A traveller's tale

Film - Ziauddin Sardar on the screen portrayal of a Muslim Marco Polo

Hollywood has portrayed Muslims and the Muslim world largely in terms of two firmly fixed stereotypes. There is the bloodthirsty terrorist hell-bent on destroying civilisation as we know it of such epics as True Lies and The Siege. Then there is this exotic land, somewhere east of the west, where life is seedy and cheap but sensual pleasures are aplenty. From Valentino's The Sheik (1921) onwards, Muslim societies have been depicted as arenas of sexual licence and perversion where women (and boys) are easy and unspeakable things happen. Here, women are always scantily clad and imprisoned in a harem by nasty despots, as in Arabian Nights (1942) or Harem (1985). The men are nasty, smelly and brutal, as we find them in The Sheltering Sky (1990) or, more recently, in The Mummy.

To these standard representations, we can now add a third: the well-educated, cultured Muslim of history. The 13th Warrior, the true story of the tenth-century Muslim explorer Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, provides the character with his second outing. The first was the noble Moor, played by Morgan Freeman, in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. The new representation can arguably be described as a sympathetic portrayal. Actually, it is a carefully constructed amalgam of historical verisimilitude and knowledgeable ignorance that leaves intact the overall representation of Muslims as the darker side of Europe.

The first thing to note is that these figures are firmly rooted in history - there is no danger of educated, accomplished Muslims existing today. If culture and scientific sophistication have actually touched the Muslims, then it was resolutely in the past. Contemporary Islam continues to be the land of lowlife, terror and sexual perversion.

But the sympathetic Muslims of yesteryear are framed within standard archetypes of Islamic culture. The Moor of Robin Hood is given a certain dignity and permitted to demonstrate a learning and philosophy beyond the experience of the Crusaders. But, right at the beginning of the film, it is made clear that he emerges from a brutal culture. Robin Hood opens with stock imagery of Muslim brutality: hands are being chopped off in a dungeon replete with engines of terror. The good Moor who saves Robin Hood from this fate is an anomaly.

Similarly, The 13th Warrior begins with standard icons of Islamic sexuality. Even before the titles have finished, we have witnessed the exotic Arabia of western imagination, complete with semi-clad veiled women, a Scheherazade, an ugly and conniving vizier and a despotic caliph. The Scheherazade in question is the cause of Ibn Fahdlan's banishment from Baghdad and his journey to the land of the Vikings.

En route to the court of the king of the Bulgars and accompanied by his wise manservant Melchisidek (a tongue-in-cheek Omar Sharif), Ibn Fahdlan meets a band of Norse warriors. He considers the rogues to be crude but colourful and views with undisguised cynicism their description of mysterious creatures plaguing their homeland. The creatures appear like a group of bears, emerge through the foggy shroud of night and consume every living thing in their path. An old soothsayer appropriately warns that the band will fail to defeat the creatures unless they are accompanied by a 13th, foreign warrior. Ibn Fahdlan is reluctantly recruited, and we proceed to a string of spectacularly staged battles.

As played by Antonio Banderas, Ibn Fahdlan emerges as a noble and sophisticated urbanite finding his way among the "wild men" of Europe. He learns their language simply by listening and observing. He knows how to adopt and transform their technology. Eventually he comes to admire and appreciate the Vikings.

But Ibn Fahdlan of The 13th Warrior is totally devoid of his own historical content. He has been filtered through two layers. His account of his journeys is written with clinical precision as a formal report to the court of Caliph al-Muqtadir (d 908). He saw the Vikings not as crude warriors but as a precious people with a highly developed philosophy of life and a sophisticated understanding of both the sea and military technology. But the film presents the Vikings as stereotypical products of Anglo-Saxon propaganda. Indeed it is Ibn Fahdlan's detailed and accurate account that has, after a millennium, finally overturned the Anglo-Saxon misrepresentations of the Vikings.

The second layer comes in the form of Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, on which the film is based. The novel turns Ibn Fahdlan's narrative, exciting and kaleidoscopic as it is, into a complete fable. So real events become dim and distant exploits, not far removed from Dungeons and Dragons. One has difficulty in believing even in the existence of Ibn Fahdlan, let alone the fact that an early-tenth-century Arab could have travelled to Scandinavia and lived with and studied the Norsemen for three years.

The giveaway that this is a distinctly cardboard portrayal comes with the prayer. The daily prayer is the most common ritual of Muslim life. There is no mystery about it; anyone can see how Muslims pray by walking into a mosque. But never in the history of film has a Muslim character offered his prayers properly or uttered a meaningful sentence of invocation. This is a persistent piece of significant and deliberate ignorance that has been used to portray the irrationality of the Muslim mind, from the 1966 epic Khartoum to the recent Executive Decision. So its presence in allegedly sympathetic representations is more than just curious. In Robin Hood Morgan Freeman mouths nonsense and kneels, bends and knocks his head on the ground in straightforward parody. Just before the final battle, Banderas takes off his armour and throws himself on the ground as though he is jumping into a swimming pool. Still, I suppose we ought to be thankful for small mercies - and the sympathetic looting of our classics.

"The 13th Warrior" (15) is on general release

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?