Monday, August 8, 2016

Of Hitchcock's Birds and xenophobia in general.

Maria Chakhtoura (c)
"Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you're the cause of all of this. I think you're evil. EVIL!" so said a "mother in a diner" to Tippi Hedren's character Melanie in Hitchcock's 1963 "The Birds".
Note all the elements of xenophobia there: 
"Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this?" there must be an answer, not a scientific answer, just a simple one. One that is implied in the question itself, it only needs justification or to be seconded by someone else.
"They said when you got here the whole thing started" - "they said", no one in particular, hearsay, a rumor, unidentified people, could be anyone or everyone with very sketchy start of the news to begin with. But talk is running rampant and strength (or weakness) is in numbers, so it must be true. And of course, it is the newcomer who is to blame, because otherwise everything was pitch perfect "before".
"What are you?" not just "who" but "what" are you. An entity, a creature, an undefined species, something new, unheard of, not human. 
"Where did you come from?", what land, place, planet, do you hail from? It must be an outlandsih geographical space to justify what is going on. And then the bomb....
"I think you're the cause of all of this" - the "cause" to "effect" might seem bewildering but the logic of the woman stands. Someone "new" comes to town, bad things start to happen, it must be the newcomer's fault, no coincidences whatsoever. 
"I think you're evil. EVIL!" which of course, brings the inevitable judging conclusion, the newcomer is bad, "evil" - they come to take "our" jobs, rape "our" women, destroy "our" values. toy with "our" identities and the list goes on.
In another scene, the travelling salesman at the diner says: "Gulls are scavengers, anyway. Most birds are. Get yourselves guns and wipe them off the face of the earth!". A simplistic all-inclusive solution which - not only applied indiscriminately in the Arab world (let's ban all hard rock, let's get revenge on all the French/Danish etc....) but I personally heard it in the United States as well, "let's nuke them all" (a solution someone offered when I told them about the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war which got me stuck there for two months).
"They're birds, aren't they?" concludes character Lydia Brenner when her daughter Cathy asks if she could bring the caged lovebirds "in here". Growing up in Beirut, scribbled on the wall would be "The Palestinian is your enemy", "The Syrian is your enemy" or any other entity - in plural, without differentiation, because they are "birds" therefore they are guilty of the "crimes" everyone of their "species" is committing or not committing. The image above from Maria Chakhtoura's book "la guerre des graffiti" says "every Lebanese must kill a Palestinian" and is signed by the ultra right wing militia "guardians of the cedars", whereas this could be considered a relic from the past, scratch the surface and you can still feel the word "Palestinian" replaced with an ennemy-du-jour no matter who that entity might turn out to be.
Mind you, all of this is not to condemn and judge, as I grow older I can understand the appeal of the xenophobia - to throw everything and anything on a particular "other" who does not happen to resemble you or whose stereotype you fell for, or whose character you do not know. It is also a reminiscence of the past, and sadly or funnily, I hear people of my generation (I am 41 years old) say "rizkallah 3ala eyem el harb" - may God bring back the war days - which with all their craziness also implied a simpler more genuine past.
Brexit was based on xenophobia, I have personally talked to British people speaking of "foreigners" who were stealing purses and jobs. Donald Trump's campaign made vilifying the "other" a national sport because it is easy, a lowest common denominator, something that appeals to the instincts and no matter how much Mrs. Bundy - the retired ornithologist in Hitchcock's film - logically and scientifically explains that "there are 8,650 species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. It is estimated that 5,750,000,000 birds live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world..."- "...probably contain more than 100,000,000,000 birds!" but her two sentences were interrupted by the travelling salesman who says: " Kill 'em all. Get rid of the messy animals."
The easy, straight-forward and all-inclusive non-discriminatory solution.
It should work. Right?

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