And usually, characters speak atrocious Arabic with a heavy Hebrew accent, where Husayn becomes Khuuuuuuuuuuuseini. Not in this movie, and I waited for the final credit to see they hired an Arabic coach and translator. I forgot her name but the translations were not that accurate overall and the accents were quite inconsistent. This is common in such movies: you find the mother speaking in a Moroccan accent, while the father speaking Egyptian accent, and the kids speak Syrian accents, and some in the movie were speaking Fusha. Don’t get me wrong: this movie was better in that it showed the Arab characters speaking Arabic and we got subtitles. That was a step forward. But there were other problems in the Arabic: the sings of the demonstrators were in bad Arabic and sometimes placards carried half sentences. (Like one sign said that “Let America Go”, and I assumed that they were translating from a sentence that was intended to say “Let America go to hell”.) And there were other cultural problems: of course, praying and Qur’an is always big, but at least they showed one Muslim character drinking whiskey. That is realistic. But at one point, the fundamentalist militants were listening to music by Marcel Khalifah: Khalifah the communist. What was that? That aroused my interest regarding the Middle East experts who advised the movie makers. I waited to the very end and saw that they hired two “cultural experts” on the Middle East: one is a certain Noureddin Abedine and the other is Reza Aslan. I never heard of the first one and don’t be surprised if it is a code name for an Israeli expert. The second guy is no expert on the Arab world and does not speak Arabic, and has not even finished his graduate degree in the Middle East (he is still a PhD student at UC, Santa Barbara). And why do Middle East characters are always sweaty and jittery in movies? And why do they always invoke Allah (or Allaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, as they pronounce it in American movies and media for extra emphasis?) And Middle East women always appear as “grieving widows”: they looks sad, somber, and listless. Why is that? And did I hear the annoying voice of Ofra Haza in this movie? Why? And the suicide bomber portrayal is always wrong in Hollywood movies in that the character is seen forced or compelled or coerced while in reality they are the one who press their handlers and recruiters to send them (and I am afraid that it was no exception Paradise Now by Hany Abu As`ad and I have discussed the matter with him). And in this movie, there were people ready to shoot the suicide bomber if he failed to detonate the bomb. And that never happens in real life. I don’t know of one case in the Middle East where it happened although it may have happened with Tamil Tigers. And why do Middle East men always appear gruff and rough and cold? With the exception of the Green Card holder guy who was married to the the characters played by Reese Witherspoon. And one bothersome element in the movie: the sight of the CIA operative played by Gyllenhaal agonizing over the suffering of the torture victims while the Arabs involved had no conscience. The White Man always comes to the rescue in such movies, and the CIA operative in this movie was no exception. And why does Arab life in such movies appear cartoonish? Everything is exaggerated. And the portrayal of the Interior Minister in Morocco (although they left the Middle East North African country unnamed, but only identified as a North African country) and the chief of the secret police is not accurate: those usually are henchmen who are more likely to answer to the CIA station chief than to the prime minister. I finished the movie thinking: I would rather that the Middle East be left alone and ignored in American culture, than be dealt with “sensitively.” Spare me liberal Hollywood sensitivity, please.
PS Since I received at least one response on this point, I don’t mean that we should require elite qualifications before people can speak about the Middle East. That was not what I said: I only believe in specialization and training (like in Plato’s Republic without the belief in the different metals of people). And just as carpenters should be trained, Middle East specialists who offer expert opinions should also be trained. That was my point. Also, in the movie there is a scene of a fame AlJazeera newscast: it was so bad and the female broadcaster spoke awkward Arabic and was typically veiled when of the tens of news female broadcasters on AlJazeera, only one is veiled.
Posted by As’ad at 9:23 AM

100,000 RADIATIONS –

Adding insult to injury
By Relly Sa’ar

Despite the 51 years that have passed, Albert Asayag, a 55-year-old resident of Dimona, clearly remembers the traumatic moment when he was strapped to a chair and his head was irradiated to treat tinea capitis, ringworm of the scalp.

When he was 4 years old, he immigrated with his parents and his four siblings from Morocco to Israel. That was in 1955, during one of the waves of mass immigration from North Africa. A few months later, after his family had settled in Kfar Shamai in northern Israel, authorities came and took Asayag and his siblings to the Sha’ar Ha’aliya immigrant transit camp, near Haifa.

“I remember I cried a lot. I didn’t want to sit in the chair, and they forced me. I remember that they spread hot stuff, like tar, on my head, and pulled out all my hair,” he recalls.


Asayag was one of tens of thousands of immigrant children from Middle Eastern and North African nations who were exposed to high levels of radiation as part of a project by Israel’s medical establishment to eradicate ringworm. This initiative ran from the late 1940s through the 1960s. The fungi that cause scalp ringworm – Microsporum canis and Tricophyton verrucosum – are particularly contagious among children, and may produce an itchy, scaly, red rash that can cause permanent hair loss.

Tinea capitis is now treated with fungicidal creams and occasionally antibiotics. But during the mid-20th century, fears of an epidemic motivated health care personnel to “treat” immigrant children by exposing them to radiation at levels equivalent to 500 standard X-rays. Asayag remembers spending two months in the Sha’ar Ha’aliya transit camp in order to receive this radiation.

Twelve years ago, Israel recognized its responsibility for the destructive results of this unwarranted irradiation, including scarring of the scalp, baldness, premature tooth loss, and benign and malignant tumors. The Israel Tinea Capitis Compensation Law states that those who can prove to a Health Ministry committee of experts that they were irradiated as children are entitled to compensation in accordance with the damage to their health.

