Tag Archive: Prejudice


Dorit Rabinyan is a rising star in the literary world. Born in Israel to Iranien Jewish parents, she has three books translated into English: “Persian Brides”, “Our Weddings” (also published as “Strand of a thousand pearls”) and “All the rivers”. “Persian Brides” won the Jewish Quartely-Wingate Prize in 1999, and “All the rivers” has been an international best seller. However, “All the Rivers”, has been controversial in Israel; despite being well received and winning an award, in 2015 a scandal emerged: a committee of teachers requested the novel to be added to the recommended curriculum for Hebrew high school literature classes. Another committee in the Israeli Ministry of Education however objected to the request and declined to add it, on the grounds, according to The Economist, that it ”promotes intermarriage and assimilation”. In short, ”All the rivers” has gotten flack for portraying an interfaith and intercultural relationship.

Before moving on to the review, I must tell an endearing story about when I was waiting in a posttalk line to have Ms. Rabinyan sign her novel, ”Our weddings”. Ms. Rabinyan had not quite understood that she was suppose to do signings after her talk. Her publisher went to get her for the signing, and when Ms. Rabinyan appeared and saw the line, she exclaimed happily: ”Wow, are all these people here for me? This is fantastic!”.

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All the rivers” tells the sad love story of Liat, a Persian Jewish woman from Israel who, while temporarily living in New York, meets Hilmi, a young Palestinian man. Despite Liat´s internal reluctance, the two fall in love. However the relationship is filled with conflicts and Liat, additionally in her hesitation, hides the relationship from her parents and from many of her friends. Hilmi and Liat, in the midst of their tumultuous relationship, continually revert to mammoth arguments regarding the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Regardless, as the days go by, and the relationship with Hilmi deepens, it becomes harder for Liat to stick with her original plan to merely have a frivolous adventure while on a long trip and to return to her ”normal life” once she leaves the escapade of New York.

While the novels premise may sound banal and the books description would have the book sound like your average star crossed lovers story, ”All the rivers” surprises with a complex, mature and engaging story of politics and life. The novel is told from Liats point of view, and Rabinyan does not shy away from showing her heroine as deeply flawed. Liat often in fights with Hilmi exposes her insensitivity, and she often, and flippantly voices opinions she would be horrified to hear others utter. Yet, at the same time, Liat is very likeable. She is kind, self- critical and deeply cares about Hilmi, her family, and the humanity of all those around her. For those unfamiliar with Jewish culture they will certainly learn much about it through Liat´s narration.

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Hilmi as a character is loveable. Hilmi´s an ambitious and aspiring artist, has a deep and subtle sense of humour, and, despite a past of hardships engendered in the experiences of the Palestinian occupation forsakes bitterness for compassion and understanding. While hurt that Liat hides him from her parents, he has also remarkable patience with Liat. However he is not kind to a fault.

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In the two leads, Rabinyan explores a different spin on the tropes of intercultural relationships. While often in a text which wants the reader to sympathize with the protagonists, the tendency of the narrative of the two lovers would be written as free from prejudice or bias. Here though, we are exposed directly to Liat´s main flaw of her unremitting bias towards Israelis, and her admission of prejudice regarding Arabs, something she shamefully admits and tries to work on. (Note: people of Iranian descent consider themselves Persian, not Arabic). Liat is not purely a bad guy; Rabinyan shows that Liat deeply cares, supports and loves Hilmi, and listens to his stories of oppression without gaslighting him.

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Rabinyan’s plays in a refreshing perspective to the star-crossed lovers story showing us a human relation of real people embedded in both their prejudices and the dilemma of a loving intercultural relationship which resolves to neither the unloving or unkind. The novel paints a very morally complex and honest reality that explores the problematic nexus of privilege and biases, while showing the personal, political struggles the lovers have in recognition of their ignorances and invisible, unchecked privileges. The politics of the story are honest, and multilayered, while also being delicately critical of Israeli norms in understated ways.

