April 5, 2012
The Magic Flying Carpet: The Materiality of Object-Fantasies
“Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture…it would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality”
– Edward Said Orientalism
“[W]e pile them into those planes and they’re terribly confused, but they keep mum. When they climb out at Lydda (the airport in Israel), you feel they’re so excited they ought to throw themselves on the ground and kick, yet what do they do? They move about with shining eyes and don’t say a word. They look to me like people going awake through a dream”
-A Pilot’s testimony, Operation Magic Carpet, 1949
“I hope I have shown that objects are certainly not exclusively real nor even necessarily tangible”
– Elaine Gurian Hueman
This project arose out of the desire to find an object that was ‘diasporic’ enough. In a frantic search for a diasporic object in my surroundings, in my mind, I had imagined that the object would be colourful, differently named, ‘exotic’ or other. All projects arise out of a set of preconceived notions and misconceptions that lead a study, and I find this initial orienting effort at finding a diasporic object one that is crucial to the study of an object. To give myself credit, moments after I began my search, I immediately realized the presence of ‘othering’ in my efforts. I then proceeded to find an object that was not too far from me—spatially at least—a book on my work table titled Invisible Man written by Ralph Ellison. I decided to do an object study on the relationship between the book and national identity formation for Ellison and African Americans in the period following the Second World War. Explaining this project to an interested Professor Ken Macdonald, I concluded by exclaiming; “I’m sorry, I just can’t get myself to do a magic flying carpet!”
But recently, I have discovered that I actually can.
This study explores the role of the fantasies of objects that exist in the mind, and the ways in which these images extend the physical components of the object across borders of an object’s corporeality. Focusing on ‘object-fantasies’, this paper will study an object that is physically impossible. Magic flying carpets are objects that cannot exist. Carpets cannot fly. To a large extent, this object is an imagined object, intangible and unreal. Entering popular cultural imagination through an English translation of an Arabic story titled One Thousand and One Nights in 1706, the magic flying carpet entered Western consciousness, first, through a literary fiction. Moreover, the image of the magic flying carpet, which is primarily hoisted on an oriental carpet, continues to be a leading European fantasy of the Orient and affects production of the oriental carpet in the present day. This paper argues that despite the imaginations of this object, this object has had material and empirical implications for diasporic communities who have been othered by the object’s intangibility. The purpose of this paper will be both twofold and simultaneous, that is to say, that by demonstrating the object’s ‘other’ and ‘alien’ qualities, the object’s materiality also comes to surface.
This paper will explore three case studies, one being the case study of an Israeli operation called Operation Magic Carpet in 1949, which transported 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel as a means of acculturating them into Western society. This case study involves the research of scholars from Hebrew University, University of London and also Boston University, who offer recommendations for Western nations hoping to integrate immigrant populations from developing countries into their societies. It is interesting to note how Operation Magic Carpet physically moved communities across geographical spaces, and now in contemporary research, the operation functions as a useful pointer for integrating populations of immigrants within neighbourhoods of host nations. The second case study explores the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) complaints following the release of Aladdin in the United States. Included are reports of how representations of Arabs in cartoons such as Aladdin have negative effects for Arab students in American classrooms. The third case study is a fairly recent one, and explores a form of psychological torture recently being used in Syria called Bisat al-Rih (the Flying Carpet). The case of torture illustrates succinctly how ‘magic flying carpets’ have physical and material implications that transcend the boundaries of solely the mind.
As object-fantasies, magic flying carpets have been crafted through stories. Elaine Gurian Huemann’s in her essay titled; “What is the Object of the Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums” argues, the aim has been to; “show how elusive objects are, even as they remain the central element embedded within all definitions of museums… the definition of a “museum object” and the associated practices of acquisition, preservation, care, display, study, and interpretation have always been fluid and have become so recently…[In] not meaning to denigrate the immense importance of museum objects and their care, I am postulating that they, like props in a brilliant play, are necessary but alone are not sufficient…that we have always known intuitively: that the larger issues revolve around the stories museums tell and they way they tell them. When parsed carefully, the objects, in their tangibility, provide a variety of stakeholders with an opportunity to debate the meaning and control of their memories. It is the ownership of the story, rather than the object itself that the dispute has all been about” (Huemann 165).
Story –Telling, Ownership of Stories and Edward Said’s Orientialism
The politics of the ownership of stories is salient in the transfer of the magic flying carpet through story-telling from Asia to Europe during the 18th century. The carpet entered Western imagination through an English translation of Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah or One Thousand and One Nights in 1706. Primarily a collection of short stories from Middle Eastern and South Asian contexts compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, several stories such as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” were added into the collection by Antoine Galland and his European contemporaries during the book’s translation into English. Hence, the transfer of this story from it’s Middle Eastern and South Asian roots fostered a process of interpretation and re-creation in the West.
