October 01, 2006


Satire, kitsch & escapism

The dire situation in Iraq seems to inspire some satire lately. Con Chapman writes: "Warring Muslim factions here are getting a helping hand in their effort to bridge the gap that has divided Shiites from Sunnis since Mohammed died in the seventh century; a new version of the Peace Corps that will use recreational metal detection to build trust and friendship between the two schisms of Islam. ... 'It's also a way to build an economy from the ground up,' says George Twohig, an official with the Agency for International Development who is leading an expedition of 100 volunteer metal detectors from across America into this war-torn land. ... Yoder's first day on the job has him paired with two young men, a Shiite named Hassan Ali and a Sunni named Omar Pachachi." "'You got over 160,000 square miles of sand to work with,' Yoder says as the two men take off in different directions in search of buried treasure. 'Try and stay out of each other's way, and maybe you'll find something.' ... What Hassan discovers only a few inches down is an artifact of great historical significance; a wine cup from the Achaemenian period in the shape of a kneeling ram. Knowing its value, he tries to secrete it in the folds of his robe. Yoder, standing at least twenty-five yards away, sees Hassan's attempt to conceal his find, and springs into action. ... 'Let's see what you got there,' he says in an even voice that nonetheless carries an overtone of suspicion. ... 'What is the fifth commandment of the Brownsville, Texas Metal Detecting Association Code of Ethics?' he yells at Hassan. 'Uh—fill all your holes?' 'No—that's number eight. The fifth commandment is 'I will report the discovery of all items of significant cultural or archaeological interest to a local historical society.' No ifs, ands, or buts,' Yoder snaps." "Meanwhile, Omar is about to enter territory that is off-limits, but because he can't read English he is oblivious to the warning sign posted in his path. He swings his metal detector back and forth calmly and methodically, picking up a trace signal that he pursues, the beeps growing louder as he closes in. The figure of intense concentration that he presents to a viewer is shattered when an explosion is heard and Omar is sent flying in the air, the apparent victim of a land mine."

The Canadian The Toque lets loose on how "Iraqis Retroactively Overthrow Thousands of Years of Brutal Imperial Oppression." "Taking their cue from the actions of coalition forces toppling and destroying statues and pictures of Saddam Hussein, they marched on government buildings storing the artifacts of previous cruel regimes, and gleefully pushed their transition to freedom back across the centuries. 'Destroying statues of Saddam Hussein is a good start, but why stop there? He is not the only brutal dictator to crush the peasants of Iraq under his heel! Look at Sargon II, who proclaimed himself King of the World based on the submission and enslavement of his enemies! I mean look at this statue of him – or what’s left of it. I have already smashed most of it with my hammer.' ... 'Democracy has been a long time coming to us,' says Dr. Rashid Al-Hazred, Professor Emeritus of Mesopotamian History at Al-Azif University, while supervising the historical cleansing. 'Back in 2340 BC, our freedoms were curtailed to make way for the Akkadian Empire of Sargon I. We got out from under that only to find ourselves further restricted under the code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. To ease our minds of such burdensome memories, I have opened my storerooms of ancient clay tablets and seals to allow these painful reminders to be carted off and destroyed by mobs filled with patriotic fervor.'" "Meanwhile, on the 2nd floor of the (formerly) Saddam Museum of Iraqi Antiquities, the Bush-inspired cleansing continued. Coins – minted under Cyrus the Great (539 BC) and Alexander the Great (331 BC), were ceremoniously dumped out of windows and shoveled into wheelbarrows for redistribution to the needy people of Iraq."

What do you call satire or parody that doesn't know itself? Kitsch! The Gilgamesh Lounge Restaurant in London is an exemple par excellence of this. It recently opened and was met with, to say the least, mixed reactions. "Gilgamesh was an ancient Babylonian [sic] king in southern Mesopotamia. What he's doing presiding over a bar-restaurant with food from the Far East and wood carvings from India is anyone's guess. ... He also has the magical ability to make the roof disappear, so that a meal here feels like sitting in Indiana Jones's outdoor lounge room." "... the tedious, confused service made us feel mummified. When Gilgamesh summoned the forces of evil by asking for a tip via the card reader, in addition to the 12.5 per cent service charge already included on the bill, he went from hero to zero." (TimeOut London)

Mr. Rayner
from The Guardian is ruthless: "Because I am a stubborn bastard I will also write about the food this week despite the fact that it is completely irrelevant to the place in which it was eaten. If you want proof of that, start with the name. Gilgamesh was a Sumerian king, part god, part man, who ruled a few thousand years back and took time off from smiting his enemies and making people sore afraid to build a bloody big wall. The name obviously has strong Levantine associations. Therefore the food is... pan Asian. Well, of course. It's dim sum and sushi, sashimi and Thai curries. Go figure." "... [it] is without doubt the most absurd, vulgar, bombastic venue to have opened in the capital on my watch. I'm sure many people will like it very much. It reminds me of the 1,000-seater buffet restaurants in the themed hotels of Las Vegas; ..." He rates the food basically OK but "[y]ou can get all the stuff available here elsewhere, both cheaper and much better. Ah, but you can't get the light show and the funky music. If I came back in six months' time and found that [celebrity chef] Pengelley had been replaced by someone doing Indian tapas, or that six months later they were doing Spanish tapas, or six months after that it was Tex-Mex, I wouldn't be at all surprised. Because nothing about the restaurant would have to change. They can keep the decor, because it's already out of context."

