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by Behrouz Saba

Making it acceptable to laugh at portrayal of ignorant, non-Western cultures

(PNS) -- I love to laugh and am not particularly highbrow about what makes me do so. Laughing myself silly while watching "American Pie" was a sublime experience for me. Yet the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen leaves me cold even as his current film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" promises to have Western audiences in stitches.

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Perhaps this is because, when it comes to being the "crazy foreigner," I am the genuine article. Cohen in Borat's role is merely faking it by creating a stereotype.

The film, scheduled to be released nationwide on Nov. 3 by 20th Century Fox, is a cause of political concern as Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose country has taken official offense at the work, visits the United States. Fox, mindful of the controversy, set up One America as a separate entity to produce the film.

In it Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, an oafish broadcast journalist from Kazakhstan who is sent here to make a film about America. Once here, whether he is learning English, attending a dinner party, hitting the road or interacting with the young, he consistently manages to embarrass everyone but himself.

His experiences in a way parallels my own when I came to America in the mid-1960s as an Iranian foreign student for cultural learnings to make benefit glorious nation of Iran. At that time, Iran was considered a worthier American ally than Kazakhstan is today.

My ambitions, however, were far greater than making a mere movie. For months prior to coming to America, I compulsively made sketches of the Time-Life Building in Midtown Manhattan -- then a mighty symbol of American journalism -- telling one and all that I intended to establish an even greater American media empire of my own.

Here I found myself in an ESL class where the teacher endlessly speechified about James Thurber to students who lacked the language facility to buy stamps at the post office. Bored out of my skull, every once in a while I would interrupt him by shouting, "American has no literature!" before embarking on an incomprehensible speech of my own about Iran's brilliant literary history. Half knowingly, I was casting myself as the "crazy foreigner," acutely aware of the tragicomical clash of my expectations with reality.

Cohen is not funny to me precisely because his character lacks that self-awareness. He is a comic in the worst way, lacking the crucial tragic dimension that such masters as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati perfected during the courses of their careers. They have become archetypes with which people across national and racial boundaries identify. Cohen as Borat has created a mere stereotype who is -- like all stereotypes -- most offensive to the very people who should find in the character humorously edifying reflections of themselves.

Many among Western audiences find the film refreshing -- even liberating -- at a time when the East no longer complies with their comfortable expectations of it as subservient to the West. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to "root out terrorism" go on indefinitely. Israel bullies its way into Lebanon only to limp back. A defiant Iran leaves no charge against it unanswered. In the Far East, China and other growing economies challenge a perceived Western monopoly on ingenuity and industry.

Borat comes to the rescue, assuring one and all that "those people" -- whose varied geographies, ethnicities, races, politics and religions are an incomprehensible mishmash to most Westerners -- are as contemptible as ever. That he also pokes crude fun at America -- while addressing the audience at a rodeo he says, "We support your war of terror" -- makes it politically correct to celebrate him.

The character, in so many TV sketches and now in a feature film, is not rooted in any discernable reality. He teaches virtually nothing about Kazakhstan itself, its vast landmass and oil reserves, scandalous corruption and Soviet-style despotism. Least of all does Cohen's work warn of Kazakhstan, as well as half a dozen other countries in Central Asia and the Caucuses, as potential future Afghanistans and Iraqs that stretch from Europe to China.

Is doing so a comedian's job? Should you ever have a doubt, rent "The Great Dictator" and watch Chaplin and Jack Oakie as Hitler and Mussolini involved in the real, quite serious work of comedy.

Perhaps Cohen himself is the biggest loser in all of this. Born near London in a Jewish family of Iranian and Welsh heritage, he is of historical, cultural and religious influences that would enable him to debunk stereotyping and avoid ridiculing for its own sake. That he has chosen to do otherwise is a shame.

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Albion Monitor   September 28, 2006   (

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