Hilmi´s backstory also breaks ground in how Middle Eastern characters are often depicted in both cultural representations and narrative structure. Hilmi talks about his father, who he mentions was an atheist, and while it is never stated Hilmi himself does not seem very religious. While most literature often depicts Middle Easterners as Muslim or Christian, ”All the rivers” depicts two often forgotten groups: Jewish Middle Easterners and Atheist/non-believing Middle Easterners.

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The political context of the novel, one which the lovers are entrenched in and struggling against, revolves ultimately around the paramount and continual system of apartheid system towards the Palestinians in Israel. Hilmi, when going to Ramallah to visit his family, describes the oppressive atmosphere of the wall and details the surprising event of his time in prison for painting as a teen (the authorities thought he had painted the Palestinian flag). The novel, despite being written by an Israeli writer, does not shy away from the less than stellar aspects of the conflict.

The book is addictive, and difficult to put down. Despite being utterly depressing, ”All the rivers” also makes the unfortunately still relevant cautionary tale of not letting intolerance get in the way of the most human of things, our relationships with one another. Liat, despite knowing Hilmi is a good person, and despite acknowledging that she loves him, does not allow herself the relationship she desires due to fear of her parents disapproval. This denial leads to a heartbreaking ending where Liat is forced to face the harsh reality, of not only lost opportunities, but also of injustice as a destructive force. ”All the rivers” will surprise readers greatly, while also making them cry and rethink. Rare books do so much.

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Photo by Benoit Courti

All the rivers” is a triumph. Even if love stories are not your usual cup of tea (or if you just generally don´t like star-crossed lovers stories) still this novel cannot be recommend more highly. Beautifully written, brave and filled with both overt and restrained insights, ”All the rivers” is the love story for the person wanting to understand the world just a little bit more, and think of the individual enterprise a bit more clearly.

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“One thing I love about speculative fiction is its ability to explore difficult topics. Because of it’s separation from our current timeframe, it can comment on Socio-economic and Cultural issues in really engaging and interesting ways” – Anita Sarkeesian

Recently, I’ve seen two fascinating films that take place in “the future”, which tackle subjects in both a political-satirical way as well as asking some basic questions about the general human condition. The six minute long “The Terrible thing from Alpha 9”, a tragicomic animation by Jake Armstrong delves into the human fears of otherness while the gritty and gloomy “Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits”, written by satirical and serial pessimist Charlie Brooker and Kanaq Huq looks to the trajectory of a society created by our own individual weaknesses. The reviews of these works will be featured in this series, “Sci-fi Speaks Of US”, presented in two parts; in part one I’ll review “The Terrible thing from Alpha 9”. Part two will contain a review of “Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits”.

“The Terrible thing from Alpha 9” is a completely dialogue free short, with the character’s actions (and some brief clips of news papers) being the only clues the viewer will get as explanation of what is going on and what the driving motivation is of the two lead characters. The animation begins with an astronaut landing his spaceship on a seemingly empty planet. He’s is in search of a “terrible creature” which has supposedly taken 40 lives. With grim determination the space travel holsters his gun and heads out to kill. However, upon stumbling across the terrible thing, the hunter is cut off guard. The blue, five-eyed alien jumps at the hero, knocking his weapon out of his hand and starts greeting him by licking his space helmet (in attempt of licking his face). At this point it clear to the viewer that the creature is perhaps not a dangerous vicious monster, but more of a dog-like alien which wants to be friends. Despite this possibility, the astronaut runs from the creature, resulting in the accidental death of the supposedly deadly hunter. After this decidedly odd turn of events, the viewer quickly learns what, in humorous actuality, happened to the 40 first “victims” of this creature. The viewer is left with a lingering glimpse of a lonely and desperate creature that yearns for friendship and continually fails to find it. A heart-breaking ending sees the horrible demonstration of a creature, no matter what bad luck it haunts it, will give up its dream of companionship. Hope against all odds lingers in the grand wishes of the creature.

