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Anthropology of the Middle East Through Film


Within the context of modern cinema, “Rendition” (2007) is a fascinating cultural artifact. Under the direction of Gavin Hood, this film explores the complex terrain of the Middle East. It presents a story that addresses issues of justice, human rights, and the fallout from counterterrorism policies in the wake of 9/11 (Hassany, 2019). “Rendition” becomes a robust topic of analysis in the academic setting of our Anthropology of the Middle East class because it forces us to consider how cinematic tales converge and deviate from the discussions we have been having this semester (Caton, 2023). This essay will analyze and evaluate a particular feature of the movie—the way the Middle East and its inhabitants are portrayed—while also taking into account the way it relates to the readings for the course and more general anthropological debates.


Gavin Hood’s intriguing political thriller “Rendition” (2007) skilfully negotiates a convoluted storyline entwined with Middle East-related concerns. Against current international counterterrorism initiatives, the movie mainly focuses on two main plot threads. In the first, Omar Metwally’s character, Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an Egyptian-American chemical engineer, mysteriously vanishes and is captured by American authorities after returning from a business trip to South Africa (Hassany, 2019). He is sent to an undisclosed location in the Middle East for “extraordinary rendition,” a contentious practice that involves subjecting detainees to harsh interrogation techniques since it is suspected that he has ties to a terrorist organization. The second narrative thread centers on the relationship between Anwar’s pregnant wife, Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), and Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young CIA analyst who gets involved in Anwar’s case and seeks answers and fights for her husband’s release. The people and their stories provide the spectator with a prism to view more significant issues about international politics, human rights, and the effects of counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East (Hassany, 2019).


I have chosen to focus this analysis on the role of Anwar El-Ibrahimi and the idea of “extraordinary rendition” in the film since it is highly relevant to our discussions on the Anthropology of the Middle East (Altorki, 2015). Anwar’s persona echoes a widespread discourse concerning the outcomes of counterterrorism measures, capturing the perilous intersection of security, justice, and identity in the post-9/11 world. Anwar’s story reflects the more significant issue of human rights violations in this region. It is consistent with the discussions in our course about the complexities of identity and representation in the Middle East (Hertzog & Katzir, 2019).

The Egyptian-American figure created by Anwar represents the nuanced identity relations common in the Middle East. His kidnapping and remarkable rendition by American authorities highlight the precarious position that people with cross-cultural origins find themselves in. Anwar’s character is an excellent example of the complexity of Middle Eastern identity, which is frequently fractured and formed by local and global pressures, as we have discussed in this course. His suffering highlights concerns about the fuzziness of the boundaries between discrimination and security, as well as the effects of laws that can arbitrarily single out people who occupy grey areas in society (Hassany, 2019).

Moreover, Anwar’s story’s exploration of the concept of “extraordinary rendition” aligns with our conversations about the implications of counterterrorism policies in the Middle East. The movie pushes us to evaluate the moral and legal quandaries that these kinds of activities raise. The movie challenges us to think about the larger effects of security measures on both people and the area by contrasting Anwar’s experience with more general concerns about the morality and efficacy of counterterrorism (Hertzog & Katzir, 2019).

Comparative Analysis

Lila Abu-Lughod’s anthropological work, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” helps us understand the film’s portrayal of extraordinary rendition. In her research, Abu-Lughod tests the notion that Muslim women need to be rescued from their own communities and investigates how Muslim women are viewed in the West (Abu‐Lughod, 2002). While “Rendition” and Abu-Lughod’s work mostly address female concerns in the Middle East, they are similar in that they both examine how Western perspectives may affect how the region is portrayed. Although they address this topic differently, both the movie and the study of Abu-Lughod stress how external causes affect the Middle East.

The ethnographic research of Abu-Lughod and “Rendition” both emphasize how vulnerable the Middle East is to outside interference. The film parallels Abu-Lughod’s contention of Western meddling in the lives of Middle Eastern women by demonstrating how American authorities behave in the area, kidnapping and detaining people without getting permission from the local community. The ongoing importance of Western powers in the Middle East is emphasized in both books, as is the possibility that their activities could upend and deform the social fabric of the region (Caton, 2023). However, “Rendition” uses a cinematic narrative with character-driven storytelling and visual components that more readily elicit an emotional response from spectators while Abu-Lughod uses an ethnographic method in an attempt to present a more factual and evidence-based picture of the Middle East (Abu‐Lughod, 2002).

Representation and Cultural Context

“Rendition” provides a thoughtful examination of problems associated with Orientalism and the clichéd perceptions of the Middle East. Although the movie mentions some orientalist themes, its main goal is to refute and disrupt these stereotypes (Walsh, 2011). One example is the way Anwar El-Ibrahimi is shown as a complex individual whose identity defies easy categorization. The multifaceted nature of Anwar’s persona goes beyond the stereotypically flat depictions of Middle Eastern people in Western media. The movie also shows a variety of Middle Eastern characters who reject, inquire about, and confront their situation, which challenges the stereotype that Orientalist narratives frequently impose (Altorki, 2015).

The Middle East is portrayed differently in the movie based on the cultural setting in which it was produced. Gavin Hood, the South African director, gives the narrative a distinct viewpoint. Despite not being from the Middle East, his experience allows him to view the region through an outsider’s perspective, which can be more critical and less culturally biased (Hertzog & Katzir, 2019). This background could help explain why the movie tends to challenge rather than confirm Orientalist prejudices. Being an outsider in the Middle East might let the filmmaker examine the region’s intricacies and difficulties with greater objectivity and criticism. Furthermore, it begs the question of how much a filmmaker’s cultural background and personal history affect how they depict a foreign society.

The representational stakes in “Rendition” are significant because they affect how the Middle East is viewed internationally. The movie highlights the room for interpretation and invites viewers to interact critically with the stories and visuals it offers. With its more nuanced and comprehensive picture of the Middle East, the movie invites debate and dispels the stereotypes that Orientalism frequently promotes. It draws attention to the significance of accurate and nuanced portrayals in the media and the profound influence these portrayals may have on how the Middle East is seen (Caton, 2023).


In conclusion, “Rendition” has a great deal to say about identity, justice, and the effects of counterterrorism in the Middle East. Anwar El-Ibrahimi’s portrayal of the character embodies the intricate dynamics between identities, and his outstanding performance draws attention to the moral conundrums and human rights concerns that are frequently present in the post-9/11 society. This analysis adds to a more sophisticated understanding of the Middle East in the field of anthropology and highlights the importance of responsible depiction in the media. “Rendition” challenges us to think critically about the stories we hear and the wider effects these depictions have on how we view the community.


Hassany, T. A. K. N. (2019). REPRESENTATION OF JIHAD IN RENDITION (2007) (Doctoral dissertation, STATE ISLAMIC UNIVERSITY).

Walsh, R. (2011). What stories we tell when we talk about torture: mapping the geopolitics of compassion and the post-Abu-Ghraib national family in 24: Redemption and Rendition. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space29(1), 150-168.

Caton, S. C. (2023). Lawrence of Arabia: a film’s anthropology. Univ of California Press.

Hertzog, E., & Katzir, Y. (2019). Introduction: Visual Anthropology in the Middle East. Anthropology of the Middle East14(1), 1-5.

Altorki, S. (Ed.). (2015). A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East. John Wiley & Sons.

Abu‐Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others. American Anthropologist104(3), 783-790.


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