Middle Eastern Fetishes Amuse, Challenge, Shock

Middle Eastern Fetishes Amuse, Challenge, Shock

Photo by Rich Schmitt

Jonathan Friedlander's collection of memorabilia about the Middle East includes novels, comics, and music albums that have orientalist themes.

by Ajay Singh
UCLA Today Staff Writer
This article originally appeared in UCLA Today

The Grateful Dead entitled one of their albums "Blues for Allah" — even though music is taboo in Islam. A recent Hollywood film, "Team America," has this disparaging refrain about Islam's prophet: "Mohammed ... Mohammed ... jihad." In 2003, a paperback was marketed as a thriller about "the Taliban, driven from Afghanistan, now preying on an oil-rich Central Asian nation."

Jonathan Friedlander finds such representations of the Muslim world insensitive and often appalling. But as assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, he is also fascinated by how Islam and the Middle East are portrayed in popular culture. So fascinated, in fact, that it's his hobby to collect everything from 1940s tins of Camel cigarettes and "Sheik" condoms to post-9/11 busts of Osama Bin Laden and "Beast of Baghdad" voodoo dolls.

Part of Friedlander's private collection of Middle Eastern memorabilia is on display at the Powell Library until Dec. 16. Titled "Seducing America: Selling the Middle Eastern Mystique," the exhibition is one of four events this year that critically examine works of Orientalism, a body of writings about the East through which the "Oriental" world is distorted.

Friedlander's fetishes would probably have impressed the late Edward Said, whose ground-breaking 1978 book, "Orientalism," is a compelling critique of Western prejudices against Muslims and their cultures. While he may not be furthering Said's literary analysis, Friedlander is certainly making the pioneer's ideas more accessible.

In his treasure trove is a provocative 1900 dime novel, "Musk, Hashish and Blood," described on the cover as "the adventures of a modern man among the cruel men and passionate women of Algiers." Other items include turn-of-the-century editions of "Arabian Nights" (the Charles E. Young Research Library is scheduled to host an "Arabian Nights" exhibition and conference next month), comic books, Arabic sheet music, Las Vegas souvenirs and an assortment of DVDs, board games and computer games.

Born in Israel, Friedlander, 55, began buying Middle Eastern ephemera about a decade ago from antique stores. "I was seduced by the powerful iconography," he said. "You collect one thing and it leads to another. It's a journey of discovery."

Friedlander hopes his collection will prompt Americans to think about what it all means in the 21st century. "There's a long fascination with the Middle East rooted in Judeo-Christian culture, and now we're at war in the Middle East," he said. "I want to make a connection to the present so that people can relate to it."

As the nation's film and music capital, Los Angeles has long marketed the Middle Eastern mystique. In fact, for Friedlander, the city's Moorish architecture and its numerous Middle Eastern festivals make it a mecca for Orientalism. "So part of all this," he said, pointing to his knickknacks, "squarely belongs here."

Friedlander's Arabic sheet music has already been digitized and included in UCLA's sheet music collection, one of the world's largest. He now hopes to donate the rest of his Middle Eastern collection to UCLA so that interdisciplinary scholars might analyze it. In any case, he said, "I don't want to take all this to my grave."

Published: Thursday, October 06, 2005