Back in the last millennium, “Banned in Boston” was a phrase you’d hear about various artistic works that the elders in Bean Town (an unlovable city in my books) decided would have a corrosive effect on the people living there. Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and Eugene O’Neill all had works banned in Boston. Heck, the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” even made the list. These days Bostonians have yielded to the devilishness that is art (despite an unhealthy adherence to American League baseball). But our friends in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have kept their people from the Dark Side and banned Russell Crowe’s new film, “Noah.” And Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait may follow suit.
It’s not because there is a lot of nudity, violence or cussing — although I hope there is. I find “Noah” to be one of the dumber fairy tales foisted on us by the monotheists of the fertile crescent. Two of everything? The biomass of the insects alone would have sunk an aircraft carrier, never mind the feeding of them all for 40 days — or the waste disposal. A few naked bodies, some gore and a handful of obscenities might spice it up.
The censors there don’t like the fact that Noah is depicted at all. The official reason for banning the film is that “it contradicts the teachings of Islam.” Noah is not only a big deal in Judaism and Christianity, but the old guy also gets a whole chapter to himself in the Holy Koran — Sura 71 if you want to look it up. Islam has 25 prophets in the Koran, and he’s the third in chronological order. This list includes Abraham, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them.
Making images of people is frowned upon in Islamic fundamentalism, which is why you don’t see many paintings or sculptures of people in Islamic art. Making images of the Big 25 is even more serious. Al-Azhar in Cairo is Sunni Islam’s highest authority, and it has issued a fatwa against the film. “Al-Azhar … renews its objection to any act depicting the messengers and prophets of God and the companions of the Prophet (Mohammad), peace be upon him,” it announced. The fatwa said these depictions “provoke the feelings of believers … and are forbidden in Islam and a clear violation of Islamic law.”
I’m not a Muslim, so I will defer to Al-Azhar’s expertise on Islamic law. But it does confuse me as to why Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was all over the screens of the region. To be fair, there were objections from many clerics, but I cannot find any outright ban of that steaming self-indulgent pile of excess. It’s not because Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade that got him into trouble over here helped him over there — his film predated the rant by a couple of years. Maybe they’re just as inconsistent as other censors elsewhere, which is one of the reasons I hate censorship.
Paramount Pictures has put together a disclaimer that will precede every screening: “The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” I don’t think that is going to take the sting out of it for the clerics who have spoken on this matter.
The ban won’t be the end of the matter, of course. “Banned in Boston” used to be a way booksellers and music publishers promoted material outside Boston. I don’t know how many Qataris are going to the cinema to see this film, but I do know this — the ban has just made Crowe’s $175 million film a hit on the DVD and download markets in the Arab world.
That’s probably not what Al-Azhar had in mind. The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again.