It is important here to emphasize the ‘created’ nature of these stories, as Edward Said in his 1978 text titled Orientalism asserts; “I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either” (Said 4). Said proceeds to argue that “[t]o believe that the Orient was created—or, as I call it, “Orientalized”—and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power…”(Said 6). Therefore, the creation of stories through the process of eighteenth century translation must be seen in the context of power differentials between those creating stories and the people who these stories were about.
For Said, Orientalism becomes a type of story-telling about the Orient that colonizes the imagination, alongside physical territory. Said describes ‘Orientalism’ as an “eighteenth century corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3). For Said, literature and politics are bound together, and in the case of Orientalist discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries, stories and story-telling about the Orient has historically laid the groundwork for colonial expeditions similar to that of Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. Said describes how during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt from 1798 to 1801, Orientalist scholars were at the forefront of this military expedition.
For this reason, Orientalist literary imagination was crucial in a conquest of the imagination, but also of land, territory and people(s). Speaking to the physical colonization of the Orient, Said asserts; “ [y]et none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture…it would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality” (Said 2, 5). Hence, the stories of magic flying carpets in literary fiction from the eighteenth century, were not just tales that existed without physical realities, but rather highlight the empirical coordinates of Orientalist imaginings.
Lapses of Knowledge about Oriental Carpets: Brian Spooner and The Authenticity of the Oriental Carpet
The consumption of the oriental carpet in the West has been informed by the production of the magic flying carpet in Western imagination. Although the genealogy of the oriental carpet is a complicated and sporadic one, the earliest form of carpet weaving was found in a frozen barrow at Bash-Adar in the Altai area northeast of Turkestan and is dated to the sixth century B.C. An almost complete carpet was recovered from a similar site at Pazryk, in the same area, dated to the fourth century B.C (Spooner 204). Thus, the origins of carpet weaving goes beyond the middle of the first millennium B.C.
Made by hand, usually by women in nomadic communities, the process of carpet weaving was a complex one. The process would entail the following; “a carpet is woven on a loom of warp threads, the ends of which usually provide the fringe at either end of the finished product. The webbing at the beginning and end of the weaving may be simple weft on warp, but may be elaborated by one or other of a number of flat-weave techniques. The body of the carpet is produced by tying rows of knots (two basic types are used in the area; only one of them is a true knot), one-or-two ply, around pairs (or pairs of pairs) of warp threads. A good-quality carpet may have as many as 400 or even more of these knots per square inch, though an excellent carpet need not have more than 100. The ends of the knots are cut evenly to constitute the pile of the carpet…the design of the pole is composed by the use of different-coloured wools for the knots” (Spooner 205).
In his seminal text article titled; “Weavers dealers: The Authenticity of the Oriental Carpet”, Brian Spooner explores the search for authenticity and commoditization of Oriental carpets in the Western world. He finds that the genealogical life of the Oriental carpet as an object has been disturbed by various gaps of knowledge in the production of the carpet throughout its history. Spooner comments; “for an amateur who is not easily satisfied, it can be exasperating. For the determined scholar it leads sooner or later to the realization that so long as the problem is defined as one of material culture, or even of the history of design in the narrow sense, there are limits to what can be known and the limits often seem not be recognized by experts…the carpet business involves not just the supply of carpets, as in the case of other commodities, but also the supply of information about them” (Spooner 198).
Spooner suggests that this lapse in knowledge has much to do with distance, “especially the interpretation of cultural distance over space and time from one social situation to another… we look for authenticity according to or cultural concepts, not theirs. Authenticity is our cultural choice” (Spooner 223). He continues; “[t]he Western interest in Turkmen carpets has had the effect of alienating the Turkmen from their own forms of artistic expression. Before they worked with designs embodying symbols that were for them extensions of their own social identity. They did not understand these symbols or need to know their origins. Now, these symbols have become the property of others…the Turkmen have lost themselves. What they have left over, they market: they market their ethnicity, their culture as a commodity. Our search for authenticity in their carpets will not help them find themselves again. It is part of the cause of their problem” (Spooner 230).
