Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Price of the Ticket


by James Baldwin

A review 

Many literary critics consider James Baldwin to be one of the best writers in the history of the United States.  His books include, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, If Beal Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head, and the short Story Collection Going to Meet the Man. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Baldwin’s book The Price of the Ticket which is a collection of his nonfiction writings from 1948-1985.  This happens to be one of the best books I have read.  The following review explains why I have this opinion.

One aspect of Baldwin’s literary style I find compelling is the fact that he deals with a wide range of issues from the point of view of his life experience which includes growing up in the Harlem, New York.  Many pseudo social scientists would argue that this approach is subjective and lacks a journalistic objectivity.  However, after reading this book I came away with the feeling that Baldwin makes his arguments appear to be self-evident truths.  Therefore, in order to properly review this book I need to give a brief biography of James Baldwin.

Baldwin's early life

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City in 1924 and passed away in 1987.  His mother was a domestic worker and his mother’s husband was a factory worker.  Baldwin was the eldest of nine children.  The person who James Baldwin called his father called him “The ugliest child he ever saw.”  When he was fourteen, Baldwin became active in the church and gave the following reason for his conversion.  This passage also describes the atmosphere that contributed to the difficult relationship between Baldwin and the man he called his father.

“One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.  The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?”  When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.  Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die.  Others fled to other states and cities––that is, to other ghettos.  Some went on wine or whisky or the needle, and are still on it.  And others, like me fled into the church.”[1]        

Throughout his life Baldwin was a voracious reader.  He also had a ruthless drive to pursue the truth, no matter what the cost.  This stance caused Baldwin to break with the church.  However, throughout his writings Baldwin frequently used the language he learned from his three-year relationship with the church.

Baldwin’s active political history may have started when he was thirteen and marched in a May Day parade carrying banners and shouting, “East Side, West Side, all around the town, We want the landlords to tear the slums down.”

His best friend introduced Baldwin to the Young Peoples Socialist League.  He then, (at the age of nineteen) said he became a “Trotsyite––so that I was in the interesting position of being an anti-Stalinist when America and Russia were allies.”  This means that at the same time as there was an intense drive to support US involvement in the second world war, Baldwin was one of the few who opposed this stance.  The reason for his thinking had to do with the fact that the people who practiced the discrimination Baldwin experienced didn’t live in Germany, but in the United States of America.

Baldwin started writing as a teenager and was given a job writing book reviews.  This was one of many jobs he obtained in order to make ends meet.  In 1948 he won a Rosenwald Fellowship for his book reviews and essays.  He used this money to move to Paris, France.  At the time Baldwin had been brutalized for being both Black and gay.  His best friend committed suicide, and for all these reasons he felt the need to leave this country in order to gain the clear head he would need to write.  In the following passage, Baldwin gives his reasons for leaving the United States.

Baldwin leaves the U.S. and then returns

“I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here.  (Sometimes I still do.)  I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.  I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.  (I was as isolated from Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)”[2] 

In Paris, Baldwin was treated with indifference, like most Americans at that time.  He found this, in a way, a refreshing change from the way he had been treated in the United States.  However, since he had very little money, life in Paris was far from easy.

Baldwin, in fact was arrested in his first year in Paris.  His roomate had taken a sheet from a hotel the roommate had stayed in, and this act landed Baldwin in prison for eight days.  The only reason why he was eventually released was because of his acquaintance with an American lawyer living in Paris.  This and many other experiences caused Baldwin not to have any romantic illusions about living in Paris.  In the following passage Baldwin describes his experience living in the Algerian section of Paris.

“I had come to Paris with no money and this meant that in those early years I lived mainly among les miserables––and, in Paris les miserables are Algerian.  They slept four or five or six to a room, and they slept in shifts, they were treated like dirt, and they scraped such sustenance as they could off the filthy, unyielding Paris stones.  The French called them lazy because they appeared to spend most of their time sitting around, drinking tea, in their cafes.  But they were not lazy.  They were mostly unable to find work, and their rooms were freezing.  (French Students spent most of their time in cafes.  But they were not lazy.)  The Arab cafes were warm and cheap, and they were together there.  They could not, in the main, afford the French cafes, nor in the main, were they welcome there.  And, though they spoke French, and had been, in a sense, produced by France, they were not at home in Paris, no more at home than I, though for a different reason.  They remembered, as it were an opulence, opulence of taste, touch, water sun, which I had barely dreamed of, and they had not come to France to stay.  One day they were going home, and they knew exactly were home was.  They, thus, held something within them which they would never come to surrender to France.  But on my side of the ocean, or so it seemed to me then, we had surrendered everything, or had had everything taken away, and there was no place for us to go: we were home.  The Arabs were together in Paris, but the American blacks were alone.  The Algerian poverty was absolute, their stratagems grim, their personalities, for me, unreadable, their present bloody and their future certain to be more so: and yet, after all, their situation was far more coherent than mine.  I will not say that I envied them, for I didn’t, and the directness of their hunger, or hungers, intimidated me; but I respected them, and as I began to discern what their history had made of them, I began to suspect, somewhat painfully, what my history had made of me.”[3]            

