The Arab Visual Memory of the First World War: from Segmentation to Unification?

in La rivista di Arablit, a. IX, n. 17-18, dicembre 2019, pp. 125-142.

The visual memory of the First World War in the Arab Middle East had been primarily invested by local memories, reflecting the need for the states to legitimize themselves, especially in the face of Western and Turkish memories, which tended to appropriate this memory to support their own representations of the war. With the 100th anniversary of the war, within the context of global renewed interest for the conflict, new visual productions about the First World War have emerged, developing previously unknown aspects of the war, with the aim of making heard the Arab experience between 1914 and 1918, and to contribute to a more complex and, to some extent, unitarian memory of the war.


When it comes to images of the First World War in the Middle East, a few films easily come to mind, the first probably being David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). This epic follows the path of the archeologist-turned-warrior during the Arab Revolt, up to the Versailles Peace Conference where he lost his illusions about political promises in the face of the behavior of European Powers.
Albeit deeply sympathetic towards the Arab cause, over time, this film raised critics, particularly on the political level, being interpreted as an example of Orientalism, in the path of Edward Said’s analysis of the film, which in turn has been subject to criticism for not really grasping the object of the movie (Macfie 2007; Caton 1999: 100, 172; Long 2009). These debates expanded beyond the academic arena, and, to some extent, David Lean’s film may in militant circles be considered as the epithome of Orientalist movies: it follows a blonde British agent, dressed in white, an intellectual, leading a group of not-so-well mannered Arab tribesmen against the Turks, only to ultimately leaving them at the hands of Western diplomats who carve out the new regional map without taking what they had previously promised into account. Moreover, a vast majority of the film’s characters are played by Western actors, with the exception of Omar Sharif, who appears as the fictional Sherif Ali, and a few actors coming from India and Pakistan. At the time of the film’s release, Auda Abu Tayeh’s (ʿAwdah Abū Tāyih) descendants, incensed by the portrayal of their ancestor as a greedy and brutal man, tried to sue the production company (Turner 1998: 201), and the narrative of the film has sometimes been interpreted as a variation on the theme of the white saviour coming to the rescue of uneducated natives, in a fundamentally flawed and inequal encounter. In the regard, the fact that Lean created a learned and politically aware character with Sherif Ali, and his very positive portrayal of Sherif Hussein (Ḥusayn) did not weight much, as these were secondary characters, with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence catching all the light.

This is an Article from La Rivista di Arablit - Anno IX, numeri 17-18, dicembre 2019

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Thomas Richard |