Torturous interrogation

But victims must go to great lengths to receive the compensation to which they are entitled under the Tinea Capitis Law.

Attorney Zvi Regev, who says he has represented about 1,000 individuals in front of the committee, attests to this. “Someone applying for government compensation for the great suffering caused to him undergoes tortuous interrogation. Committee members try to trip him up with trick questions, ignoring the fact that dozens of years have passed since the event. For example, if he testifies that he experienced pain during the radiation, his appeal will probably be rejected. Because, to be precise, it wasn’t radiation – which is painless – but the pulling of the remaining hair from his scalp that caused the pain,” he says.

Asayag says he described to the committee the color of the flowers growing next to the radiation room at Sha’ar Ha’aliya. “They asked me how I remembered. I responded that I couldn’t forget because my head has been hurting since that moment,” he says.

The committee’s rigid policy has proved to be an efficient and thrifty means of saving public money. Health Ministry statistics show that through the middle of last month, 34,500 individuals sued the state for compensation under the 1994 Tinea Capitis Law. Forty-seven percent of these suits were rejected. Only 16,908 individuals successfully bore the burden of proof and presented evidence the committee could not undermine.

In spite of that, the treasury is still trying to cut the cost of the Tinea Capitis Law. Last week the Knesset passed the 2007 budget in its first reading, with a 68-MK majority. The budget includes an amendment to the Tinea Capitis Law that the Finance Ministry initiated in accordance with the Economics Arrangements Bill, which passed two months ago: An individual may appeal for compensation “up to four years from the day of the event that entitles him to compensation.”

In addition, the second clause of the amendment states, “The protocols of the expert committee’s deliberations and decisions regarding eligibility for compensation under the Tinea Capitis Law may not be given to any party.”

Attorney Avri Rav-Hon is the legal adviser of the non-profit organization that assists victims in obtaining compensation under the Tinea Capitis Law. He says he has represented thousands of radiation victims.

“Despite its moral obligation, the number of individuals whom the State of Israel has recognized and compensated is infinitesimal. According to testimony and archives, 150,000 to 200,000 children under age 15 were exposed to radiation over 14 years, in Israel and in European transit camps,” he says.

Because compensation under the Tinea Capitis Law is granted based on the extent to which an individual is ill, someone like Asayag, who has not yet developed malignant tumors and suffers “only” from bald patches and constant head pain, is entitled to 5 to 39 disability percentage points. This grants him a single payment of NIS 1,218 per point.

“The committee compensated me a year ago. Despite the fact that it’s small change given how much I suffered, I am not willing to undergo extensive examinations. I am really scared they might find other things. The family tells me it’s dangerous, but I’m not willing to listen. I told the committee, ‘If I discover I have the disease [cancer], I won’t be able to stand it.'”

Anyone who falls ill with “the disease” – including leukemia, and skin, thyroid and throat cancer – is legally entitled to maximum compensation. Individuals who with 75-100 disability points are entitled to a single grant of NIS 150,000 and monthly benefits of NIS 1,400 to 1,800. After the committee accepts an individual’s claim that he was exposed to radiation as a child, a National Insurance Institute committee determines the level of compensation, and retroactive payments are granted from the day the law was enacted in 1994.

According to NII data, Israel pays monthly disability benefits to tinea capitis radiotherapy victims with 40 points or more. Through the end of last year, NII had paid out NIS 790 million; 3,150 people receive monthly disability benefits.

‘Moral catastrophe’

Regev says the treasury’s four-year statute of limitations “is a moral catastrophe. This means that if an individual discovered he had cancer five years ago and did not connect the disease to the radiation, and as a result he did not file for compensation and disability, his claim has expired and he is not entitled to monetary compensation, despite the fact that the state is responsible for his illness.”

The Finance Ministry says the large expense of the Tinea Capitis Law justifies the amendment. “When the law was enacted, it was estimated that NIS 100-150 million would be required to implement it. The NII has paid a total of NIS 850 million so far [NIS 60 million more than NII reported to Haaretz]. In its present format, the law will cost more than a billion shekels.”

Anyone unfamiliar with the inner workings of Health Ministry committees may not understand how the amendment’s second clause, which closes committee protocols, might save public funds. Regev says the clause’s objective is to make it even harder for appellants and their legal representatives to handle the committee’s questions.

“Currently the appellant and his attorney are entitled to receive only partial protocols in order to keep the committee’s questions and the appellant’s answers secret. If someone is asked whether he or she sat or lied down during radiation, and the appellant errs in answering, and the state’s representative comments to this effect, that protocol might help another appellant answer questions correctly to entitle him to compensation.”

Now that the budget has passed its first reading, the Tinea Capitis Law amendment is subject to standard legislative proceedings. It will apparently be transferred to the Labor, Health and Welfare Committee to be prepared for a second reading. Only later will the bill be passed to the Knesset for approval.

Rav-Hon says he hopes that “the treasury’s unjust proposal will be thwarted by MKs. The treasury is gambling with the weakest sectors. Tinea capitis victims don’t live in [upscale] Mevasseret Zion, Haifa’s Denia neighborhood or North Tel Aviv. They are residents of Be’er Sheva, Dimona, Sderot and Ofakim – poor, downtrodden people with limited education whom the state severely wounded during their childhood. Now, the treasury comes along and tries to deny them rights granted by legislature. Why is it necessary to hurt them twice?”


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