Watching “The Green Zone” in Singapore
It was my intention to hold off on blogging anything until I got back to BKK, digested the experience of March, and got some pictures ready to accompany the posts (mostly I think people just scroll through the texts for the ‘visual summary’). But, since this brief story had no picture, I thought I could make an exception.
Let me start by saying, that this is not a review of “The Green Zone” (it’s a good thriller with cool toys and army guys, go see it) but instead an account of the most embarrassing and eventually one of the most terrifying moments of my life. Let’s just call it an emotionally intense experience.
OK, Singapore is an amazingly clean and wealthy place, everyone knows this (I’ll blog about it later anyway); hopefully, it is also common knowledge that it is situated just below Peninsular Malaysia and is separated by a swimmable body of water. In fact, to call it ‘separated’ at all is generous considering the multitude of connecting causeways. As it happens, Malaysia’s official religion is Islam. Over 35% of Singapore’s population is foreign; go figure, a large portion of aforementioned foreigners are ambitious Malay from next door- leaving Singapore’s population over 15% Islamic. Many of these Islamic Malay attend and/or live around the hot area between the city’s Civic Center and Orchard road, around the beautiful Singapore Management University. Which means that a large amount of dates are going to be at the Cathay Cinema. Sorry, that was the long was of saying that roughly one in 5 women in the theater I sat in tonight for “The Green Zone” was in a hijab.
Now “The Green Zone” is basically a satire of America’s war in Iraq. It tries to entertainingly (and with plenty of imagination and poetic license) explain how America invaded a country with no weapons of mass destruction. It accuses the government of lots of bad things- I’m not sure if there are ‘truths’ yet about what happened and people can believe what they like. But, the accusations are not ridiculous- America was lied to before and during the early stages of the Iraq War (there were no confirmed WMD and we were not victorious and finished with major military operations on May 1, 2003) and people world-wide seem to know this and actually feel slighted that America lied to them too (see England, for example).
The fictional portrayal of these lies is brutal in the film. And, the fantastic political and Special Forces caricatures are also devastatingly evil. There is a huge lack of concern for Iraq, Iraqis, and human rights. Now, I don’t know how much your average Islamic Singaporean knows about the treatment of Arab looking and Islamic US residents over the last 10 years, but I know there was (is) a lot of hate- much of which even manifested itself in discrimination based domestic violence. I also don’t know how widely known the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is over here; nor do I know if Singaporeans know about all they lying to the American people concerning the Iraq war. What frightened me, is that they knew a little about ANY of those things and walked out of that theater hating me some; just as I walked out invigorated with hate for the politicians that handled those years following 9/11. Or, worse, I thought that they didn’t know anything and the amazing power of cinema just planted an exaggerated version of those things in their heads (shit, I still think “Gladiator” mine as well have been a documentary).
I’m not saying that Islamic Malays in Singapore even connect themselves to Islamic Arabs, because really I have no idea. And, I wasn’t thinking that all Islamic people are particularly susceptible to cinematic suggestion. I wasn’t worried that they thought their “brothers” in Islam were mistreated, or needed help in the jihad. I was worried they thought that’s what I thought they were thinking (confusing?). It’s not far-fetched, the discrimination could easily stem from the same human weakness that leads to American discrimination of Islamic and Arab peoples (or if we should get dramatic, the Holocaust. The fact is discrimination is ingrained in humanity). Heck, it wouldn’t even be original. In a lot of the world, the American traveler is the brunt of a lot of anger, bot not yet in S.E.A. I have loved not having to answer for American mistakes over here, things that I didn’t have any impact on (it was a full-time job in Europe); I thought this movie might put an end to that. Though fake, that movie had enough probable (or at least convincingly portrayed) truth that it even made ME feel filthy walking out of the theater; I can’t imagine how America looked in the eyes of anyone not from the country. Anyone who didn’t have an inherent love for their birthplace. Combine that with the power of cinema and I thought everyone in the theater was focused on me- the only America. The guy that sat front row.
I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to be an American. I was embarrassed that my country went to and is still in, Iraq. I wanted to hide. I even considered sitting on the toilet, safe in a stall, to wait the exodus out. Then I thought, “the politicians duped us! It was in the movie!” I was telepathically willing that into everyone’s mind around me. I was safe… That ended. Next, I was embarrassed about the amoral Americans in the film- their ruthlessness, greed, and lack of reason. But I thought: “these are people tempered by the diversity of their city. They know a person is not defined by their ethnicity. They surely don’t think all Americans are like that movie character.” The embarrassment faded.
Then I felt like an idiot. How did we get fooled by a talking head that couldn’t even pitch us the lies convincingly: “Fool me once, shame on… shame on… you. Fool me… uh… you can’t get fooled again.” Politics I thought, just politics: “it was out of our hands after the election, wrong administration at the wrong time, we made that choice before 9/11! You can’t blame us, we didn’t know that idiot would have to deal with diplomacy!” I was practically screaming this in my head at everyone around. I wanted to say, “sure the public supported The War on Terror in Afghanistan, we were attacked! We didn’t even know Iraq was getting invaded until Baghdad fell! We didn’t support THAT!” The feeling of idiocy faded.
