"There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is His prophet" kept repeating Antonio Banderas in his latest film called The 13th Warrior in which he plays an Arab Muslim hired by a band of Vikings to help defend their homeland from unspeakable evil. Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan was banished by the Caliph for laying eyes on a beautiful married woman, and now he finds himself sailing aboard a Viking ship with twelve Norsemen.
Even though the plot seems far-fetched, and a bit absurd, the author of Jurassic Park says that he relied on some details of historical writings by a nomadic Baghdad ambassador named Ibn Fahdlan. Michael Crichton wrote the novel back in 1976 (titled "Eaters of the Dead") when he was still an aspiring writer. Aspiring writers sometimes write garbage. However, once they strike gold with a bestseller, garbage suddenly becomes marketable. I guess that explains why the 13th Warrior looks like a heap of cinematic waste flung onto celluloid.
Nonetheless, the adrenaline-pumping swashbuckler, infested with loads of gratuitous violence and decapitations, has some grit: It dresses Arab Muslims in dignified robes and pulls the rug from beneath tired Hollywood stereotypes.
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan is noble, elegant, smart, perceptive and above all religious. During his travel, he somehow learns the language of the Norsemen by simply "listening". He can also "draw in the sand", i.e. write. He teaches one Viking how to scrawl, in Arabic, "There is no god
but Allah, Muhammad is His prophet".
When his eyes meet with Olga's, a stunning Nordic blonde, stereotypes of Arab playboys immediately come to mind. But not to worry, it never goes beyond eye contact. A subtle message may be that Ibn Fahdlan is still scarred by the moral lapse that caused his banishment and is now understandably loath of courting women. Also, the fact that he is too preoccupied with ridding the land of the evil bear-like creatures that inhabit its caves.
Upon sight of the enemy while standing on the ramparts of the fort, Ibn Fahdlan whispers a prayer, "O Allah, help us win this battle", and his prayer is answered. Led by the thirteen warriors, the Norsemen seem invincible. Banderas is so good at playing an Arab he makes you forget he is a Spaniard. Prior to the last fight scene, he ceremoniously removes his boots and prostrates in the mud in earnest prayer while a Viking watches on wondrously. God, it seems, is always on his mind.
When the final battle is fought and, predictably, won, Ibn Fahdlan boards a ship bound for Arabia. A Viking on the shore waves him goodbye and says he would pray for his safe return. To that, the elegantly dressed Arab responds, "To which God? Remember, there is only one!". With this, the audience leaves the theatre relieved. Banderas' upbeat performance somehow redeems the film and leaves them with a good taste in the mouth.
Even though The 13th Warrior may be bound for Hollywood's shelves of oblivion, one hopes that something of a precedent in the visual art has been set: Arab and Muslim characters have at last been portrayed as decent human beings. About time.
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