The search for authenticity in the oriental carpet, including the fantasies, desires and perceptions of the carpet in the Western world, makes evident the ways in which the commoditisation of the carpet has influenced and disturbed the economic factors surrounding the production of the carpet. Spooner concludes his research with the following statement; “the definition of the authenticity of a Turkmen rug is a product of choice and negotiation within our society, based on supply from theirs. But it is inspired by an interest in the Other and its products, and can only choose from what the Other provides. The other must therefore be preserved in its pristine form. Meanwhile, our choice has become crucial to the economy of the Turkmen” (Spooner 231).
Operation Magic Flying Carpet Transports 50, 000 Yemeni Jews to Israel in 1949
In 1949, Israel airlifted approximately 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel in an expedition called “Operation Magic Carpet”. Operation Magic Carpet is perhaps the only tangible example of how the magic carpet physically transported people across geographic and political spaces. Operation Magic Carpet was conducted by American and British pilots, who transported Yemeni Jews to Israel on secret war crafts used in the Second World War. Named Operation Magic Carpet, the idea of the magic carpet played a crucial role in physically transporting Jews from a predominantly Arab society and integrating them into a Western context.
Historical sources point to the fact that there had been a Jewish community in Yemen for a very long period of time and had lived in prosperity until the rise of Islam in the 7th century, when the group was faced with special taxes and were secluded into ghettos (Gould 6). Research suggests that Jews in Yemen took up occupations avoided by Muslims such as pottery, blacksmith, tool makers, etc. Most Yemenite Jews were offered inferior educational services and remained illiterate. Many of these reasons informed the steady flow of immigration from Yemen to Palestine into the early 20th century, until it was forbidden in Yemen during the 1930s and 1940s. Jews were forbidden to leave due to political considerations as war between Arabs and Jews in Palestine in 1940-1943 led to deteriorating relations between Jews in Yemen. Many Jews in Yemen flew from persecution to Aden, which was a British administered colony during that period. During this time, a secret operation was designed to airlift Jews from Aden to Israel.
Operation Magic Carpet began in 1948 and lasted a few months. In February 1949, the leader of Yemen allowed Jewish people to leave Yemen, on the condition that they would share the skills that they would acquire in Israel with their Arab neighbours. The airlift was performed by American and British pilots “who ran a renegade airline Alaska airlines, which specialized in dangerous missions in World War II” (Gould 6).
Below are a few observations by pilots during the expedition;
It is difficult to put into words, but it gives me a strange feeling to see these Jews…They wander about on foot for weeks till they reach the camp near Aden. They arrive hungry and sick and naked…But you’ll find every man carrying his Bible, and every other man clinging to a huge holy parchment scroll clasped in front of him. That camp is just a piece of desert with almost nothing on it, just a few tents and a few straw mats, but they behave as if they had just stepped into Paradise. Then we pile them into those planes and they’re terribly confused, but they keep mum. When they climb out at Lydda (the airport in Israel), you feel they’re so excited they ought to throw themselves on the ground and kick, yet what do they do? They move about with shining eyes and don’t say a word. They look to me like people going awake through a dream (Gould 6).
Another pilot testified;
They look like prophets stepping out of the bible…their average weight was seventy or eighty pounds, and up to one hundred and forty of them could be put on a plane carrying normally carrying less than half that number. It was a strange experience for them to travel by air—not only were they unfamiliar with airplanes, but the steep metal ladders used for climbing aboard planes had to be replaced with wooden ramps with shallow steps to enable them to go aboard. However, they behaved admirably and gave little trouble. (Gould 6).
Despite these conditions, about 50,000 Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel by the summer of 1950 without a single loss of life as they were chaotically absorbed with Israel’s other immigrant groups from Europe, Africa and other Arab countries. The Jewish population in Israel was 650,000 in 1948 and would double in the next few years due to immigration (Gould 6).
In this October 2010 study, scholars from Hebrew University, University of London and Boston University studied the aftermath of this migration in their findings titled; “Sixty Years after the Magic Carpet Ride: the Long- Run Effect of the Early Childhood Environment on Social and Economic Outcomes”. The study suggests that those children with a background from impoverished and rural areas in Yemen who were put into highly developed areas in Israel, had a long term success rates of a higher education, higher rates of literacy and income, especially among females more than males. The study concludes with the observation that immigrant groups coming into western nations should adopt a strategy in which immigrant groups are integrated into established neighbourhoods so that this can have a better outcome on their overall lives. The authors conclude; “[o]ur research sheds light on a number of important issues related to immigration, welfare policies and the process of development. All industrialized countries have seen a sharp increase in immigration from the developing world in the past two decades. Some of these immigration waves originate from countries where the gap in income per capita relative to OECD countries is similar in magnitude to that between Yemen and Israel in the 1950s. Our results suggest that encouraging lower income families and immigrants to locate into more established neighbourhoods could have long-lasting effects. In addition, the transition from a mostly rural and impoverished environment to a modern economy experienced by the Yemenites is in many ways comparable to the process of modernization and urbanization that continues to take place in many less developed countries” (Gould 32).
