ELL: Routine mischief from Dreamworks: Berbers traduced

Nicholas Ostler nostler at CHIBCHA.DEMON.CO.UK
Sat May 6 11:34:51 UTC 2000

This Commentary was researched and written by Helene Hagan with the
collaboration and helpful input of her ACAA Watch Committee colleagues,
Amor Nouri, Mokrane Bouakiz, Lakhdar Amara, and Louisa Sellami. The
WATCH Committee was set up in 1998 to address public attacks or
misrepresentations of the Amazigh people and culture.

It is meant for public release, and we encourage you to send it to your
local newspaper for publication or use in editorial columns. Heh


I am writing to you as one of the members of the Amazigh (Berber)
Cultural Association in America (A.C.A.A.), and on behalf of its
national committee WATCH.  Imazighen (plural of Amazigh, Berbers of
North Africa) have peopled North Africa from Neolithic times and speak a
common language, Tamazight. We are the people  whom the Phoenicians,
then the Greeks, found on the shores of North Africa.
We  are the people whom the Romans encountered in the regions they
called Numidia (present-day Tunisia and part of Algeria) and Mauretania
(present-day Morocco and part of Algeria.) Today, over thirty million of
us live in North Africa.

"The Gladiator" has been released on Friday, May 5th, through theaters
across America and the world. This costly extravaganza offered by
Dreamworks and Universal Studios revives a popular type of Hollywood
entertainment, in the tradition of the Roman Epic of the post World War
II period, with the addition of more violence, more noise, more clash of
weapons, and also more nonsense. Our particular concern is that this
movie misrepresents our people, the Imazighen.

With a budget estimated at well over $100 millions, apparently a great
deal of efforts and research went to present a somewhat credible Roman
army, Roman arenas, and a Roman way of life. The producers are hoping
for hordes of movie goers amassed in darkened theaters, as in a distant
past mobs amassed themselves in arenas, to witness glorified brutality,
cheer carnage, and experience all the vicarious thrills of savagery,
thus replenishing the depleted coffers of Dreamworks and their partners
who banked , quite intentionally, on the power of such mass phenomena.

However, the lavish set designs and the carefully manufactured armors
and costumes, were only devoted to depict Rome. The North African scenes
of this film  were botched:

1. Forty five minutes into the film, the central character played by
Russell Crowe, finds himself in a North African region called Mauretania
by the Romans. This part of the film was indeed filmed in Ouarzazate,
Morocco, which in Roman times was actually the region of the Mauri, west
of Numidia. Both regions were part of the Roman Empire in Africa. The
producers must have neglected to hire consultants for
these sequences, to acquaint them with the fact that Mauretanians and
Numidians  OF 180 A.D (the Berbers of today)  were  the indigenous
people of North Africa, and there were no Arabs in Numidia in 180 AD.
The Arabs did not invade North Africa until much later, around 700 AD.
The action places this Roman general in the midst of a market-place
filled with characters in flowing robes (garb not worn by North Africans
before the arrival of the Arabs), harboring turbans as well, also an
Arabic custom, while, in the background, some Oriental musical score
gives some kind of local tone American audiences can
recognize. Unfortunately, oriental music was unknown to Berbers,
Numidians or Mauretanians, and inhabitants of North Africa at that time.

2. The market scenes thus depicted are more reminiscent of Arabic bazaar
sets hastily constructed in the back lots of Hollywood studios as done
of yore by Warner Brothers and others, and are totally inaccurate for
the time and place this film attempts to portray. Moreover, they are
prejudicial, as they totally lack any respect for the culture and
traditions of an entire population of  Berbers living in Africa.

3. Proximo, a gladiatorial entrepreneur and trainer whom we find in this
ludicrous market-place, is played in part by Oliver Reed, in part
through the illusion of digital images, after the actor passed away
during the production. As a local slave trader, he also wears an out of
place turban, and appears to be a jovial sort of sleazy mercantile
character, more in tune with Hollywood stereotypical images of Arabic
traders than any true Berber. From the novelisation, we learn   that
this individual is supposed to be a Bedouin, who speaks Berber to his

 Historians know that the Bedouins originate from the
Arabian Peninsula, that they did not begin to migrate toward Egypt until
the seventh century, and that migration waves of Bedouins into Morocco
did not occur until the eleventh century. Indeed, the
confusion between Berbers and Arabs in the mind of the producers leaks
and spreads through these images, reinforcing all the prejudices,
misconceptions, misrepresentations and stereotypes of a past ignorance
of our people, the Imazighen (Free Human Beings), called by the Roman
invaders Numidians, Mauri, and collectively designated by the Arabs,
later, as "Berbers."

4. Juba (a very Amazigh surname, and that of two of our well-known Kings
Juba I and Juba II of the early Roman period) is the leader of the
Numidian archers who befriends the Roman general turned slave and
gladiator, It must be said that only modern day audiences could  close
their eyes on such an incongruous turn of event . Here, the producers
seem to have confused Numidians with Nubians, a group of black people
from Africa. To portray this Amazigh leader, they have cast a Nigerian
man,  Djimon Hounsou. It is most unlikely, if not totally ridiculous,
that the Numidian archers would be led by someone not of their community
or kin, one of their warriors. The Numidians, by all accounts, were
fair-skinned, some even depicted as having
red blonde hair and light eyes.  It is as if one would show some
infantry group of Greeks, for instance, led by a Congolese or a
Caribbean Indian.

Such glaring errors are not amusing to Imazighen, a number of whom live
in America and in Canada, with over one million and a half in France
alone, more in various European countries, and as indicated above, over
thirty millions in Africa, today. We struggle for the recognition of our
linguistic, cultural and human rights on the international level,
through cultural associations, through radio and television means,
through an international movement headquartered in Paris, and through
the United Nations. We  constitute a small percentage of the population
in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but are over 30% of Algeria, over 50% of
Morocco, all countries which are often enough erroneously assumed to be
entirely Arabic. We do not want to be depicted as Arabs by Hollywood
producers, particularly in a film which will be seen by huge audiences.
We strongly protest the heavy hand of Dreamworks and Universal Studios
in perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misrepresentations of our
culture and our people.

We, the Imazighen in America, with the support of the millions of
Imazighen in various parts of the world, denounce the perhaps
unintentional, but no less grievous, and flagrant dismissal of our
rights as people to be depicted fairly in our habitat, our music, our
form of dress - in what constitutes our patrimony and cultural heritage.
We would prefer not to be displayed across cinema screens all over the
world in the disguise of another culture.

Can powerful moguls of Hollywood, backed by the almighty dollar, wrong
an entire group of people without a word be said? This is to remind them
publicly that in today's world, "The Gladiator" is an expensive misdeed
which shall not go without notice, as it flaunts a global affront to the
rights and culture of a people with over 4,000 years of history. A few
carefully spent dollars for consultants might have been a good

For further information about our organization, A.C.A.A., you can
contact the President, Akli Gana, or any of the several Directors of the Board
at ACAA at tamazgha.org, consult our web site at http://www.tamazgha.org or
read about our culture in articles of our Amazigh Voice publication on that

Helene Hagan, Los Angeles
Lakhdat Amara, New York
Mokrane Bouakiz, New Jersey
Amor Nouri, Philadelphia
Louiza Sellami, Maryland
WATCH Committee
Amazigh Cultural Association in America

                       Nicholas   Ostler
              Foundation for Endangered Languages
                  Registered Charity 1070616

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             Bath           BA1 7AA        England
             +44-1225-85-2865 fax +44-1225-85-9258
                  nostler at chibcha.demon.co.uk

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