When the civil rights movement erupted in the United States, Baldwin felt compelled to be a part of it and returned to the United States.  He reported on what he saw in several states throughout the South at a time when the Jim Crow laws were being challenged.  In the following passage, Baldwin described his impressions of attending a church service in Montgomery, Alabama while the Reverend Martin Luther King was presiding.

“Until Montgomery, the Negro church, which has always been the place where protest and condemnation could be most vividly articulated also operated as a kind of sanctuary.  The minister who spoke could not hope to effect any objective change in the lives of his hearers, and the people did not expect him to.  All they came to find, and all that he could give them, was the sustenance for another day’s journey.  Now, King could certainly give his congregation that, but he could also give them something more than that, and he had.  It is true that it was they who had begun the struggle of which he was now the symbol and the leader; it is true that it had taken all of their insistence to overcome in him a grave reluctance to stand where he now stood.  But it is also true, and it does not happen often, that once he had accepted the place they had prepared for him, their struggle became absolutely indistinguishable from his own, and took over and controlled his life,  He suffered with them and, thus, he helped them to suffer.  The joy which filled this church, therefore, was the joy achieved by people who have ceased to delude themselves about an intolerable situation, who have found their prayers for a leader miraculously answered, and who now know that they can change their situation, if they will.”[4]

James Baldwin also wrote extensively about the forces opposed Martin Luther King, and anyone who chose to challenge racism in the United States.  In the following passage he described how the racists who opposed the civil rights movement were merely acting on the policies of the United States government.

“A mob cannot afford to doubt: that the Jews killed Christ or that niggers want to rape their sisters or that anyone who fails to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to be wretched.  But these ideas do not come from the mob.  They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob.  The idea of black persons as property, for example, does not come from the mob.  It is not a spontaneous idea.  It does not come from the people, who knew better, who thought nothing of intermarriage until they were penalized for it: this idea comes from the architects of the American States.  These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important––more real––than the possibilities of the human being.”[5]

Baldwin continued in this vein with the following passage.

“The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were indeed animals and deserved to be treated like animals.  Therefore it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this ‘animal,’ once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”[6]   

In an essay titled White Man’s Guilt, Baldwin looks at many of the underlying reasons for racism.  This is what he had to say.

History and the search for the truth

“White man, hear me!  History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.  And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.  In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view.  In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

“But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it in order to bring myself out of it.  My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter.  On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.

“This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves.  Impaled.  They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.  This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering terrified dialogues which white Americans sometimes entertain with the black conscience, the black man in America.  The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea.  Do not blame me.  I was not there.  Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me.  I was not present in the middle passage.  I am not responsible for the textile mills of Manchester, or the cotton fields of Mississippi.  Besides, consider how the English, too, suffered in those mills and in those awful cities!  I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as capabilities will permit.  I have nothing against you, nothing!  What have you got against me?  What do you want?  But on the same day, in another gathering and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.

“On that same day in another gathering, and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the black American finds himself facing the terrible roster of his lost: the dead, black junkie; the defeated, black father; the unutterably weary, black mother; the unutterable ruined, black girl.  And one begins to suspect an awful thing: That people believe that they deserve their history, and that when they operate on this belief, they perish.  But one knows that they can scarcely avoid believing that they deserve it: one’s short time on this earth is very mysterious and very dark and very hard.  I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed that it was better to be white than black: whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for al long time.”

“White man, hear me!  A man is a man, a woman is a woman, a child is a child.  To deny these facts is to open the doors on a chaos deeper and deadlier and, within the space of a man’s lifetime, more timeless, more eternal, than the medieval vision of Hell.  White man, you have already arrived at this unspeakable blasphemy in order to make money.  You cannot endure the things you acquire––the only reason you continually acquire them, like junkies on hundred-dollar-a-day habits––and your money exists mainly on paper.  God help you on that day when the population demands to know what is behind that paper.  But, even beyond this, it is terrifying to consider the precise nature of the things you have bought with the flesh you have sold––of what you continue to buy with the flesh you continue to sell.  To what, precisely, are you headed?  To what human product precisely are you devoting so much ingenuity, so much energy.”[7]

This passage was not––in my opinion––a blanket condemnation of white people.  Throughout his life Baldwin met white people who shared his beliefs, defended him as a human being, and were dedicated to making this a better world.  However, Baldwin was also quick to point out that those white people who did not hold these racist ideas represented a tiny minority in the United States.  In the following passage he explains how black people have not been fooled by the mythology they are taught which is disguised as American history.

