Lawrence of Arabia-As You Never Saw It is a small short book, published in 2014, more like an old fashioned extended essay (when people used to write and even read these kinds of things). It is written by Charles Martel and Louis Palme, clearly pseudonyms for a former combat marine and a former Peace Corps volunteer who both have worked in Muslim countries.
As they explain it, in this self published book, like many average Americans, until recently, knowledge and understanding of Islam was low on their and fellow citizen’s priorities. Since 9/11, the resurgence of a Global Jihad and the American government’s inability to face up to this threat from the Islamic world (largely because the Jihadists are expanding, not contracting) general interest in the Islamic world is rising exponentially.
And so, these two intrepid and idiosyncratic American veterans of life in the contemporary Islamic world asked themselves a simple question. What does the film, Lawrence of Arabia, really show us about Islam and the Arab World? Their answer is, quite a lot.
T. E. Lawrence is one of the Anglosphere’s most famous talents. He was a gifted scholar, writer, an archaeologist, a translator from the ancient Greek, a soldier and a diplomat. Despite the fact that he wanted freedom for his Arab allies during WWI, he was also a true friend of the Jews, a sympathetic Zionist, and political advisor to Winston Churchill, who in the nineteen twenties was the most active supporter of the political and cultural aspirations of the Jewish community in Mandated Palestine.
But Lawrence became internationally acclaimed when David Lean made the film Lawrence of Arabia, released in 1962. Since then it has become a cinema classic. The film tells the story of an unconventional British officer, T.E. Lawrence, who is sent out to the Hedjaz in Western Arabia to contact the Muslim Arab tribes of that area (largely the Hashemis of Medina and Mecca) to support their tribal revolt against their Muslim Turkish overlords. It is a stunning film, acted and directed with great dramatic effect and the photography of the desert and the tribesmen who served as extras, is phenomenal.
The main psychological focus of the film is that of Lawrence’s dedication to helping the Arabs of the Hedjaz revolt against their Turkish overlords and by doing so, somehow help them gain their political freedom. At the same time, he knows that the British and French governments have other plans for them and national freedom is not one of them. Like a good hypnotist, director David Lean has us focus on the two ethnicities, Arabs and Turks, and their deadly conflict, but at the same time, he clearly and subtly shows the Islamic nature of both persecutor and persecuted.
The authors of Lawrence of Arabia-As You Never Saw It, spend most of the book showing how key Islamic values permeate and are illustrated in each scene of the film. Bearing that in mind, the film becomes a striking ethnographic evocation and demonstration of traditional Arabian Islamic values.
The reason that no one has written a book or essay on this topic, is that when the film first came out, it was during that post war period where the peoples of the “third world” were gaining rapid independence from their colonial overlords, especially the British and French in the Middle East. At that time, people in the West and especially America, hoped that these tribally organized countries of the Islamic Arab world, and its Arab League nations, would undergo a process of “development.” Islam was the last thing on anyone’s mind. People thought it would diminish, become privatized, like Christianity in post war Europe.
It was thought that the Arabs would secularize, join the West, their women would be liberated, rule of law would blossom, slavery and indentured labor would disappear and their sudden oil wealth would be used to rapidly raise the standard of living all citizens. This did not happen and there are scores of studies which show how and why that is the case. The book here reviewed shows clearly how all these old Islamci values are demonstrated again and again in the film, Lawrence of Arabia.
Of the 15 chapters in the book for me the most interesting is Chapter 4, “Women-Marginalized and Obscured.” I would like to briefly comment on this chapter to demonstrate the main thrust of the book.
So many viewers of the film have noted and written that women are almost never shown during the film. One of the exceptions to this is during the scene when Lawrence, Ali and Auda Abu Tayi are leading their camel riding male warriors out of Wadi Rum on their way to capture the Red Sea Port of Aqaba from the Turks.
