Zeitgeist

Global Hybrids Go Home

May 07, 2008

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During the height of the globalization age in the late 1990s, many leading Zeitgeist watchers were celebrating the rise of the “New Cosmopolitans,” a term coined by business reporter G. Pascal Zachary. A new civilization was being born out of the increasing flow of money, products, ideas, and most important, people, across the borders of decaying nation-states. In this post-modern globalized society, the new determinants for business, political and cultural success were national diversity and a “mongrel” sense of self, Zachary proposed in The Global Me: The New Cosmopolitan Edge, in which he challenged the central tenets of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” paradigm.

In The Global Me, Zachary provided the readers with a tour of the New, New Brave World and introduced us to fascinating characters, ranging from high-tech entrepreneurs to international aid workers, who posses the attractive mix of “roots” and “wings”—that is, hyper-mobile “global hybrids” with “transnational identities,” who won’t stay put in one place, who experience “the breakdown of the unitary self, the rising appetite for diversity, the growing taste for gumbo, the proliferation of voluntary attachments to places, practices and communities.” These individuals with roots in more than one nation and with wings to fly anywhere and anytime were “the fruits of the new patterns in migration and mobility,” Zachary wrote. “They are the future.”

Or perhaps they’ll be recalled one day as historical transient figures, the beneficiaries of the proverbial 15 minutes of fame in the brief pre-9/11 episode of globalization. The are the visitors who may have outstayed their welcome into our vanishing cosmopolitan Zeitgeist, their wings being cut as they are deported into the real world of rising nationalism, ethnic rivalry and religious tensions, returning to their roots, where they like it or not.

In many ways, Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian of Lebanese (father) and Palestinian (mother) extraction, who plays the djembe, an African drum, in jazz bands in Manhattan, in Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor” (2007/I), which has just opened nationwide, is a global hybrid in the making, the ultimate multicultural fantasy-child of your friendly Western liberal intellectual who seem to be confident that if only, if only Tarek wouldn’t have been deported from America and would have been allowed to spread his wings in this country, he wouldn’t have ended-up flying, like some other illegal immigrants into the, say, Twin Towers in New York. Instead, Tarek would have composed a musical fusionist symphony, combing Arab tunes and African melodies that would have helped bridge different civilizations. He wouldn’t have been humiliated in an ugly detention center for illegal immigrants in Queens but would been hailed as a cultural icon at Lincoln Center, as outsider who came in and succeeded in injecting new blood into America’s decaying cultural veins.

After all, unlike Mohammad Atta, Tarek who is so, so cool, adorned with a fashionable three-day stubble of a beard (very non-Osama-like) and wearing Obama’s short haircut, is a “good” secular Moslem. “I’m a bad Moslem,” he explains as he drinks a glass of red wine (not whiskey! And he doesn’t smoke…). Tarek is fluent in several languages, including English, French and Arabic, and knowledgeable of world affairs, including the intricacies of economic globalization. He is married to the sexy and trendy Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal who is also “illegal” and who despite her model-like looks and figure is also very brainy and a “good Moslem” (she doesn’t drink alcohol). And let’s not forget that the peace-loving Tarek is also in a habit of giving a high-five to his Israeli pal Ze’ev (Tzahi Moskovitz) who works with Zainab, selling hand-make trinkets to condescending and globally illiterate Americans (who think that Senegal borders South Africa) in an open market in Manhattan, a mini-model world trade center, if you will.

And then there was Tarek’s late dad, a dissident journalist who had been jailed and tortured by the Assads in Syria, leaving behind Tarek’s mom, Mouna Khalil, played by the Israeli-Palestinian Hiam Abbass, who gives an excellent performance (Oscar?) as a refined Levantine lady who exudes a quite dignity and a certain stoicism coupled with Arab bigotry (“She is so black,” is what she has to say about her new daughter-in-law). Mouna straddles two worlds–East (she misses the smells of the Damascus’ markets) and West (she wants to see “Phantom of the Opera”)—but seems to feel comfortable in neither: she lives as an illegal immigrant in Michigan after the American government had refused to grant her family a political asylum. Tarek, on the other hand, feels secure in New York as the child of the many worlds to which he belongs, that like in the case of other global hybrids help him to be who he is—the creative cosmopolitan. Who gives a damn about a Greed Card? “New York=The World” is Tarek’s home and he hopes that everyone out there will join him in drumming his American-Arab-African version of Kumbaya.

His unlikely student in this movie is Walter Vale, played by Richard Jenkins who is close to perfect in the role of sombre middle aged and widowed economics professor who teaches college in Connecticut. Walter represents the all-too-familiar very educated and very white man, a caricature of your unfriendly, cold, calculating, stuffy and snobby WASP, who is very uncomfortable in his own skin. He is also a member of the nation’s globalizing elite: He is writing a book on globalization, he reads the Financial Times every day, and he is presenting a paper on the integration of developing nations (“Like Syria and Senegal,” Trek points out) at a conference at NYU where he mingles with other Council of Foreign Relations types.

During one of his infrequent visits to an apartment he owns in Manhattan, Walter discovers Tarek and Zainab, who apparently had been scammed by a conman named “Ivan” (Russian mafia?) from whom they thought they were renting the flat. Instead of calling the police, Walter allows the two illegals to stay in his apartment. And while Tarek plays the African drum in the apartment they now share, the rhythm-challenged Walter, who for years has been trying to learn the play the piano, is drawn to the beat of the African instrument, and after a few lesson from Tarek, the two end up playing the drum in Central Park with a bunch of drummers from Third World locations–Latinos, Africans, Arabs, Asians. Hence the real power of cultural globalization seems to be finally having an effect on Walter. His body sways to the African music, and he breaks out of his mental WASPy shell.

Unfortunately, one evening as they return from one of their “concerts” in Central Park on their way home, Tarek is arrested by somewhat thuggish Homeland Security officers. While Tarek is detained, his mom and Walter commute between the detention center in Queens and the flat in Manhattan. The reserved American and the warm Syrian-Palestinian seem to be sharing moments of tender love against the backdrop of Manhattan–we can see the Statue of Liberty and are reminded that the Twin Towers are not there. But then Tarek is deported and Mouna decides to return to join him in Syria. They both seem to be returning to their roots, whether they like it or not. No more flying on wings for them. And Walter is left behind, a bald, white man, sitting in the subway station and banging on the drum, being transformed into his own unique version of the global hybrid, a visitor in his own land.

“The Visitor” is more than just a film about and illegal immigrant facing the pr-9/11 political blowback and a maze of bureaucratic nightmare. The personal journey of Tarek represents a critical facet of the globalization process. It suggests that while this political, economic, and cultural revolution can help make individuals more productive, more prosperous, more mobile, it cannot ensure that these same individuals will abandon their old civilizational identities. If anything, the powerful encounter with the West, which is the main driving force behind globalization, challenges in a very painful way those who absorb the new ideas and who are in constant contact with political, economic cultural centers of the West. Instead of assimilating into the new global civilization, global hybrids like Tarek or for that matter, the members of the Arab and Moslem communities in Europe end up feeling that they are under attack. They respond to the perceived – or real – attacks, by returning to their old roots and by trying to protect them. And if they try using their wings and fly, they sometimes do crash into skyscrapers in Manhattan.

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