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We are inundated by images of the Middle East. From the "saturation coverage" of the war in Iraq to the daily television reports on the violence in Israel and the occupied territories, the Middle East is constantly presented and represented to American viewers. But how do we process these images and how do they influence our self-perceptions and self-understandings as Americans? In Melani McAlister's pathbreaking Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000, the author explores the myriad ways in which Americans [End Page 471] have visualized, imagined, and fantasized about the Middle East since the end of World War II. McAlister's conclusions have implications far beyond even the study of U.S. relations with the Middle East; she finds that the construction of both race and gender in the United States is inseparable from our foreign policy and the ways in which it is filtered through American popular culture.
McAlister, an associate professor of American civilization at George Washington University, was raised a Southern Baptist. The Middle East first came to her consciousness when she saw the Israeli flag (which she did not recognize) raised next to the American flag at a Christian Right summer camp. Indeed, one of the best chapters in Epic Encounters traces the intensification of support for Israel among evangelical Christians. McAlister begins in the 1970s, when evangelical whites first became involved in American politics (often in opposition to black Christians who were fighting for civil rights). She analyzes the best-selling tracts that evangelical Christians wrote to bolster support for Israel, many of which linked Christ's return (which Christians call the Rapture) to the restoration of the Temple and the ingathering of the Jewish exiles. After reading Epic Encounters, it is difficult to believe those—from Dennis Prager to Pat Robertson—who continue to insist that evangelical Christians are motivated only by love of the Jewish people in their unwavering support of the Jewish state.
McAlister (who is highly critical of Edward Said's concept of Orientalism, which she says reduces both the East and West to monolithic entities) rightly insists on viewing her evidence from a multiplicity of perspectives. So, for example, she reads the Hebrew (or, some would say, proto-Christian) characters in Hollywood biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959) as symbols of twentieth-century Americans resisting the "tyranny" of the Arab states in the Middle East, as represented in the films by Egypt and Rome. Moreover, she interprets the marriages that conclude the films as symbolic of the "benevolent supremacy" (47) that underlay the American government's self-aggrandizing sense of its own entitlement in involving itself in Middle East affairs—as demonstrated by the Truman Doctrine and National Security Council documents.
Egypt becomes mobilized as a metaphor for both domination and liberation in McAlister's fascinating chapter on King Tut and "commodity nationalism," in which she posits that the late-1970s touring King Tut exhibit (and the extensive cultural products it spawned, from museum souvenirs to Steve Martin's classic Saturday Night Live skit) should be viewed in the context of American efforts to control OPEC's oil supply, using the same logic of "the universal heritage of mankind" (139) that the American government applied to Tut's gold. [End Page 472]
But many blacks (both Muslim and Christian) who traced their racial and spiritual heritage to ancient Egypt viewed Tut as a hero of African American culture who, even in mummified form, could help them reclaim their own racial identity.
The comparisons McAlister draws are consistently insightful and apposite. In her chapter on the Iran hostage crisis, for example, she is highly attentive to the ways in which Israel's recapturing of its hostages in Entebbe on July 4, 1976 was contrasted in...