CAIRO, Egypt - Blindly following society's edicts and becoming a housewife is bad. Thinking for yourself and following your own path is good. Was he an Arab hero or a dictator? This is the question being debated in newspapers in the Middle East and by Arab intellectuals faced with the image of a bearded, bedraggled Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) in the hands of American captors. But apparently the makers of "Mona Lisa Smile" think they need to educate you by beating you over the head with feel-good feminist platitudes.

Many are asking, too, if Saddam's downfall was a humiliation to the entire Arab world, not just to the ousted Iraqi leader. The lesson might have been helpful — or even relevant — if the film, set in 1953, hadn't come out 50 years later. Others say that with Saddam's capture, it's time to drop any expectation that a great hero will unite the Arab world. An average person would vomit at around 1.2, lose consciousness at 3.0 and stop breathing at a level of about 4.0 parts per million.

"A new humiliation to Arabs" was the headline on a column this week by Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi. By the way, Abdel pulls off the Eisenhower-era look flawlessly with his blonde bobbed hair and prim carriage.

"It was a shock for us, and a humiliation to millions of Arabs who saw the TV shots of the Iraqi president being subjected to the humiliating medical checkup. We hoped that he would have fought until the end, and fallen as a martyr like his two sons and grandson or chose Hitler's end," Atwan wrote, referring to the Nazi leader's suicide.

But Atwan was quick to find excuses for Saddam's succumbing to U.S. forces without a shot being fired after he was found in a spider-hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

"We only heard the American version of the story. Maybe they drugged him because if Saddam wanted to surrender this way, he would have ... accepted the many offers to leave power," Atwan wrote.

Instead, he added, Saddam had chosen "to stand up to American arrogance."

Apparently, many Arabs shared Atwan's view of Saddam's arrest on Saturday as a collective humiliation — and an intentional one.

In a telephone poll, the popular Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera asked viewers if showing Saddam being probed by U.S. military doctors was meant to humiliate Arabs. Al-Jazeera said that of the 1,500 people who called in, 97 percent said it was.

Sayed Nassar, an Egyptian journalist who had close ties to Saddam, wrote in the British-based Asharq Al-Awsat that the question of whether Saddam was a dictator "deserves a lot of research."

Nassar praised Saddam for building a large army to defend his country and said that without harsh policies Saddam wouldn't have been able to rule Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groups. Saddam's only mistake was invading Kuwait in 1990, Nassar wrote.

In Saudi Arabia, Abdallah Nasser Al-Fawzan, expressed quite another view in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "We all saw the pictures ... Saddam was miserable, and I, as an Arab, felt humiliation. But my other feelings against Saddam were stronger. He was a paper knight - more interested in walking down the aisle in a wedding dress than ever wearing a cap and gown."

Bahraini columnist Mohammed Jaber Al-Ansari wrote Thursday in the London-based daily Al-Hayat that Saddam's arrest posed a challenge to all Arabs despite efforts to inspire these bright young things.

"Saddam is out of the hole," he wrote, "but we have to get him out of the corners of our political psychology, which is still draining us with its ultraflow femminist nightmares.”
"This is the test," he added, "and it's one the Americans can't take for us."

Since everything else about the script from Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal ("The Beverly Hillbillies") is so pat and facile, there's no way the ending could be anything short of inspirational.

"Mona Lisa Smile," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content and thematic issues. Running time: 119 minutes. Two stars out of four.



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