We see traditional Bedouin women standing on rocky cliffs, ululating and sending their men off to war. Although many of the extras in the film were bona fide Bedouin tribesmen from the southern deserts of Jordan, to a man, they would not allow any of their women folk to perform in the front of the cameras. And so, almost all female parts were played by Christian Arabic speaking female citizens of Jordan, brought in from the modern port city of Aqaba; an ironic reversal of what the film is showing-men going out of Wadi Rum to conquer Aqaba, where in the film, it is Christian women being brought from Aqaba to impersonate Muslim women.
The authors point out that his seclusion of women is not only tribal, but widely practiced in the Islamic world and supported by key Islamic texts. For example, they quote Surah 33;53 and 59
If you ask (Muhammad’s) wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your hearts and their hearts…Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close around them.
One could argue that the film depicts what Arabia was like one hundred years ago, but given the failed modernization of the Arab world during the last century, its women are still “unliberated,” and have not been offered the opportunity to be equal citizens with men.
Critics could also argue that this is only example of a clear evocation of Islam and Islamic principles in the film but, there is another equally subtle example of Quranic values that lurks in the background of the film. When Lawrence was trying to free the Arabs from the Turks, he was well aware that both Arabs and Turks held slaves, and that they used religion to justify that practice. The use of religious arguments for slavery died out in America on the last day of the civil war in 1865.
On page 58, there is a telling quote from the book on this topic:
Usually in the background of scenes with Prince Feisal, one can see a group of uniformed Black men. These are slaves and the year is 1916. While they may bear weapons and are responsible for the safety of the Prince, this does not diminish the fact they are African slaves…Mecca did not close its outdoor slave market until 1920. Saudi Arabia officially “ended” slavery in 1962 in response to international pressure, but it still exists today, although hidden from view. Of Saudi Arabia’s population of 26 million, there are almost nine million migrant workers, constituting more than half of the labor force.
In this photo from the film, Lawrence of Arabia, we can see Feisal’s slaves standing guard behind him.
The authors point out that this is supported by Surah 16 of the Quran, which includes:
To some Allah has given more than He has to others. Those who are so favored will not allow their slaves an equal share in what they have. Would they deny Allah’s goodness?
The book is replete with other explorations of Arab tribal/Islamic practices which are still common in the Arab world and which groups like the Islamic State in Iraq are now quite proud of. For a mere sixty years the autocratic rulers of the Arab states signed UN sponsored human rights agreements that they uniformly did not apply to their own citizens. Now that their radical Islamic opponents (such as ISIS and Al Qaeda) are gaining power in the Arab world, all of the human subjugation that it is so clearly displayed in various scenes of the film Lawrence of Arabia, is returning with justifications supported by Islamic law and appeals to religion. Perhaps in many parts of the Arab world it never really went away.
On August 30, 2014, Fox News reported the following:
In the past few weeks, ISIS has distributed or sold about 300 Yazidi girls and women it abducted in Iraq, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group aligned with the opposition in Syria… In ISIS’ eyes, the girls and women are “slaves of the spoils of war with the infidels,” the Syria monitors said. According to the human rights group, the terrorists sold the girls and women for about $1,000 each, claiming they had converted to Islam so that they can marry ISIS fighters. The human rights group documented at least 27 cases of women who were sold and married to ISIS militants in the Aleppo suburbs, Raqqa suburbs and Al-Hassakah.
Progressive students of the cinematic arts would be the first to argue that every film is an artifact whose context is constantly changing. In 1962 we watched the film Lawrence of Arabia, identifying with its anti-hero T.E Lawrence, who so desperately tried to bring national freedom to the Arabs of Arabia.
However in 2014, almost half a century later, we watch it as an evocation of those religious values that came out of Arabia thirteen hundred years ago during the rise of Islam, and which are used to justify the basis of most middle eastern terror in the contemporary Arab world.
Although this book does not mention or integrate the scholarly work of major scholars of Islam such as Bernard Lewis and Ibn Warraq, it is a first good start in our reinterpretation of what was and remains one of the classics of modern cinema. There is much more work to be done on this topic.