“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: That their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.  Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents––or, anyway, mothers––know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way.  And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.  The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.  One watched the lives they led.  One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses that they gave themselves, and if a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came.  And one felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he”[8]

While some of his writings might give the impression that Baldwin was a pessimist, the following quotation explains why he felt that the future belongs to those who have been wronged in the past.

Reality, and the roots of the struggle for liberation

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”[9]

James Baldwin did not limit his writings to the politics of the United States and France.  This is what he had to say about the war against the people of Korea.

“I began to feel a terrified pity for the white children of these white people: who had been sent, by their parents, to Korea, though their parents did not know why.  Neither did their parents know why these miserable, incontestably inferior, rice-eating gooks refused to come to heel, and would not be saved.  But I knew why.  I came from a long line of miserable, incontestably inferior, rice eating, chicken-stealing, hog-swilling niggers––who had acquired these skills in their flight from bondage––who still refused to come to heel, and who would not be saved.  If two and two make four, then it is a very simple matter to recognize that people unable to be responsible for their own children, and who care so little about each other, are unlikely instruments for the salvation of the people who they permit themselves the luxury of despising as inferior to themselves.  Even in the case of Korea, we, the blacks at least, knew why our children were there: they had been sent there to be used, in exactly the same way, and for the same reasons, as the blacks had been so widely dispersed out of Africa––an incalculable investment of raw material in what was not yet known as the common market.”[10]

Just as Baldwin compared the struggle of Black people in this country to the struggle of Koreans, he also compared the struggle of the Black Panthers to the struggle of the Vietnamese people.

“Let us tell it like it is: the rhetoric of a Stennis, a Maddox, a Wallace, historically and actually, has brought death to untold numbers of black people and it was meant to bring death to them.  This is absolutely true, no matter who denies it––no black man can possibly deny it.  Now, in the interest of the public peace, it is the Black Panthers who are being murdered in their beds, by the dutiful and zealous police.  But, for a policeman, all black men, especially young black men, are probably Black Panthers and all black women and children are probably allied with them: just as, in a Vietnamese village, the entire population, men, women, children, are considered as probable Vietcong.  In the village, as in the ghetto, those who were not dangerous before the search-and-destroy operation assuredly become so afterward, for the inhabitants of the village, like the inhabitants of the ghetto, realize that they are identified, judged, menaced, murdered, solely because of the color of their skin.  This is as curious a way of waging a war for a people’s freedom as it is of maintaining the domestic public peace.”[11]

Baldwin called the last essay of The Price of the Ticket: Here Be Dragons.  This essay was written in 1985 and this is where he wrote about his sexual identity of being gay.  Baldwin concluded this essay with the following quotation which underscores the self evident truth that whatever a person’s sexual identity is, that identity is perfectly legitimate.

“But we are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other––male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.  We are a part of each other.  Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair and so, very often, do I.  But none of us can do anything about it.”[12]

My early life

One might wonder why I have found this book to be so compelling.  Well, since James Baldwin looked at the issues in this book from his personal experience, I might as well explain why this book was so inspiring to me.  In order to do this I need to give some background into my personal history.

I was born in Newark, New Jersey in the year 1952.  Although I was raised in a neighborhood only about one hour’s drive from Harlem, this was a completely different world from the one James Baldwin was raised in.  Baldwin explained in his book that no one has a skin color which is white.  Therefore all of us are colored in one way or another.  However, in the United States the politicians, university professors, and journalists consider me to be white. 

I am also Jewish and was raised in the Weekquahic section of Newark that was overwhelmingly Jewish in my younger years.  Then, something happened in Newark which some people call white flight.  Black people began moving into the neighborhood and white people began to move out, and in a hurry.  The price of real estate that usually goes up, plummeted because people could not move out of their homes fast enough.  My family did not have the resources to move and when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, I was surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of my classmates were Black.             

My father had the unusual profession of being a tennis instructor.  Every day during the summer we traveled to a country club where my father worked, and then returned home to Newark in the evening.  In other words, every day I witnessed the contrast between the opulence of the country club, and the working class atmosphere of Newark.

When I was fourteen years old a rebellion of the African American community erupted in Newark.  The media called this rebellion a “riot.”  Black people lived in Newark, paid taxes, and worked at jobs that created an enormous amount of wealth in this country.  This same community became exasperated at the routine police harassment they experienced.  There was a demonstration against the police and, as in all rebellions, there was some looting. 