Finally, already in a disgusting state of worry, sweat dripping from my brow, and on the brink of hyperventilating, the feeling of fear kicked in. I was terrified. I thought every person in the crowd was looking at me and thinking, “YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.” “Americans lie, they hate, they hurt pointlessly and without discretion, they kill without thought. I saw it! Just now! I read about it on the internet! Dick Cheney still defends waterboarding!” They were all thinking it; they were even coordinating an attack to prevent me from fleeing. I feared if I looked into the eyes beautifully framed by the colorful hijabs around me that I would see their thoughts: “you think I am a terrorist because of this ‘towel,’ right?”
Sometimes my misanthropic visage confuses South East Asians into thinking im friendly and am ready to chat. In fact, it happens a lot. Just last night, my casual inquiry to the man who’s right but cheek rested on my right thigh because the bench at Sentral Kuala Lumpur station was so small, as to his destination (so I would know how long to expect him on my lap) lead to his telling me everything about his life- down to his pregnant wife in the Philipines who wanted him to join her (he sent her there for familial support in raising the child. But, he couldn’t go, his work, the money to raise the kid was in Malaysia). In fact, somehow, I even ended up on his cell phone, trying to trick her brother to put her on the phone, so I could pass it to him (my neighbor), so he could talk to her (she was avoiding his calls to make a point). Shit, the whole time I just wanted him to shut up so I could read the brand new magazine before me! I don’t know what makes me so tricky to figure out here, but they can’t do it, they think I love chatting.
On the escalator I heard a “hello.” I turned wide eyed, in horror, wondering if this beautiful woman wanted to talk to me. I hoped, with all my heart, it was for a friend, or some other stranger. She was looking at me. I knew what she wanted to talk about. She wanted to talk about Iraq! I was melting. What would I say, I wasn’t prepared to defend anyone or any issue, I haven’t even thought about the Middle East in months- I’ve been mentally shouting that fact for minutes now! No, “she’s educated!” I thought. I was saved! Then it dawned on me: “Shit. She wants the truth! She wants to know what happened! She DIDN’T follow every step of the war. HOW COULD I BE SO VAIN!? Why did I think they cared about that conflict all the way over here in Singapore, in the world’s perfect state (it might be). I don’t follow Singaporean politics. She wanted me to set her straight, give her the REAL story, so she could be better informed. She saw me in Starbucks before the movie, reading Hardy, she wants to have a meaningful conversation. She thinks I might know what’s going on and be able to explain! I’m a history major! I read the ‘Economist!’ I am the guy to ask, she knows!” I wasn’t ready for this conversation either. I hadn’t reflected on Iraq in quite some time. It was easier to push it out of my mind. It was happening, nothing I could do about it, and people were working to end it- I could stop worrying. Being in Bangkok, I wasn’t even reminded of it by the concern of fellow Americans, touched by the war. Politics for me now was what color shirt someone was wearing and there is no war, no concern over the safety of thousands of Americans, just one Thai man’s health. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how intentionally deceptive I thought Washington was (though reading “The Gamble” is helping me think “The Green Zone” had the right idea). I hadn’t thought about the fact that American citizens were committing war crimes! I stared at her. I said nothing. I couldn’t talk. I was afraid I would vomit if my mouth opened even the slightest. Even now, typing this, my stomach is in knots.
I turned away. I heard her confusion in the silence that followed, I felt her gazing at my neck. I wanted to say “hello,” I was looking for someone to go to the river with for a drink, she was good-looking, and had nice teeth. She was a great candidate, “SAY HELLO!” I thought. I couldn’t; there was no decision made; my mouth just didn’t open. My body, in survival mode, went as fast as it could to the exit, using any means necessary (including a great swim move and at least 3 stutter steps), not wasting energy on pointless things like speaking.
Now I sit at the computer wondering why this story had to be told. I don’t want to make a political statement and I wasn’t trying to explain Singaporeans. I don’t know what the goal was. But it was cathartic, I hoped it would be, and it was. I’m really not even sure if I explained correctly (frequent readers will know there is no proof reading done, so I may have missed vital parts, or poorly described crucial thoughts, details, or feelings). I hope I did though. I hope someone reads this and thinks “that sounds like the most awful situation ever.” Because that’s what it was for the 10 minutes it took to exit the Cathay complex. Now, I sit here pretty happy: I’m relieved to have documented the event, I’m happily anticipating Singapore’s River Walk for a beer and some very late dinner, and I am HUGELY relieved that I didn’t see “The Green Zone” in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, as was originally planned. If 60% of my theater was Islamic and not 20%, I may have collapsed and succumbed to hematidrosis- seriously.