“The Terrible thing from Alpha 9” strength comes from the two main characters in the film. The astronaut is a man who tries to be really overly-manly and macho, seeking without thought to kill a scary looking beast because it is considered, against all fact, to be dangerous. His motivations for going out on this mission are never given, yet one is lead to assume it’s strongly tied with the fame and honor which he feels he would garner from killing a thing deemed to be so dangerous. In fact, he is so determined to assassinate a scary beast that he doesn’t even stop to think how peculiar it is that the supposed savage creature acts gently and playfully towards him while he pursues his fatal vendetta towards his victim. The supposed hero obvious finds the looks of the creature distasteful and threatening (and which seems to be the motivation of all the humans to seek this creatures demise), which drives his already made-up mind that the creature needs to die. The astronaut’s determination ends up fatal for him, making his quick decisions seem unwise. The creature on the other hand acts just like an attention starved pet; from fetching things the man throws away to following him loyally regardless of where he wanders. This makes the creature come off as something in distressed need of companionship, which he seeks from the space wanderer and hunter, in spite of latter rejecting him strongly, fearfully, and constantly. The monsters sturdy willpower is also a great personality trait highlighted in the short. It’s a universal subject of wanting something and frequently doing your best to get it, even if it’s most likely that your desires won’t ever be met, as well as an analysis of the superficial creations of hate which humans impose on what they do not understand.

“The terrible thing from Alpha 9” has a simple, tragic plot point: The creature just wants a friend, but probably won’t get one due to people’s constant disgust with its looks. Isn’t that unfair? Wildly funny, but also a bit of a tear jerker, this short is a must-watch for fans of cartoons and Science-Fiction.

View below the full short “The Terrible Thing from Alpha 9”:

“Family Guy” is a pretty unique animated show that awakes many different emotions in me– some very good, some very bad. The show is a true, surrealistic rollercoaster. I enjoyed the shows first couple of seasons, but honestly have hated the last couple of seasons, due to repetitive nasty hits at overweight women and badly written characters. I digress though.

The series centers on the Family Griffith, who is contain of Peter, the usually dimwitted, politically incorrect, child-like, and spiteful main star, his phenomenally beautiful wife Lois, and their three children. The oldest is the outcast, brutally bullied teenage daughter Meg, the early teen Chris who like his father is a bit slow, and the evil genius infant Stewie. The family also has, of course, a pet: the talking, wise human-like dog Brian, who this post will be about.

Brian, despite being the pet of the family, functioned as the voice of reason for the earlier years of the show. He was portrayed as a liberal, reasonable and unhappily in love with Lois as well as a bit of a drinker, though intermittently. Brian was shown on several occasions as being critical of religion, but it wasn’t until the seventh season, in the episode “Not all dogs go to heaven”, when the series finally “outed” Brian as an atheist. In the Episode, Brian, due to Meg’s sudden conversion to Christianity and attempt push to bring Brian into the “flock” of her church (and their form of Christianity), gently laughs and states: “You’re barking up the wrong tree, Meg. I’m an atheist”. When watching this episode, I was at first blush overjoyed at first at this radical act (seeing how being non-religious is still taboo on TV), but then began to reconsider what this act would mean and my first hesitations seem born out after the show’s recent episodes featuring Brian as the main protagonist which show character flaws wildly out of synch even for this genre. I cannot but wonder: is Brian really a positive portrayal of atheism? Or does his character just re-enforce negative stereotypes or images of us non-believers?

