Are The Arabs Finally Beginning to Ask Giuseppe’s Questions?

by Norman Berdichevsky (June 2007)

The film “Sahara” (1943) with Humphrey Bogart playing Sergeant Joe Gunn, a tank commander in the North African desert, did not win any academy awards. In most respects though, it stands a notch higher than most World War II fighting films glorifying the Allied cause and graphically portraying the absolute evil of the Nazis. No other film I know highlights so effectively the camaraderie of the Allies on the Western Front using the skirmishing just prior to the decisive Battle of El-Alamein to portray the heroic sacrifice of a handful of American, British, Commonwealth, and Free French soldiers. Each of the soldiers with the single exception of Bogart’s character are not portrayed as career army men but come from diverse walks of life and are looking forward to rejoining wives, sweethearts, families and civilian careers.

Nor is it the actual combat in the desert and a heroic stand at a deserted well reminiscent of the Alamo, as exciting and gripping as this is, that makes this such an entertaining film. Rather what makes the film an everlasting tribute to the heroes that dealt Nazism a decisive blow, are two dramatic subplot incidents involving ……

1. A Black Sudanese career soldier by the name of Tambul who refuses to be intimidated by a fanatical racist Nazi pilot played by Kurt Krueger (a Swiss educated German expert skier and actor who eventually settled in the U.S.). The pilot has been shot down by Sgt. Gunn and taken captive. At first he refuses to be examined by the Black Sudanese on “racial grounds” because Tambul is inferior, a clear reference by the Hollywood producers to the behavior of Hitler in walking out of the Olympic Stadium in 1936 rather than be present at the ceremony awarding a gold medal to American Negro athlete Jesse Owens.


2. another Axis soldier, an Italian by the name of Giuseppe, (J. Carrol Naish) taken prisoner by Tambul. The German and Giuseppe are locked in a hut while the outpost comes under attack by a stray contingent of 500 soldiers of the vaunted Afrika Korps commanded by Major Von Falken. They have come 150 kilometers out of their line of march in order to get water from the well, unaware that it has run dry.

Sgt. Gunn carries out an elaborate ruse to try and trick the Germans, offering them non-existent water if they lay down their arms. In between bouts of fighting and negotiations the two Axis prisoners are debating the possibility of escape in order to warn the German troops of the trick. The dialogue of this debate has significance and relevance for today with regard to Iraq and the debate going on within Islam and between Islam and the West…..

German prisoner: Now is the time we must reach the German camp.

Giuseppe: No, I cannot do this.

German Prisoner: We have only to overpower one man now and take his rifle and maybe get a machine gun. Then we have a chance to kill them all!

Giuseppe: I don’t wan-to. I have no hatred for these men.

German Prisoner: Love or Hate – it is not for you to decide.

Giuseppe: I’m not going.

German Prisoner: This place will soon be taken. If you refuse to help me now. I’ll DENOUNCE you!

Giuseppe: DENOUCE ME THEN! Italians are NOT like-a Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, not the soul. Mussolini is not so clever like-a Hitler. He can dress his Italians only to LOOK like thieves, cheats and murderers. He cannot like-a Hitler make them FEEL like that. He cannot like-a Hitler scrape from their conscience the knowledge that RIGHT is RIGHT and WRONG is WRONG or dig-a holes in their heads to plant HIS Ten Commandments – Steal from thy neighbor, Cheat thy neighbor, …KILL thy neighbor!

German Prisoner”: You Weak Italienische Schwein. You DARE to insult the Führer?

Giuseppe: That would take and artist. I am BUT a mechanic. BUT are my eyes blind that I cannot see, that I must fall to my knees to worship a MANIAC who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people SLAVES ? Must I KISS the hand that beats me, LICK the Boot that kicks me ? NO !

I’d rather spend my whole life living in this-a dirty hole than escape to fight again for things I do not believe against people I do not a-hate and for your Hitler. It’s because-a of a man like him that God created HELL!

The German pilot in fury then knocks Giuseppe down and stabs him. Although mortally wounded, he struggles to his feel to warn Sgt. Gunn that the pilot must be stopped before reaching the German lines.

J. Carrol Naish was a bit actor who rarely was given a major role and the dialogue he has in Sahara totals only a few minutes but I have never seen a performance on screen or stage more authentic, and convincing that blends personality factors with ideological and emotional components. Naish joined the Navy at age 16 and as a seaman, he traveled all over the world and became adept at imitating the speech dialects of different nationalities and classes. He appeared in a dozen films as a Chinese (Charlie Chan no less), a Japanese, a Frenchman, Portuguese, Italian, German, and even Chief Sitting Bull! (in a 1954 film of the same title). Although of Irish descent, he never played an Irishman.

Niash got only one more chance to repeat his sterling performance for which he was rightfully nominated for an academy award in Sahara as best supporting actor. He was nominated for a second time for a second year in succession for his role as an indigent Mexican father of a deceased war hero in A Medal For Benny – (1944). Late in his career, he would have to accept demeaning roles in silly grotesque and trivial Hollywood films (Three Stooges Follies-1973; Frankenstein Meets Dracula -1974). This is truly a sad commentary on the ups and downs of an acting career and Hollywood casting.

Watching the film Sahara today, one feels compelled to ask why through their long history under ruthless leaders able to inflame Arab passions for wars of revenge and conquest motivated by hatred and extreme religious and nationalist fanaticism, the rank and file Arab soldiers who have been so abused and misled, never reached the stage of asking the same questions as Giuseppe.

