Malice in the Palace

Above, the Three Stooges in "Malice in the Palace," in which they play waiters at the Café Casbah Bah, in some unnamed place in a fictional Middle East — a place called "Starvania". The map of this pseudo-Middle East is below, along with commentary from Strange Maps:

The map, shown briefly in the film, is of a continentful of countries with strange names and odd shapes, clearly designed to look and sound ‘foreign’. What does this ‘Map of Starvania’, designed merely for the purpose of unsophisticated comedy, unconsciously reveal of mid-20th-century America’s attitudes towards the exotic, the un-American?

Firstly, the name: Starvania. It continues the tradition of using vaguely latinate toponyms as shorthand for exotism. Previous examples include Ruritania, others are Syldavia and Borduria (all mentioned in #461). Intriguingly, by referring to ‘starvation’, this toponym may demonstrate a mental equation made by Americans between distance from their Land of Plenty and the incidence of famine (the greater the former, the likelier the latter). Considering that the Second World War had only recently ended, this might have indeed been a prevalent attitude in the US at the time.

Secondly, the shapes: The Great Mitten floating around to the left of the main continent is of course a reference to Michigan’s lower peninsula (see also #454). Maybe not foreign, but at least a funny shape. The main continent is a profile facing left, attached to the bottom is an Italy-shaped boot called Hot Foot. Italy being the Old Country of so many Americans must have figured prominently in any brain-storming session on ‘foreignness’.

Some of the foreign-looking names actually sound quite familiar; these are wordplays such as Isle Asker (“I’ll ask her”), Rubid-Din (“rub it in”), Cant Sea (“can’t see”) and the aforementioned Giva Dam (“give a damn”). Other plays on words, sounding less foreign, are Bay of Window (“bay window”), Corkscrew Strai(gh)ts (a corkscrew being the opposite of straight), and Hot Sea and Tot Sea (“hotsie totsie”, for something or someone pretty).

Other names are extended riffs on actual foreign toponyms: I-ran, He-ran, She-ran, They-ran and  Also-ran. Another set consists of Egypt, You-gypt and We-gypt (on the left, partly outside this image). The first set works a bit better than the second one, but both reflect an unfamiliarity with these foreign placenames.

starvania.png

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.