At this point, I should say something about the looting which erupted in the 1967 rebellions in Newark.  Today in the United States about one percent of the population owns about half of all financial wealth, while eighty percent of the population owns no more than six percent of that wealth.  The press does not consider this normal state of affairs to be looting.  To the contrary, the press calls this relationship ethical, and civilized.  While I would argue that the tactic of looting is not effective in the long term, this needs to be considered in context with the normal looting which working people are exposed to every day.

However, in response to the 1967 Newark rebellions, the government collaborated with the media to spread the totally fabricated rumor that there were “snipers” firing guns from the roofs of buildings.  The National Guard used this fabricated rumor to justify the murder of twenty-one human beings and the arrests of 700. 

While this rebellion erupted, I was at the country club.  At the young age of fourteen, I had already been desensitized to many of the horrors of the world.  Since everyone I knew went along with the fantasy promoted in the press, I saw no reason to doubt that story.   Given what the press was saying about the events in Newark, and my personal experience at the country club, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.             

James Baldwin wrote about an event in his childhood that caused him to begin to think differently.  This is what he had to say about a picture he saw while his family experienced the ravages of the depression of the 1930’s. 

Moments that cause a transformation in the way we think

“Yet there is a moment from that time that I remember today and will probably always remember––a photograph from the center section of the Daily News.  We were starving, people all over the country were starving.  Yet here were several photographs of farmers, somewhere in America, slaughtering hogs and pouring milk onto the ground in order to force prices up (or keep them up), in order to protect their profits.  I was much too young to know what to make of this beyond the obvious.  People were being forced to starve, and being driven to death for the sake of money.”[13]

Like Baldwin, there was a moment that caused me to begin to think differently about the world I lived in.  Since my father was a tennis instructor, I was introduced to the game at an early age.  However, in Newark, tennis was not a game that most young people played.  For this reason, although I was never better than an above average player, I was the best tennis player in my high school for four consecutive years.

I attended a public music and art high school that required an entrance exam in order to be accepted.  Although this was a magnet school, the condition of the school was run down and there was no full sized gymnasium for about 700 students.  I had no teachers at all for the subjects of Spanish and Physics.  While attending those classes, all the students merely sat and tried to stay out of trouble.  The school itself was located in close proximity to the projects.  The dilapidated condition of the school I attended reflected a national trend where schools in urban areas are under-funded while schools in many suburban communities might have double the funding per student. 

In my senior year of high school I met someone who attended Livingston High and we went to that school––about thirty minutes outside of Newark––to play a game of tennis.  I was shocked by what I saw at that school.  The school was set back from the main road about a quarter of a mile and was surrounded by trees.  Not only were there tennis courts, but a football field, a baseball field, and a swimming pool all on the campus of the school.

I took a minute to gaze at the enormity of the contrast between this school and the school I attended.  Both these schools were public, but they were as different as night and day.  Then, I thought about the contrast between the country club I went to as a child and the reality of Newark, New Jersey.  I thought about the fact that this contrast didn’t exist because someone made a mistake or an error in judgment.  This contrast existed because there was something fundamentally wrong with the system of government we were living under.  Within the next year I joined an organization called the Young Socialist Alliance and began a lifelong commitment to aiding the movement that is attempting to make this a world where human needs are more important than profits.

During a period of twenty years I worked in factories for two companies in the auto manufacturing industry.  One job that lasted for fourteen years was organized by the United Auto Workers Union.  In the course of those years I experienced the reality of how workers who produce the wealth of this country are treated––merely as appendages of machines.  At the job I had for fourteen years, we gave the company concessions, improved quality, and increased productivity.  The company rewarded us for this effort by closing the plant and eliminating about 2,500 jobs.  This was so a German Baron who owns a one billion dollar art collection could maximize profits on his investments.

These are some of the reasons why I could identify with James Baldwin’s statement, “White man, here me!”  Clearly I’m not African American and will never be able to fully appreciate what this experience means.  However, working in a factory in this country, I’ve been exposed to a similar hypocrisy that rationalizes the abusive treatment workers experience every day.  Although I’ve read many excellent books about the history of working people, Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket is unique in the insight it gives to the reality of what it means to live in the world today.

Although this is a fairly long review, it only contains a small fraction of the vast array of ideas covered in The Price of the Ticket.  I felt that it would be better to give a flavor for Baldwin’s writing rather than list many of the issues he wrote about.  I will just say that in the 690 pages of this book there is scarcely a paragraph that is not worth reading.