American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) Files Complaint against Disney’s Aladdin
If the research following Operation Magic Carpet demonstrates some of the positive material effects of the gentrification of immigrant populations into established neighbourhoods, the magic carpet in Aladdin illustrates some of the negative empirical effects of that same representation. By mid April 1993, Aladdin had grossed over $200 million in North America; a large portion of these grosses came not from children, but from adults and teenage boys” (White 63). An adaptation of Arabian Nights, Aladdin became one of the most successful box office hits in America. However, the film’s success was met with controversy, as the American- Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed complaints against the film’s depiction of Arabs and Arab culture.
Timothy White writes; “ethnic and nationalistic stereotyping is not a new phenomena in Disney cartoons or in animation in general. As Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in 1980, this “submerged nationalist propaganda”, as he called it, can be seen as Pinocchio in 1940, in which the protagonist Pinocchio, and the good fairy both have American accents, while the villainous characters have Italian or British accents” (White 61-62). White writes; “Aladdin is one more successful attempt by Disney to Westernize, and even Americanize, an artistic product of another culture. As we saw in the Gulf War, other cultures tend to be valued in the West in relation to their usefulness to the West; the Arabic fairy tale became raw material for the Disney machine, which produced not an authentic depiction of Oriental culture and its products, but an American cartoon depicting the Arabic world and its peoples as humorous and exotic…a“Mickey Mousing” of the world and its various cultures (White 62).
In their ADC document titled: “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators”, Marvin Wingfield and Bushra Karaman write; “[w]hen American children hear the word “Arab” what is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps the imagery of Disney‘s Arabian Nights’ fantasy film Aladdin, a film which has been immensely popular in theatres and on video and is sometimes shown in school classrooms. Yet Arab Americans have problems with this film. Although in many ways it is charming, artistically impressive, and one of the few American films to feature an Arab hero or heroine, a closer look reveals some disturbing features” (Wingfield, Karaman; ADC,1995).
The ADC filed complaints against the opening lyrics of the Aladdin theme song which stated;
Oh, I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam, Where they cut off your ear If they don‘t like your face, It‘s Barbaric, but hey, it‘s home.
Wingfield and Karaman elaborate on how; “the film immediately characterizes the Arab world as alien, exotic, and “other.” Arab Americans see this film as perpetuating the tired stereotype of the Arab world as a place of deserts and camels, of arbitrary cruelty and barbarism…[t]herefore, Arab Americans raised a cry of protest regarding Aladdin. The American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) challenged Disney and persuaded the studio to change a phrase in the lyrics for the video version of the film to say:
“It‘s flat and immense, and the heat is intense. It‘s barbaric, but hey‘ it‘s home.”
While this is an improvement, problems remain” (Wingfield, Karaman; ADC, 1995)
In their ADC document, Wingfield and Karaman explore how the film’s presentation of Arabs has had significant effects in the classroom. They write; “[i]t is recognized that the more positive a student‘s self-concept, the higher is his or her achievement level. Teachers use various techniques to make students feel worthwhile and important. But when Arab students see negative and erroneous portrayals of Arabs in films and on television, they begin to feel inferior and ashamed, or perhaps belligerent and aggressive. Students suffer as a result of this. And learning suffers. Caught in this spiral Arab American students may begin to believe that they, as a people, are inferior. They may stop trying to do their best and become convinced that they can never amount to anything. For many it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As educators, we must break this cycle, by finding ways to intervene effectively” (Wingfield, Karaman; ADC,1995).
Thus, the ADC and Wingfield and Karaman illustrate how a film’s representation of a group of people has material effects on that group’s self-perception and also the socio-economic disadvantages that emerge from classrooms engaging with the film’s material in uncritical ways. The activism and complaints filed by the ADC, illustrate how members of the American-Arab community view the empirical effects of their negative representations in film. The magic carpet, although an integral component of the “Mickey Mousing” of Arab culture that White speaks of above, functions as a catalyst in a marginalization of a group from the tangible benefits of American life.