Terry Durack offers a more balanced review: "My carved wooden chair has carved wooden arms that end in carved wooden hands clutching carved wooden knobs. The legs are claws, resting on a raised wooden platform. I look up to take in the enormous warehouse-style room with its retractable roof and hand-carved frieze, only to be blinded by glaring banks of club lighting moving from blue to red." "The place looks like a Babylonian-themed film set, with its ornate pillars, and two three-ton statues of the legendary Babylonian winged lion. The relevance - ancient Mesopotamian part-god-part-human meets modern nightspot on Chalk Farm Road - escapes me, but, I suspect relevance is not, um, relevant." "Blimey" indeed! "The night gets off to a flying start with an icy cold ziggurat cocktail ..." "Service is shoo-fly; you have to keep waving people away." Haha! "So don't go for the food alone; but if you go for the phenomenon, hit the cocktails, concentrate on the classic sushi and dry-ice sashimi, and get into the Bronx-cum-Buddha Bar groove. You would have to be dead to not have fun."

Finally, A.A. Gill from The Times of London too went to the Gilgamesh with enfant terrible Jeremy Clarkson (see Jim Davila's PaleoJudaica blog for context): "'Where are we eating?' he asked. Gilgamesh, I said. 'What?' Gilgamesh. 'What’s that?' Earliest recorded fiction. Written in cuneiform. Story of Babylonian deific king of Uruk and his wild and brutish friend Enkidu, who runs naked through the forest. 'I don’t like the sound of that.' It’s wonderful: a marvellously powerful poetic narrative that includes the original story of the flood. And you’re very like Enkidu. 'No, I mean I don’t want to eat cuneiform.' Granted, it’s an odd name for a restaurant." "It has a retractable glass ceiling, three storeys high, and decoration that makes Cecil B DeMille look like St Francis of Assisi." And how about this nice touch: "By way of light relief are the long pietra dura bar, made in the style of the Italian Renaissance, and some Chinese dragons nesting under the eves." "The mise en scène is incongruously, but grandly, finished off with a coup de théâtre. The sports-dome ceiling opens onto the goods track to King’s Cross. Every five minutes, locos pulling containers of Korean gearboxes and German nail-polish remover emit ferrous screams 20ft from your table. The effect is stupefying. This is a hysterical temple to grand kitsch. Real, unironic, poker-faced uberkitsch ... And, like all really good bad taste, the question it screams at the viewer is: 'Guess how much I cost? And who had the glass eye and incontinent wallet to pay for it?' Then there’s the food. How could I forget? It’s a jabberwocky collection of Nobu Asian stuff: ..." "Jeremy looked around and said: 'You know, this could be the Grand Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, or Nineveh. I’m going to bring the kids.' He should hurry. I reckon any day now the Americans are going to invade and set up a green zone in the VIP Babylon bar."

Now wasn't that fun? Maybe this is the only way a lot of people can still handle Iraq nowadays: as satire, parody or just plain escapism and kitsch? In the meantime, most people still haven't really learned much at all about the real history of Iraq and its importance to the world. In the meantime, most people are just about ready to give up on Iraq and let it go to smithereens, no matter how many Iraqis are getting killed, its archaeological heritage being the last thing they worry about. Just wait for a couple of Hollywood movies, superficial and glib, to smooth things over and simplify and at the same time codify what's it all about. No worries, mate!

• "Gilgamesh," in TimeOut London (UK), 1871 (June 28, 2006)
• T. Durack, "Gilgamesh, London NW1. For a night out of epic proportions, head to Gilgamesh," in The Independent (UK), July 2, 2006
• J. Rayner, "Babylon or bust. It cost £16m to build, and can seat 520 revellers ... Jay Rayner makes the pilgrimage to Gilgamesh, the pan-Asian gastrodome causing all the wrong sensations in Camden," in The Guardian (UK), July 9, 2006
• A.A. Gill, "Gilgamesh," in The Times (UK), July 23, 2006
• J. Davila, "The Gilgamesh Restaurant Lounge," in PaleoJudaica.com (UK), online, July 23, 2006
• C. Chapman, "Treasure-Hunting Peace Corps Seeks to Bring Sunnis and Shiites Together," in Gather, online, September 13, 2006
• "Iraqis Erase Their Past. Iraqis Retroactively Overthrow Thousands of Years of Brutal Imperial Oppression," in The Toque (Canada), online, [September 29, 2006]


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