“Thief of Baghdad,” now up at Dar El-Nimer, is as entertaining as it is eye-opening. Featuring about 100 vintage movie posters from last century, the show explores perceptions of Arabs in Western cinema.
Depicting scantily clad dancers, intimidating men in silk turbans and numerous genie bottles, the posters are all part of Abboudi Abou Jaoude’s 550-piece collection.
“I started collecting young and it started to become more like research over time,” Abou Jaoude told The Daily Star. “It started as a hobby but quickly became an obsession.
“To begin with, I used to buy the posters from cinemas but with time people in the industry started to hear about what I was doing and would save the posters for me,” he added. “[At] times I would travel to Egypt or Baghdad, and the more I traveled the more I discovered.
“It was like looking for puzzle pieces. I would find posters about Lebanese films in Morocco or Tunis that I couldn’t find in Lebanon, or find Egyptian posters in Baghdad that had disappeared from Egypt,” he said. “Sometimes I swap posters I have several copies of for ones I don’t, to other collectors.”
The entrance is set up like a movie theater, with a few posters listed under “showing tonight.” The show has been split into several sections, including a wall dedicated to “Thief of Baghdad,” in the fantasy section, a title that recurred several times.
“It was one of the first movie topics in 1924 related to the Arab fantasy that became popular worldwide,” Abou Jaoude said, “and almost every 10 years thereafter a new film called ‘Thief of Baghdad’ was made. “You can see the versions of the Denmark, Yugoslavia, France and Russia releases and the themes repeated in each version, plus how each country views [the region].”
The reception of “Thief of Baghdad” inspired Western filmmakers to plunder other Arab myths and legends, including tales associated with “1,001 Nights” – “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Sinbad” and “Aladdin.”
“There were many personalities that worked in cinema specially for portraying Arab characters, like Rudolph Valentino,” Abou Jaoude said. “You’ll notice all these posters and images [sexualize] the Arab identity [just as Orientalist artists of the 18th century did].”
The poster of the 1926 American film “Son of the Sheik” shows Valentino dressed in bright, generic Oriental garb, looming over the delicately blonde Vilma Banky, bearing his chest as they lock eyes.
The “Adventure” section looks at films made in Arab counties between World War I and II, when Western troops were deployed in the region. “Most of the movie here are … stories and adventures filmed in Morocco, Syria, Iraq between the ’30s and ’50s,” Abou Jaoude said. “This film, ‘Little Egypt,’ is [inspired by] the story of the Chicago exposition in 1893, where a number of Egyptian belly dancers were sent to America to promote Egypt and these dancers took a lot of cultural fame.
“They stayed there and were split over several movies,” he added, gesturing to the “Little Egypt” poster with the slogan “The Shape That SHOOK The World!”
“Since then there has been this magic element of Oriental dancing and many films were created about the same topic.”
Among the works in the show’s “Comedy” section is the 1955 “Abdullah’s Harem,” a parody of King Farouk produced by two Egyptian companies and distributed by an American one. The Egyptian king disliked the film, but Arab audiences took no issue with the Western-inspired caricatures.
“These films used to be shown in the Arab world and they were actually very popular,” Abou Jaoude said. “These characters were accepted in all ways, unlike today. [Popular Arab perceptions] changed only after the [1967 War].
“Most of the posters in this section I’ve actually taken from Arab theaters,” he added. “There are posters [in my collection] that could never be made, shown or created today, that were shown in the ’60s and ’70s, completely normally to Arab audiences.”
The final section focuses on films about or shot in Lebanon. The posters show many contradictions, such as in the poster for the 1956 Italian movie “La Castellana del Libano,” which depicts camels, sand dunes and tent settlements that are absent from the movie.
“The artist created the poster from his own image of Lebanon,” Abou Jaoude laughed. “They didn’t always watch the film when creating the poster. Either they were given a plot description or the artist would say, ‘This area means camels and canvas tents. End of story.’”
Lebanon also became a prime filming location/subject for spy movies in the ’60s, with about 10 films shot about spies or intelligence agency conflicts in Beirut.
“Many of them were B movies,” Abou Jaoude said. “This movie here is called ‘24 Hours to Kill’ but when it was shown in Lebanon they added ‘In Beirut’ to the title. … They would lie using the poster, since that was the only ad for movies at the time and there were no trailers. It was the only way to lure people in.”
Though only a few snippets of movies are showing right now, Abou Jaoude expressed hope it would be possible to screen some titles in their entirety. He said viewers should watch out for the repeated scenes footage of Jbeil, Raouche, Baalbeck and a dancer in the lobby of the Phoenicia or St. George Hotel pasted into most movies about Lebanon from that time.
“I don’t collect movies really,” he confessed. “Truthfully, many of the films you can’t finish watching. It would be a waste of an evening to watch some of them, other than for research purposes. If you ask me about a film, I’ll remember what the poster looked like, not what happened in the movie.”