***Spoilers may be below!***

Let’s first look at how the writers of “Family Guy” talk about the experience of being an atheist in the States. “Not all dogs go to heaven” was a brilliant episode in this case, showing all the prejudice Brian meets after Meg gossips to the whole town about his atheism. Brian is not allowed to go to from such divergent venues as liquor stores to libraries, and is ridiculed on TV for being “worse than Hitler”. Admittedly, some of the discrimination may seem exaggerated; however there is something unsettlingly true in the depiction as well. To some religious folks, not believing in god is the worst possible sin, making us even worse than serial killers or mass murderers (especially if the criminals happen to believe in god). This is a pretty extreme belief and actively held by some, and which is portrayed comically in “Family Guy” when the intensely religious News-People announce Brian to be by far worse than Hitler.

Brian also gets brutally (yet only verbally) attacked by Lois and Peter after his confession. Lois states: “We believe in god in this family!” which showed how sometimes even people close to non-believers can be unsympathetic and dismissive to a theoretical structure struggled to be achieved. Brian gives even in to this pressure to “believe” temporarily, pretending to have “found god”, since he can’t take the peer pressure. But after witnessing Meg burning books about science (since she feels they are contrary to the “statements of God”) Brian gives a harsh talk to Meg, crushing her belief. The speech is devastating to Meg, since Brian points out some painful things to Meg about her life and how that is really what has spawned her beliefs. To this Brian then gives a more hopeful, comforting speech. The whole episode, in my opinion, is a perfect way of telling not only what it can sometimes feel like to be an atheist, as one can in a cartoon, but also is good in showing that Brian is a caring person, crushing the stereotype of the heartless cold atheist.

Meg trying to convert Brian

Brian was portrayed in a positive light during most of the output of the show. He had his flaws, but always came through with reason, compassion, and self-reflection underlying his thoughts and actions. It was in Season Eight where Brian started to become decidedly more odd and began a run of doing questionable things with little intellectual nuance or moral underpinnings. Take as an example of this the Episode “Brian writes a bestseller”, from Season Nine. In this episode Brian is depressed over his published novel doing so poorly, stating to Stewie that only trash literature and phony self-help books make it big. To prove his point he writes one himself and publishes it. It becomes a bestseller, making Brian famous and rich, sweaping him away to the hinterlands of fame, recognition and media adulation, and making him along the way into an arrogant, megalomaniac and mean spirited person. He comes to treat those around him as mere props to his existence (including Stewie who has facilitated his empty rise) and who seem to be considered by him now mere objects to satisfy his random and arbitrary desires. In particular harsh scenes, Brian is shown yelling at Stewie and verbally abusing him for anything that annoys him. This, in a number of painful scenes brings Stewie to tears and self doubt over his supposed lack of abilities to gratify the chance cravings of Brian.

The episode’s climax comes when Brian is invited onto “Real Time with Bill Maher”, a real show hosted by one of Americas most famous non-believers. Maher trashes the book heavily, making Brian confess that he wrote the best seller in a day, and that he doesn’t really believe in anything written in the book. Maher then tells Brian that he is the lowest of the low, since if one is going to bullshit; they should have the “honesty to stand by their bullshit”. Brian, coming somewhat back to his normal self after the harsh critique returns home where he talks a little to Stewie saying that he knows the book was dumb and his behavior inappropriate in extreme.
However, even at this point of the narrative – where a reasonable lesson has been learn and self-reflection is re-imposed by the awareness of the emptiness of his fame – Brian openly admits he will not apologize to Stewie for mistreating him. Here Brian is made into a truly horrible person, who not only doesn’t apologize after treating someone so poorly, but also a person who is actually so arrogant he refuses to learn from mistakes.

Brian at this juncture of the show (and others which are embed in these later seasons, and which can be recounted, but will merely “add” to the direction being taken in this case episode presented here) is made into such a terrible person that it is quiet imperative to reconsidered whether it is good his character is one of the few out-ted atheist characters on TV or not. Since there are so few atheist protagonists around, it is important that at least some of the more famous ones would not strengthen the stereotype that we’re morally-vacuous, empty-elitists, and intellectually-devious self-gratifies which no genuine concern for others beyond the narrowest of evil self-interest who wish to contaminate and spoil. Brian, in this episode, in bodied the stereotype to a max.

