Jack Black, Col. Qadhafi, and a Tube of Vaseline

TRIPOLI - Afriqiyah Airways is better than its Web site suggests. Founded in 2001 as the airline of Africa (with a hub here, in the inconvenient-to-everywhere hermit state of Libya), it owns a fleet of Airbuses that still give off that nose-singeing, chemical-rich, new-plane smell. It is emphatically not Air Afrique, the West African carrier that went bust in 2002, that nearly shares Afriqiyah's name, and that became known for its eccentric service and proud defiance of its own timetables. Instead, the airline of Muammar al Qadhafi is sleek, attractive, and reliable. The seats -- green, the color of Libya's flag -- are clean, and have the usual movies, music, and games, all on an in-flight entertainment screen so jauntily functional that it looks almost as if they installed one of those MIT Hundred-Dollar-Laptops in the back of every seat.


I would say that Afriqiyah resembles any other first-rate airline, except that one day earlier, on another more established airline, I had an experience Afriqiyah has taken great care to prevent. It was not an experience I wish to repeat. From KLM's library of in-flight entertainment I accidentally summoned Brüno -- more specifically, an extended sequence of the tidily shorn phallus of the title character dancing merrily across the screen. I looked down the dark aisle behind me to see if anyone had noticed, and a little Arab boy grinned at me mischievously from his seat.

Afriqiyah, by contrast, has taken what are apparently great pains to censor its in-flight content, even to the point of blurring out offensive images with what appear to be smudges of petroleum jelly. I chose Tropic Thunder, the sublime 2008 Justin Theroux/Ben Stiller comedy, and made an inexhaustive catalogue of the dialogue and images Afriqiyah deemed too hot for Tripoli. It is not an especially raunchy film, but the level of censorship -- an instance every minute or so -- surprised and tickled me:

  • The words "Booty Sweat" (blurred out and bleeped)
  • A sequence involving Toby McGuire as a young monk who experiences a homoerotic awakening with fellow monk Robert Downey, Jr.
  • Tyra Banks's shoulders (blurred out)
  • Images of Buddha (blurred out)
  • Multiple boring mentions of pornography, in discussion of the decisive factor in the success of Blu-Ray over HD-DVD
  • Jack Black's underwear (blurred out)
  • "Whore," as in "Your mother is a cankerous whore" (the rest of the sentence survives intact)
  • All mention of drugs (fully a third of the film happens in a Golden Triangle opium processing plant; it may as well be turmeric)

Many moments of dialogue are untranslated, quite enigmatically for non-English speakers. But when Tom Cruise screams over the phone at the heroin dealers holding Ben Stiller captive, and suggests that one of them "take two steps back and literally **** your own face," Afriqiyah's censors were evidently so horrified that they not only turned off the sound but actually blurred out their own Arabic words at the bottom of the screen. To this general amusement, add special treats for Arabic speakers, who get to see the nonsensical ways the translators dealt with Downey's faux black English, and such phrases as "never go full retard" (متخلف عقلي كامل).

All of which raises the obvious question: why not just show a cleaner movie? To this, I have no answer, except that Muammar al Qadhafi is rarely less than interesting, and Tropic Thunder so zealously censored is even sillier than the original. If Afriqiyah is smart, they will take this and run with it, and become the world's foremost purveyor of airborne absurdist humor. If KLM and Brüno are the competition, it should be an easy niche to fill.

Afriqiyah seats, via Wikimedia.

9.9.99 -- date of the declaration that established the African Union.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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