Women are third class citizens (third to men, second to cattle), the economy is underdeveloped, education destructive, sex is either incestuous or criminal and racism (specifically anti-Semitism) is the only form of national pride.
Welcome to the Third World, or as Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Borat, randomly calls it: Kazakhstan. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is not a movie about a Kazakh reporter any more than this article is a review. A profound anthropological study, this is one of the most important films of the decade.
And what follows is how both the governments and peoples who condemned the movie and the masses in the west who flocked to see it (it was a major box office success) got it all wrong.
Ignorance, intolerance, self-righteousness and racism are commonplace. Welcome to America, or as Cohen likes to call it: America.
We support your war of terror, declares Borat amid loud cheers from hundreds of thousands at a Texas rodeo, only to be booed and hissed when he sings Kazakhstan is the greatest country in the world.
This in a nation whose people differ on stem cells and creationism but not on the undisputed fact that America is the greatest country in the world.
Borat, who greets men with kisses and women with a handshake (Welcome to Arabia? Welcome to Egypt?) explains to the Muslim-hating rodeo manager that back home they take gays to the gallows and hang them.
That s what we re tryin to get done here, replies the rodeo manager.
Such are the parallels Cohen draws between the orientalist stereotypical image of a third world Neanderthal and the self-proclaimed developed world. I cannot blame the Kazakh government for disavowing that their people drink from the toilet, for I too to this day explain when I am abroad that my people do not drink camel urine.
But to the Kazakhs and others this side of the world (including my own father, and the Egyptian government whom I suspect will not be releasing this film here) who found news of such an offensive film deplorable, I would explain two things.
Firstly, Borat is a caricature, not of Kazakhstan or the third world, but of the misinformed western impression of the third world – of all of us, that is. The exaggerations in Borat s character are not merely for shock value, but serve to speak to American and western audiences in a language they can understand, which brings me to the second point.
What the film simply does is ask a question of American audiences: Are you okay with the fact that you may be in agreement with a man you believe to be a Jew-hating, woman-degrading joker who defecates in a cloth sheet and brings it to the dinner table?
The other problem I have is with the misplaced popularity the film has garnered. In touch with many a friend in the west, it appears to me that most viewers came out with nothing but catchphrases (and the film does offer a lot. Great Success!).
It saddens me that American audiences, for the most part, did not get that this film was a scary analysis of their own mindset.
What scares me the most is that the major international controversy created by the film s release emanated from the same us and them dilemma the film addresses.
The anger was not about what was being said but who was saying it. That Baron Cohen, the Jewish Brit, calling us Jew-haters? Unthinkable. A Jewish conspiracy no doubt. If one puts aside who it is that s saying it, one will remember how often our own Egyptian filmmakers have said it.
Adel Imam s memorable scene as an illiterate peasant jumping into a public fountain in Italy in his 1980s classic “Antar Shayel Seifo (Antar Carries his Sword) is not about an Egyptian s lack of sophistication, but about how his gullibility makes him prey to the porn industry.
So many other memorable films like Ahmed Zaki s Al Nimr Al Aswad (The Black Tiger) and more recently Mohamed Heneidi s Hamam fi Amsterdam (Hamam in Amsterdam) paint the traveling protagonist as an outsider, funny-looking to the foreign eye at first, sometimes triumphant in the end.
But the triumph in Egyptian movies was seldom against some foreign enemy, but over the protagonist s own insecurities in a distant land. This is also the quest of Borat.
Had Baron Cohen chosen Egypt instead, I would have, for no more than two seconds, become infuriated by the notion of them ridiculing us. But ultimately I would have welcomed the movie Borai (let s call the Egyptian Borat Borai ) as a cross-cultural dialogue that is more necessary now than ever before.
Those people in America who believe gays should be hung and those people in the third world – Egypt being no exception – who believe the Jews perpetrated the attacks on 9/11 are not the best audience for this movie.
They are, unfortunately, the subject.