All I know about Arabs and Northern Africa I learned from David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, and from Patton and Casablanca and Tobruck. How different am I from millions of other babyboomers whose images of history and world affairs are a mixture of schoolbook learning and Technicolor images?
How many of us studied anything about North Africa, in school, beyond the campaign to drive Rommel’s panzers out? As “African Studies” bloomed in response to progress in the civil rights movement, North Africa was too often dismissed as not African enough. It was, to common ‘knowledge,’ mostly Arab instead of African and was mostly a collection of oil despotism with no significance for the ‘real’ Africa. Sort of like dismissing New England as a group of quaint but out-of-date states, no longer relevant in discussions of U.S. public policy.
And what were Arabs, after all? As David Lean taught us, T.E. Lawrence had to teach them modern warfare and modern politics. Lawrence’s first major military victory was the assault on the port city of Aqaba. But to Lean, the most important part of the Aqaba effort was Lawrence’s resolve and leadership that taught Bedouins not to fear the desert! From the tribal blood feud the night before the heroic assault on Aqaba to the complete ineptitude and tribal bickering that destroyed any hope of Arab rule after Lawrence led the Arab army into Damascus, we have been taught that the Arabs are barbarous, primitive, greedy, cruel, and incapable of thought beyond the next raid or bribe. They must be led by more advanced, blond Europeans.
There was not an oil derrick anywhere to be seen in Lean’s magnificent, desolate Arabia. But even without oil wealth, the Arab Sheiks lived in glittering finery, preening and strutting. As if their current conspicuous and excessive consumption were a racial fault, and nothing to blame on their oil wealth or dictatorial corruption, propped up by U.S. military forces.
While Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was a core history lesson for baby boomer American kids, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algeria, released in 1966, just four years after Lawrence, provided a much different picture of Arabs and North Africa, for those few who saw it on this side of the Atlantic. The film shows us Arabs as impoverished in the 1950s as they were in Lawrence’s 19-teens. But these Arabs are organized, efficient, brave, self-sacrificing and ultimately successful against the better armed, better fed, better trained French forces. The 1966 French film was seen mostly in major city art houses and on a few college campuses and its version of Arabs remains largely foreign to the American mind.
Lawrence of Arabia and The Battle of Algeria help frame the news stories we get today about revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and revolt in Libya. Most of our news about the Arab world repeats Lean’s lessons. Arabs are barely civilized. They are cruel, barbarous and barely literate. Their societies survive only by the good graces and models of their more civilized European teachers.