Clearly, I don’t agree with everything written in this book.  There are no two people in the world who have the same opinions on everything.  However, James Baldwin’s ruthless pursuit of the truth and the utter beauty with which he presents his arguments makes this book special, and I believe inspiring to anyone who wants to strip away the mythology we are exposed to every day.        




[1] Baldwin, James, The Price of the Ticket, P. 339 Chapter: The Fire Next Time, 1963
[2] Ibid, Chapter: The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American, 1959, P. 171
[3] Ibid, Chapter: No Name in the Street, 1972, P. 461
[4] Ibid, Chapter: The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,1961, P. 250
[5] Ibid, Introduction, 1985, P. xix
[6] Ibid,  A Talk to Teachers, 1963, P. 329
[7] Ibid, Chapter: White Man’s Guilt, 1965, P. 410, 411, 413
[8] Ibid, Chapter: The Fire Next Time, 1963, P. 377, 378
[9] Ibid, Chapter: No Name in the Street, 1972, P. 495
[10]Ibid, Chapter: The Devil Finds Work, 1976, P. 611
[11]Ibid, Chapter: No Name in the Street, 1972, P. 517, 518
[12]Ibid, Chapter: Here Be Dragons, 1985, P. 690
[13]Ibid, Chapter Dark Days, 1980, P. 659

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Idol



Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Screenplay: Hany Abu-Assad, Sameh Zoabi

Starring: Taweek Barhorm

Yesterday Judi and I viewed the wonderful film The Idol, about a Palestinian young man, Mohammed Assaf, who won the Arab Idol contest in 2013.  This film captivated me from the beginning to the end.  Knowing what the outcome of the film would be, in no way diminished the power of the story.

I don’t do many film reviews because there are few films I find compelling.  An exception to this rule has been the biographic films about artists.  The films about the lives of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Hector Lavoe were all deeply moving.  What I liked about these films is the fact that they gave viewers a glimmer of the lives of these artists.  This gave me a richer appreciation of their incomparable music.

The language used in The Idol is Arabic with English subtitles.  I clearly do not know Arabic, nor am I familiar with Arabic styled music.  This, in no way was a limitation to the film.

In many films of stories about people who have a different culture, writers create western styled characters who help to introduce the audience to a culture we might not be familiar with.  This wasn’t the case with The Idol.  All of the central characters in the film are Palestinian.  While we understand that Palestinians endure routine repression from the state of Israel, I don’t believe there were any Israeli characters.

Growing up in Gaza

What we see in the film is how people manage to live in the Gaza Strip—where bombed out buildings are a common sight.  Although we see how Assaf and his family have access to education as well as health care, these services are clearly inadequate to serve the needs of the people.

We see how growing up in this area means that even children need to stand up for themselves, even against seemingly impossible odds.  This background was absolutely necessary to give Assaf the determination just to enter the Arab Idol contest.       

I don’t remember the exact quotation, but even as children Assaf and his sister talked about changing the world.  Here we see how children aren’t burdened by the experiences of adults, and they can see a brighter day even while living under the most horrendous conditions.

Out of this atmosphere we hear the voice of Mohammed Assaf.  We know that many artists in this country, like Aretha Franklin, developed their singing abilities in church choirs.  Assaf was largely self-taught.  He sang at weddings and during prayers at a Mosque.  At one point, he sang for an audience through a teleprompter.  He needed to stop this performance when the generator that powered the electricity caught on fire.

While the film portrayed the basic life story of Assaf, there appeared to be a few instances where things were left out or changed.  These aspects of the story took nothing away from the basic theme, and the film is, for the most part factual.

One item I may have missed was the fact that Assaf was born in Libya and moved to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip when he was four years old.  This reflected the Palestinian diaspora where Palestinians live all over the world because their homeland had been stolen by the state of Israel.  The fact that Assaf and his family needed to live in a refugee camp, when Palestinians have lived in that part of the world for thousands of years, adds to the routine injustice of this region.

A message to the world.

The other aspect of the film that might be missed by non-Arabic speakers like myself was Assaf’s concluding song on the Arab Idol contest.  He sang of the kaffiyeh that is the scarf and a symbol of Palestinian resistance.  This song also was a call for unity in the struggle to liberate his people. 

Here we see the transformation of the film.  We see how Assaf found the courage to overcome the horrors he faced and show the world the genuine beauty of the struggle to liberate the Palestinian people.


In this country, we see how people celebrate when their favorite sports teams win championships.  When Mohammed Assad won the Arab Idol contest, their was an international feeling of ecstasy.  This wasn’t just because someone demonstrated how he was an excellent singer, but to give the world a glimmer of what humanity is capable of achieving.