The scenes of Egyptian mobs moved to an emotional catharsis begging for their leader and the man most responsible for leading them into the worst catastrophe of their four thousand years of history, Gamal Abdul Nasser, to return to power after their 1967 disastrous defeat in The Six Day War is a potent example of a people answering with a dramatic, unequivocal frantic YES to Giuseppe’s question as to whether they should fall to their knees to worship a maniac.

The same hysteria of hero worship and wild endorsement of an unqualified YES with chants of Allahu Akbar (God is Great) marked the funeral of Yassir Arafat, an Arab leader without a single achievement or accomplishment to improve the material well being of his people beyond pieces of paper – the many resolutions passed by the United Nations to bolster Palestinian egos and their sense of victimhood. His record of personal corruption in funds siphoned off before reaching his suffering people exceed that of any of the notoriously corrupt Arab kings, emirs and princes. This macabre cry that “God is Great” has greeted the worst barbaric atrocities committed in the name of Islam by many throughout the Muslim World following jihadist suicide attacks in Jerusalem, Madrid, New York, London and increasingly throughout much of the rest of the world – Bali, Beirut, Istanbul, Kenya, Morocco, Algeria and Jordan.

Whereas we in the West and especially in the United States and Great Britain have been conditioned to expect the resignation of any political leader for a serious blunder whether in the economy, matters of war and peace or any act of sexual impropriety, nepotism, graft, corruption, or by profiting from his office, the “Arab World” has been conditioned to kiss the hand that beats it and lick the boot that kicks it until another even more despotic, more ruthless rival is able to outmaneuver the leader and seize power.

The expectation throughout the Arab world has always been that any contender for power must first conclusively demonstrate a convincing brutality to make a substantial claim on the loyalty of the people. The sad tale of American disappointment in Iraq and the naïve belief that ending the dictatorial and despotic rule of Saddam Hussein would pave the way for the acceptance of a modicum of democracy and compromise was wholly unrealistic like the chimera of elections and a constitution. All these illusions have been shattered in the past through failed constitutions, repeated coups and civil wars in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, among the Palestinians and Jordanians and in Iraq.

A major current of thought that has gained ascendancy in large parts of the Arab World and among Islamist extremism worldwide is identical to the world-view of the German pilot in Sahara” who kills Giuseppe for “daring to insult the Fuhrer”.

Yet, this madness has begun to provoke a reaction in the hearts and minds of all those Arabs and Muslims who realize that they are the principal victims and that the weakness, vacillation, doubts and penchant for appeasement by their own public officials may place them in jeopardy. More and more writers, journalists, artists, and intellectuals in North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, the Gulf states, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia have begun to ask Giuseppe’s questions.

The existing partially-free press in Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Pakistan and Egypt have echoed the same refrain that the war in Iraq is NOT simply a civil war but that jihadi terrorists have flocked there from as far away as Indonesia and Chechnia to sow death, destruction and mayhem to intimidate all the Arab and Muslim “Giuseppes” that they will be “denounced” and pay the price. The editorial in the April 15th, 2007 issue of the London based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat repeated essentially the same message and had this to say :

“To make the picture clearer… This religious war has nothing to do even with the major issues, slogans related to which are raised in the terrorists’ literature itself, like Palestine, Iraq, the U.S., etc. These are people who want martyrdom, that is, they want to fight war, anywhere in the world, and for any cause that has a religious angle.

They are not fighting for money, public reform, or for… the environment, and they are not nationalists, pan-Arabists, or communists… They are not jokers, hippies, or oppositionists. They are seekers of martyrdom, meaning that they are in a hurry to go to Paradise. They are not interested in the life of this world, and they want to take with them to the grave the greatest number of people possible.

I know that this is an issue that is difficult for the Westerner to understand. It is also difficult for many of the Muslims themselves to accept this, and they always try to justify it with issues that they consider legitimate and comprehensible.

“But the truth is that these terrorists want death for the sake of Allah… That is, even if the Americans left Iraq tonight, and the Jews fled Palestine, and extremist religious governments were established in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt – this would not satisfy them… They want Paradise, and for this they will travel to the ends of the earth, to the North Pole and the South Pole, to fight the infidels”.

Nowhere in Muslim states except in Turkey where it has taken three generations since Kemal Attatürk abolished the caliphate and sultanate, translated the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish, instituted a secular state with a Constitution and civil and criminal laws modeled on the Swiss system, abolished the fez and the veil, have essential rights been established for citizens that are not dependent on Islamic law. Nowhere else does a simple soldier or citizen like Giuseppe have any protection against the far reaching non-negotiable demands of a religion that enslaves and enchains him.

The word “chains” is no exaggeration and has been used by several Arab historians and philosophers, most defiantly by the Egyptian ’Ali al-Qasimi in his 1946 book “These Are the Chains” published in Cairo. He identified the Arab individual as pulled apart by the conflicting forces of modern progressive Western influence and the traditional Arab culture regarded as the “perfection of the ancients”. Al-Qasimi did not hesitate to identify the remedy: unreserved adoption of the progressive humanism of the West by ridding Muslim lands of the “crushing heritage of the past“. As David Pryce-Jones so accurately put it….

“Every Arab knows what his society is like, how it fares in comparison to others, and how wide of the mark are apologetics in all forms. To articulate this knowledge requires a rare combination of courage, talent and opportunity.”

Only then, will the Arabs be unafraid of the constant fear of reprisal, and like Giuseppe, bravely confront their tormentors ……Denounce me then!

Writers note: For an accurate description and thorough analysis of the self-delusions that are responsible for the backwardness of Arab societies, see Closed Circle</st1:street>; An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones. (Ivan R. Dee, New York. 2002.)

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