From Pyschological to Corporeal—Bisat al-Rih (the Flying Carpet): The Flying Carpet as a Method of Torture in Syria
An interesting example of the shift from mental images to the physical realities of magic flying carpets, is the evocation of ‘flying carpets’ in forms of torture in Syria. Following the beginnings of the internal conflict in Syria, Amnesty International compiled data on the testimonies from people detained in Syria from March 2011 to February 2012. Amnesty was able to interview survivors of torture in Jordan in February 2012. The situation of torture in Syria, described in testimonies through the reports above, have been referred to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Amnesty International’s report on torture lists Bisat al-Rih, translated into English as the ‘Flying Carpet’, as one of the topmost and most dangerous forms of torture being used in Syria today. Amnesty International describes ‘the Flying Carpet’ as a ; “method of torture that involves the victim being strapped face-up onto a foldable wooden board, the two ends of which are elevated bringing the head towards the feet causing severe pain to the lower back. During this process the victim in usually beaten.
Ghazi, a 22 year old decorator describes his treatment through the following;
I also suffered bisat al- Rih. I was on a wooden board like a table, face up, in underpants and blindfolded. I don’t know how the ends are raised but some mechanism makes it go up. I suffered terrible pain on my lower back as the body is forced into a V shape. And I was beaten at the same time. Three men took it in turns with a kurbaj (whip). When they rested they drank tea, smoke a cigarette until it’s their turn again. It lasts about an hour.
Ghazi describes his treatment by Military Intelligence Officers in Damascus. He was detained on July 26 n his way to hospital in Dera’a. About two months earlier, security forces had shot him in his upper chest with a tear gas canister, causing broken ribs, during a protest in Dera’a city. He was detained at a Military Intelligence Facility in Dera’a for six days, then at military intelligence branch 291 in Damascus for 43 days.
Tareq, describes his following experience with Bisat al-rih, while detained in a Military Intelligence Facility in Kafr Sousseh through the following;
On what may have been the second day they subjected me to bisat al-rih. I was put on a wooden board face up, my arms and legs strapped, and a cable raised the two edges of the board. The pain increased, especially in the lower back, as your feet come closer to your head. The process took about half an hour, bit by bit.
Both of these experiences describe a violent confrontation with the physicality of Bisat al-rih or the ‘Flying carpet’. Both detainees were subjected to a direct confrontation with a wooden board which was used to extract enormous quantities of pain. The case of Bisat al-rih, the ‘Flying carpet’, makes evident the ways in which an imagined object such as the flying carpet is used to name a form of punishment that inflicts severe physical consequences, in the common crossover of torture from the realm of the psychological to the physical. During the process, detainees are beaten severely, and like Ghazi stated; “I suffered terrible pain on my lower back…”
As Elaine Heumann attempts to “capture the soul of the museum” with the hope that; “the definition of objectiveness will be broad and allow for every method of storymaking…more broadly defined objects range from hard evidence to mere props and ephemera” (Heumann 182). She continues; “I hope I have shown that objects are certainly not exclusively real nor even necessarily tangible” (Huemann 182).
The three case studies above have illustrated the ways in which the magic flying carpet, as an object-fantasy, can be included in Huemann’s broad range of objects that are not necessarily real or tangible. What makes the magic flying carpet distinct from other imagined objects, is that is the product of a long history of Orientalist story telling; and the product of power differentials between the Western world and the Orient which largely determined the nature in which the magic flying carpet acquired a causal relationship between fantasy and it’s material manifestations through colonialism and conquest. Perhaps because of this early Orientalist relationship, what joins Operation Magic Carpet, with the complaints against the film Aladdin by the ADC and also Bisat al-rih (the Flying Carpet), is that in all of these situations the magic flying carpet attains corporeal realities despite its intangibility. Hence, as Elaine Huemann wrote about the complicated centrality of the tangibility of the object in the museum, the magic flying carpet illustrates how ‘elusive objects are”, even as they have the most material effects on our lives.
Gould, Eric D. Lavy,Victor , Paserman, M. Daniele. “Sixty Years after the Magic Carpet Ride: The Long-Run Effect of the Early Childhood Environment on Social and Economic Outcomes”. The National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2009.
the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums. Daedalus 18(3), 163-183.
‘I wanted to die’: Syria’s Torture Survivors Speak Out: Amnesty International. Amnesty International Publications, United Kingdon; 2012.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Penguin Books, India; 1978.
Spooner, Brian. “Weavers and Dealers: the authenticity of the Oriental Carpet”. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press; 1988.
White R. Timothy, Winn J. Emmett. “Islam, Animation and Money”. Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad, and Sexy. Popular Press, 1999.
Wingfield, Marvin and Karaman, Bushra. “Arab Stereotypes and American Educators”. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, March 1995.