Brian was also shown to perhaps not truly stand for any of the opinions he’s expressed in the show, since he abandoned them all in the episode “Excellence in Broadcasting”. Brian, in the episode, becomes a republican and so conservative, he actually tries to go and waterboard – torture – a Democrat (the” supposedly” more left-leaning, worker-supporting party in the United States). Lois pinpoints in the episode that Brian has a need to go against the stream, to always have the more “unpopular” opinion. If that is the case, and Brian really gets all his opinions that way, does that mean he is only an atheist since they are a minority? Not only does this make Brian seem childish, but makes everything he said in previous episodes unimportant. So it is impossible to take his atheism seriously.

There was also the misfortune of Brian actually trying to force Lois to kiss him (maybe even more) in “Play it again, Brian”, a episode from season six. This act of creepiness and slight (though significant) violence towards a woman was before he was outed as an atheist (in a later season), which in a way makes him a lost case as a “model” for an acceptable and representative non-believer from the start.

I want to like Brian’s character. Aside from Dr. House from “House” (who is a total stereotype of the mean, miserable atheist) and Dr. Temperance Brennan from “Bones”, Brian is one of the most mainstream portrayals of atheist in popular culture. Yet his character was made so completely unlikeable and unreliable in the later seasons of the show, it feels like a disfavor for non-religious people that Brian was ever made a openly atheist character.
Seth Macfarlane, the creator of “Family Guy” and voice talent of Brian, also made his other characters, Haylee Smith and Roger the alien from “American Dad!”, atheist. But even these characters don’t really do much for the atheist community. Haylee is bland and hardly does anything memorable, and Roger is a sociopath who seems able to be anything which can temporary satisfaction.

What is lacking from popular culture is an atheist character that is portrayed as likeable. Few Medias have done this.
Daria Morgendorffer, from the animated series “Daria”, was done well, and somewhat outed as an atheist in the last season. Also Mal from “Firefly” was a good atheist character: anti-hero who despite some flaws was a good person. However, these shows have been cancelled or are off the air now. I was hopeful Brian would be the next Daria or Mal, but no such luck. Seems like we atheists have to wait a little longer for a more positive depiction.

Last week the Pope, Benedict XVI, visited England. During his weeklong visit, he gave an impassioned speech in which he attacked Atheists for being both intolerant and aggressive. In this speech he was able to both tie Atheists to the creation of Hitler and to blame them for the holocaust, saying that it was “Hitler’s desire to eradicate God from Society (that therefore) had lead to the Holocaust”. In his first speech before the Queen of England and the assembled dignitaries at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh the Pontiff associated what he was to call “extreme atheists” to being overly aggressive, and a murderous group of like-minded people who fueled the horrors of the holocaust.

In this comparison of the New Atheists to Nazis – that is in comparing those merely criticizing organized institutional religions with those who carried out a program which killed, tortured and oppressed millions – Benedict XVI marvelously hints to the fact that he, and the church, thinks that all Atheists were in collaboration with this most horrific of events and that the church, itself, thinks of us Secular Atheists as the grounding of this killing machine.

As an Atheist myself, I cannot even begin to express how hurt and offended I am by these remarks and its harmful and deceitful caricature of atheists. Doesn’t this belong in the same category as the sweeping generalizations which are imposed in the vocabulary of oppressing minorities? How is this not like a majority calling those of a minority “Stupid, evil, violent and unclean”. I respect that religious leaders want to criticize and defend themselves against atheists in their intellectual bouts, but there must be a more decent and respectful way how to carry this out than the popes comments do. However I feel that these comments are specifically meant to be deceitful about our secular society and thinkers, and are destined to polarize our profitable social dialogue further.

To read the article about Benedict XVI’s speech, click the link below:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/16/pope-benedict-xvi-atheist-extremism